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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Tunisia - December 9th - 15th 2002,
We realised we both had some leave to use up before the end of the year so decided to find somewhere cheap and warm were we might see a few birds. We looked at Lanzarote/Fuerteventura for Canary Islands Chat and Houbara but saw lots of low-cost holidays to Tunisia on Teletext (page 218). Trip reports from the Internet suggested that we would see a few new birds, so we booked a 'minimum 3-star, allocation on arrival half-board package' for £129 each, flying from Manchester.
Our hotel was the Jinene, located about 5 km north of the city of Sousse. It was OK, but offered limited birding options nearby. An excellent series of saltings and pools along the coast about 10 km north of the hotel was the most accessible site. Other inland sites were less easy to get to but public transport is cheap and seemingly frequent, so getting around might be possible. We wanted to see some desert birds. There are two and three-day trips on offer in the hotels but we decided to hire a car and make our own itinerary. Speaking to people who tried the commercial tours, it seemed that there would have been little time available for birding and lots of hours spent on coaches.
We hired a Renault Clio for 5 days from Europcar, at about £30 per day. Local companies are a little cheaper, but we decided to use one of the better known international ones.
Tunisian drivers are just about the worst we have encountered. The roads are quiet and well made, away from population centres, but most settlements have children and animals all over the road and vehicles travelling haphazardly. On at least three occasions we had vehicles coming towards us on the road and also on the verge, so that we had to pass between them. Driving at night is not to be recommended, but is survivable with a sense of humour and a defensive approach. Some of the exit ramps from the motorway do not have "no entry" signs from the national roads. You can probably guess how we found this out!
The weather was pleasant, and quite hot in the desert by early afternoon (although chilly at night). We didn't see any rain but we were told it had rained quite a lot the week before.
The local currency is the Dinar (TD) and the exchange rate was just over two Dinars to the pound sterling. I have quoted prices, where relevant, in sterling. In general, stuff is very cheap, compared to UK prices. Restaurants and public transport/taxis are far less expensive than their UK equivalents.
Sousse - Hotel Jinene - a few birds noted from the hotel balcony included Spotless Starling and Palm Dove. All sparrows appeared to be of the 'Italian' hybrid between House and Spanish Sparrow, with many males heavily marked but not convincing at all for Spanish Sparrow. A stroll down to the hotel's beach produced a singing Southern Grey Shrike of the very dark 'algeriensis' race.
We tried to get a bus to Port El Kantoui, with the intention of finding a taxi to take us to the saltings at Sebkhet Halk El Menzel, but a taxi stopped and took us there for £1. From Port El Kantoui we found another taxi that took us to the lake for £5. This is an excellent area with an abundance of birds and a fair bit of disturbance, both human and natural, so new birds appear even after a couple of hours birding. Greater Flamingo, Spoonbill, Great White Egret, Caspian Tern, Slender-Billed Gull, Avocet and Black-Necked Grebe were all present in good numbers, along with an assortment of other gulls, terns, heron and waders and a few passerines. On 15th December we tried a brief sea watch from the small cliffs on the seaward side of the lake, and saw distant Cory's Shearwater and about 400 Common Cranes coming off the sea, possibly related to a sudden drop in temperatures in Europe. Also on 15th, three Common Swifts on the landward side were a surprise (and a disappointment, because we expected them to be the Little Swifts that we had failed to see the day before).
We caught a louage (a minibus) back from the lakeside (there are lots) to Port El Kantoui for 50 pence each, then a taxi to the hotel.
We went into Sousse to hire a car, but first had a look around the old town and Kasbah. Plenty of common urban birds around, most interesting being a Spanish Sparrow seen from the city walls in the Kasbah, a few Chiffchaffs in the trees within the Kasbah courtyard and very good views of Sardinian Warbler in the small park on the outside of the city walls, near the Kasbah.
The afternoon was mostly wasted looking for the lake shown on the maps as Sebkhet de Sidi El Hani, about 30 miles inland from Sousse. We would have found this except for the fact that our map shows the village of Borj Trimiche but every road sign calls it Komdar. We eventually ended up at the Monastir salinas, (Sahline) which initially looked bird-free, but after a little persistence did turn up a few species. They cover a large area so there may be spots better than the ones we found.
