Monday 31 January 2011

The birds of Wadi Kaam valley

On Saturday, I went with Andy, Helen and Ibrahim to Wadi Kaam. It was a gloriously sunny and warm (but not hot) day to visit arguably the greenest area in Tripolitania.

The northern, lower, section of the valley is fertile farming land with many cypress trees. The dominant finch of these trees in Tripolitinia - serin - were everywhere to be seen and heard.

serin in the lower Wadi Kaam valley

In contrast, in Cyrenaica (north east Libya), the dominant finch is chaffinch. In Tripolitania (including Wadi Kaam) that bird is rare. Conversely serin is a rare winter visitor to Cyrenaica. This at variance with the guide books which surprisingly over-report serin distribution there!

a green field in the lower Wadi Kaam valley

In winter, walking along the shaded country lanes in the lower Wadi Kaam valley, within minutes you can easily pick out cattle egretserin, goldfinch, meadow pipit, sardinian warbler and spanish sparrow.

Cattle egret is nowhere near as common in Tripolitania as in Cyrenaica but is common in Wadi Kaam.

view of the middle Wadi Kaam valley from the reservoir

The valley stretches for several kilometres north of a very large reservoir, getting wider and greener as it heads north.

view of another serin in the lower wadi kaam valley

I was a little surprised to see so many black redstart in the lower valley.  Some seemed to be moving around in pairs.

male black redstart 

Here all the black redstart were gibraltariensis. When I bird around Benghazi (850 kilometres east) they are a mix of the European sub species gibraltariensis and the Turkish sub species ochruros.

The easiest way I separate the two sub species is the white flash on the wing of the European but not the Turkish male bird. Females I find impossible to distinguish.

an apparent black redstart pair at Wadi Kaam

I didn't find chiffchaff that common at Wadi Kaam but they were there is low numbers.

chiffchaff at Wadi Kaam

In the drier areas of the middle and upper valley the bird life changed. Crested lark and black wheatear were easily seen. They were also present at Wadi Lubda (the next valley along which we visited briefly before reaching Wadi Kaam).

black wheatear

My favourite resident of theses drier areas is fulvous babbler. There were several family groups around to view.

fulvous babbler

This article is not a full audit of the birds of Wadi Kaam valley. Take a look at an article on a trip report from February last year . You'll find some more birds from this area there. Between the two articles I hope you'll get a good overall picture.

Tomorrow we can look at the birds seen at the reservoir itself.

Sunday 30 January 2011

A dartford warbler in Libya

On Friday I visited the slopes of the Jebel Nafusa north and below of Yefren. Yesterday I reported seeing five Moussier's redstart in the area. But that was not the most exciting finding!

trumpeter finch at Yefren reservoir

Even the very large flock of  confiding trumpeter finch seen at Yefren reservoir and the smaller numbers seen at Ain Tamdit (further up the hill side at 400 metres) couldn't steal the show.

close up of trumpeter finch 

The prize sighting was two dartford warbler at Ain Tamdit.  As far as I know this bird has never been recorded in Libya before. 

dartford warbler at Ain Tamdit

However like the distribution map for Moussier's redstart it is shown in guide books in central Tunisia but not in Libya in winter. Like Moussier's redstart I am not surprised to see it here since Libya is so under-reported.

I saw the related Marmora's warbler at Farwa in February last year. Both Marmora's and dartford warbler's look very dark in most light. However the birds at Ain Tamdit had dull wine red undersides which you may just be able to make out in my nervous picture.

Although I noticed it first, all credit to Andy who identified it before I did.

fulvous babbler near Yefren reservoir

Under normal circumstances fulvous babbler might be the top sighting of the day especially with those new to north west Africa. I was glad to re-new their acquaintance as they are not found in north east Libya where most of my birding is now done. 

A good view of a thelka lark (see below) has also been relegated to a low billing too! Notice its shorter bill compared with most crested lark.

thelka lark on the slopes of Jebel Nafusa

Finally here is a tribute to the team on Friday. Irabhim, Andy, Helen, Diane and I proved that five sets of eyes are better than one.

Andy, Helen and Diane at Ain Tamdit

Saturday 29 January 2011

Moussier's redstart at Yefren

People used to think Moussier's redstart was rare (or even vagrant) in Libya. It simply isn't true. In winter its not at all difficult to find in north west Libya.

