Tuesday 30 November 2010

The cast changes at Ain Azziana

It's been a month since I last visited Ain Azziana which is just north east of Benghazi. Things have changed. The grey heron have moved on though the little egret still remain.

There are newcomers as well as leavers. The newcomers are presumably more reluctant migrants than the previous waves. They may have finally been pushed here by much colder weather to the north.

Among them, I was pleased to see a dozen or so reed bunting at the water's edge in the short reeds.

reed bunting, Ain Azziana

This is a poorly recorded bird in Libya. The UN winter bird survey usually picks up 3 or 4 each year so I was pleased to see many more than this in one place. 

Actually, Ain Azziana is accurately portrayed in the Collins guide map as a place to where you can see reed bunting in winter (but I didn't know this until I cross-checked afterwards). 

The UN winter counts over the years have also seen a small number in scattered parts of Tripolitania. By contrast, these locations aren't on the Collins map.

another reed bunting, Ain Azziana

I had to be patient to photograph reed bunting. These birds didn't like to perch in the open like their corn bunting cousins. In fact I thought at one stage the picture of a flitting bird above was all I would get.

ain azziana

The water level at Ain Azziana has risen since my last visit so getting around was even more difficult than usual. So I only saw little white specks of a different bird in the distance with my binoculars at first. As I got a bit closer I found that a couple of common shelduck were near a group of black-winged stilt.

common shelduck with black-winged stilt

This is the first time I have seen common shelduck in Libya but they are well known to the UN winter count team. Once again the Collins guide does not have them in Libya on in its distribution map.

Talking of maps, over the past three months since I started writing this blog more regularly I have become more and more upset that the guides (I'm not picking out just one!) don't show Libya having about one third of the species it really has. My upset 's more of a sadness than an anger.

Libya has the longest Mediterranean coast line and really should merit more attention than that from the existing gallant band. I challenge the "experts" to come here and bird watch! It must be the best bet on the planet to find the slender-billed curlew for example (see my blog on curlews to follow in a few days ) but the coast is so long and the winter generates so many wetlands it needs larger numbers of observers. 

close up of common shelduck at Ain Azziana

Let's look at another new arrival at Ain Azziana. I have seen bluethroat at other locations in Libya this winter (Brega and Jaghboub Oasis) but I hadn't seen any at Ain Azziana until this trip. However it has been a month since I last visited. In that time clearly they have arrived in considerable numbers.

bluethroats at Ain Azziana (left and right above)

There are more northern European males (red) than southern European males (white or none) as judged by the colour of the spots in their throats.

Incidentally bluethroat is on the guidebook maps as wintering in Morocco but not Libya. Let me assure you we've got plenty this winter!

meadow pipit, Ain Azziana

Each time I visit a wetland, I check the pipits to see how many are water pipit and how many are meadow pipit. All winter, at Ain Azziana they have been almost exclusively meadow pipit (at least in the areas I could access - maybe its different out in really flooded areas). By the way, only when I got home and processed my pictures did I realise the bird above only has got one leg.

starling, Ain Azziana

Finally I couldn't resist photographing these starling. They look like clothes pegs on a washing line.

Monday 29 November 2010

Wadi Dana - Bulbuls and babblers

This is my final blog on my Eid holiday at Wadi Dana, Jordan. I have left news of bulbuls and babblers until last.

The spectacled (or yellow-vented bulbul) was possibly the easiest "lifer" for me to see on the whole trip. It's noisy and common. It is happy close to man. It is no surprise I saw a flock in Dana Village and frequently wherever I went thereafter.

spectacled or yellow-vented bulbul.

The arabian babbler was much more difficult. I was told by people who had seen it the day before where to find it. It was to be found in the next valley south of Wadi Dana. 

You can get to this by walking along the road out of Dana until the forestry commission house and then descending into the wide valley below.

terrain holding arabian babbler, near Wadi Dana

Unfortunately after three hours searching I failed to see one. My consolation is that if I hadn't walked that way I wouldn't have seen the kurdish wheatear that I blogged about last week or seen so many common redstart apparently wintering.

spectacled bulbul, southern turkey

My confidence was n't improved when I got back to Benghazi and compared notes on holidays with my friend and fellow teacher, Wendy. She had been on a walking holiday in southern Turkey. She asked me what the birds were at her hotel. They were, of course, spectacled bulbul.  At least it wasn't possible for her to see arabian babbler -they aren't there.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Wadi Dana - the valley

As promised, for the next two postings I am returning to reporting on my Eid break in Jordan. Read last week's posts if the place looks tempting for a break. There are details on how to travel there from Libya and where to stay. 