Driving to Tozeur from Sousse
This is quite a long drive, although a left turn at Komdar might have cut 20 kms off. We stopped in a number of places to check for birds and saw a few species but heading straight for the true desert might have been the best option. Just outside Gafsa, (Km 27) we turned off the main road at the signpost for Ksar Sidi Aich for a "comfort" break. We explored the area either side of the road about half a kilometre from the junction. All of the Galerida type larks here were Thekla Larks. We found them fairly easy to separate from the Crested Larks by their song. The habitat looked suitable for both species, and there were large numbers of Sky Larks here as well.
At Km 49 on the Gafsa-Tozeur road, in some low hills we stopped and had a walk westward for an hour or so, looping back round to the road further south. We found fair numbers of Trumpeter Finches quite easily (although getting a good view of them took a while) and the call that we suspected to be Marmora's Warbler turned out to be exactly that, although again patience was required to get a look at one. There's nothing special about this habitat, so these birds are probably fairly common over a wide area.
From the car between Km 49 and Tozeur we were able to identify both Mourning Wheatear (a new species for both of us) and White-crowned Black Wheatear.
Over night in the small, slightly gloomy but quite adequate Residence Arichi, for £15 per night for the two of us, including breakfast. When approaching Tozeur from the north, the area with the main lodgings is not immediately obvious. We drove around a bit before finding the Arichi, which got an OK right-up in the Lonely Planet guide, although it is not correctly located in the town plan in that book. Best strategy might be to drive to the edge of town and then turn left through a rather imposing arch, at a roundabout. This will take you onto the Route Touristique, where the more expensive hotels are located, but continuing along this road will lead you to some pleasant lower budget places. One advantage of the Arichi, although hardly guaranteed, was the male House Bunting which came foraging for crumbs on the roof top terrace, after breakfast.
An interesting diversion in Tozeur, after dark, can be had at the junction to the road into the oasis, leading to 'Le Petit Prince' restaurant (apparently Tozeur's best). In the municipal buildings opposite the road to the restaurant there was a roost of about 30 House Buntings. The buildings are well illuminated and at 11:30 p.m. when we went past, the birds were very active and easy to see at close quarters.
Incidentally, 'Le Petit Prince' is indeed pretty good, but don't order the Couscous Royale unless you are very, very hungry, or if you are dining with a vegetarian
Around Tozeur, then driving to Douz
We decided to try and find the Belvedere, mentioned in the guidebooks as having a good view across the oasis. We had a couple of failures before we found it. There is a paved drive off the Route Touristique in an area of tourist shops and hotels. We didn't see a signpost. The drive drops down to a stream, lined with palm trees, where we saw two male Moussier's Redstarts. There were few birds visible from the Belvedere, which is a pile of large boulders which was under development when we visited, apparently destined to become some kind of Tunisian Mount Rushmore, but it is a good point from which to appreciate the extent of the oasis. A drive along some of the roads into the oasis, stopping in likely looking spots, produced a number of common birds, with lots of hoopoes and shrikes.
The road from Tozeur to Kebili crosses the huge salt lake of the Chott El Jerid. There are wet marshes on the edge of the Chott that held a few passerines, although the only bird that we could identify with any confidence was Meadow Pipit, but the Chott itself seems birdless. An interesting drive, nevertheless.
At Km 58 on the Kebili-Fouar road we spent some time looking at a Desert Wheatear, which turned out to be quite common from this point onwards (and no doubt in areas we had already driven through). At Km 53 some pools had Wood Sandpipers and Little Stints, but the Blidet wetlands were very disappointing, with very little water and no Marbled Ducks.
At the junction for El Fouar and Douz, visited by several other birders, we tried walking in the desert but saw few birds. We did find Collared Dove, which had been recorded in Douz for the first time last year (2001) and were presumably near to the current limit of their current (expanding) range. These were near a pipe from which fresh water was pouring, presumably as a drinking place for the camels that wander freely around this area. Some trees and bushes, encouraged by the presence of this water supply, had a few Chiffchaffs and the spot might be worth a stake out for a few hours as other species come to drink.
About 2 km from the junction, towards Douz, some roadside pools held a single Ruddy Shelduck and a few waders.
