Friday, 18 February 2011

Water birds on sand south of Benghazi

I have been asking myself why haven't I seen any sanderling and very few little stint since I moved to Cyrenacia.

The answer should have been blindingly obvious. I hadn't been visiting the right habitat. None of the wetlands I have visited (except at Ras Al Tin when I met a greater sand plover) have had sand bars.

sand bar separating fresh water (on right) at Garyounis from the sea (left - not seen)

So on Tuesday I visited the beach just north of the tourist village. During the winter, the water at permanent wetland there has swollen right up to the beach.

two sanderling at Garyounis beach

I came across a mixed group of waders. There were dunlin as usual but the single most numerous species was sanderling.

Furthermore the birds were quite tame and I was able to approach quite close. I am pleased with my photographs. Two sanderling are shown above.

a flying sanderling complete with sand on its chest

There were less little stint but they were also easy to photograph even though they keep moving! The one below (left) is noticeably much smaller than its neighbouring sanderling.

little stint (left) and sanderling (right)

A close up of a little stint is shown below. This bird was particularly tame. He came within two metres of me.

close up of a little stint at Garyounis

There are always a few kentish plover at Garyounis. They are local breeders. In summer I see them running on the sandy area which is currently under water.

kentish plover at Garyounis

I didn't spend any time visiting the in-land part of the wetland but I did notice two other species without trying. I saw a grey heron near the reeds and a greenshank in another pool.

greenshank at Garyounis

mixed gulls at Garyounis

Also at Garyounis were a hundred or so gulls of different types. I saw black- backed gull as well as black-headed gull (a couple in summer plumage) , slender- billed gull, Caspian/yellow legged gull.

As reported yesterday, black backed gull is not as common here as in Tripolitania.

mixed gulls at Ganfouda

Ten kilometres down the coast from Garyounis is Ganfouda. The is where Benghazi's main rubbish tip is located. It is also the location of 25,000 gulls in winter and the main attraction for any black backed gull in Cyrenacia. However the most common gull there by far is black headed gull. Over 15,000 winter each year.

some of large number of gulls at Ganfouda

Two other species were present at Ganfouda in large numbers. There were starling and cattle egret.

sheltering cattle egret

While I was there the wind was very fierce. I came across 80 cattle egret sheltering in the scrub with their heads down! It took me six times to take a photo because the wind blurred each photo. I got a half decent shot in the end.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

The last wetland wilderness in Benghazi

Would you believe I only discovered the last wetland wilderness in Benghazi on Tuesday. Juliana, Al Thama and Buduzeera have been or are bring changed into more landscaped, recreational areas. 

So it was wonderful to stumble on the coastal wilderness just east of Al Thama and west of Ain Azziana. 

wetland just east of Al Thama

As we parked the car a moorhen nonchalantly walked pass. I could tell straight away that in this area the birds were relatively tame. To me the moorhen's behaviour immediately meant that few people come this way.

golden plover, ringed plover and dunlin

There were several groups of waders. They allowed me quite close access.  There were golden plover, ringed plover, dunlin and common redshank. The latter were the only ones to bolt.

golden plover at wetland east of Al Thama

I saw at least 20 golden plover though dunlin were once again the most common wader. 

dunlin at wetland east of Al Thama

There were plenty of gulls present too. The majority were slender-billed gull but some were black-headed gull. There were also two black-backed gull which is more common in Tripolitania than in the North East.

two first winter slender billed gull with a cattle egret

A small number of the black headed gull have changed into their summer plumage.  Tuesday was the first time I had seen that this year.

black headed gull (left) in summer plumage

Blacked headed gull doesn't have a black head in winter and even in summer its only dark chocolate brown.

a hidden male teal

A final pleasant surprise was the sighting of a male teal in the low lying scrub. Then I looked more closely and found there were 20 of them sheltering and easily missed.

more teal 
Teal is the second most common wintering duck in Libya according to the UN winter counts. Only shoveler numbers are higher. Nevertheless this was the closest encounter I have had - as once again the birds here proved tamer than elsewhere.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Spoonbill steal the show at Wadi Kaam

The dynamic trio of Ibrahim, Andy and Helen visited Wadi Kaam - 130 kilometres east of Tripoli) again last Saturday. I really wish I had been with them.  They met a flock of about 30 spoonbill!

I've checked the four UN winter wetland count surveys that I have copies of and they have never reported the bird there.

close up of some of the spoonbill at Wadi Kaam by Ibrahim Madi

The flock is the average size of those who migrate and I suspect strongly that they are nearly ready to do this.

distance shot showing most of the flock by Ibrahim Madi

I featured spoonbill in my blog of September 23rd. I wrote then that about one in three of central and eastern Europe's spoonbills probably winter in Libya. Though most migratory information is of Dutch birds which mostly winter in Morocco.