This post looks at the birds in the wadi itself other than wheatears and redstarts which got blogs all to themselves.

looking down wadi dana

It's a 15 kilometre trek from the village to the bottom of the wadi. You can do it and the hotels will arrange a pick up. I actually walked 6 kilometres down and then 6 kilometres back up. I reckon that's harder work than a 15 kilometre trek downhill. I am a whole lot fitter as a consequence.

desert lark, wadi dana

I met some old friends on the way - notably desert lark. Take a look at this bird and compare it with the mast head of this blog. Indeed desert lark was the only type of lark I saw. In other words I didn't see crested lark. This must be a first for my birding travels in recent years.

scrub warbler, wadi dana

The density of scrub warbler is much higher than anywhere I have seen in Libya. However they seem to be much more nervous in Jordan hence the poor photo because I couldn't get close to what is a very small bird.

kestrel, wadi dana

Apparently Wadi Dana is a great place to watch the spring and autumn raptor migrations. There is also a walk called "griffon vulture walk" which I would have taken if I had had an extra day. However I saw none of these birds. I had to make do with seeing three or four kestrel in different places. I could have hoped to have seen bonelli's eagle as well but my regular looks at the sky gave me only rock martin.  There were many of these but for me they were impossible to photograph.

chukar, wadi dana

One of the most common birds and certainly the noisiest was chukar.  There is a flock of 30 or so near the village and you keep seeing them all day on the walk. Clearly when they are not being shot and eaten, they breed well. Obviously the protection in this national park is working because they were highly numerous.  I remember how excited I used to get when I saw one in Azerbasijan. There they were elusive and confined to the hills.

blue rock thrush, wadi dana

The final bird I am featuring today is the blue rock thrush. its resident here and quite easy to see if you stare at the cliff faces long enough. We have them in Libya in winter but as yet I havent seen any in the summer months. The best bet would be the Wadi al Kouf area in Jebel Akhdar but that's just speculation which I can't check for a few months.

Tomorrow is the last article about Wadi Dana and Jordan. I will write about bulbuls and babblers. Then we will return to Libya.

Saturday 27 November 2010

An update on Jaghboub

Thanks to German ornithologist Jens Hering who has provided valuable extra information on the Jaghboub Oasis area.  I  feel we are beginning to know what's going on there quite well.  Between Jens, me and the UN winter count team (visited Lake Melfa in 2005) we know quite a bit.  Now for the rest of Libya!

Jens Hering visited the area just under 12 months ago. He managed to visit the largest lake in the area (which seems to have two names) - Lake Arashiyah (or Lake Qusaybayah). Its bigger but less accessible than the two lakes I visited.

Jens found 550! cormorant there. He has written all the details and published in Der Falke 57, Sonderheft 2010 (The Falcon ,special edition) in German.The article is called "Ein Überwinterungsplatz in der Sahara: Kormorane in der Wüste"

My German is hopeless but google translator has helped me.

One of my readers had questioned me how the cormorant I saw at the unnamed lake south of Lake Melfa had been eating. According to Jens paper (if my translation is correct) , the lake had six species Meditterranean fish introduced some years ago and they have prospered. The site now seems ideal for those wintering species which eat sea fish.

picture taken from Jens Hering paper

Jens also reported 12 flamingo so he beat me to the observation of these birds in the area even though it wasn't the same lake!

Please read Jens paper for more details and pictures of the Lake.

NASA photograph of the area

I have taken the NASA photograph of the area and drawn an approximate country border between Libya and Egypt.

Lake Melfa is the northern most lake on the map.Lake Arashiyah is the largest. You can see there are others. The unnamed lake I visited  which is south west of Lake Melfa hardly shows on the map. The lake north west of Lake Arashiyah looks exciting too.

Although lake Melfa is further away from Egypt than the west side of Lake Arashiyah, the east side is actually just inside Egypt so access for bird watching is necessarily for short time and restricted.  

I know many places in the world where borders have produced great bird life because there is a lack of disturbance. This looks like another one of them.