Further towards Douz, Ghidma pools sit back from the road across a muddy field. It was getting late when we arrived and they didn't look to have much on them, but we decided to grab the binoculars and walk across the field to get closer. In fact there were a fair number of distant Marbled Teal on the lake, with others flying in frequently. If you visit this area, take your telescope.
Overnight stay in the very pleasant, spacious and luxurious Hotel Saharien, Douz. The hotel is out in the oasis, a couple of kilometres out of town and the rooms are all on one level, with tall date palms between the room blocks. A double room, big enough for a reasonable game of 5-a-side football, with bath and shower and a four course evening meal and a cooked breakfast set us back £45 for the two of us. We would definitely recommend this establishment, and there were more House Buntings around the gardens. The hotel takes credit cards (many places don't).
In Tunisia, as in France, the term "Carte Bleu" is used for credit cards (rather than, say Visa, or Amex etc.). Some, but not all tourist establishments (hotels, shops, and restaurants) accept credit cards. Petrol stations, it seems do not. Banks in Douz and Tozeur have ATMs that accept most major cards.
Morning - Pools west of Douz Afternoon - driving back to Sousse, via the new Matmata road.
The pools 5 km west of Douz, mentioned in several other reports, had plenty of birds, but not much that we hadn't already seen, with Gadwall being the only addition to the trip list. We did however see a real rarity - other bird watchers! We saw a large falcon over the palm trees behind were they had parked, and whilst we were trying to attract their attention to it, they were watching a Jackal that had come out of the undergrowth a few metres from where we were standing! They didn't see the bird and we didn't see the Jackal.
The next pool further west, although large and permanent looking had no birds at all, with a prolonged close up view of a Desert Wheatear being the only compensation.
We decided to try the new Douz-Matmata road as our route out of the desert. People have already reported some good sightings from the Kebili-Matmata road but we had seen no reports from this more southerly route. It is probably worth a couple of days of exploration in itself and we certainly would have liked more time here. If we return, we will probably stay in Matmata and Douz and look for likely spots. We stopped at Km 71 (distances are to Matmata - it is 100 km from Douz to Matmata), by a small bridge, from which a larger than average bush is visible, and from here saw one of our target birds, Hoopoe Lark. In fact we saw three different representatives of this species, eventually down to about 10 metres.
Our strategy from this point was to stop each time we saw birds from the car, and at Km 54 we saw Mourning Wheatear (several more seen further along the road). Sadly we drove past a number of areas which looked to have potential, because we wanted to minimise the amount of night driving we would have to do.
At Km 3, a pair of Black Wheatears was perching on a roadside bridge. We stopped, hoping to get a better view of them and a pair of Brown-necked Ravens flew down the valley. 8 more of this species were seen over the next few kilometres.
From Matmata it was a long and arduous drive to Sousse, but we managed to get back in time for our evening meal. As mentioned earlier, driving after dark in Tunisia is best avoided, and the main coastal road from Gabes to Sousse is busy, with lots of lorries, many of which are incapable of exceeding 50 kph. There are few places were overtaking can be done safely, so be prepared for a frustrating, and perhaps somewhat unnerving couple of hours, and make sure that your hire car has a fully functional set of lights.
Kairouan-Enfida road, Enfida, Korba Pools
We decided to visit the bridge at Km 30, mentioned in other reports, on the Kairouan to Enfida road. From Sousse, we took the Komdar road and noted a sign from this road to a nature reserve area on the north east side of the Sebkhet de Sidi El Hani lake. We didn't have time to try this out, but given our later experiences, it could be worth a look. We stopped at Km 30, by the bridge. There was not much visible from the road (a few Common Cranes overhead, heading west) so we dropped down into the wadi and followed this until it merged with the fields. We saw numerous Sardinian Warblers here and flushed two groups of Black-bellied Sandgrouse (2, then 3). Returning to the road, we continued on the east side of the bridge, through some bushes and pasture, to the edge of the Sebkhet de Sidi El Hani depression. We saw a flock of 12 Sandgrouse flying past and then located 9 on the ground. There were lots of cranes on the flats and many more flying over head. In total we saw 243 in the area. Additionally there was a small flock (6) of Dotterel in the ploughed area. We flushed a hare in the wadi, which was the only mammal larger than a bat that we saw in the whole of the trip. We then moved on to Enfida to look, unsuccessfully, for Little Swift, and decided to try our luck at the Korba pools, near Hammamet, with a possible extension to Cap Bon, time permitting. Korba pools were quite good, with lots of Greater Flamingo and Black-necked Grebe, but the wetlands north of Sousse seemed better. We were quite pleased that we were able to locate a Spectacled Warbler, based on its call, and a minor highlight was when we saw what appeared to be a Hoopoe on a telegraph wire, and when we checked through the bins, found out that one section of wire held Kestrel, Hoopoe, Palm Dove and Spotless Starling. Nothing particularly unusual for Tunisia, but it would be a thrill to see them all together in the UK!
