Thursday 30 September 2010

Sebha and the desert

Lake Gaberon, late March 2010 Photo by Erika Sigvallius

Pictures of birds in the Libyan Sahara are few and far between. I hope to visit there as soon as it cools down from today's 40C highs. Previously, I have posted some pictures in an article called "Kufra and the deep south (January 2010)". 

This blog compiles two small sets of pictures taken in two separate years but at the same time of year - the last week of March. These are thanks to a web site devoted to eclipse followers - ecliptomanics who followed the 2005 total eclipse of the sun and a friend and ex-teaching colleague Erika Sigvallius who took some snaps in March this year and which I received a couple of days ago. 

Most tourists in the Libyan desert visit the Ubari chain of lakes west of Sebha. I wonder how many look closely at the birds. The picture  below is a close-up of the lead picture. It reveals a small flock of black-winged stilt. This bird breeds, passes though and winters in various parts of Libya. It is probable these are migrants passing north.

flock of black winged stilt, Lake Gaberon, March. Photo by Erika Sigvallius

While Lake Gaberon is one of the most common places that tourists visit, the white crowned wheatear is the most common bird they see. It is the definitive Libyan desert bird. if you see it you are in the desert. If don't, you aren't. 

white crowned wheatear, near Ubari lakes,  March 2005. Photo by ecliptomanics 

Probably the easiest place to see desert sparrow in the Sahara is along the Ubari lakes. These nomadic birds are a pretty much guaranteed sight there.

desert sparrow, near Ubari lakes, March 2005, photo by ecliptomanics

Desert wheatear is also relatively common there. Both it and white crowned wheatear are resident breeders.

desert wheatear, near Ubari lakes, March 2005, Photo by ecliptomanics 

Another fairly easily seen bird is turtle dove. In coastal Libya it is a summer breeder which migrates south for the winter. In Saharan Libya many birds are resident so they can be seen all year round.

turtle dove, near Ubari lakes, March 2005. Photo by ecliptomanics

I have some local knowledge now because two of my colleagues - Jane and Sam who I worked with in Tripoli now work in Sebha. They say two of the best places for birds in Sebha itself are the hospital gardens (where they work) and the zoo.

Erika noticed a very large number of nests in the trees at the zoo when she visited it in March. I have identified the birds as spanish sparrow. This bird seems to be spreading. Is this their most southerly outpost in the world?

spanish sparrow nests, Sebha zoo. Photo by Erika Sigvallius  

I have blown up part of one picture to show you a spanish sparrow

spanish sparrow, Sebha zoo, March 2009. Photo by Erika Sigvallius

I can't wait for the cooler weather. I am praying for it to cool down before all the passage birds have gone from the desert areas. But even if it doesn't happen there will plenty of good birding down south.

Monday 27 September 2010

The next wave of waders and more


Last Friday was one week on from my previous visit to a group of coastal wetlands just east of Benghazi and including Ain Azziana and Daryanah.

The cast there had changed quite a bit. Dunlin were still very common and no doubt many will stay the winter. Ringed plover was less common which surprised me as they mostly winter north of the Sahara. It could just have been a case of some local movement during the week. Time will tell.

The large group of turnstone had also disappeared. Perhaps this group went on to winter south of the Sahara.

On the positive side, at Daryanah there was a large flock of ruff. However,  they proved to be extremely jumpy. They alarmed before all the other waders. Eventually though I got good pictures but it was a trial.  

The middle bird in the photo below shown raised feathers on its back which (for me) is a short cut to identification of this bird.

flock of ruff, Daryanah

There was only one larger wader present and he was solitary. This was a single bar-tailed godwit.  I don't know why but I like the look of these birds.

bar-tailed godwit, Daryanah

The dunlin were much more advanced overall towards their winter plumage than a week ago. I find them much more difficult to separate from sanderling once the transformation is complete. Nevertheless I am sure there were a small number of sanderling present and one or two little stint.  

dunlin, Daryanah

Another solitary bird as is often the case for this bird on passage was a grey plover.

grey plover, Daryanah

Apart from the waders (and herons and egrets reported in previous blogs) there were three other water birds to note. This time I saw six kingfisher at Ain Azziana showing that last week's sighting was not a fluke (or vagrant). They are clearly here in numbers in winter. The guides really should recognise this distribution when they are re-printed.

kingfisher, Ain Azziana

The other two water birds seen were: one snipe flushed by mistake when I walked close to it and a small number of moorhen disturbed similarly by accident.

One day I will notice a snipe before it notices me but that day was not last Friday.