Grey heron were present at Wadi Kaam too.

kingfisher at Wadi Kaam by Ibrahim Madi

Some other winter visitors are still around including the kingfisher above and the meadow pipit below.

meadow pipit at Wadi Kaam by Ibrahim Madi

Ibrahim is proving that he is a mean photographer since he got his new camera. Stonechat are common birds but very difficult to photograph because of their small size. This picture is also on the Libyan Bird Watching facebook page.

stonechat by Ibrahim Madi

Spring is starting to arrive at least if the number of barn swallow in northern Libya are taken into consideration. Simultaneously we me seeing many in Cyrenica, plenty were seen in and near Wadi Kaam.

barn swallow near Wadi Kaam in early February by Ibrahim Madi

There is a large breeding population at the Roman ruins at Leptis Magna (close to Wadi Kaam) which leave at the end of October and return in early February. This is not up to Benghazi standards when plenty over-winter but it is very short time to be away compared with most European venues.

common redstart at Leptis Magna by Ibrahim Madi

And to confirm that the passage has begun Ibrahim, Andy and Helen noticed the above common redstart at Leptis Magna.

Passage here we come.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The surveys of Um Afain

Um Afain is a remote coastal wetland which had only been surveyed once before I went there last Friday. It is vast and because it is so far east its bird life has something in common with the Nile delta.

The previous survey was by the UN wetland winter counters in late January 2006. Remarkably they found pied kingfisher and little bittern. The latter has since been found at other wetlands in the Benghazi area and the former at Ain Al Ghezala which is a larger wetland a little further east of Um Afain (and closer to Tobruk).

I went in search of pied kingfisher!  I didn't find it but I did find a vast fresh wetland with huge reed beds as well as a big variety of habitats (and plenty of good birds). 

the main fresh water section of Um Afain

The reed beds offer protection from the elements and people. However I was still very surprised to see 3 wintering purple heron. This bird rarely winters north of the Sahara. Most of these can be found in the Nile delta.

purple heron at Um Afain photographed last Friday

Purple heron had not been seen in the previous survey. However given the large size of the wetland many species could be missed. I walked round it for five hours and still failed to visit more than half of the perimeter.

second view of purple heron at Um Afain

great egret in the middle of the complex

Another bird which I can add to the local species list is great egret. I saw six of them.

little egret at Um Hafain

I stayed until just before sunset and it looks like the herons and egrets are more in the open then. A hour before sunset a large flock of little egret appeared in the main lake.

grey heron at Um Hafain

Several grey heron were seen. It is the one heron/egret seen in the previous survey though they of course saw little bittern which eluded me. 

cormorant at Um Afain

There were also several cormorant around.

vast reed beds at Um Afain

Given the vast reed beds present it is not surprising we both saw reed warbler and I saw reed bunting too. This bird has very few records mostly near Benghazi. 
marsh harrier at Um Afain

Several marsh harrier were patrolling all day. This is ideal terrain for them. 

Darting over the reeds and tamerisk I saw many barn swallow, crag martin and three house martin. Crag martin is a known resident bird in this part of Libya. House martin was probably on passage. The barn swallow status is more questionable. It is resident in parts of north east Libya - notably around Benghazi but I have seen barn swallow in other places this week such as in-land meadows which are clearly on passage. My instinct is that some of the birds I saw were resident and some were on passage but I can't prove it.

water logged land - another of the habitats at Um Afain

The waterlogged land held some common snipe and green sandpiper.

I have put a list of the species found in the two surveys below. I am sure its still quite incomplete. I will certainly go back there to help fill it out.

Species seen at Um Afain
Jan 2006
by UN
Feb 2011
Great cormorant
Little bittern

Great egret

Little egret

Purple heron

Grey heron
Water rail


Green sandpiper

Pied kingfisher

Marsh harrier
Meadow pipit
Barn swallow

House martin

Crag martin

White wagtail
Reed warbler
Reed bunting


Monday, 14 February 2011

Separating yellow legged gull and Caspian gull is a mug's game

One of the most confused pictures of the UN winter wetland surveys over the last few years has been its counts of yellow-legged gull and Caspian gull.

They always find a hundred or so yellow-legged gull at Farwa in the far north west of the country and only few more as you travel eastward for 800 kilometres all the way to the coast south of Benghazi. There and further east in (Cyrenacia) the numbers are considerable but fluctuate wildly. 

It appears that the fluctuations are mainly due to two factors. One is the difficulty in separating yellow-legged gull and Caspian gull. The second is whether the UN winter count visits the wetlands east of Derna. If they visit the far east overall numbers are higher.

yellow legged gull or Caspian gull

I came across about 80 gulls at a rubbish dump just off the main Derna to Tobruk road. I have to admit I still can't separate the two species.

