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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Birding Trip to Tunisia from 3rd to 31st March 2004,
Birding in Tunisia. Why don't more birders go? It's a major migration route for many species, with huge numbers and quality views. The people are friendly, the landscape and history fascinating, travel is easy and accommodation is cheap and readily available. Above all it's safe, and largely hassle free. There are very few local birders and much to discover. Our trip drew heavily on the experience of others , but we found new sites and unexpected birds. And we did get 182 species, though the weather deteriorated and we missed many migrants seen in April 2000. Another year we would choose late March, early April.
Package Holiday. Our basic cost was a Portland Direct package costing £827 (for two, total including 4 weeks half board). We knew the Hotel Hill Diar, Sousse from a visit in April 2000, and can recommend it for food, friendliness and ambience. It needs updating (which is happening) and fussy people might prefer more expensive accommodation. But the gardens are fantastic (see records) and the location is quiet, the guests well behaved. Package bookings fill early, but you can book direct (tel 00.216.73.241.811).
Do It Yourself Holidays. Should be easy by internet, or even by chancing it, though flights are not cheap. In March/ April the hotels should be relatively empty (since 9/11 they have sadly had disastrous seasons for overseas visitors). Ones we used and prices in dinars for DBB for two are given as a guide. In April 2004, 2.2 dinars = £1. Tarek Nefzi (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) offers to book for you locally, and can arrange nature reserve permits.
Driving. An experience! Scout's motto: "Be Prepared." Outside towns traffic is low, fortunately. The main roads are OK and have been upgraded since 2000, but the country roads are narrow with poor and untrustworthy edges, and the drivers are either very slow or pushy, fast and dangerous. They overtake with split-second precision and never give way. Nothing personal, just a Tunisian male thing, so head for the edge. Pedestrians walk on the roads four abreast, not on the pavements. The sheep are better behaved! In spite of this, if you are alert all the time, driving is fun. The rules are just different. They drive on the right (and left, occasionally) and mopeds go anywhere they like.
Taxis. Cheap and reliable. A good intro to local driving. The all yellow tourist taxis (meter charges, but ensure they switch it on) are limited to the coast and tourist areas. The locals use blue-striped yellow taxis, which can be cheaper (fix the price first) and more flexible in destinations. We also used the longer distance louages or kamikaze taxis. We found the drivers of all three honest, and quite talkative. We have no experience of buses or trains, but other tourists found they were cheap and reliable
Car Hire. Book on the internet. We used a local company, www.camelcar.com and got a new a/c Renault Clio with good tyres for 800 dinars for 3 weeks. Some travel companies charge that for one week! We had 5000 km of trouble-free motoring. Unleaded petrol is half the UK cost but not all garages have it yet, so keep the tank full. Check the spare tyre and tools.
Weather. Can be cold and very windy, especially in the north, with strong on-shore winds for sea watching, and easterlies for vagrants. Night temperatures in the desert can be freezing, but April 2000 was too hot at midday, and also at night in a non a/c hotel. March 2004 was unusually wet, limiting access on foot or by car.
Those highly recommended are under-lined, but all can be good. The sequence is roughly in date order, but some were visited several times. Birds are in any order. All 2004 unless stated, and the first two sites are given in more detail for those who choose our Sousse base.
1. Hotel Hill Diar Grounds. Collared doves in quantity, new since 2000. (We learned they began to colonise Tunisia in 1991, and we saw them widely from Douz up to Bizerta.) Wryneck, Sardinian warbler, subalpine warbler, chiffchaff, blackcap, Spanish sparrow, spotless starling, laughing dove, hoopoe, feral pigeon, blackbird, serin, greenfinch, chaffinch (africana), robin, blue tit (ultramarinus), pallid swift, common swift, swallow, house martin, kestrel, southern grey shrike (we rescued two fledglings from a prowling cat). Off-shore: Cory's and Balearic shearwaters, yellow-legged (michahellis), lesser black-backed, black-headed, and slender-billed gulls, Sandwich and gull-billed terns, mallard, cormorant (sinensis) and gannet.
