Richard Hoath Richard Hoath

Nature Notes: Of Fur and Feathers

Thu, Jun. 8, 2017
I like to think we all have a passion, something outside the workplace, outside family that gives us enormous pleasure. And it may be eccentric and it might be quirky. My brother’s passion is transport (he owns his own vintage lorry) and especially airplanes. He’s an aerophile and this is very useful. When I go back to London in the summer he actually looks forward to picking me up at the airport. He gets there early. He’s at the viewing lounge noting the aircraft. The arrival of his older sibling is just peripheral. I hope he is not reading this.

My father was the same but his passion was buses. I have never had, do not have and devoutly hope I will never have an interest in buses.

But my passion is natural history and while I would love to spend my entire life travelling the globe looking for anything with fur, feather or scales, the economic reality of earning a living precludes that. With the exception of David Attenborough. I do get to live my dream in the summer when sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia beckon or in winter when a flock of Greater Flamingos on Lake Qarun adds local color, in flight a very pink tinged local color. But much of the travel is vicarious. I have friends and colleagues traversing the world doing meetings and conferences and the like but grabbing precious moments between to take some time out and they send me their photographs of the birds and animals they have seen and I take enormous pleasure in trying to identify the critters. I have a friend in Connecticut who sends me his excellent photographs of feathered stuff and it helps me keep abreast of my American ID skills. I love it. I truly do.

I have another colleague who promised to send me her wildlife photos from the Masai Mara in Kenya. She has not done so. I’m begging her. Rania—if you are out there send me the photos. That was until last week.

Last week I made just the same request of a friend and colleague who had spent mid-April in Tanzania and at the Ngorongoro Crater and on the Serengeti Plains specifically. I have visited both and marveled in the wildlife extravaganza of both. The Ngorongora Crater is exactly that, a huge extinct volcanic caldera which provides a natural arena for the full cast of East Africa’s finest fauna. The Serengeti Plains sees the last great migration on Earth, home in winter to unequalled numbers of wildebeest, zebra, antelopes, gazelles and of course all the attendant predators. Send me the photos I said. Send me the photos I’ll identify them, identify them all. I really enjoy doing this. I really, really do. And I do.

So he sent me the photographs from his Facebook page. I should do Facebook but I don’t. I signed in one time because I was once required to for a conference but that was it and I am probably now in the Guinness Book of Records for having the least number of “friends” or “likes” on Facebook. But I digress; I got the images and it was everything that I had expected. There were lions, excellent photographs of a leopard doing what leopards do best, lounging around in a tree and cheetahs doing what cheetahs do best, standing around on slightly taller stuff scanning the savannah for dinner. There were Thomson’s Gazelles and Grant’s Gazelles and Impalas and Topis.

There were Giraffes and Olive Baboons and some very approachable weaver birds. When it comes to photo-identification I love the challenge of weaver birds. There are, after a brief skim through my Stevenson and Fanshawe’s Birds of East Africa nigh on 34 species recorded from Tanzania alone. In Egypt we have one—the Streaked Weaver that breeds in the Delta but that is a bit of a cheat as it has been introduced from South Asia. But amongst all of these safari stalwarts was one image that made the blood run cold as the “green-eyed monster” of Shakespeare’s Othello unpleasantly emerged. Pure jealousy.

The image was of a cat. But this was no pampered Persian or rescued baladi. This was a wild cat and of a caracal. The caracal is neither a big nor a small cat and I will lay my naturalist credentials on the line to describe it as medium-sized. Weighing it at some 15 kilograms it is around a meter long including a tail of some 20 cm—proportionally short for a cat. It is uniform brown-beige throughout, slightly paler below so lacking the spots and stripes so typical of many cat species. Its defining feature is the ears. They sport long and elegant tufts and the backs are black whence the name—from the Turkish kara (black) and kulak (ear).

These cats have an extensive range over much of sub-Saharan and northern Africa, the Middle East and on through Asia as far east as India. In Egypt they have been recorded from the Eastern Desert and North and South Sinai.

I have been to much of sub-Saharan Africa. I have travelled throughout the Middle East and on to India. I have been to Egypt’s Eastern Desert and to North and South Sinai. I’m a naturalist and I am looking for these things and I have never seen a wild caracal. And yet here, hidden in a portfolio of East African staples, was this very special cat.

The Iago in me arose and not for the first time. Another friend of mine saw the caracal in South Africa and reported the sighting nonchalantly embedded in an e-mail of much blander stuff. This was a person who had seen Egyptian Nightjars, an elusive and very difficult to find nocturnal bird, while riding in the desert near Saqqara—and reported back to me describing them as “flying teddybears.” To identify an Egyptian Nightjar from the moniker “flying teddybear” is probably my finest bird identification moment but only confirmed after I mounted my own steed, my beloved Samarkand and found them near Abu Sir for myself. But she had seen a caracal!

I find solace in the less elusive stuff. Here in Egypt spring sprang and summer is upon us. There was a magnificent flyover of migrating European Bee-eaters in late April and early May and the odd few are still passing over as I write. A few will stay and breed in North Sinai. In Cairo the Blackbird has been in full song and I have seen males resplendent in all black with golden bills and eye-rings, and females unresplendent in dark brown and no golden bills and eye-rings—they will be breeding.

And the Rufous Bush Robin has arrived. I get excited by the Rufous Bush Robin for two reasons. Firstly it is a very attractive bird, a 16 cm relative of the thrushes and chats that sports a brightly chestnut rufous tail often cocked and tipped black and white. Secondly it is one of the very, very few land birds that actually visits Egypt in summer to breed.

The other that springs to mind is the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. Many bird species are resident and breed here. Many others spend the winter here and many more migrate through here in spring and fall. Very few visit just for the summer to breed.

On the cold-blooded front I am looking forward to a fresh generation of Egyptian Square-marked Toads. I saw a pair embraced in amplexus in April. Amplexus is indeed the Latin for embrace and refers to the diminutive male toad clinging piggyback-style to the much larger female toad. The result will be strands of toad eggs in irrigation canals, backwaters, ponds and puddles throughout the Delta and Valley. Who needs caracals?

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