I saw single birds twice last winter. But this year there seems to be an avalanche of them. Ibrahim, Andy and Helen saw three last weekend at Farwa.

I am back in Tripoli for the first time since August for this weekend and I'm birding with the above threesome.

Yesterday at Yefren reservoir we saw five (5) Moussier's redstart and we hadn't even been looking for it.

female Moussier's redstart at Yefren

One female was particularly helpful. She didn't seem very shy. She is photographed above and below.

second look at a female Moussier's redstart at Yefren

Two of the five birds were male. It's a beautiful bird. Unfortunately they proved much more difficult to approach and stayed firmly away from the public areas!

male Moussier's redstart

However, I was allowed to stay two or three minutes in a private area and got the above long distance shot.

climbing back into the public area

Here is me climbing back into the public area after a vain attempt to get a close up of a male Moussier's redstart. The things I do!

Ibrahim is warning off the paparazzi while Diane looks on.

Friday 28 January 2011

Look out for the odd one (wader)

Identifying waders (shore birds) is not easy and many new birders find it daunting.  I did and still do!  However I find one or two things really help when you come across one of the less common waders. The first tip I would give is to take good photos (not one but a series). My second tip is have some very willing experts as friends. I am lucky enough to have two!

So I was very happy when I got my new camera last week. It allows me to take better photos of waders. The one below is a wood sandpiper taken at Old Marj.

wood sandpiper at Old Marj

Even though the above bird doesn't have the usual long supercilium, it is clearly a wood sandpiper as the details in the photo show (colour of legs, colour of wings and white spots on wings as well as general shape).

possible temminck's stint with wood sandpiper

My third tip is to view and photograph a rarer bird against a known one.  This was really helpful this week.

I was tracking a bird at Old Marj with my binoculars which looked a bit like the tens of dunlin present but it was very noticeably smaller. Furthermore it wasn't flocking with them.

Seeing it next to a wood sandpiper (see above photo), it couldn't possibly be a dunlin which is 95% of the size of a wood sandpiper. It had to be a stint - either little stint or temminck's stint.

In fact it is obviously so small that temminck's stint looks the better choice particularly if you also take into account that its shape is consistent too. 

And one of my two expert friends also thinks it might be the better call too. 

Temminck's stint has been seen in very small numbers in Libya by the UN wetlands winter count in the past. 

I am keen for everyone to know that it you can see it here as well as in Egypt!

To finish off the blog I would like to report for the record that I have also seen ringed plover at Old Marj to add to the growing list of waders you can see there.

juvenile ringed plover

Tomorrow I will report on my trip today near Tripoli. I can promise you there are some wonderful birds to see.

Thursday 27 January 2011

The status of eastern stonechat in Libya

Every so often I see a stonechat in Cyrenaica which is much whiter underneath than the ones I normally see. The bird below was one of these. I saw last week at Old Marj.

I can't remember having seen any similar, lighter birds further west (that is in Tripolitania - north west Libya).

I have wondered whether the lighter birds I see are eastern stonechat. I have put a picture (see second picture below) of an eastern stonechat taken in Kuwait for comparison.

stonechat at Old Marj last week

To be honest I think these two birds look very similar but a bird watching friend whose skills I respect says my bird is definitely not an eastern stonechat.

What's going on?

eastern stonechat in Kuwait by Nawaf Ahmed

I have looked through dozens of images of the two birds on the internet and I am more than a bit confused. Collins guide says the eastern stonechat has a larger white collar than the European bird but in the birds I have seen photographed its not larger (on average) - indeed many European birds seem to have larger collars!  It does seem that the collars are longer but not necessarily larger (look at this feature in the eastern stonechat wintering in Kuwait).

European stonechat

A typical European stonechat is shown above. It has a wide(but short) collar. The bird I photographed at Old Marj is much whiter underneath than this and has more white on the wing.

I am not as sure as my friend that the Old Marj bird is a European stonechat. 

I will start looking harder at stonechat for the rest of the winter. I will not rest until I am sure what's going on.  Is north east Libya the western extreme of the eastern stonechat's wintering habitat or not?

Wednesday 26 January 2011

It's Tripoli this weekend

I'm visiting Tripoli this weekend for the first time since August and I intend to bird watch for two full days.

I'm really looking forward to see old friends - both people and birds - and to see some new ones if possible. 