In April 2000 we also had: little owl, Caspian, common, little, black and whiskered terns, woodchat shrike, turtle dove, spotted flycatcher, olivaceous and orphean warblers, and a rose-ringed parakeet (probably an escape).
2. Hergla Lake (or Sebkhet Halk el Menzel, though there are no signs saying so). Superb, large, shallow, freshwater lake about 20 km north of Sousse. Not shown on some maps. We "found" this in 2000 by tourist taxi from Sousse. It should be a Ramsar site, but it's difficult to estimate bird numbers because of its size and some disturbance. There are several attack points, but the easiest are:
-SE corner, from the main Hergla/Sousse road for 2km on the road to Sidi Bou Ali until a sign "Sky Fun" track leads to a viewpoint near the lake. Lesser short-toed larks and spectacled warbler along the shore. Rewarding, rocky ground to the south.
-NW corner, from the Hergla to A1 Autoroute Road. Often dry and unrewarding, but in 2004 held main wader flocks.
-SW corner, 1km north of Sidi Bou Ali on the GP1, where a stream enters the distant lake. The best for close views of several species, including marbled duck. You can walk to the main lake under the Autoroute through a gate. The shepherds do. We had 2 fulvous babblers here, very far north. On the west side of GP1 the reedy edges are even more interesting with a great bittern on March 20th and little bittern, purple heron, great white egret and 15 marbled duck on March 27th . The north fringe is easiest.
Minima at Hergla Lake and Sidi Bou Ali in March 2004: 500 flamingos, 500 shelduck, 15 marbled duck, 3 garganey, 300 grey herons, 50 little egret, 1 little bittern, 1 purple heron, 10 glossy ibis, 13 spoonbill, 100 common cranes, 1000 shoveler, 150 black-necked grebes, 21 Mediterranean and 200 slender-billed gulls, 1 Audouin's gull, 10 Caspian, 51 Sandwich, 3 gull-billed and 1 whiskered terns, 1,000 avocets, 1000 black-tailed godwit, 1500 ruff, 10/50,000 little stint, 500 sanderling, 500 dunlin, 200 black-winged stilt, 50 curlew, 20 greenshank, 50 spotted redshank, 100 marsh sandpiper, 500 curlew sandpiper, 10 wood sandpiper.
Additionally: cormorant, great crested grebe, great white egret, fan-tailed warbler, corn bunting, kestrel, snipe, whimbrel, common and green sandpipers, ringed, little ringed and Kentish plovers, stone curlew, yellow-legged gull (michahellis), blackbird, fulvous babbler, meadow pipit, raven, stonechat (eastern race), Barbary partridge, coot, moorhen, quail, lesser short-toed lark, skylark, crested lark, white wagtail, yellow wagtail (cinereocapilla, iberiae, feldegg and thunbergi), linnet, lanner falcon, marsh harrier, southern grey and woodchat shrikes, spotless starling, swallow, sand and house martins, pallid swift, common swift, northern wheatear, common redstart, blackcap, subalpine, chiffchaff and willow warblers, and Spanish sparrow. Offshore : Cory's and Balearic shearwaters.
In April 2000 we also had squacco heron, black kite, osprey, grey plover, turnstone, pomarine skua, little, black and white-winged black terns, turtle dove, thekla, short-toed and calandra larks, European bee-eater, Dartford and olivaceous warblers, whinchat and on 22nd over 100 collared pratincoles hawking overhead, among which at least 3 were black-winged pratincoles.
3. Sebkhet Kelbia. South and east of Kondar (Koundar), accessed from GP2, along farm track between 30 and 31 km from Kairouan. In April 2000 it was virtually dry, and in March 2004 was drying as you watched, but with 500+ common cranes (for which it is a well-known staging and roosting site) and 500+ flamingos. Large flocks of migrating shoveler, shelduck, little stint and Kentish plover were far too distant, as were 10,000+ large waders on March 27th
The tamarisks around the lake can hold passage birds eg warblers and wagtails in quantity. The mimosa plantings are good for short-toed, lesser short-toed and calandra larks and for Barbary partridges. But don't ignore the open steppes on the west side of GP2, where we had at least 56 red-footed falcons on April 22nd 2000. The whole area is excellent in April for migrant Montague's harriers, and we had a male pallid harrier and a pair of black-winged kites here on March 27th 2004. The nearby village of El Alam had 8 white stork nests.
