Sunday 31 October 2010

Changing gulls and terns

Andy, Helen and I saw plenty of interesting terns and gulls last weekend when we visited different wetlands around Benghazi.

In summer the only significant breeding gull in Libya is the yellow-legged gull. This breeds mostly in north east Libya.  Similarly the main breeding tern is the lesser crested tern which also breeds in north east Libya. There are also small breeding colonies of little tern all across the Libyan coast and an even smaller breeding group of Caspian tern on the coastal border with Tunisia. 

This situation changes radically in winter. There is a big influx of wintering gulls and in turn the lesser crested tern mostly migrates south.

slender-billed gull,  Ain Azziana October 30

In north east Libya (Cyrenaica) the two biggest groups of wintering gulls are black-headed gull and slender-billed gull.  They have been arriving gradually over the past two or three weeks.

When we were at Ain Azziana over the weekend there were a mixture of local yellow-legged gull and wintering slender-billed gull.

black-headed gulls,  New Benghazi, October 28

Black- headed gull will venture in-land. Above is a group seen next to my house in urban Benghazi.

whiskered tern, Juliana, October 30

Just as lesser crested tern have left, the wetlands around Benghazi all have sizeable numbers of whiskered tern. Again (like the gulls) they have arrived over the past two or three weeks. Unlike most whiskered tern who pass through other countries and winter south of the Sahara these birds will stay.

I know that Andy and Helen were as impressed as I was at the show these birds put on while feeding.  

By the way Andy writes his own travel blog called "two drifters off to see the world"  I recommend a visit to his site. Andy promises he will write up about his visit to Benghazi.   

whiskered tern, Juliana, October 30 

So what happens to the lesser crested tern in winter?

Here is part of a very recent email message to the Egyptian Birding Group from Libyan expert  Abdulmaula Hamsa who is writing a PhD on the bird

In Libya there is three breeding sites for Lesser crested terns Sterna (Thalasseus) bengalensis,those are Elba island (Jaziret Al Elba 32°13' N; 23°18'E) which is the closest to Egyptian border with in the historic Bumbah bay, and the breeding population here is about 60-80 adults, the second is Gara island (30°48' N 19°54'E) where 1500-2000 pairs breed each summer, and lastly Jeliana islet in Benghazi  32° 05 N 20°03E) which is an inshore site, and 200-300 terns breed.

So far the chicks of this species were ringed in seasons from 2006-2010, mainly with metal rings donated by Birdlife Malta and color (bi character rings) from Italy. you can see more on our ringing scheme at
So far we had some good number of resightings and recoveries from both Benghazi and Gara sites in Northwest and west Africa, amazingly non of the birds rings in Elba (the most easter site) were sighted or recovered anywhere.

I believe that Elba birds may head east not west as other terns from Gara and Benghazi sites, and mix with huge population of the Red Sea. I am appealing to you to have a closer look whenever possible on little legs of these birds during April-June and during September-November on the mediterranean coast of Egypt and along the whole year at Red Sea sites. These birds usually associated with Sandwich terns and other crested tern species.

So it looks like most lesser crested tern go to west Africa and the others to the Red Sea. I will keep the blog informed as when we find out for sure.

Saturday 30 October 2010

House buntings in southern Libya

My friends and work colleagues, Sam and Jane are based in Sebha. They occasionally provide me and this blog with information about birds in the south.

Town of Ghat Oases. Photo by Sam Dewhirst

Jane tells me that now the weather is cooler the local larks and wintering wagtails are much more active in Sebha during the day.

Ghat castle. Photo by Sam Dewhirst

Sam and Jane recently visited Ghat which is in the far south west of Libya on the border with Algeria and close to Niger. It is about 2000 kilometres from my house in Benghazi.

House in Ghat with perched house bunting. Photo by Sam Dewhirst

Sam and Jane have bird watched with me on the Jebel Nafusa near Tripoli and know what house bunting looks like. I was very happy when they reported that house bunting is a common bird in Ghat.

blown up of picture above showing a house bunting

Very few bird records are known for Ghat and as far as I can tell no one has reported house bunting never mind that it is common.

