Saturday 31 July 2010

Autumn arrivals in July!

Omar Mukhtar reservoir - Saluq - end July

Yesterday I visited Omar Mukhdar reservoir. It supplies water for the whole of the Benghazi area. It is claimed to be the largest man made reservoir in the world. It is truely massive.

Imagine you are a bird and you want to cross the Sahara. You see 100,000 cubic metres of fresh water just before the desert. I think you would stop. Prehaps you wouldn't go any further particularly as its warm all winter.

The drawback is there is precious little cover on the banks of the reservoir although bushes are being grown around the sides.

I was given permission by the police to stay there for 90 minutes. This was much appreciated. 

The first impression is that it is stark and deserted but after a minute or two you realise your mistake. I saw barn swallow skimming the edges for insects. Then one by one I noticed various flocks of waders which had been well hidden at the rocky sides round the lake.  The most obvious bird and most common wader was kentish plover.

However my attention was drawn to darker, slightly larger wader which at first I thought was wood sandpiper. 

Mostly green sandpipers - Omar Mukhdar reservoir - end July

It took me sometime to work out it was actually green sandpiper. This ID problem was a classic example of what I am up against in Libya. The Collins guide shows wood sandpiper as a passage bird though here. It doesn't show green sandpiper in Cyrenaica at all. You have to trust your judgement and have the confidence to go against the book's distribution maps.

The birds I saw were darker and more robust than wood sandpiper.

closer picture of green sandpipers - Omar Mukhtar reservoir - end July

There were about twelve birds.  But they were at least partially mixing with other waders. So I kept to the text book techinque of concentating on the bird and following it through. Its no good watching one bird on the land and another in flight. 

I noticed more detail. These birds had greyish green (green) not yellowish green (wood) legs.

Green sand pipers with kentish plovers in foreground - end July

The main bird they were mixing with were kentish plover (see foreground). This is an easy bird to seperate although I will show later than at least one other sandpiper was present.

Kentish plover and green sandpiper in flight - end July

One of the green sandpiper took off with a kentish plover. It was very dark in flight and the white tail contrasted brilliantly. Shame about my photo. The tail bars were distinct. Don't let the photo lead you astray. 

Two more green sandpipers take off

Above is another picture taken seconds later when the rest of the green sandpiper decided to take off too.

common sandpipers - Omar Mukhtar reservoir - end July

I supect the green sandpipers may stay until next spring. They mostly winter around the Mediterranean. However the other wader that I positively identified will probably not. It winters south of the Sahara normally. It is the common sandpiper.

There were several of these there too. I have read reports that they have been sighted at Eilat, southern Israel in the past week. This is obviously one of the very earliest autumn migrants.

grey heron and little egret - Omar Mukhdar reservoir - end July

The waders didn't have the reservoir to themselves. It is well stocked with fish. So it has naturally attracted grey heron and little egret. These birds are rapidly being known to be more common in summer in Libya than any one had previously thought.

Finally I want to say a few words about the bushes near the reservoir. These are being watered regularly on a sprinkler system and will make fine heath land soon. The shrubs are all natural species and are beginning to attract birds. I saw goldfinch, great grey shrike, turtle dove and my first ever eastern olivaceous warbler.  I think the bushes are going to make a good migrant trap this autumn.

goldfinch - Omar Mukhtar reservoir - end July

Tuesday 27 July 2010

They really shouldn't be here. Juliana wetlands

Black winged stilt - Juliana - July

Last Friday was my first proper visit to the Juliana wetlands. I had visited the south western edge in late May. I don't understand why I hadn't re-visited it earlier. My excuse is that the Jardinah farm (see blogs) has been equally enticing.

The Juliana wetlands are the largest fresh water (OK - semi saline) wetlands in Libya in the summer. They are known to house thousands of water birds in the winter. However they are little birded in the summer.

I found the wetlands to be very special as you will see.
Main Juliana lake - July

It was another hot day ameliorated by a sea breeze but still 31C. I took a taxi to Gar Younis tourist resort but unlike hundreds of others I didn't head for the beach. I headed up the coast and inland 200 metres. Here I found first the Gar Younis sebkhet (salt marsh) and then the much larger Juliana lake.