4. Sidi Jedidi (Jdidi) Lake On the fringe of the village, west on route 28 from Hammamet to Zaghouan. Several good viewpoints, but check the reed fringes where the ducks hide. Our best count was on March 7th 2004: minima 100 ferruginous, 50 white-headed, 100 tufted, 50 wigeon, 50 pochard, 50 little grebe. On March 18th there were 20 white-headed but only 1 pair of ferruginous ducks.
5. Oued Ranel. One kilometre north of route 28 on route 26 to Mornag. Recommended highly in previous trip reports, this was just a dry gully, due to the new barrage.
6. Barrage Ain Sabonne. 26 km from Hammamet turn south from route 28 in Ain Sabonne. Tarmac road marked route coupee soon leads to a newly flooded reservoir. We parked where the road was shallowly flooded, but the intrepid could press on. Close views of black-winged stilts, a wood sandpiper, 15 glossy ibis and a squacco heron. Obvious potential.
7. Zaghouan. Approach the town from route 133, drive through the main street and take the first steep road on the left, following signs to Temple des Eaux. The route is not obvious but keep climbing until you enter the Park gates. Turn immediately right, and there are many viewing stops along this road, which eventually climbs through hair-raising but safe bends to the mountain tops, eye level with birds of prey. Moussier's redstarts are common. On March 7th 2004 : 2 adult, 2 young Bonelli's eagles, 1 short-toed eagle, 4+ long-legged buzzards, a male crossbill, a female ring ousel in an hour, then downpour. On March 18th : 3 immature Bonelli's, 13 lesser kestrels, 5 short-toed eagles, a peregrine, several long-legged buzzards and blue rock thrushes, 2 adult, 1 immature Egyptian vultures, 1 booted eagle.
8. Enfida (Enfidaville). Off GP2. Park near the church, now a museum. Well-known stake-out for little swift. In 3 visits en route home from Zaghouan, we never missed, max. 4 birds. White storks were prospecting the pylons along GP1, not fitted with nesting platforms.
9. Monastir to Taboulba. Others speak well of the saltpans near Monastir Airport. We found them very tame. The coast was great, especially near the new basketball stadium on March 19th eg. c50 marsh and c50 curlew sandpipers, 150+ black-winged stilts, c300 little stints etc. From Kniss to Taboulba same day: c1000 slender-billed, 200+ Mediterranean and 200+ black-headed gulls.
10. Tyna (Thyna) Saltpans. Now a proper tarmac road leads off GP1 just south of Sfax. Turn east in Tyna opposite a Shell garage, after passing a minaret. At the end of the housing, park at the sharp left bend, and walk the track opposite if wet. We didn't and got stuck. If dry you can drive across to a bridge and even round the saltpans. On March 8th minima: 25 spoonbills, 10 greenshank,10 spotted redshank, 500 little stint, 300 black-tailed godwit, 500 flamingos, 200 shelduck, 1,000 avocets, 50 curlew sandpiper, 20 grey plover etc but not easy to avoid disturbing the birds on foot. Well worth a detour.
10. 3 to 4 km South of Tyna (Thyna). In and around an obvious bay on March 8th we had 1,000+ Mediterranean gulls, of which only 10 to15% were adults. Also c20 spoonbills and a kingfisher (our only one on this trip).
12. Mahres Harbour. Organised trips often sail from here to the Kheneiss Islands, for fabulous counts of waders, especially dunlin. Most waders can be seen well in smaller numbers from the harbour approach road. Unmemorable hotel on March 8th. Next day we discovered that Gulliver's Travel group were next door at a larger hotel we thought closed.