Sunday 26 September 2010

It's raining herons (and cattle egrets)

It's raining grey heron

The new collin's guide shows no grey heron (in any season) in Cyrenaica on its distribution map. It does show they winter in the far north west of Libya over 1,100 kilometres away and in the Nile delta 900 kilometres in the other direction.

Last weekend I saw a flock of 50 in one place and 15 in another. I never saw such numbers in the north west. Clearly once again this is a case of gross under-reporting in Cyrenaica (making life very difficult for guide writers). And this is what makes this area so exciting.

grey heron east of Darnayah

There is no doubt in my mind that Cyrenaica is a wintering place for significant numbers of grey heron - well above the numbers in north west Libya.

when they landed

The reason for the high numbers of grey heron is almost certainly the availability of good coastal wetlands. There are many more in the north east than in the relatively better recorded north west of Libya.

the habitat is the reason

If you thought the grey heron was under-reported try the cattle egret. It doesn't feature on the collins distribution map anywhere in Libya. It is far more numerous in Cyrenaica than in Tripolitania (north west Libya) but it is in both. 

cattle egret love rubbish dumps

The population of cattle egret has been growing rapidly in Libya in recent years. The bird is so adaptable.

yet more cattle egret

Unlike grey heron which is mostly (but not entirely) a winter visitor, cattle egret is a significant local breeder. 

It can rain cattle egret too.

Saturday 25 September 2010

Arrivals and Transit in Cyrenaica

spotted flycatcher on passage, on coast just east of Benghazi, September 

On Thursday, I quietly celebrated working in Libya for one year. 

I have now seen all the birding seasons here. Autumn is in full swing. Libya is a huge net gainer at this time of year. We lose a very few summer breeders but we gain much larger numbers of wintering birds. Meanwhile many birds are "in transit" heading south through Libya on passage.  

I can't properly compare the spring and autumn passage because I was in Tripoli for spring and am now 1,000 kilometres further east for the autumn. Also, we mustn't forget that the passage isn't over yet.

I can make few general observations simply because there is limit to what you can see over 5 or 6 weekends each passage. Nevertheless this blog looks at what I have noticed about some non-water birds (you might want to look at the earlier posts "Pipits among the melons" and "migrant wheatears and more". I'll look at water birds another time.

Since returning after Ramadan, I have travelled to several coastal spots, and done some urban birding near my work and home. There is a big gap here! - I haven't visited the inland plains and hills.

One of the most obvious birds all around has been spotted flycatcher on passage. It seems to be as common here going south in autumn as it was in Tripolitania heading north in spring. The one photographed above was seen on Tamarisk bushes on the coast but I have seen them in the well watered gardens of Benghazi Hospital where I work and in the trees when I walk home.     

The hospital gardens are the only place I have seen nightingale on passage sulking in the bushes. 

Some of the best habitat I have found for many passage birds have been Tamarisk and other bushes close to the coast. They certainly act as migrant traps for non-ground loving migrants.

bushes near Ain Azziana, east of Benghazi

However I have found the very best migrant traps are bushes next to spring water close to the coast. They are few and far between but the eastern coast has several hidden away. The one below is just east of Daryanah.  These are a gold mine for migrants.

This one cost me a lot of blood as the flies and mosquitoes bit me mercilessly  (note for future - wear a long sleeved shirt).

Needless to say, there were spotted flycatcher getting fat.

bushes in water near Daryanah - the classic migrant trap

The bushes were good for phylloscopus warblers (birds I had commonly seen in Tripolitania on spring passage by the way). It was great practice at separating willow warbler, chiffchaff and wood warbler. All three were present at the same time. 

willow warbler, Daryanah (this bird has got light legs - honestly - beware of the shadow!)

Most chiffchaff stay in Libya for the winter. A very few willow warbler stay and no wood warbler.

chiffchaff, Daryanah

Which is worse, a bird which stays still and then flies off 100 metres when you get too close or a bird which never stays still in the same locality. Well all the warblers were in the later category. They gave me the run-around.

wood warbler, Daryanah

One bird I was particularly pleased to see was red-backed shrike. This is not found in Tripolitania but is a known passage bird here. Sure enough there was one among the bushes.

red-backed shrike, Daryanah

I thought my most surprising sighting was a flock of starling which appeared for a few seconds before flying off. I know they come to Libya for the winter but I hadn't expected them so soon.

starling, Daryanah

I could probably have seen much more but the bites were getting too much.I am itching just thinking about it.