I have speculated for some time on this blog that sub-Saharan populations of house bunting should be in southern Libya. See my previous "bird of the month" feature on house bunting. It's known in Chadian Tibesti and there are some old records at Uweinat in the far south east of the country.  But this is proof positive.  My own prediction is that we will soon be seeing records elsewhere in the far south such as in Libyan Tibesti and new records in Uweinat.

Sam knew that some of his pictures of buildings featured house bunting so he sent them in in. I have blown one up and  sure enough it has a house bunting on it - albeit in the distance. This picture is shown above.

house bunting from Jebel Nafusa

Above is a picture I took of a house bunting in the Jebel Nafusa for comparison. I would love to go to Ghat and see the bird myself.

Friday 29 October 2010

They don't go away

I went birding with Andy and Helen Parkin today. They are birders and fellow work colleagues who are based in Tripoli but are visiting me in Benghazi.

We bagged 40 species in and around Benghazi. No lifers for me but red-throated pipit was one for Andy and Helen.

However where ever we went we saw barn swallow. The unusual thing about this is that the bird is a long distant migrant in Europe yet in Cyrenaica many barn swallow don't migrate at all.

Last Autumn I was based in Tripoli and I recorded that the barn swallow left the tourist hotspot of Leptis Magna on October 22nd. This is a typical leaving date for birds in north west Libya. This is late by European standards but at least they go.  Not so in Cyrenaica. Below is a photograph of just a few we saw today.

barn swallow, October 29th, Deryanah

Here are Helen (at Al Marj) and Andy on the way home. I'm pretty sure they enjoyed themselves. I certainly did.

It was great to have companion bird watchers on Friday once again. I'll blog more about our findings in the coming days.

Thursday 28 October 2010

Thursday afternoon at Juliana

I had a couple of hours to spare this afternoon so I popped in a taxi to Juliana again. I am really pleased I did. Another wave of migrants and wintering birds have arrived in the two weeks since I lasted visited.

Like two weeks ago, coot, black-winged stilt and barn swallow were still the most obvious birds. Indeed Juliana is one of those places in Libya where the barn swallow stays all winter.

But it was the less obvious birds which excited me. I have never seen three common snipe in one place before but I did today. Not only that but I didn't disturb any of them and I managed to photograph all three. What's more the last one just gently walked away!  

I don't know what I did right today.  The clothes were the same, the equipment was the same and I am still as impatient as ever. Strange?

common snipe, Juliana

Common snipe are a known wintering  and passage bird in Libya. Who knows whether these three will stay or move on.

common snipe walking off, Juliana

Above is a picture of the same common snipe walking away. it gives us all a good opportunity to see its pale crown stripe which helps identify the bird (apart from its hugely long bill that is!)

avocet, Juliana

While the black winged stilt were present again, it was one of their cousins which caught my eye. Collins guide only shows this bird in the far west of Libya on the border with Tunisia over 1200 kilometres away. I was extremely surprised to see it. In any normal blog it would have been my first picture but the common snipe won the call.

spotted redshank, Juliana

Another new bird at the wetland was spotted redshank. Indeed they outnumbered common redshank today. They are down as a passage bird in the guides but I will keep an eye out for them all winter because some winter in the Nile delta and I don't see why they shouldn't stay here. The temperatures are very similar.

common greenshank

There were plenty of dunlin around too, a few ringed plover and a couple of common greenshank. I dint see any other waders but that's because its getting increasingly difficult to walk round the wetland as the water level is rising. 

The heron family was represented by little egret and grey heron.

One land bird stood out this time. There was a very large flock of skylark roaming the area. And talking of roaming I once again saw a marsh harrier.

I have one more thing I must mention. On my way back home from the wetland I saw an enormous flock of starling which must have been several thousand strong. I guess this means there has been a cold spell in Eastern Europe.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

A wetland fit for a spotted crake

The last wetland we visited last Friday was the huge Sebkhet Temimi. It covers thousands of hectares in a remote area (mid way between Derna and Tobruk) and is almost certainly the largest permanent wetland in Libya.

