Nature Notes: Diary Of A Naturalist
On the daunting, but often sobering, challenge of formally writing up field notes.
by Richard Hoath
I have made my New Year’s resolutions and as they are hard to keep I’ve only made two. The first is not to smoke. That is my safety resolution, one that I first made when I was 14 and had my nicotine initiation behind the school bike sheds, an initiation that made me feel so nauseous that the experiment was never repeated. And will not be. Ever. So I can always keep that resolution — it’s my default. My second was to start writing up formally my wildlife observations from the various journals and diaries and trip logs that I have kept. That is going well. I have two works in progress, one on the breeding birds of Siwa Oasis and another on the birdlife of the Western Desert. The latter is tentatively, but not catchily, entitled A Contribution to the Ornithology of Egypt’s Western Desert including the Gilf Kebir and Gebel Uweinat. It will struggle to get a readership in double figures. Perhaps I should retitle it Harry Potter and a Contribution to the Ornithology of Egypt’s Western Desert including the Gilf Kebir and Gebel Uweinat and sign myself off as J. K. Hoath.
But it has got me back to looking at the journals and especially, with the above pieces in mind, two trips, one in January 2008 to the Gilf Kebir and then in June 2009 to the Gilf once more but continuing onwards and southwards to Gebel Uweinat right in the southeastern corner of the country. In one of the wadis that cleaves Gebel Uweinat is a post in the gravel scree that marks the point where Sudan, Libya and Egypt meet, a point of sublime geographical quirkiness that appeals massively to the quirky geographer in me.
Quirkiness aside, the exercise has also been — or is being, it is a work in progress — a sobering one too. Both expeditions were made with full security clearance and indeed a military officer was assigned on each occasion. Now the security situation has changed dramatically. Such trips are no longer possible given the situation in Libya and the paranoia about tourist security here. The field notes record observations made of areas that may not be visited in the foreseeable future and it becomes ever more important to get them down more formally.
For those unfamiliar with the Gilf Kebir, it is a huge massif, often described as the “size of Switzerland” close to the border with Libya and north of Uweinat. It is perhaps most famous for the Cave of the Swimmers immortalized in Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel, and later the film, The English Patient. It is less known for the much more impressive rock paintings of the Mestakawi-Foggini Cave. Neither, by the way, are really caves. It is extremely barren. It is desert desert. I have given a number of lectures based on the general theme The Living Desert arguing that the desert is anything but the lifeless wasteland of popular belief but a vibrant and intricate ecosystem of plants and animals adapted to an unforgiving environment. I take visitors out to Wadi Degla and show this in the field. White-crowned, Hooded and Mourning Wheatears, Brown-necked Ravens, loose flocks of Trumpeter Finches, Scrub Warblers and even Sand Partridge. There are Burton’s Carpet Vipers and Horned Vipers, gecko species and lacertids. Mammals are more difficult but the tracks are there — gerbils and jerboas and foxes. There is life in the desert, goes my argument, you just need the eyes and ears to find it.
Looking back on my notes from the two expeditions to the Gilf, that life proved spectacularly hard to find. At the Mestakawi-Foggini Cave at the base of the western Gilf, almost in Libya, I wrote.
…and enjoying the silence for, apart from the obvious lack of human noise there is no birdsong. Since leaving Abu Minquar I have not seen a single living bird, just the dead Lanner and Little Egret and the warbler feather on day two. [The party’s] conversation apart, there is absolute silence.
A desert bereft of even that most stalwart of desert denizens the Whitecrowned Black Wheatear, is indeed desert. What a contrast to the cave paintings, perhaps 10,000 years old, of antelope and ostrich and baboon and lion, paintings of a time cooler and wetter than now where the landscape supported a wildlife more akin to that of the savannahs of Kenya or Tanzania. Today, the climate is very different. Just across the border in Libya at Al Azizyah the highest daytime shade temperatures ever were recorded in 1922: 58º C (136.4 Fahrenheit sounds even more impressive). On the second trip in June 2009 it certainly felt thereabouts. I can remember clambering up the cliff side of Wadi Queba north of the Gilf early on the morning of January 25, 2008, and I noted,
The last part is a scramble up a small cliff and I am on top. It reminds me of the plateau above the Eastern Desert at Wadi Rish Rash. It is a flat vegetationless surface strewn with black angular rocks and gravel. Absolutely barren, absolutely lifeless but for the tracks of what are probably beetles.
And so there was life! And so it proved elsewhere. Where there may have been no birdsong there were butterflies. At Mestakawi-Foggini again there was a Painted Lady that flitted by, so appropriate as it reflects the colours of the paintings, terracotta, brown and white. So fitting. And again further north in another wadi devoid of vegetation, For me the highlight was a pair of Painted Lady butterflies. What on earth are they doing here? Where did they come from and is this a one-way trip for them or will they survive to breed elsewhere. It is intriguing as is the evidence of any life here.
Perhaps even less expected was the Striped Hawkmoth, a bulky moth with angular, sweptback forewings with the stripes of its name and shocking pink hindwings bordered boldly with black from Wadi Mashi on January 20, 2008.
It found our blackening and overripe bananas much more attractive than we did, and one hawkmoth so many hundreds of kilometers from anywhere seemingly moth friendly (we probably had the most isolated overripe bananas in the world) would be a surprise. But reading through my notes they were regular at our campsites in some of the most austere habitats on the planet, Wadi Queba on the 25th and over a year later at Wadi Hamra on June 4, 2009. It is a strongly migratory species.
Where there is life, there is death too. Millions of birds cross the Western Desert each spring and fall and not all make it. Parts of the desert are scattered with the long-dead carcasses of those that failed, most so desiccated that identification proved impossible. On June 4, 2009, though, I found a perfectly preserved wing with the feathers still intact. It proved something of a puzzle at first with black secondaries boldly spotted white and startlingly chestnut primaries tipped black and white. It proved to be that of a juvenile Great-spotted Cuckoo, a bird at best uncommon in Egypt and to date this wing, which I still have, is my only evidence for it here. It is sobering. The chestnut on the wing clearly shows it to be a juvenile so this bird would have been heading south from Europe one spring on its first and what would prove to be its only migration. I sketched it over the campfire that evening, part for the record, part perhaps in homage.
On June 2, 2009, there was even a ladybird in camp southeast of Pillar Rock east of the Great Sand Sea. It was red with nine black spots and I tentatively identified it as the 9-spot Ladybird. They would feast on the aphids infesting my father’s blackcurrants in a childhood spent just north of London. I was not expecting to find it in the parched vastness of Egypt’s Great Sand Sea.
All these scribblings have been revisited as I try to keep my resolution to get these notes written up. Events, internal and external making travel to the remoter and less accessible corners of the country more difficult in terms of bureaucratic logistics and security, mean that it is doubly important to have these records preserved. I very much hope I am wrong, but it may be a long time before I get to visit these areas again however much I resolve.