My plan is to visit the Jebel Nafusa one day and Wadi Kaam the next. I have great expectations. I'll be birding with Andy, Helen and Ibrahim.

kestrel in Tripoli by Yusuf Madi

There are more and more birders and photographers of birds in the Tripoli area. This blog shows three pictures from three different people, all taken very recently. 

The first is of a kestrel taken by Ibrahim's cousin, Yusuf, next to his high rise office in Tripoli. Kestrel is an urban bird in Tripoli and is present in big numbers all year round. Two or three people have told me they have had nests on ledges near their office or on their house. These birds have learnt not to be shy of people.

little ringed plover at Wadi Kaam by Ali Berbash

The second picture is of a little ringed plover taken by Ali Berbash at Wadi Kaam reservoir. Wadi Kaam is where I am going on Saturday. True to form it was found next to a man made water structure. 

Little ringed plover is a bird I have been looking for near Benghazi but have failed to find in this area this winter. It is a fairly common winter visitor in Tripolitania. Indeed Tripolitania is one of the very few places north of the Sahara where this bird winters. The proportion of all little ringed plover who winter north is much less than that for ringed plover.

golden plover by Essam Bourass

The final picture was taken by Essam Bourass at the Marine Research Centre, Tripoli. Golden plover are known winterers in north west and north east Libya. Essam seems to have got closer to his birds than I did to mind.

I am grateful to all three photographers for permission to use their photographs. I hope to be able to add my own on Tripolitania next week.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

More on Jens Hering's scientific trip

Tonight I am showing the second half of a set of pictures from Jens Hering about his recent trip to some of the more remote parts of  Libya. Once again I must remind you that I cant' tell you exact locations of birds because some of them are the subject of scientific papers in production. However his photography is so good I feel privileged to be able to show some of it to you.

winter female tristram's warbler by Jens Hering

Jens didn't tell me what the above bird was! I am pretty sure it's a female tristram's warbler which is known to winter in the mid west and south west of Libya. For a while, I had a nagging doubt that it could be a female sub alpine warbler which I found wintering in Jalu in very large numbers. It's very difficult to identify  other people's birds from one still when you haven't got a collection of other photos or didn't see its behaviour! 

cream coloured courser by Jens Hering

Jens can add to our collective knowledge about the distribution of this bird. Distribution is only really well known in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica but not the Fezzan (middle and southern Libya).  

bar tailed lark by Jens Hering

I am sure that Jens can also help with the distribution of some lark species outside Tripolitania too.

spanish sparrow by Jens Hering

Spanish sparrow has colonised much of southern Libya from its historic base in Tripolitania in recent decades but is finding stiff resistance in Cyrenaica from house sparrow which is still dominant. We almost certainly get an influx of migrants in winter and some local flocks roam. 

turtle doves by Jens Hering

Turtle dove disappears from northern Libya in winter but small numbers have been known to stay or winter in the south. Jens might be able to tell us what effect newly well watered areas in the south have had on this species and others.

White stork by Jens Hering

One species that Jens has previously reported on is the hundreds of white stork which now winter in the desert at government farms. I loved the above picture.

the back of a pharaoh eagle owl

Finally I can't resist showing you a second picture of a pharaoh eagle owl. It looks like a gremlin from behind.

Monday 24 January 2011

What do we know about Waw an Namus?

Waw an Namus is one of the most remote places on earth. It's in the middle of the Sahara and hundreds of kilometres from a settlement.

It's also a place with plenty of water because its volcanic crater reaches deep down to the level of the ground aquifer.

Lush vegetation grows all around and insect life ("Namus" means mosquito) is abundant. Its not surprising it supports some resident bird life and attracts large numbers of wintering birds and huge numbers of passage birds.

We know all this primarily because of two pairs of ornithologists.

Panorama of Waw an Namus by Marta Visentin and Bruno Massa

They are Jens and Heidi Hering who visited Waw an Namus in winter 2007/8 and Bruno Massa and Marta Visentin who visited in late April 2006. So we now have records in winter and for part of the spring passage.

Jens and Heidi Hering wrote "Der Wüstenvulkan Wau an Namus – ein unbekanntes Überwinterungsgebiet in der Zentralsahara (The volcanic desert of Wau Namus - an unknown wintering area in the central Sahara) Der Falke 56, 2009"

Bruno Massa and Marta Visentin wrote "Remarks on the importance of scattered vegetation in desert areas of Libya for migrating and breeding birds" Riv. ital. Orn., Milano, 75 (2): 141-158, 30-XI-2006

a closer look at Waw an Namus by Marta Visentin and Bruno Massa

What is surprising is that their list of birds seen is quite different. They have only a few species in common. I think we can assume that those not in common are mostly wintering birds (from Jens Hering's paper) or on passage (from Bruno Massa's paper).