13. Bou Hedma. Turn west off GP1 onto route 124, then right on route 89 towards Mazzouna. After some km look for a road on the left signposted Bou Hedma. After forever you reach the reserve entrance, but you will not get in without a permit. It is an 18,000 hectares, fenced nature reserve, mainly for introduced large antelope, now extinct elsewhere. In truth, it is more of a safari park, but the habitat (ungrazed by goats and sheep) is typical open, acacia grassland. Release prospects poor; there is no suitable habitat. We were lucky to get in, thanks to the Gulliver's Travels party about to enter by permit. Super views of scimitar-horned oryx, dama and dorcas gazelles. Among the birds seen well were ostrich (introduced), common bulbuls, fulvous babblers and two black-bellied sand grouse on March 9th.
14. Matmata. Just for the experience, stayed at a troglodyte hotel, described as "one of the nicest": Marhala (tel 00.216.75.240.015) very basic but cheap at 28 dinar for two, DBB. Not for the fastidious!
3 to 4 km east on Toujane road on March 10th: trumpeter finches, black wheatears, Moussier's redstarts and an unidentified, distant eagle sp.
15. Matmata to Douz. Good road, stopping often on March 10th for mourning, and black wheatears, desert larks, house buntings (eg Tamezret). 2 thick-billed larks 71 to 72 km from Douz. 20+ lesser short-toed and 20+ short-toed larks, 3 red-rumped wheatears
62 to 63 km from Douz. From then on less rocky, with red-rumped and desert wheatears and more larks. Caught up with Gulliver's Travel party at Hotel Saharien en Paradis (email: email@example.com): 2 nights at 96 dinar DBB a night for 2.
16. Douz Area. Well-known freshwater pools (insect repellent advised). We followed the Gulliver's Travel group on March 11th. On Zaafrane Road "Pool A" 5km from Douz: waders, 2 ruddy shelduck and 300+ marbled duck. On Nouil Road "Pool B" 11 km from Douz; waders and more ruddy shelduck. Ghidma Pools 25 km from Douz, north of road: 18 marbled and c.8 ferruginous duck, 5 blue-cheeked bee-eaters! Blidette (Blidet) Lake 21 km from Kebili: waders and 1000+ marbled duck, c50 each wigeon and pintail. That night we called up one of two scops owls in Hotel Saharien. On March 12th many collared doves near camel safari area. 3 to 4 km from Bechni on Ghidma road: 2 hoopoe larks. Jemna pools behind palms by track opposite minaret: good site but water level low, haze and mosquitoes dreadful, so fled. c10 Northern wheatears today.
17. Tozeur Area. Hotel de l'Oasis Dar Tozeur (tel: 00.216.76.452.300): 97.8 dinar DBB a night for 2. Good garden with collared doves. Jardin du Paradis would be good during passage. Zoo du Sahara, worth an hour (large group of spotted sand grouse and 4 dove species including African collared). The palm plantation was dry and uninteresting this year. However, if irrigated it can be a magnet for migrants. At nearby Nefta on April 26th 2000 we were so hot we spent hours in the palm tree shade. Birds included: pied, collared and spotted flycatchers, common redstart, subalpine, willow, olivaceous, icterine and fan-tailed warblers, rufous bush chat, European bee-eater, golden oriole, tree pipit and house bunting.
18. Tozeur to Tamerza. Chott el Gharsa was unrewarding, even at Oued el Melah crossing. About 26 km from Tamerza and onwards: desert, black, red-rumped and northern wheatears. 19 to 20 km from Tamerza: 2 hoopoe larks. From Chebika oasis onwards: alpine swifts, c5 white-crowned and more black wheatears. At Panorama stop: 2 desert larks, a tawny pipit, c4 black and 2 white-crowned wheatears. Above Gorge du Cascade, Tamerza (by a roadside stall) was best for all viewing: adult Bonelli's eagle, genuine rock doves, black wheatears, alpine and 5 little swifts, blue rock thrushes, house buntings. Don't drink mint tea in the Gorge (from above we saw where the water comes from)! Hotel was the plush Tamerza Palace (tel 00.216.76.485.322) at 210 dinars DBB a night for 2. Spectacular setting.
At Chebika oasis on April 27th 2000 we also had rufous bush chat and 2 melodious warblers.