Friday 26 November 2010

Birding a rubbish tip at Gamines

Rubbish tips can be surprising rich with birds. Many people know cattle egret and some gulls relish them.  Actually many more birds find them useful especially if they are near water. There are a good source of food - such as vegetable matter and insects for a wide variety of birds.

I know there is probably a downside of rubbish tips too but am not going to argue the pros and cons of land and water pollution here. I will only report on the bird life!  

Last Saturday afternoon I visited a small tip near Gamines Sebkhet (saltmarsh). This was a short stop towards dusk on a diverted way back to Benghazi having visited Wadi Al Bab.

The tip had some surface water so it had all the ingredients for some decent birding.

Little Owl , Gamines tip

My prize sighting was a little owl. I used to see them regularly in Tripolitania and I knew that the guide books say they are in Cyrenaica but this was my first sighting since coming here in May.  I often see them on the corners of buildings so seeing one on a rock in a tip took me by surprise.

hoopoe, Gamines tip

Hoopoe are a more normal observation for me around tips. I wonder if anyone else in other countries has noticed they like this habitat? Sure enough there were obviously a few at Gamines.

Sardinian warbler, Gamines tip

In the way of some Libyan tips the land is not cleared and bushes often pop up in places. This one housed a Sardinian warbler. This bird is more common in Libya in winter than in summer. I suspect this isn't a breeding site.

cattle egret, gamines tip

As I wrote at the beginning cattle egret are very happy with this habitat and I saw four here.

spanish sparrow

Spanish sparrow roam during the winter months. I haven't seen many in the northern part of Cyrenaica until the past two or three weeks. The bushes here held a flock.

white wagtail

Finally once again I found white wagtail in numbers. Is there any habitat in Libya in winter other than pure desert they don't like? 

Thursday 25 November 2010

Wadi Al Bab

I return to Libyan birds after a few days writing about Jordan.  Last Saturday morning I ventured south of the Jebel Akhdar. The idea was to visit (for the first time) one of the wadis that runs off the Jebel on its dry southern side. These wadis only have water after heavy rain on the hills. They get most of their water from run off rather than direct rainfall. It rained for three days on the hills and near Benghazi during the previous week so I thought prospects might be good for water and birds.

Wadi Al Bab, west of Saluq

I was in luck. Nearly all the wadis run across the  road which goes westerly out of Jardas Al Abar (see map below). However,  I chose to take a more minor (and southerly road) out of Saluq instead. It was on this road that I came across Wadi Al Bab (see pin on map). This is the most southerly and westerly of all these wadis.

map (from Google earth) showing geography south of part of the Jebel Akhdar

The first good news was that the wadi did, indeed, have water.

I didn't know what to expect in terms of birds. This was my first look at this class of habitat. I hadn't even visited similar wadis south of Jebel Nafusa when I lived in Tripoli.

flock of lapwing, Wadi Al Bab

As soon I arrived I saw a flock of six northern lapwing. I took a hasty picture before they moved away from my camera range. Apologises for the quality.

I was very excited by this discovery. Northern lapwing is a rare sight in Libya. Take a look at your Collins guide. The bird is completely missing from Libya according to the book. Actually I saw one before at Wadi Zaret dam in Tripolitania last winter.

As far as I can tell this is the second largest sighting in recent years in the country. The largest was by the UN winter wetland census team. They saw 20 (more than in all the other years added together) at Al-Abyar. Take a look again at the map above. Al-Abyar is close to Wadi Al Bab. This area seems to be the Libyan hotspot for this bird.

corn bunting, Wadi Al Bab

The second surprise was a very large flock of at least 200 corn bunting scattered around all the wadi's bushes and trees.

Again the Collins guide doesn't have them south of the Jebel Akhdar but I think this is almost certainly down to lack of reporting on the southern run-off wadis.

