Saharan Swallowtail - illustration courtesy Richard Hoath Saharan Swallowtail - illustration courtesy Richard Hoath

Nature Notes: Beaches and Bird Watching

Thu, Jul. 6, 2017
July is a difficult time for a naturalist. Spring has long since sprung and fall has yet to even mildly trip let alone fall, while summer is well and truly set. For many species, whether furred, feathered or scaled, courtship has long since been done and the business of rearing the resulting brood has been completed or is well on its way to being so. There are exceptions. Sooty Falcons, graceful all-gray raptors with a yellow eye ring and cere, delay their breeding until late summer to take advantage of the fall migration and the boom in small bird prey. But they are an exception. The odd migratory Common Swift may pass through as early as late July but they too are an exception. So for the writer charged with documenting such events, July is challenging.

And then along comes Donald Trump. Regular readers may remember a piece I wrote back in January entitled “Eye on the Environment” in which I made my environmental predictions for 2017. Gazing into my green-tinged crystal ball, I reflected on the appointments of Rick Perry and Rex Tillerson as US energy secretary and secretary of state respectively and predicted that the US would, if President Trump was to fulfill his campaign promises, withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. By the beginning of June, he was poised to do exactly that. The Paris Accord, signed by 195 of the 197 members of the UN group on climate change (the two exceptions were Syria and Nicaragua who abstained) had further been ratified by 147 of those nations, including the US.

It matters, as I argued in my January piece, because the US is, after China, the second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide on the planet, so the second-largest contributor to global warming (dismissed by Trump as a China-sponsored hoax), and global warming by its very definition affects everyone—Egypt very much included. The coral reefs, for instance, Egypt’s greatest source of biodiversity (and of tourist revenue in the past and hopefully in a brighter future), would be dramatically affected. But it is the Nile Delta that is of most concern.

The Nile Delta is one of the great river deltas of the world, and like all such deltas is by definition very low-lying. It is also a cradle to a large proportion of Egypt’s ever-growing population and an even larger proportion of its agriculture. Even a relatively small rise in global temperature is predicted to cause a significant rise in sea level directly threatening the Delta, its human population and its food production. All Egypt’s coastal areas would be threatened as sea levels rise, necessitating massive expenditure on coastal defenses. Anyone with property along the Red Sea or North Coast should be especially concerned.

And it is to the North Coast that many will be flooding—no pun intended— over the summer, especially with Egypt’s emphasis now on ‘local’ tourism and with the proliferation of gated communities along the Mediterranean shore. In many ways I resent these developments and the resultant destruction of the fragile North Coast Strip ecosystem. This narrow biome is cooler and wetter than the vastness of the Western Desert to the south and supports a unique flora and fauna. That said, the gardens and golf courses that are part and parcel of these developments may well be of great benefit to migrating birds in spring and autumn. Some of my best North Coast birding has been in fall at the war cemeteries at El Alamein.

However, this is July and the migration has not yet taken off, so wait a couple of months. But there are some special birds that in Egypt are entirely confined to the North Coast and are resident there. Yes, even in July. Take the Red-rumped Wheatear. This bird is entirely confined in Egypt to the northern coasts though the North Sinai population brooksbanki may well be extinct and there is very little way in which to check up on that. I have seen the Red-rumped Wheatear south of El Hammam west of Alexandria and courtesy of a clapped-out Fiat 131 managed to find a pair in an area of Bedouin barley fields. It is not a bird of open desert, but not a bird of gated community gardens either. It is a bird of those fields, and those fields are rapidly disappearing beneath the developer’s bulldozers. It may still cling on in the El Omayed Biosphere Reserve further west.

Further west still, further west even than the resort city of Marsa Matruh, are other gems. The area of semi-desert scrub at the junction of the road to Siwa is possibly the last place in Egypt where Dupont’s Lark has been recorded but way back in the 1990s. It is a small, almost mouselike bird about 18 cm long and with a slender, slightly decurved bill. It is also very secretive. Indeed, Lars Jonsson, author and illustrator of Birds of Europe with North Africa and the Middle East, admitted it was one of the only birds of the region he had written about and illustrated, yet had never seen. It is that rare.

Venture further west and the Western Desert escarpment meets the coast beyond Sidi Barani and toward Salloum. There may well be crows here, large black birds, their vociferous cousins the gray and black Hooded Crows so familiar in Cairo and elsewhere. But look more closely. These large black birds just here are a bit special. Anywhere else in Egypt a large black crow, all black, is going to be a Brown-necked Raven. West of Sidi Barani it is going to be a Common Raven, a stonking black bird all of 65 cm in length and with a wingspan to match. It is the largest of all the passerines, the songbirds or perching birds, and the size of a Steppe Buzzard, a bird of prey that as a migrant from Europe will be flying through from next month on.

On that escarpment, loosely screed and with scrub, is another much smaller bird. Anyone driving along the Cairo-Alex road and elsewhere may be familiar with small drab brown birds that erupt from the roadside in the face of traffic. These are Crested Larks and they are small and drab, but they do have a crest though not always obvious at 100 kmph. The small drab crested larks on the escarpment at Salloum are not Crested Larks but Thekla Larks and can be found nowhere else in the country. For those with eagle eyes or binoculars, look out for the clearer spotting on the breast, the slightly shorter bill and the habit of perching on low desert scrub rather than on the ground.

Also found here, and very rarely elsewhere in Egypt, though perhaps common to the south in Siwa, is the Saharan Swallowtail, one of Egypt’s largest and most spectacular butterflies. With a wingspan of up to 10 cm, this impressive lepidopteran is dappled in deep blue and pale yellow with crimson on the hind wings, wings that also sport the narrow tail filaments of the species’ name. The caterpillar is similarly impressive in pale green, black and orange and when threatened it everts a pair of orange tentacles (technically the osmeterium) behind the head that smell very nasty. It is some time since I have been to that escarpment at Salloum. But if the US does actually withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement then as sea levels rise and the Delta floods, all these species may relocate to Mokattam, my nearest escarpment. I hope not.

Richard Hoath is a Senior Instructor at AUC’s Department of Rhetoric and Composition. He has published extensively about Egypt’s wildlife and fauna.
There are no comments on this article.

Leave a comment