South west Juliana - sometimes called Sebkhet Gar Younis - July

At Gar Younis, I saw many barn swallow and a few pallid swift. But my attention was drawn to a little egret standing on a recently used nest. He flew off a short distance but never left my view. You have to remember that to the best of my knowledge that little egret are unrecorded in summer in Libya and certainly not known to breed.

recently used little egret nest - Sebkhet Gar Younis - July

He flew towards a small pack of dogs. Wild dogs seem to be my main companions throughout Libya at all the salpans which reatain water in summer.

Little egret - Sebkhet Gar Younis - July

This is the same sebkhet I saw a sedge warbler in late May. However this time I had other things on my mind I wanted to visit the main Juliana wetlands for the first time. I started walking the 300 metres between the two wetlands. I saw some surprises before I even got to the lake. First I saw a purple heron. I have a lousy photograph below which just looks "heron like" but it definitely was purple. I always seem to screw up the first time  I see an unexpected birds. Then I take a better and better photo on later contacts. I think it must be psychological. By the way, please remember, the first record of a summer grey heron was last week! (at Jardinah - see last week's blog).
Purple heron - Juliana - July

There were several cattle egret in the fields. I am now so used to seeing this bird even though its not on most distribution maps for Libya. Nevertheless they have been well documented by Gaskell in sandgrouse magazine.

Cattle egret on field near Juliana - July

To add to the entertainment there were also two pairs of stone curlew. This was my first definite sighting in Cyrenaica. A mobile very large flock of house sparrow also kept my attention. Hoopoe were also present. Laughing dove and pigeon made up the numbers
large flock of house sparrow - Juliana - July

But the second best sighting (after the heron) were two common redshank flying from Sebkhet Gar Younis to Juliana lake. Researchers have suggested they breed at Farwa next to the Tunisan border 1500 kilometres away. I suggest they breed here too.

common redshank - Juliana - July

The fun was only just beginning. I saw several recently used little egret nests and several little egret, tens of cattle egret, plenty of black winged stilt and a few kentish plover. The stilts were not afraid of me. If anything they were quite assertive to wards me as if defending the area. I dont usually get as good a photo as the top one of a black winged stilt unless the bird is co-operating!

mostly cattle egret next to Juliana lake - July

Many of the cattle egret were together in one set of reeds. A few little egret and a couple of squacco heron were with them. This was a great sight. I had seen a squacco heron at sebkhet Gar Younis in late May. I can now confirm they stay all summer at Juliana. Once again I believe this is a new record for Libya.

squacco heron - Juliana lake - July

Every week I have been observing new summer records (as I know them and certainly according to the distribution maps of the top two guides) . I was told Cyrenaica (north east Libya) was even more under-reported than Tripolitania (north west Libya) and this is proving to be the case. I suspect I may have exhausted the potential new summer water bird sightings although I have a couple of reservoirs up my sleeve.

more little egret - Juliana lake - July

I nearly forgot to add that there were plenty of little grebe in the water (known fact) and a small number of coot (unknown before).

coot - Juliana lake - July

I have been walking very carefully since the farmers at Jardinah farm told me they have cobra (not on its distribution maps either!). Well I didn't see one at Juliana but I did see this (see below). Its not my area of expertise but I think it would make good heron food!

other life at Juliana - July

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Jardinah revisited

hoopoe - just outside Jardinah farm - July

Last Friday, I returned to Jardinah farm again. This time I went without friends.  They are more sensible than me and were "resting". At Jardinah, it was 36C and there was precious little wind. However I felt I had to re-visit Jardinah farm. Its micro-enviroment and climate are very special.  It's so wet its more like a hot version of a central European bog in those parts of the farm where the irrigation has been over-zealous otherwise it feels like southern Europe.

Before I say too much more about the inside of the farm I want first to tell you a little bit about the outside. Near the gate to the farm on both sides of the road are two parallel avenues of trees. These contain literally hundreds of house sparrow and their nests.  In the shade of the trees I glimpsed an unidentified bird of prey. More about this later. Along the road, There were once again plenty of turtle dove and great grey shrike (ssp probably aucheri) too. Scraping a living by the trees was a hoopoe (see picture above). I was very happy to get this snap since I have been seeing hoopoe all over Cyrenaica but they had evaded my camera.

I spent half an hour on this avenue before entering the farm. I gave up counting sparrow nests at over 250.