15/12/02 Sebkhet Halk El Menzel
The car had to be back by noon, so we returned to the Sebkhet and covered a few other areas. The same species as on 9th were present, along with the Swifts mentioned above, and several hundred Avocets.
In the following list, the birds' English and scientific names are used. The numbers in brackets indicate the order in which the birds were seen, and, where the bird is likely to be of interest to British birders, the number of days on which it was recorded. Thus, Black-necked Grebe - Podiceps nigricollis (23,3) was the 23rd bird seen and was seen on only three days.
BLACK-NECKED GREBE - Podiceps nigricollis (23,3) - numerous on Sebkhet Halk El Menzel and the Korba pools.
GREAT CRESTED GREBE - Podiceps cristatus (27) - several on Sebkhet Halk El Menzel.
CORY'S SHEARWATER - Calonectis diomedea (70,2) - quite large numbers offshore at Korba Pools and smaller numbers from the cliffs near Sebkhet Halk El Menzel.
GANNET - Sula bassana (76) - one offshore, Sebkhet Halk El Menzel, seen in 30-minute sea watch. Probably plenty around.
GREAT CORMORANT - Phalacracorax carbo - (6) - present a coastal site, often in large numbers.
GREAT WHITE EGRET - Egretta alba (9,3) - 20+ on Sebkhet Halk El Menzel and one on Korba Pools.
LITTLE EGRET - Egretta garzetta (8) - common at coastal wetland sites.
GREY HERON - Ardea cinerea (28) - fairly common at Sebkhet Halk El Menzel.
SPOONBILL - Platalea leucorodia (12,2) - quite numerous at Sebkhet Halk El Menzel.
GREATER FLAMINGO - Phoenicopterus ruber (8,4) - present in large numbers at many coastal sites.
SHELDUCK - Tadorna tadorna (67) - 12 at Korba Pools.
RUDDY SHELDUCK - Tadorna ferruginea (55,1) - one seen on pools 2km from the turn off to El Fouar.
GADWALL - Anas strepera (59,1) - only seen on pool 5 km west of Douz.
MALLARD - Anas platyrhynchos (?) - not recorded in note book, but we have the distinct feeling that we saw some.
SHOVELER - Anas clypeata (57) - the commonest duck, present on several pools around Douz.
MARBLED TEAL - Anas angustirostris (55) - about 30 (perhaps more) on Ghidma Pools.
COMMON BUZZARD - Buteo buteo (63) - only one seen, from the car, north of Gabes.
LONG-LEGGED BUZZARD Buteo rufinus - (40,1) - near Km 169 on the Kairouan - Gafsa road.
MARSH HARRIER - Circus aeruginosus (15) - a few seen both around coastal and inland wetlands. The most frequently seen raptor, but hardly common.
KESTREL - Falco tinnunculus (47) - a few seen. By no means common.
COMMON CRANE - Grus grus (65,2) - 243 seen around Km 30 on Kairouan - Enfida road. Over 400 in from sea at Sebkhet Halk El Menzel on 15th December. Several flocks in flight also seen from the car around Enfida and Hammamet, probably taking the total to over 800 for the two days.
MOORHEN - Gallinula chloropus (22) - present on several pools around Douz.
COMMON COOT - Fulica atra (34) - Not common. Seen at Sahline.
BLACK-WINGED STILT - Himantopus himantopus (36,3) - six at Sahline in non-breeding plumage. Also seen at several pools in the desert, in breeding plumage.
KENTISH PLOVER - Charadrius alexandrinus (16,6) - common and widespread. Just about anywhere there is water with muddy margins.