19. Tamerza to Metlaoui. Keep stopping for wheatears and larks, that are all there in a fantastic landscape. In the spectacular mine workings between 10 and 5 km from Metlaoui there were also little swifts in the cliffs on March 15th.
20. Gorge de Selja. We did not take the Lezard Rouge train from Metlaoui, but approached on foot from the village of Selja: c5 little swifts, 2 black and 1 white-crowned wheatears. Watch out for the regular mine trains on the line!
21. Oued el Melah. Bridge 23 to 24 km SW of Gafsa. In both years it deserved a stop. On April 25th 2000 a little swift on passage. On March 14th 2004: a green sandpiper, a red-rumped wheatear and a wayward great bittern.
22. El Garia. On route 26 about 89 km from El Kef. A cliff site, sometimes called Les Aiguilles, just before the tunnel. On March 21st 2004: c20 rock sparrows, black wheatears, blue rock thrushes, Moussier's redstarts, alpine swifts and at least 1 male lesser kestrel with several nesting common kestrels.
23. Ain Draham. On a quiet road off route 27, we found a stake-out for Levaillant's green woodpecker, 7 km from Ain Draham and signposted to Ben M'Tir. Loud squeaking on March 21st produced a great spotted woodpecker instantly, then coal tit, great tit and short-toed treecreeper. On March 22nd it was equally successful in producing these and close views of a male Levaillant's and flight views of at least 3 others, plus goldcrests, firecrests and a perched, female sparrowhawk. Nearby we had wood pigeon, mistle thrush and Eurasian jay.
5 km from Ain Draham, signposted to Hammam Bourguiba, the road has several good vantage points for raptor viewing (we had none due to weather): wren, cirl bunting, common cuckoo and several calling Levaillant's. Royal Rihana Hotel overlooking Ain Draham (tel 00.216.08.655. 391): 70 dinars DBB for 2, in a wild boar hunting hotel, full of trophy heads and photos of triumphant hunters. Great!
24. Barrage Netza. East of Tabarka on GP7. A new, deep reservoir with little on March 22nd. Worth watching in future.
25. Lake Ichkeul. A disappointment because of terrible weather. A muddy walk on March 22nd near junction of routes 51 and 57 produced only meadow pipits, Kentish plover and 2 cattle egrets. On March 23rd the weather was worse and the only brief shelter was in a quarry (turn left at the end of park access road): breeding lanner falcon, black-eared and black wheatears, common whitethroat, black and Moussier's redstarts, plus c100 alpine swifts running before the storm. Distant views of spoonbill, Eurasian teal, shoveler, wigeon, shelduck and pintail. Another time we might not bother, especially as we saw nearly all its birds better elsewhere. Hotel Corniche in Bizerta: 100 dinar DBB for 2 with prime, sea view room in a virtually empty hotel.
26. Soliman Plage. Signposted off route 26 near Soliman. A huge area, difficult to work looking into the sun from coast roads on March 16th: c20 cattle, c50 little and a great white egret, c50 ruff, c30 wood sandpipers etc. The ugly rubbish dump attracts gulls. On March 16th we did not follow up a distant sighting of a large flock of waders to the NE, and suspect this area is a prime site.
27. Col above Korbous. We were diverted from route 26 via Douela on March 16th. Before dropping down the hairpin bends to Korbous, we parked and walked the maquis hillside tracks, producing little but thekla larks, Sardinian warblers and a black redstart. A likely site for Marmora's warbler.
28. Under Jebel Ben Oulid. On route 26 about 30 km from Haouaria. An obvious route for passage raptors. In April 2000: lanner falcons, black-winged kite over the dune pines N of road (2 days running), short-toed and booted eagles, hobby, black-crowned tchagras whistling in scrub. In March 2004: only short-toed and several booted eagles, common bulbuls.
29. Oued M'Gaiez. 20 km from Haouaria on route 26. Follow the stream N
for about a km. The valley widens before it reaches the dunes. A migrant trap in the right conditions and a cert for common bulbuls and Cetti's warblers.