I wonder how much birding has ever taken place in these wadis?

some of the corn bunting flock, Wadi Al Bab

Down stream the wadi after it crosses the road changes complexion. Its more like a meadow with high grasses.  

downstream at Wadi Al Bab

The main occupants of the wadi downstream were wintering stonechat and chiffchaff. These birds along with white wagtail (also seen by the road) winter in vast numbers throughout Libya.

stonechat and chiffchaff downstream at Wadi Al Bab

Despite all these wintering birds, there were locals too. Both desert grey shrike and great grey shrike were present right next to each other. This may well mark the boundary of the two species.

desert grey shrike, Wadi Al Bab

I suspect any further south or east and I would see only desert grey shrike.

great grey shrike, Wadi Al Bab

The other obvious residient (or at least non-foreign) were trumpeter finch. Once again the  Collins guide distribution map is worth looking at. Wadi Al Bab  is exactly half way between two isolated areas where the book says the bird should be. It now looks like the two areas aren't isolated at all and trumpeter finch is in the areas in between. 

trumpeter finch coming to drink at Wadi Al Bab

Finally as we left Wadi Al Bab and started to head back to Saluq, I was reminded that the wadi was the only break in otherwise semi-desert by the presence of two brown-necked raven near the road.

brown-necked raven between Saluq and Wadi Al Bab

Tomorrow I'll write about another new habitat. I birded a rubbish dump! See what I found.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Wadi Dana - the Village birds

On my Eid stay at Wadi Dana, Jordan I found that you don't even have to  leave the village to find some good birds. They are in the village, its orchards and near-by countryside.

roof top view of part of Dana village

At my hotel I met two French bird watchers and tour organisers called Yves Zabardi and Christine Barteï. They run a company called Rando Oiseaux. Its web address is www.rando-oiseaux.com   I recommend you visit this site and consider booking on their trip to Jordan next year. They had thoroughly researched a Jordanian tour when I met them. The trip will include significant parts of Wadi Dana. 

Yves and Christine had been surprised I hadn't seen Tristram's starling even though I had only arrived in the village in mid afternoon the day before.

Sure enough the next morning I saw plenty of them within the village.  They seem to like being near human settlements.

Tristram's starling, Dana Village

Laughing dove was present. This is a bird I know very well from both Libya and Azerbaijan but its sometimes difficult to remember that the bird is quite exotic to some western and northern European bird watchers. 

laughing dove, Dana Village

female stonechat near Dana Village

There were also plenty of stonechat around. They are nearly as common in winter here as in Libya but not quite. However, they couldn't be more common anywhere but Libya at the moment!

very young house sparrow, Dana village

It was the finch family which caused me the most angst in the village. First there was a very shy and mobile flock of wintering chaffinch which I failed to photograph. This was followed by glimpses of syrian serin. Although it was a  "lifer" and gave me some joy I would have loved to have pictured too.

second view of very young house sparrow, Dana village

However the biggest angst was caused by my attempts at identifying a sparrow!  Believe it or not I found it difficult to identify the above bird as a very young house sparrow. For a short while I had considered it just might be a female dead-sea sparrow. I have never seen a dead sea sparrow so I was using my Collins guide (which doesn't have a picture of young house sparrow) and then Google images. Both birds are much cleaner and brighter than a female house sparrow.

I soon decided I was kidding myself. So young juvenile house sparrow it is!

I don't have these problems in Libya. That reminds me, I'll be returning to Libyan birds (this is a primarily a Libyan blog after all) until early next week when I'll finish my last two blogs on Wadi Dana

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Wadi Dana - the wheatears

My Eid break away from Libya was in Jordan. At Wadi Dana, Jordan I was shown a guide book on the fauna of Jordan. It has quite a big section on birds. It says the most common wheatear at Wadi Dana is hooded wheatear which is apparently resident. This had appeal to me because a hooded wheatear would have been a "lifer" for me (first sighting in the wild of a new bird).

I was further told that "wheatears" could be seen if you walk down into the wadi from Dana village (1200 metres).

Well, I made a very long walk down into the wadi and saw many birds (to be blogged on later days) but no hooded wheatear. 

The first relative of the wheatear family I saw was blackstart.  This made me happy because it was a "lifer".  Its not recorded in Libya but I have high hopes it is in the Tibesti mountains and Uweinat in the far south of Libya which have pretty well not been birded by anyone. It is recorded in Chadian Tibesti very close to these areas. So if I can get down there at least I know what to look for!

blackstart, Wadi Dana

I did see two other wheatears on the way down to the wadi at about 600 metres. The first one was a female finch's wheatear which I knew well from my time in Azerbaijan.

mourning wheatear, Wadi Dana

The second bird was a mourning wheatear.  This bird is closely related to the maghreb wheatear which I know in Libya. However this was another "lifer" for me.

male kurdish wheatear, above Wadi Dana

However it was the next day on a different walk that I saw my most exciting new wheatear (another "lifer"). I was retuning from a visit to the next valley on a high road above Dana village. I looked up and saw a wheatear at about 1300 metres.