GREAT RINGED PLOVER - Charadrius hiaticula (39) - several along a river near Km 31 on the road from Komdar to Nadhour.
DOTTEREL - Eudromius morinellus (66,1) - six on ploughed land at Kairouan - Enfida Km 30.
BAR-TAILED GODWIT - Limosa laponica (33) - a few on north side of Sebkhet Halk El Menzel (accessible from the village of Hergla).
MARSH SANDPIPER - Tringa stagnatilis (15,2) - rather disappointingly, only two seen, with one each at Sebkhet Halk El Menzel and the pool 5 Km west of Douz.
REDSHANK - Tringa totanus (19) - present at coastal lagoons and salinas
SPOTTED REDSHANK - Tringa erythropus (52,1) - small numbers seen on various desert pools.
GREENSHANK - Tringa nebularia (26) - several at Sebkhet Halk El Menzel.
WOOD SANDPIPER - Tringa glareola (51,2) - small numbers seen on various desert pools.
GREEN SANDPIPER - Tringa ochropus (37) - several along a river near Km 31 on the road from Komdar to Nadhour.
CURLEW - Numenius arquata (69) - two seen at Korba Pools and Sebkhet Halk El Menzel.
RUFF - Philomachus pugnax (53) - a few on pools near the turn of to Blidet, on the Kebili - El Fouar road.
LITTLE STINT - Calidris minuta (20) - fairly common at most coastal and inland pools. Never in large numbers.
AVOCET - Recurvirostra avosetta (73,1) - several hundred on Sebkhet Halk El Menzel.
BLACK-HEADED GULL - Larus ridibundus (10) - fairly common at coastal sites.
YELLOW-LEGGED GULL - Larus c. cachinnans (14) - less common than above.
LESSER BLACK-BACK - Larus fuscus (75) - small numbers on Sebkhet Halk El Menzel.
SLENDER-BILLED GULL - Larus genei (35,3) - possibly the most common gull. Hundreds on Sebkhet Halk El Menzel and the only gull present at the Sahline lagoons.
SANDWICH TERN - Sterna sandvicensis (77) - the last species added to our list was a single Sandwich Tern fishing on the seaward side of the Sebkhet Halk El Menzel road, near the bridge.
CASPIAN TERN - Sterna caspia (11,2) - 3 seen at Sebkhet Halk El Menzel on 9th December and 2 on 15th December, with gulls at the point nearest to Port El Kantoui.
BLACK-BELLIED SANDGROUSE - Pterocles orientalis (65,1) four groups (2,3,12 and 9) seen on both sides of the road at Km30 on the Kairouan - Enfida road.
COLLARED DOVE - Streptopelia decaocto (54) - 3 seen in desert near El Fouar and a pair flew across the road whilst we were driving through the village.
PALM DOVE - Streptopelia senegalensis (3,7) - very common and widespread.
COMMON SWIFT - Apus apus (74) - 3 seen on south western side of Sebkhet Halk El Menzel.
HOOPOE - Upupa epops (28,6) - quite common and widespread.
SKY LARK - Alauda arvensis (38) - seen both at the coast and inland, sometimes in large numbers.
CRESTED LARK - Galerida cristata (18,6) - quite common in suitable habitat.
THEKLA LARK - Galerida theklae (41,3) - fairly common in desert and semi-desert habitats. Not too difficult to tell from cristata if the latter's call is known.
HOOPOE LARK - Alaemon alaudipes (60) - three seen near Km 71 on Douz-Matmata road.
MEADOW PIPIT - Anthus pratensis (49) - a small number in the marshy area on the northern edge of Chott El Jerid.
WHITE WAGTAIL - Motacilla alba (22) - fairly common and widespread.
SOUTHERN GREY SHRIKE - Lanius meridionalis (5,7) - one of the commonest and most widespread birds, seen in just about all habitats, except town centres. Both pale and dark races are present.
SPECTACLED WARBLER - Sylvia conspicillata (71,1) - a calling warbler located near Korba Pools was identified as this species, although not well seen.
MARMORA'S WARBLER Sylvia sardia (43,2) - seen near Km 42 on Gafsa - Tozeur road, and near Km 58 on the Kebili - El Fouar road.