Last time I went inside Jardinah farm you re-call we saw the first recorded summer yellow wagtail in Libya. I also said I saw a grey heron. Well the alfalfa fields where I had seen the wagtails had been cut down the week before and the water turned off. I hope any breeding of wagtails had been completed and they had moved to one of the many other watered fields.

grey heron - Jardinah farm - July

I caught up with a grey heron this time and photographed it (see above). Its always good to get a photo so that the world can believe the remarkable things going on here. Distribution maps such as in the new collins guide don't show grey heron in eastern Libya at any time of year. I think its the first record of it in summer though waterbird counts (which are more accurate than the guides) have recorded it in winter.

I am sure there are many more birds to see which are usually found further north in summer - more of this later.

waterlogged side to a maize field - Jardinah farm -July

Nearly all the spring alfalfa has been cropped so some of the easiest birding has gone for a while. It was so easy to see bird movements. However there are pools and wet ground in the maize fields particularly near the edges of the circular fields. The cut alfalfa fields attract some birds too.

the walk to the middle of a maize field - Jardinah farm

Its a beautiful walk into the maize fields along the service tracks or at least it would have been if it hadn't been 36C. The path edges teem with flowers. For all the fine walking I failed to see many birds in the maize fields. I knew they were there but it was hot and the maize was shady. I saw the odd barn swallow fly over and a great grey shrike on the water sprayer. A number of LBJs flew over very quicky several times. My instinct said corn bunting but  I can't yet prove it.

one of several groups of white stork - Jardinah farm - July

On the other fields I was more successful. There were more white stork around than ever particularly on the remaining alfafa fields - both uncut and dried.

White storks on sprayers - Jardinah farm -July

The white stork love the water sprayers - on them, by them or under them. Several cattle egret had a similar attitude.

an unflattering photo of one of several cattle egret on Jardinah farm -July

On top of an antenna on one of the water sprayers I got a big surprise. I saw a sparrowhawk perched for some time. Like with the grey heron, its going to take another visit or two to get a good photo. The sparrowhawk  has very recently been reported as breeding in Cyrenaica. So I shouldn't have been so surprised to see it in a green place with hundreds of food items available. This was the unidentified bird of prey seen early in the shade of the avenue of trees.

After following the storks and cattle egret and watching a sparrowhawk, I caught up with one of the mobile flocks of greater short toed lark that I had seen on the two previous visits. I finally got a pretty good shot of this lark. Each week I have progressively taken  better photos. I'm reasonably happy with the latest. I think its pretty definitive proof that this bird is here in summer and not just a winter visitor as guide books say. 
Greater short toed lark - Jardinah farm -July

There are large numbers of this lark. I moved over to the second part of the farm across the road to have lunch with the deputy farm manager. There were more flocks of greater short toed lark there. This part of the farm has more maize fields but also more than its fair share of cut barley. These fields and the water channels obviously act as a magnet for larks. There were flocks of lesser short toed lark, greater short toed lark, calandra lark and  individual or couples of crested lark.

The water channels also attract other species. There turtle dove were visiting (see picture below).

two turtle doves - Jardinah farm - July

Near-by I got a reminder that the farm is on the margins of the desert. Three cream coloured courser inspected a water channel at the edge of the farm. This was my first sighting in Cyrenaica.

cream coloured courser - Jardinah farm - July

Finally as I came to leave the farm I saw a huge flock of pigeon. Their feeding was suddenly broken by a swoop from a different bird of prey from those seen before. I am pretty sure I know what bird it was but I'm going to leave that until I've got photos. Let's just say its not supposed to be here.

Monday 19 July 2010

Culture without Vulture

The glorious Greco-Roman city of Cyrene

On Friday 9th July, I visited the ancient city of Cyrene near the modern town of Shahat. This was a day when bird watching was combined with culture. Cyrene is a must-see place before anyone self-respecting world traveller dies. It is perched up on the escarpment of the Jebel Ahkdar (Green Mountain) at 625 metres overlooking the sea.

It was the coolest day of the summer - only 28C in Benghazi and 23C at Cyrene. This was bliss to those of us:  Wendy, Ed and I who have laboured in the North African summer and chose this day out together.