My translation of German is not fantastic. So I may have misinterpreted one or at most two birds from Jen's paper. However, as far as I can see the only birds in common are moorhen, little grebe, and reed warbler. In each case there is firm evidence they are resident breeders. Burno Massa reports there are tens of moorhen.  Bruno also reports water rail as definite breeders.

desert sparrow at Waw An Namus by Jens Hering

Jens Hering says the most abundant bird was coot which Bruno Massa doesn't report at all suggesting that this bird may be a winterer only.

Other wintering birds seen by Jens (but not Bruno since he didn't bird in winter!) are teal, shoveler, black necked grebe, sardinian warbler, bluethroat, stonechat, black redstart, meadow pipit and red throated pipit.

Jens also saw desert sparrow (see his picture from his paper above) which is a nomadic bird and desert wheatear which may be resident and not reported (or seen) by Bruno.

leucistic black necked grebe seen and photographed by Jens Hering

Bruno Massa saw the following birds presumably on passage since they weren't seen by Jens - (8 to 10) marsh harrier, tens of European bee-eater, two European roller, hundreds of yellow wagtail and barn swallow, and a few sand martin. He also reported golden oriole resting on isolated acacia trees to the north.

Clearly this oasis is very important for migrant birds and has been for centuries. However the new huge government farms in the desert have dramatically increased the land area of safe havens for birds. They will make interesting birding this spring. 

Sunday 23 January 2011

January at Ain Azziana

It's been four or five weeks since I last visited Ain Azziana a semi-saline area next to the coast near Benghazi. I thought it was due a renewed call.

The most obvious birds were the gulls. These were mostly slender billed gull with a small number of yellow legged gull. It still surpirises me that the more common (in winter) black headed gull  does n't seem to be next to the sea in great numbers but seems to prefer inland haunts.

four slender billed gull at Ain Azziana

The picture above has gulls of different ages but just look at how far the one on the right has extended its neck!

As well as the gulls you can't miss the large number of cormorant here at the moment.
cormorant at Ain Azziana

This time the heron family were in shorter supply (except for large numbers of cattle egret on the near-by land). No little egret but there was one great egret which is a much less common wintering bird.

great egret wading near a slender billed gull

I nearly missed the one grey heron present who was mostly hidden from view.

grey heron, Ain Azziana

Once again there were several wintering whiskered tern which is a common feature of this part of the coast (and even inland at Old Marj too).

whiskered tern

I have no doubt there were more of the larger waders here than when I last visited in December.  I was very pleased to see a grey plover. This is a bird the guidebook say is only on passage in north east Libya but which I see regularly albeit in small numbers.

grey plover

Likewise with greenshank, another regularly seen bird in small numbers but which the books say isn't here in winter. The one below was seen on the western side of the Ain which I hadn't visited before. 


And yet again the same scenario is true of ringed plover! Seen in winter but not in the books.

ringed plover, Ain Azziana

I am ever hopeful of seeing a little ringed plover here (or near-by) in winter. I have seen in north west Libya near the border with Tunisia but never in north east Libya at this time of year. It would appear very few birds stay north of the Sahara.

common redshank

Along with black winged stilt (at Ain Azziana again but not pictured) the most common medium-sized wader here is common redshank but it is definitely shy.

I want to say something about the water level in the marshy area to the east of the site. It was the lowest I have seen since I started visiting. 

I really don't fully understand what's going on. It has rained harder this winter than in the previous three yet the water levels here is down. I have three ideas 
  • perhaps some of the water used to be "dirty water" and which has been stopped and diverted to the brand new sewage works the city is investing in
  • some construction somewhere has interrupted the fresh water aquifer which supplies some of the water (some is tidal from the sea)
  •  the underground aquifer simply releases water with a big time delay after the rains 

stonechat at Ain Azziana

A result of the drying out of some of the more marshy areas is the loss of any obvious sightings of bluethroat and reed bunting seen before.

Though chiffchaff, stonechat and crested lark which don't need really wetland have remained. 

crested lark at Ain Azziana

Time will tell me what's going on.