The sad thing is Gencer and I only had an hour or so to survey it. However even the small part we saw proved to us that this is arguably the best birding place in the whole of the country.

spotted crake, sebkhet temimi

The fringes of the marsh are walkable on foot but the inner areas probably need a boat or at least water-proof wading boots.  We could see very large reed beds in the distance and kilometres of marsh land.

landscape of sebkhet temimi

Virtually the first pool we visited held very interesting and varied birds. On our approach a common snipe flew away. We saw at least two spotted crake dart for cover but not before I photographed one of them (see the top picture).

white wagtail, sebkhet temimi

At the edge of the same brightly coloured pool, a white wagtail  hovered and landed.

grey wagtail, sebkhet temimi

On and next to other near-by pools there were many more wintering white wagtail and grey wagtail. In the drier areas we saw several tawny pipit. The latter bird is probably on passage but this wetland is the nearest equivalent to the Nile delta environment that Libya has and it is possible this bird winters here just as some do in the Nile delta. 

Overhead were several kestrel and the odd roaming marsh harrier.

cattle egret, sebkhet temimi. Photo by Gencer Gencoglu

Herons were obviously well-represented. We had a short look at a squacco heron, five grey heron and several little egret and cattle egret. We are sure there were many more but we saw less than one percent of the wetland.

European robin, sebkhet temimi

There are almost certainly a large cross section of European wintering birds. Typical ones include the robin and stonechat.

stonechat, sebkhet temimi. Photo by Gencer Gencoglu

Again there are also very likely to be many different passage birds at the sebkhet. We recorded red-backed shrike, spotted flycatcher, whinchat and willow warbler without really trying.

red backed shrike, sebkhet temimi

Unfortunately it was late in the day and we simply ran out of time but I am pretty sure I could have spent two or three days there very happily.

spotted flycatcher, sebkhet temimi

I will return as soon as I can find a long weekend when I am free.

Gencer (left) and Rob (right) at the end of a superb day's birding

I am very grateful to Gencer for his expertise and companionship on this great day.  

Below is a list of birds seen at Sebkhet Teimimi compiled by Gencer Gencoglu. 

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Wadi al Hamsa - fishing birds

After a couple of hours at Wadi al Khalij we moved on to Wadi al Hamsa. Although its only about 10 kilometres further east as the raven flies, it's four times that far by road. 

an osprey in action at Wadi al Hamsa captured by Gencer Gencoglu

This wetland is similar in some ways to Wadi Al Khalij but instead of reeds there is mostly arthrocnemum next to the river. I believe this implies the water is slightly more salty.

The water was also a little bit deeper and was again teeming with fish.  

Wadi al Hamsa about 200 metres inland

We saw our third and fourth osprey of the day here. The pair dived into the water from a great height and with great speed on several occasions. It was magnificent to watch this display. Gencer managed to capture the moment one bird reached the water (see above).

osprey preparing for another dive. Picture by Gencer Gencoglu

The wadi widens out a little as you go upstream and there is more vegetation along the banks.

upstream at about 500 metres from the wadi mouth

Osprey were not the only fishing birds. There were a large number of kingfisher. Certainly it was the largest density of kingfisher I have ever seen (not just in Libya). Since the water here is permanent we may have to re-think whether Libya has any breeding kingfisher.

kingfisher resting at wadi Al Hamsa

There were at least two adult and one juvenile grey heron around too. At the side of the river we glimpsed moorhen on three occasions. This once again confirms my view that this bird is widespread in many different parts of Libya.

grey heron, Wadi Al Hamsa

The other member of the heron family we saw was little egret.

little egret, Wadi Al Hamsa

We had intended to walk upstream where the river narrows to look at the passerines. However there was a stand off between a goat herder's dogs and a pack of wild dogs which looked like it might get nasty. We decided it could be dangerous for us. This was a real shame. We had already seen willow warbler and had expected many other migrants to be around.

thekla lark, wadi Al Hamsa

The green part of the valley was not the only useful birding territory. Further inland, on the stony land on top looking down on the wadi we saw two thekla lark. This was Gencer's first encounter and fully justified a long walk on a hunch. Sometimes you get lucky. 

In the next blog I report on a different type of wetland we visited next (and last) on Friday. It was also the biggest wetland too!

Below is a list of species seen in this wadi compiled by Gencer. Once again "X" means the bird was present but we didn't count the numbers.