We set out early, giving us time to visit make the long trip up the Al Marj plain and on to the Jebel Akhdar.  The hill range is the most temperate in Libya and has the most rainfall. It has more in common with southern Europe than with the rest of Libya.

We took a break for mid morning tea between Qasr Libya and Cyrene. While the others drank, I ventured. I didn't have to venture far. The hedgerow (itself a novelty) contained at least three African Blue Tit. This was my first observation of them in Libya. they only live in the Jebel Akhdar. Before I had only seen them in Morocco.  Although they weren't shy, they refused to move out of the sun.

African Blue Tit on the road from Qasr Libya to Cyrene - July

Near-by I saw plenty of sardinian warbler without any effort, as well as turtle dove, great grey shrike (ssp aucheri), chaffinch (ssp africana) and woodchat shrike.

As we got closer to Cyrene we stopped the car to look up in the air at one and then a short distance later a second golden eagle. I really haven't got the knack yet of taking pictures of birds of prey. Even when I get them in the crosswires the colours don't come out true. Here's a shot of the eagle:

golden eagle - Jebel Akhdar - July

Having seen eagles here (and again) later at Cyrene I lament the fact I haven't seen an Egyptian Vulture since I arrived in Libya. I didn't see them at wadi Al Kouf on the way which is where they were last reported. Just what is happening to this bird?

One of many arches - Cyrene - July

The top half of the Cyrene site is surrounded by an ancient cypress forest.  The chaffinch have probably been there as long as the forest. There were a few house sparrow and the odd hoopoe in the open too.

The lower half of the site is right next to the escarpment. it is very steep on the way down. It is an ideal place for birds of prey to practice their use of the thermals.  They seemed to be queueing up! First I saw a common raven.  Then I saw a group of five lesser kestrel and finally two more golden eagle. All this activity was within half an hour.

lesser kestrel - Cyrene - July

In the fields adjacent to the site, I started to play the game of chase the chaffinch. I wanted a better shot than the one I snapped at Al Marj a few weeks before. I failed but as compensation I got close to a compliant woodchat shrike. Jebel Akhdar is the only part of Libya where this shrike out-numbers the great grey shrike complex. Once again showing the area's similarity with southern Europe.

woodchat shrike - Cyrene - July

After this it was off to the Temple of Zeus. This building is truely imposing and radiates a real sense of history.

the Temple of Zeus near Shahat

I saw two of my students at this site. What a coinicidence. Its a long way from Benghazi.

There was time for a team photograph and for me to chase some more chaffinch.

From left to right: Wendy, me and Ed

Given that they are everywhere around the Jebel Akhdar hill range, its no surprise I finally collared a chaffinch and snapped away. I'll get an adult male next time.

chaffinch - Temple of Zeus, Shahat - July
another photo of a chaffinch - Temple of Zeus - Shahat - July

Saturday 3 July 2010

The best birding in Libya is on a farm

waterlogging of a maize field - Jardinah farm - early July

In July, where in the world can you find sodden green fields where plenty of white stork and cattle egret graze,  grey heron perch ernestly in search of a meal, where collared pratincole fly by,  yellow wagtail reside and the odd eagle patrols overhead. I consulted the various maps and I could find two countries which have some places that fit the description  - Spain and Turkey.  But I saw all these birds yesterday in Libya. What is even more startling is that not one of the birds mentioned is even on the distribution map in the recent Collins Guide for the country (for any time of the year) except for yellow wagtail which is down as a passage bird.

Am I annoyed with the Collins guide? - no. If no one has reported in how can it get it right. Libya is grossly underreported.  But this is not the main reason I am not annoyed. It's because much of what I have seen is new. Cattle egret and white stork numbers have been growing steadily in recent years but I suspect the summer resident grey heron and yellow wagtail are completely new - this year or maybe last year.

sodden fields next to sandy flats! - what a unique environment - Jardinah farm - July

I was at Jardinah farm south of Benghazi for the second Friday running.  This is a massive farm covering 54 square kilometres and it is extraordinarily well irrigated.  It opened for business 6 months ago. This Libyan showpiece has produced an unexpected side effect - a micro climate akin to areas 500 miles further north but with more water than those areas!   There is a sister farm to Jardinah a few kilometres away which is just as large, too. So the total area of this new micro-climate is probably 100 square kilometres.

tadpoles - on their way to becoming good grey heron food

Grey heron is supposed to prefer fish but I suspect they can adapt their diet with so many frogs around. The number of Grey Heron appears to be small certainly when compared with the numbers of cattle egret and white stork.