It was a male kurdish wheatear. It has a characteristic black then white then red pattern from the tip of its tail upwards. The only possible confusion species is a red-rumped wheatear which I know very well from Libya and is quite different really -not least with head pattern, tail pattern and height of habitat!

second shot of a male kurdish wheatear, above Wadi Dana

From the map in Collins guide Wadi Dana looks to be at the far western side of the corridor of its migration route to the red sea coast.However, you have to wonder if this bird is not already wintering. It looks like there may still be some open questions in western palearctic countries other than Libya!

Monday 22 November 2010

Wadi Dana - starting with the redstarts

Straight after my trip to Jaghboub Oasis, Libya I went directly to Benghazi airport for a trip to Jordan. This was possible because I had eight days holiday for Eid. To be even handed, I spent the first four days in Libya and the second four in Jordan.

The next three blogs this week are about my time and observations at Wadi Dana, Jordan and there will be two more blogs next week on the same place. 

For those of us in Libya, I have included a few details at the end of the blog if you are interested in travelling to Jordan for a short break.

Dana village, Jordan

I flew from Benghazi airport with Royal Jordanian airlines to Amman where I stayed the night. The hotel arranged a taxi for me to get to Wadi Dana the next day. It is 220 kilometres (3 hours) south and I had been a little nervous about finding transport on the main day of Eid. I needn't have worried.

Wadi Dana is the biggest national park in Jordan and is well described on the following website http://www.jordanjubilee.com/outdoors/dana.htm  Take a look at it!

I stayed at the Dana hotel but there are two others in the village (Dana Tower hotel and Dana Moon hotel as well as Dana guesthouse). It was very peaceful and comfortable but enough about the logistics. I want to talk about birds!

This particular blog is mostly about redstarts. All around Dana village on any slope you could see wintering black redstart. We get very large numbers of them in Libya too at this time of the year but there are a few differences. There seemed to be proportionately more adult males in Jordan. Also, in Libya they are not confined to slopes but can be seen equally on flat low land.

black redstart, mid November, Wadi Dana

So far no surprises. However, when I walked to the forested areas two kilometres south of the village on my second day I was surprised.

Whereas Wadi Dana itself is initially a steep wadi descending into a narrow, shallow, scrubby gorge, this more southern wadi is a wide valley with lots of forest. Naturally the birds were different.

forest south of Wadi Dana

It was at the edge of this forested area that (over the course of a morning) I saw four common redstart.

The conventional wisdom is that common redstart all winter south of the Sahara. But is this right?  Certainly I haven't seen one in the last three weeks in Libya and assume they have all gone south.

common redstart in forest south of Wadi Dana on November 18

When I put the information about seeing common redstart in mid November on my local discussion group (EgyBirdGroup@yahoogroups.com - join it if you want to keep abreast of regional information!) it was suggested that these might be sick or slow birds. Alternatively one birder from Egypt (Mary Megalli) told us all that she sees wintering common redstart where she lives 82 kilometres south of Suez. This like Wadi Dana is, of course, north of the Sahara.

second picture of common redstart, forest south of Wadi Dana

Wadi Dana is clearly a very special place. It is so well-protected that fragile forests have survived a long way south. There  can be very little comparable habitat north of the Sahara but so far south. My guess, helped by Mary's information, is that these are genuine wintering birds at Wadi Dana and not sick birds. After all its getting close to the shortest day anyway!   

great tit in forest south of Wadi Dana

While I am discussing the forests south of Wadi Dana (and for want of a better blog to put them in), I can report that they are full of great tit. Unlike British birds which can even feed off your hand, these birds are shy. Getting a half decent photo took great patience which I don't have.

Tomorrow I will report on wheatears and blackstart including seeing three "lifers"  (lifers are what birders call a species they have'nt seen in the wild before).

PS: For those of us in Libya thinking of travelling to Jordan for a break, the good news is that Royal Jordanian Airlines fly to and from Tripoli 5 times a week (not Wednesday or Friday) and (great for me) they fly to and from Benghazi twice a week on Mondays and Fridays). Citizens from virtually all countries can obtain a visa on arrival for 10 Jordanian dinars. The cost of a return ticket from Libya is about 420 Libya Dinars.