Tür Adı
Name of Species

Küçük ak balıkçıl
Little egret
Gri balıkçıl
Grey heron
Balık kartalı
Common kestrel
Common moorhen
Common redshank
Kaya güvercini
Rock pigeon
Tekla Toygarı
Thekla Lark
Kaya kırlangıcı
Crag martin
Willow warbler
Büyük örümcekkuşu
Great grey shrike

Monday 25 October 2010

The day of the night herons

 Wadi Al Khalij defies all the ideas you might have about the Libyan environment. It is a permanent if short river with lush green reeds and surrounding marquis vegetation. 

When Gencer and I descended into the wadi basin we thought it would be a bit special. It had already provided us with the locally rare maghreb wheatear on the way down the valley (see yesterday's blog).

wadi al khalij near the sea

The green, seemingly peaceful environment appears a good habitat for resident, wintering and passage birds. And so it proved.

map of last Friday's route to three wetlands

When we first arrived we were immediately aware of plenty of crag martin skimming the water. We could hear reed warbler, moorhen and water rail which we presume were all residents. A marsh harrier was seen overhead. This bird is everywhere that there is fresh water in Libya at the moment.

upstream about 300 metres from the wadi's seaward end

The really eye-catching sighting was a flock of 30 black crowned night heron split into three groups. All were hiding at the reed edges of the pristine, clear and fish-ridden water.

Can you see all seven night heron in this picture?  (photo by Gencer Gencoglu)

All the night heron were juveniles. Apparently it is not unusual for them to migrate without adults. Bird Life International's website calls this bird a vagrant in Libya. I think 30 birds could tell them that they are wrong!

Gencer and I are actually wondering if they will stay the winter because it's a very sheltered spot and the wadi can only get wetter not drier during the winter.

a few of the night heron moving position in wadi al khalij

The Collins guide shows black-crowned night heron as non-stopping passage birds. I think this needs amendment too now reporting is much better in Libya.

a single juvenile black crowned night heron

As well as the marsh harrier there was an osprey in the valley. It looked like it had been in a fight or someone had taken a shot at it. Nevertheless it behaved healthily. There are rich pickings in the river so it should do well there. By the way, this was the second osprey we saw that day. One was seen just after we left Derna at the start of our trip.

osprey, wadi al khalij (photo by Gencer Gencoglu)

There were some other easily seen water birds. There were several kingfisher, some mobile and noisy green sandpiper and at least one ringed plover and common sandpiper.

kingfisher taking a rest at wadi al khalij

We are in no doubt that this place is an important migrant trap because of its special environment -fed from the waters of the near-by Jebel Akhdar mountain and its shelter.

common redstart

We didn't have time to have a really serious search for all the passage and wintering passerines but they included willow warbler, wood warbler, redstart, blackcap, whinchat and stonechat.

wadi opening next to the sea

The river doesn't quite make the sea (above ground) but the opening is picturesque.  I know some companies have looked at combining culture at Cyrene with birding. I would recommend this site to any tour organiser.

Mine you ,the next site we visited at Wadi al hamsa was also impressive. Please look what we saw in the next blog. There is at least one very special picture.

Below is a list of species seen in the upper and lower wadi area. In the spirit of international co-operation its in Turkish and English!.  X means present but not counted.

Tür Adı
Name of Species

Gece balıkçılı
Black-crowned night-heron
Gri balıkçıl
Grey heron
Saz delicesi
Western marsh-harrier
Eurasian sparrowhawk
Balık kartalı
Common kestrel
Water rail
Common moorhen
Halkalı cılıbıt
Common ringed plover
Yeşil düdükçün
Green sandpiper
Dere düdükçünü
Common sandpiper
Küçük kumru
Laughing dove
Tepeli toygar
Crested lark
Kaya kırlangıcı
Crag martin
Kır kırlangıcı
Çayır taşkuşu
Turkish name n/k
Maghreb  wheatear
Rock thursh
Saz kamışçını
Reed warbler
Kara başlı ötleğen
1 (Female)
Orman çıvgını
Wood warbler
Willow warbler
Büyük örümcekkuşu
Great grey shrike
House sparrow
Tarla çintesi
Corn bunting