One of the most surprising things is I have not seen or heard any bee-eater (seen in spring). Roller are supposed to pass this way too.  Perhaps I should try my luck further east.

Friday 24 September 2010

Mystery bird at Sebkhet near Benghazi

I went out birding today along the coast just north east of Benghazi. There is lots to blog about including many passage birds and wintering birds. In fact I have given myself too much to do!  I want to go birding tomorrow but the blogs need doing too. What to do?

I have some identification issues which makes things even harder.  Here is one which is annoying me the most.

I saw it at very start of my birding day. Its big and looks like a dark morph of a grey heron. Everything but the colour seems to look more like a grey heron than a purple heron. But I know don't they exist, do they?   

I have got plenty of pictures - mostly poor quality! but here I am posting 3 - one of the bird at distance to show the habitat, a close up of the bird with its head stretched and one when it is not. 

Can anybody help me so I can move on.

dark heron at Sebkhet

dark heron showing habitat

There were fifteen or so grey herons near-by but he didn't seem to be interacting with them.

close up of dark heron


Thursday 23 September 2010

Spoonbills and ibises

juvenile glossy ibis, Ain Azziana, September

A few days ago I blogged my sighting of two glossy ibis and I commented that I was trying to find out whether the bird has been recorded in Cyrenaica before.  It is an established winterer in small numbers 800 kilometres further west.

Well thanks to Wagih on the yahoo Egyptian birding group I have my answer. It is well recorded back in the 1970s by Bundy at Benghazi, Shahat and Al Marj. However, the only recent sighting was in 2008 when three birds were recorded in  the UN's winter water bird count at Benghazi. 

My best guess now is that it has probably been present in low numbers at least in winter all the time.

While I was waiting for information on glossy ibis distribution (and because I had time on my hands before I go out bird watching on Friday) I discovered very interesting information on the glossy ibis's closest European cousin - the Eurasian spoonbill.

The information came from AEWA (see the end of the blog for a reference):

Nearly a third of the central European breeders fly to Libya (Cyrenaica in north east Libya and the far north west of Libya). The others go to Tunisia and the Nile delta.   This has been established by finding tagged birds. A few of the Romanian breeders also make their way to Libya.

map adapted from AEWA's report 

Above is a map taken from the report on Eurasian spoonbill. Each white line represents a single tagged bird.

I have added two red dots which show where glossy ibis is now known to winter.

This is all yet more evidence that Libya is a significant wintering and passage route for central and eastern European birds. 

Some data and map taken from "AEWA's INTERNATIONAL SINGLE SPECIES ACTION PLAN FOR THE CONSERVATION OF THE EURASIAN SPOONBILL PLATALEA LEUCORODIA" 15 – 19 September 2008, Antananarivo, Madagascar sponsored by BirdLife Netherlands

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Kingfisher and other migrants join the locals

European kingfisher, Juliana, September 

Last Saturday afternoon, I hopped into a taxi and went to Juliana wetlands which are 15 minutes from my flat. Along with Ain Azziana, these two are the main permanent wetlands close to Benghazi.

The last time I visited Juliana the most noticeable feature(apart from the heat that day) that I saw were the breeding colonies of cattle egret and little egret (see earlier blogs). There were other breeding birds too.

Both these birds were present on Saturday but the bird population had been re-enforced by large numbers and types of passage and wintering birds.

The most striking wintering bird (and one of the first birds I noticed on my arrival at Juliana on Saturday) was a European kingfisher. This is a rare bird in Cyrenaica. It is occasionally recorded in the Benghazi area by the UN winter water bird count. It is missing from north east Libya in the Collins guide distribution map although the guide fairly accurately represents it for north west Libya. 

The winter water count has revolutionised the data set for water birds in Libya and will surely help the distribution maps improve next time round.

a small island in Juliana wetlands, September

Local birds included coot, black-winged stilt, little egret and cattle egret. The first three can be seen together on the above picture. I cannot tell whether the same three bird species had been re-enforced with migrants of the same species. However it is quite likely.

Before I started to look in earnest at many of the other birds, I noticed a stone curlew.  I walked one step towards it when it flew off in seeming panic. It wasn't me. Some of the other birds panicked too as a bird of prey flew over. They need not have worried because they weren't on the osprey's menu.

osprey, Juliana wetlands, September

I used the sports tracking setting for the first time on my camera and was rewarded with 20 consecutive stills of the bird which helped its identification as I am a self-confessed poor raptor identifier. I  blame it on lack of practice. 

