Elephant Hawkmoth-adult
Elephant Hawkmoth-caterpillar, with thanks to Neil Hewison Elephant Hawkmoth-adult Elephant Hawkmoth-caterpillar, with thanks to Neil Hewison

February Finds

Mon, Feb. 12, 2018
My birthday is in February. It is squeezed between the birth of Charles Darwin—something, or someone, of a personal hero and St. Valentine’s Day. Other auspicious happenings on February 13 include the death of Wagner and the Massacre of Glencoe, a highland tiff from the Scottish hills some three centuries ago. I am told I am an Aquarius but I do not follow the quackery of astrology. Any lingering doubts about this pseudo-science disappeared in childhood when my horoscope informed me that “today is a good day to buy a camera.” So bizarre was the image of one twelfth of the world’s billions dashing out to buy photographic equipment that I renounced it there and then. So February might be an inauspicious month and indeed nature would seem to back this up—in Egypt it is one of the coldest, wettest and grayest of months. But more interesting things are afoot.

February is one of the last chances to catch up with some of our winter visitors; and some of the most rewarding sites are the Delta lakes in the northernmost part of the country.

Immediately to the south of Alexandria is Lake Maryut, obvious for the unfortunate reason that the lake’s odor hits you as you head toward the city. But it is good for birds, for wintering waders, ducks, herons, egrets and gulls. There are smaller lakes to the south—outliers of Maryut itself and these can be rewarding for a couple of species not common in Egypt and largely restricted to the very north of the country. The first is the Common Starling, a short-tailed, dark bird with a rather slender, yellow, very sharp bill and about 22 centimeters long. In winter, it is all dark, heavily speckled with pale buff but by the end of this month, many birds will be adopting their breeding plumage, a beautiful shining black throughout glossed with purple and green. On the ground, in dull light the Common Starling bears a passing resemblance to the Blackbird, an increasingly common winter visitor and resident. However, the Blackbird hops and the Starling walks in a rather staccato fashion, erect and with an almost military bearing.

The best time to find Starlings is at dusk when flocks known as murmurations wheel over the lakes ahead of descending into the reeds to roost. It is not a common bird in Egypt but in much of Europe the murmurations can be of hundreds of thousands of birds wheeling around in almost cloud like formations.

There are lots of gulls on Maryut and most will be Slender-billed Gulls and Black-headed Gulls. In winter, the two species are rather similar but around this time of year the Blackheaded Gull adopts a dark hood—not black as the name more than suggests but deep chocolate brown. Flocks of Black-headed Gulls are worth a closer look for amongst them there may be a much smaller gull, which also adopts a hood but a real coal black one. This is the aptly named Little Gull. From a distance, or with lone birds when size is not apparent (the Little Gull is the world’s smallest gull at just 28 centimeters long), the Little Gull can readily be identified by its uniformly dark underwings.

To the east of Maryut continuing along the International Coastal Road is Lake Idku. In the past, I have found this a good place for Avocets, a handsome black and white wader with a very slender up-turned bill—its generic name is Recurvirostra—and the Golden Plover. The latter is a small, short-billed wader that in winter is a rather uniform mottled buff with a streaked breast. It is less tied to water than many waders and the farmlands around Idku may be more rewarding than the lake itself. That is where I have found small flocks but otherwise I have only seen singletons at Zaranik.

Elephant Hawkmoth-adult

On further east, beyond Rashid (or Rosetta, discovery site of the iconic stone) is Lake Burulus. Separated from the Mediterranean by only a narrow causeway along which runs the Coastal Road, this has a more marine feel about it than the other lakes and my target species here would be the Sandwich Tern. Named after a small coastal town in southern England and not the popular convenience food, it is one of Egypt’s largest terns at 40 centimeters long. Like all terns, it is slender, long and narrow-winged but lacks the long tail streamers of some species. Its defining features include short, black legs, a long slender black bill with a yellow tip and moulting into summer plumage as now, a shaggy black crest.

The easternmost of the Delta lakes is Lake Manzala, the eastern shore of which is protected, at least on paper, by the Ashtum El Gamil Protectorate. While I have yet to see it here, Manzala is worth a visit, not least after a seafood lunch at Damietta for another gull, this time Audouin’s Gull. This is one of the world’s rarest gulls and restricted to the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic coast of north-west Africa. By the 1960s it had been reduced to just 1,000 pairs but has since recovered somewhat and is establishing new colonies but not yet in Egypt.

It is more strictly coastal than other gulls but I have seen it along the coast of North Sinai and Manzala seems to provide similar habitat. It is a handsome gull, pure white with a gray mantle, rather dark grayish legs and a deep red bill with a black and yellow tip. Special. France has just agreed to lend the UK the famous Bayeux Tapestry, a 1,000-year-old, 70-meter-long piece of embroidery documenting the defeat of King Harold by the French King William Conqueror and there is much debate in the English press as to what we can do in return. The least I can do is to mention that Audouin’s Gull owes its name to the famous French naturalist Jean Victoire Audouin.

In writing this, I was going over previous notes and found that last year was a spectacular year for a spectacular group of insects—the hawkmoths. These powerful insects are heavy bodied and winged and can reach a prestigious size, the Death’s Head Hawkmoth amongst the largest with a forewing of up to six centimeters (that’s a 12 centimeter wingspan). Last year I noted Striped Hawkmoth, Hummingbird Hawkmoth, the sumptuous as well as spectacular Oleander Hawkmoth and the Elephant Hawkmoth. The latter I had not seen myself but I had several photographs sent to me of its caterpillar by people from as far afield as Alexandria, Maadi and Fayoum wondering what on earth it was. The caterpillar can reach eight centimeters in length and is rather dull ocher to green variably speckled. The name comes from the rather small and elongated front segments that some suggest (to my mind very vaguely—what are they on?) an elephant’s trunk. Its defining feature is a pair of large eyespots that are revealed when the head is tucked in and the dorsum raised giving the impression of a much larger animal. The adult is simply beautiful. With a wingspan of around eight centimeters, it is a soft olive green throughout with the wings and body boldly marked in magenta pink with gleaming white legs and antennae. I have never seen the adult insect in Egypt but many years ago it gave me one of my first memorable insect experiences.

Coming home from primary school on the roadside, I saw this spectacular, if dead, moth resplendent in its greens and pinks. I took it home, hit the books and with wonder was able to match my find with the pictures. The Elephant Hawkmoth—simply beautiful. I’ll be looking out for the adult in Egypt this spring and if I find it, and given the number of caterpillars I have been made aware of, I should. I am sure it will evoke that same wonder.

Richard Hoath is a Senior Instructor at AUC’s Department of Rhetoric and Composition. He has published extensively about Egypt’s wildlife and fauna.
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