SARDINIAN WARBLER - Sylvia melanocephala (31,5) - quite common and in many habitats. Seen most days.
CHIFFCHAFF - Phylloscopus collybita (25) - seen in a variety of habitats, from town centres to desert pools.
ROBIN - Erithacus rubecula (29) - present in small numbers in coastal areas.
BLACK REDSTART - Phoenicurus ochruros (68,1) - a single male seen in fields alongside Korba Pools.
MOUSSIER'S REDSTART - Phoenicurus moussieri (48,2) - seen at Tozeur and pools 5 Km west of Douz.
STONECHAT - Saxicola torquata (24) - present at coastal sites and desert pools.
DESERT WHEATEAR - Oenanthe deserti (50,2) - seemingly quite common and seen at several sites between Kebili and Matmata. Frequently seen perching on wires.
WHITE-CROWNED BLACK WHEATEAR - Oenanthe leucopyga (45,1) - seen at roadside between Km 21 and Km 20 on Gafsa - Tozeur road.
MOURNING WHEATEAR - Oenanthe lugens (44,2) - seen at Km 45 on the Gafsa - Tozeur road. Several seen along the Douz - Matmata road.
BLACK WHEATEAR - Oenanthe leucura (61,1)- a pair was on the obvious bridge about 3 kilometres west of Matmata.
REDWING - Turdus iliacus (21) - one at Sebkhet Halk El Menzel.
BLACKBIRD - Turdus merula (2) - quite common around Sousse.
BROWN-NECKED RAVEN - Corvus ruficollis (62,1) - 10 in total near Matmata.
HOUSE BUNTING - (46,3) - actually quite common around developed areas in desert towns. Seen on rooftops in Tozeur's main street and on the STB Bank in Douz.
SPANISH SPARROW - Passer hispaniolensis (32,1) - only one positively identified, in Sousse.
HOUSE SPARROW - Passer domesticus (3) - very common, but no pure House Sparrows seen at all - most seen where 'Italian' sparrows, with many being very heavily streaked but not really much like Spanish Sparrows.
SERIN - Serinus serinus (72,1) - present around southern part of Sebkhet Halk El Menzel.
GREENFINCH - Carduelis chloris (30) - present in coastal areas.
TRUMPETER FINCH - Bucanetes githagineus (42,1) - between 12 and 20 near Km 49 on Gafsa - Tozeur road. They took a bit of finding but eventually gave excellent views.
SPOTLESS STARLING - Sturnus unicolor (1,7) - very common and widespread.
Quite a lot of effort for a week's list of 78 species, but the birding was rather good fun and the presence of several species (Southern Grey Shrike, Hoopoe) in large numbers added interest. Tunisia is probably one of the safest places to see Western Palearctic desert species, and if we go back, then we will probably try and spend more time in the desert and oases. Judging by the huge number of mammal tracks in the sand, a night-time walk with a decent torch might be rewarding. 15 new species for JD and 10 new birds for CC seemed reasonable value.
Raptor enthusiasts should avoid Tunisia. There are really very few birds of prey to be seen.
A few species "got away". A large, all dark corvid was seen from the car between Kombar and Nadhour (Ennadhour). This was almost certainly a Raven (Corvus corax) as the only other dark corvid found in Tunisia is Brown-necked Raven. However we were both agreed that this bird looked far more like Carrion Crow (Corvus corone corone) than Raven. The large falcon near Douz could have been one of several species. It was too far away and seen in silhouette only. One or two small birds also eluded us, including Chaffinch, which CC probably saw from the hotel balcony on the first day, at long range.
A telescope is definitely worth taking. Without it we would have struggled with positive identification of a few species (Caspian Tern, some wader species and the sea birds) but it is truly valuable in the desert, where limited cover can mean that exceptional views can be obtained of some species.
Would we go again? Almost certainly. Cheap packages are often available and accommodation is so cheap and easy to find in the desert that it would be worth using the package as a plane ticket, and perhaps a base for the first and last days, and hiring a car and touring the remoter areas for the rest of the week. It appears that the desert is becoming more accessible (viz. the Douz - Matmata road, and a new or improved road now goes round the south of the Chott El Jerid, from El Fouar - we have seen no reports from birders who have been to this area) and from a bird watchers perspective this can only be a good thing.
Chris Cameron January 2003