For example the bird above is unstreaked on the head like a Caspian gull but it has light eyes like all yellow- legged gull and which only 25% of Caspian gull have. Furthermore I have a good enough picture of another gull to tell it too has light eyes. That is only a one in eight chance of this happening if the birds are Caspian gull.

 gulls at the dump

On the other hand the red on the bill in both birds is clearly restricted to the low mandible. This is a feature of a Caspian gull. The wings also look very long another feature of a Caspian gull. For once I really can't tell. I admit temporary defeat!

gulls in the air near Derna to Tobruk road

The rubbish dump had other, less intriguing inhabitants. There were plenty of starling and a couple of common raven (which really is common on the Jebel Akhdar and here).

raven and starlings

I really like the way cattle egret get stuck into rubbish! They are a guarenteed bird of dumps in most of Libya.

cattle egret

Other species were stonechat, black redstart, and white wagtail which relish the insect life around.  Soon they will depart and the passage is around the corner.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

A little piece of Europe in Africa

Ras al Hilal is the northern most point of Cyrenaica and it juts out into the sea. It is a green place and popular with the wealthy. However the land rises (up passed the permanent waterfall) into a very green valley 500 metres above which is almost unknown and unvisited. This upland valley (which is best approached from Guba on top of the hillside) is special. It is almost certainly the wettest place in Libya. There is a permanent stream - a very rare occurrence and lots of tree types. It is kept mild in summer and winter by proximity to the sea but it is sheltered too. 

some of the meadow land 500 metres above Ras al Hilal 

I guessed that if I was to see any special birds this might be the place to see them.

It lived up to expectations as being "European". There was a flock of corn bunting in the trees. Chaffinch was everywhere. 

song thrush in the valley 

I was rewarded with my first sight of a song thrush since coming to Libya over 17 months ago. They are supposed to be elsewhere in the Jebel Akhdar but surely this place was the most likely.

There were the obligatory chiffchaff, sardinian warbler and other warblers singing. One I identified (and saw - male and female) were singing blackcap. Collins guide places them as wintering birds in Tripolitania and I used to see them there. However its distribution map doesn't have them within 600 kilometres of this valley. And I wonder whether they are actually resident in this valley and the two neighbouring ones which have a similar climate. I just have to visit there again in summer.

normally looking chaffinch?

One local chaffinch caused me great consternation. It looked normal for a north African chaffinch from the front but from the side the markings were odd. 

side on view of chaffinch

The picture above doesn't do my case justice but the bird had yellow where I expected to see white. Maybe its breeding colours are like this and haven't been recognised in the guide books.

laughing dove and house sparrow

The visit to this valley was part of my weekend trip to Derna. I still have two or three blogs to go including the "big one" on Um Afain - a huge remote wetland.  It held some very pleasant surprises.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

My first Greater Sand Plover (in Libya)

Thanks to Andy for standing in yesterday while I was away in the Derna area. I have some really exciting things to report over the next week. Today's blog is a taster!

The birding there is arguably the best in Libya and it is certainly different. It is 250 kilometres east of Benghazi and its bird life reflects a more eastern geography.

Ras Al Tin looking in-land

Today I'm reporting visits to two coastal wetland areas east of Derna. The first one was new to me. It was Ras Al Tin. The place is mosquito infested and I have several horrible bites to prove it.

I walked out from the road through the swamps and pools to the sand bar which separates the main pool/lake from the sea. I saw very few birds apart from meadow pipit and was beginning to have great regrets about spending my time there.

four waders including a greater sand plover

However I was more than a little appeased when I saw a mixed group of waders on the sand bank. There were some kentish plover, dunlin and a greater sand plover!  Note its size compared with the kentish plover (and its beak size too).

I recognised it instantly as I had seen a breeding colony when I lived in Azerbaijan. Who knows this bird may come from there.

greater sand plover at Ras Al Tin

The UN winter bird counts (which visit the majority of Libya's wetlands in late January or early February) pick up between zero and 3 birds each year. This would suggest the bird is indeed rare in Libya. Collins doesn't have it here at all suggesting its wintering grounds finish at about the Egyptian/Libyan border.

kentish plover at Ras Al Tin

After the excitement of Ras Al Tin I backtracked westward along the coast to nearby Wadi al Hamsa which was so rich in birds in October (see my blog on it!). 

pictureque Wadi al Hamsa on Friday

Sadly I have to report that there were only a few birds there. And the reason is illegal hunters.  The Tobruk area (and its only two and half hours drive)  along with Adjabiya has the strongest tradition of hunting in Libya. There are many spent cartridges at Wadi al Hamsa which unfortunately provides little cover for birds.

Among the middle sized and larger birds, I only saw one grey heron and a few moorhen. Last time I saw many kingfishers for example and an osprey. None were present this time.
grey heron at Wadi Al Hamsa

The birding at Wadi Al Hamsa is fantastic during the spring and autumn migrations and in early winter but I can't recommend it in December, January and February when the birds have been frightened off or in some cases killed.

I have much happier things to post about for the rest of the week.