30. Haouaria. Several good sites, as well as the major one: Jebel Haouaria. In the town turn north at sign Hopital, and keep climbing the steep tarmac road. We stopped out of the wind in a quarry, and saw as well as those who climbed higher. The wind and weather were against migration, but on March 24th in 2 hours: a marsh harrier, 7 short-toed eagles, a long-legged (plus 3 probables) and 10 honey buzzards, 7 falcons (only lanners identified), c6 distant, probable lesser kestrels, a stray griffon vulture, several small groups of common cranes going and returning before 27 went. March 25th in half an hour: 12 marsh harriers, a short-toed eagle, a long-legged buzzard, 7 black kites, a peregrine, several distant falcons, a sparrowhawk, 37 common cranes and 5 black storks. What a place in spring! Frustrated raptors seem to roost in the eucalypts near Kerkouane eg 12 black kites on March 24th.
Sea watching involves a scramble here. Much easier in the lee of restaurant at the Grottes for good views of gannets, Cory's and Balearic shearwaters and storm petrels, perhaps. We had the first 3. On route 27, 5km south of Haouaria there is an irrigation (?) ditch with superb migrant cover. We had only two purple herons, Cetti's and Sardinian warblers and a horde of chiffchaffs on March 26th. Well worth checking. We stayed 2 nights at La Belle Etoile Hotel in Kelibia (tel 00.216.72.274.374): 70 dinars a night DBB for 2.
However, we stayed another night at the secluded Residence Dar Zenaidi at Kerkouane, next to the 5th Century Punic ruins and a sheltered cove for sea bathing. Mahbouba Zenaidi (email: darzenaidi@Planet.tn) has excellent English, and has a separate 5 bedroom (each ensuite) pension, with spacious relaxing areas, a walled garden and a pool. The whole place is tastefully decorated in Tunisian style. Busy in season, she would welcome more March to May visitors, especially for longer stays. Until March 15th 2004 the charges were 60 dinar BB for 2. If wanted, an extra 24 dinar for 2 dinners. The charges from March 16th were 80 dinar BB. Ideal for the family wanting a quiet retreat with luxury (while the old man goes birding at the nearby hotspots). She would certainly consider a group booking for two families or more, and perhaps self-catering out of season. We went for the one night and could have stayed forever.
32. Kelibia Harbour. We drove through the guarded gate without problems on March 25th. About 200 Cory's shearwaters followed the fishing fleet in (before 8am), and some even into the tiny harbour. Magically close views. Also an Audouin's and several Mediterranean gulls, which later perched on rocks a half km SW. The nearby pools are good for gulls, migrant waders, egrets etc.
32. Barrage Lebna. An ace site on Cap Bon. Accessed from route 27 SW of Menzel Temime, signposted "Barrage Lebna" 19 km from Korba, turning left at unmarked T junction. This leads to the SE shore. A count from the SE end on March 25th: 125+ great crested grebes, 100+ black-necked grebes, 3 white-headed duck, a garganey, many moustached warblers and the first common swifts.
Also, at Menzel Temime follow signs to Menzel Bouzelfa; this leads after 7 km to the reedy N shore. (If hooted by every other vehicle, it is just out of fellowship. Please wave back, not other gestures!) March 24th: 1 each of great white egret, squacco and glossy ibis, 6 white-headed and 3 ferruginous ducks, water rail, calandra larks, Cetti's, grasshopper and moustached warblers and a lanner falcon. On March 25th we added purple swamp hen (also in April 2000) and both reed and great reed warblers.
33. Tidal river, 9km from Korba. S of Menzel Temime to Korba route 27. A good range of waders and gulls. Worth a look.
34. Korba Lagoons. Strung out along route 27, and easy to access in a few spots. On March 26th usual flamingos and waders, though water level high. 10+ marsh harriers came in off the sea, moving NE. On April 23rd 2000 near Korba c20 red-footed falcons flew in from the sea and overhead. One had white wing linings (Amur falcon, which is recorded in the Straits of Messina), but we could not relocate it as the flock dispersed.
35. Central Cap Bon. The agricultural land north of route 34 up to the Jebel Ben Oulid ridge can be good for quail, larks and migrant raptors, especially harriers. Barrage Chiba is just south of route 34 and should be checked for migrant waders and ducks.