It's a juvenile osprey

Apparently the white spots on the wings pin point the bird as a juvenile.

little tern, Juliana

One other local bird is the little tern. This bird migrates south but several were still around.  

After a little while I turned my attention to the water bird passage and wintering birds.  There were more common redshank around than in high summer (a small number almost certainly breed here).  Some of the migrants were still in their summer plumage. These included the dunlin whose black bellies made them easy to identify compared with in true winter. 

dunlin, Juliana wetlands, September

Yet other waders were completely in winter plumage like the several turnstone which were present. This is a known winterer in the area.

turnstone, Juliana wetlands, September

There were a small number of greenshank and wood sandpiper. A small number of these birds are recorded to stay all winter in the Benghazi area (rather than fly on south of the Sahara). I would recommend that the next wave of bird guides reflect this now it is well established.

wood sandpiper, Juliana - passage or winterer? 

I am told that Juliana gets really interesting when the winter rains appear. The wetlands swell and so does its bird count. Roll on the rain.

Monday 20 September 2010

Pipits amongst the melons

tawny pipit, Tulmaythah, September

On last Friday's birding trip, a field next to the sea at Tulmaythah held a different set of birds from its surrounding area.  The field was one full of ripe melons.

I was so busy looking at the wheatears and other birds in adjacent areas I nearly missed the well-camouflaged birds among the melons.

I had noticed the birds over-head more easily. The place was a magnet for both barn swallow and alpine swift.  Alpine swift is a resident bird in this area but this was my first chance to have a prolonged encounter.

melon field, Tulmaythah, September

On the ground were three types of pipit and one of wagtail. The predominant bird was meadow pipit. This bird winters in Libya and this group may well stay in this area for a few months. The passage birds were mostly tawny pipit and a few tree pipit and yellow wagtail.  Even though meadow pipit and tree pipit tend to keep to separate habitat in the summer, it's often different on passage so you have to be careful with identification..

meadow pipit, Tulmaythah, September

For those who like to see the some streaking on a pipit see the photograph below!

second view of meadow pipit, Tulmaythah

Near and beside the field were also some local crested lark. I have photographed so many of these birds that it took something a bit special to persuade me to do it again. However, I thought this bird had one of the largest crests I had ever seen. 

crested lark, Tulmaythah

Sunday 19 September 2010

Migrant wheatears and more

northern wheatear, Tulmaythah, September

Another place visited last Friday was Tulmaythah which is about 80 kilometres north east of Benghazi on the coast. This is where my friends relaxed on the beach while I bird-watched 100 metres away inland. This blog is about the birds I saw in the area with the exception of those seen around and in a near-by melon field!  The melon field merits a blog all of its own. It will follow this one. Why? well you'll have to wait and see.

The most noticeable birds in the area by sheer weight of numbers were wheatears. But what surprised me was the proportions of the different types. Over 70% were northern wheatear, 15% were black-eared wheatear and only a similar proportion were isabelline wheatear. All were migrants. The proportions were about the same as I found on spring passage near Tarhunah in Tripolitania, 950 kilometres to the west.

typical ground for wheatears, Tulmaythah, September

In fact there were so few isabelline wheatear that I failed to get a good photo. You will have to wait a couple of blogs for one of those. The presence of so many northern wheatear is once again contrary to the distribution maps in the main guide books. The maps show northern wheatear missing from this area.   Without spoiling future blogs I can reveal they are present in Benghazi and all along the coast between Tulmaythah and Benghazi too.

black-eared wheatear, Tulmaythah, September 

Black-eared wheatear proved easier to photograph than it's isabelline cousin. Here is a dark throated male. Both forms pale and dark throated were there.

There were other migrants too. I suddenly noticed (and so even did my beach loving friends) a flock of about 15 little egret flying down the beach from east to west. I had little time to react but just managed to record the event.

flock of passing little egret, Tulmaythah, September

The blurred photo of most of the flock is above and a clearer shot of three birds is below.

close up of little egrets on passage, Tulmaythah

My clumsy walking flushed two snipe in two different places. Some snipe stay the winter and some go further south. Who knows what these two will do but my guess is that these will move on when they gain strength. This area was not wet enough for them.

There were more migrants around but they were in the melon field so please wait for that blog. 

Meanwhile with all the migrant action, the residents were carrying out there normal business. House sparrow, great grey shrike and laughing dove were plentiful. Indeed every palm tree seemed to have at least one great grey shrike in it. I still checked carefully to see if any migrant sub species of this bird were among them. They weren't.

great grey shrike, Tulmaythah