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A Report from

Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and el Faiyoum, Dec 2003,

Jeremy Gaskell

The following is an account of birds encountered in and around Cairo and on day trips to Alexandria, Suez and el Faiyoum undertaken when the demands of work permitted in mid December 2003.

The species most frequently seen in the city environment were Palm Dove, Common Bulbul, a species of restricted distribution on the Western Palearctic, Chiffchaff , Hooded Crow and House Sparrow. Based in the southern suburb of Ma'adi, I was pleasantly surprised by the range of species I was able to observe almost on a daily basis on or near the Nile within walking distance of the hotel: Marsh Harrier, Kestrel, Pied Kingfisher, European Kingfisher, Grey Heron, Little Egret, Squacco Heron, Night Heron (at dusk), Mallard, Moorhen, Black-headed Gull, Spur-winged Plover, Hoopoe, Swallow and White Wagtail. On three occasions at sunset I observed Sooty Falcon, with at least two individuals being involved - this species habitually hawks in the evening and small numbers of this migratory falcon seem to remain to prey on the non-migratory population of Swallows of the race savignii, distinctive for their wine coloured underparts. On one occasion I saw Purple Gallinule on the fringe of a reed bed and on another a small flock of Little Stint circled over the river before resettling on mud on the west bank [[of the river]].

The city zoo is regarded as a good birding spot in the migration season but I found it disappointing (and very crowded) in December. Black Kite of the race aegyptius were numerous near the zoo and Cattle Egrets were already at their nests there. Introduced Rose-ringed Parakeets frequented the nearby Botanical Gardens. A noteworthy observation I made in the city was of a Great Cormorant flying north high over the river on the 13th. This is a most unusual species to see away from the big lakes at the mouth of the Nile Delta.

At Alexandria on the 11th I noted a few Yellow-legged Gulls and a Greater Black-backed Gull, as well as numerous Black-headed Gulls and two Sandwich Terns. At Suez on the 17th the first birds I saw were Indian House Crows, and over the Red Sea two Caspian Terns. The distant large white headed gulls I regarded as Caspian Gulls, rather than micahellis; a large black-backed gull appeared too dark to be a Heuglin's or 'Siberian' Gull, a form which, however, I did observe at close quarters on the 18th at Birket Qarun, the huge inland lake 100k south of Cairo in the vast oasis known as the Faiyoum (best reached by public transport from Giza). Also present at the Birket Qarun were Whiskered and Gull-billed Terns, Slender-billed and Black-headed Gulls. I observed only a small number of waders but there were brackish pools on the south side which would undoubtedly have repaid study. A Temminck's Stint dashing over the lake indicated the possibilities though I couldn't help wondering ruefully what the area had been like in times past when informed by locals that the birds were now 'all gone'. A noteworthy observation at this site was a line of c.12 Greater Flamingos only just discernible through binoculars flying over the lake parallel to the northern shore. In the evening at el Faiyoum I observed two Black-shouldered Kites, one of which I was able to photograph as it sat on a telegraph wire where it could in fact easily have been overlooked. This is an uncommon resident species in the Nile Valley. In the morning I had seen a reluctant migrant in the form of a male Little Bittern near one of the large waterwheels that are characterisitic of the Faiyoum.

Apart form a party of Golden Plover in the delta which I observed while taking the train (very modestly priced) to Alexandria, the only noteworthy waders had been at Suez where I observed at one locality - besides the ubiquitous Spur-winged Plover - Ringed Plover, Redshank, Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper and Green Sandpiper. Non -waders at that evil-smelling site included Water Pipit and half a dozen Spanish Sparrows. However, I did not find the Suez area at all easy to work and if I return I shall try to approach the Red Sea to the south of the massive jebel that fixes a limit to the southward expansion of the extensive conurbation. I observed 4 Rock Doves making for this massif - the only ones I counted as wild during my stay.

I must have overlooked numerous birds of an unknown number of species having seen odd parties of larks which I could only identify speculatively, though I did hear Desert Lark at the historic site of Dashur south of Memphis. At the latter site I watched Little Green Bee-eaters at close quarters and nearby on a weed-choked stretch of water I observed at close quarters a Bluethroat and the dark headed pygmea race of Yellow Wagtail (whose call seemed identical to that of the Citrine Wagtail). At the same spot I observed Chiffchaffs foraging for insects while hopping about on the fleshy leaves of the water weed, a strangely incongruous note on which to draw these observations to a close.

The relatively cool season in Egypt runs from October - March and while many birders would prefer to visit when migration is in full flow, there is always something of interest to be found whatever the season. The Egyptian people are warm and friendly and there is much of historic interest not only among the remains of Pharaonic Egypt, but in Cairo itself: the last interesting species I observed was a male Blue Rock Thrush (either a winter visitor or a reluctant migrant) high on the battlements of Saladin's citadel.


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