I need a lot more time to bird this area. For example, I am still keen to follow up a fleeting view I thought I had of a possible water pipit last week. But as I said in my last blog, I'm not claiming that one as a genuine sighting. I am more confident of it though since I saw a few of its cousin - the yellow wagtail in the fields yesterday. There is a picture of one below.

yellow wagtail, Jardinah farm - Libya in July

closer picture of yellow wagtail - Jardinah farm - July

As for the sub-species, Is this a female feldegg?  If so it looks like the farm is populated with birds that thought better of finishing their migration to Turkey or the balkans this spring. I would be very interested to know if these are the same birds as are resident at the Nile Delta which is the closest other population.Apart of the birds that shouldn't be there, there were some I might have expected but didn't see last time (see previous blogs for a fuller listing of those I saw).

I might have expected to see goldfinch as this bird is common throughout north east Libya. I did. Once again it was flocking. And once again I saw no adults. However the interesting thing this time was that I saw a mixed flock with linnet. and it did contain two adults from this species (one male and one female). This was the first time I had seen linnet since my move to Benghazi.

Two birds are pictures below. The top one is a young goldfinch and the bottom one is a linnet. The two birds were on the same bush along with others.

young goldfinch - Jardinah farm - July

linnet - Jardinah farm - July

I posted that I saw a flock or two of short toed larks here last time. I was asked to look at the bird again since the photo was perhaps not consistant with this bird.   I am a fair minded person so I did.  However, I am now totally confident in my original identification. I don't want to list all the correct characteristics but I am very comfortable with myself.  I don't have any rarities committee to deal with here!

I have made a mental note to explain that photo over-exposure is a real problem here, the sun is very strong and my camera is only a nikon P100 .  So my photos of mobile flocks that are camera shy at 20 metres are poor to very poor. As for fine detail - no chance.

Nevertheless I prefer it this way. I don't want to end up like many east Asian tourists who get the kick out of the photo.

Any way, the birds were still there and they were still mobile. Here is another poor picture of a short toed lark taken yesterday. I take all comments seriously especially from experts. So I reviewed what I saw against the known picture banks. The birds in Jardinah look very similar to the sub species pictures for Israel ( an overall lighter bird) and not the nominate. Does anyone know what the sub species in Israel is?  

short toed lark - Jardinah - July

The fun didn't stop with the larks. Other noticeable birds included a common kestrel and an eagle. The latter is certainly worth another look. The only reported resident eagle in north east Libya is a golden eagle. This is a bird of hills and Jardinah is on a coastal plain. To be honest I wasn't "tuned in" to raptor identification yesterday. I wasn't expecting an eagle! 

I have just a few comments to make which are well short of an identifaction. Most raptors in Libya are pale sub species (eg long legged buzzard) and even the pharaoh eagle owl is a pale (and smaller) version of the eagle owl. But the eagle I saw was dark. It looked strangely out of place!

I will be back to Jardinah again and again to look for this bird and the many others the farm surely contains. Hopefully I will be back with some of the same friends who joined me yesterday. Here is a photo of them up a watch tower on the farm.

From the left Ed (left), James Abdullah and Wendy

A special thanks to James for giving us permission to visit the farm again. Another friend, Chrissie was walking with me towards another soggy field at the time.

We left the farm at about 1pm to go south. My friends went to the beach and I went further south in search of a white crowned wheatear.   I need to map how far north this bird goes in north east Libya (I've seen it in several places in north west Libya). It's a true desert bird and since the area grades to desert south of Sultan, I had some hopes. Unfortunately I didnt see it. I have possible trip to Brega lined up in September. It will probably have to wait till then.

There was one more observation before the trip finished. The sparrows on the palm trees at the beach were spanish!  This is the first time I had seen spanish sparrow since coming to Benghazi. I had doubted there existence. However we were 100 kilometres south of the city. I have a suspicion this might be the north east edge of their range but time will tell. 

The bird I focussed on kindly bowed his head a few times to make the identification easy.

spanish sparrow - palm on beach near Sultan - July