On The Musical Trail Of Egypt’s Bird Species
by Richard Hoath
Common birds and animals are often dull. The House Sparrow, that ubiquitous urban small bird, is dowdy as a female and not really much less dowdy as a male, the dowdiness relieved by white cheeks and a black throat. The Common Bulbul in just browns makes the House Sparrow appear positively flamboyant. The Palm Dove, equally ubiquitous, is scarcely less dowdy except on close inspection where there is tortoiseshell and dovegray. The widespread House Mouse is dull dun and the Cairo Spiny Mouse is dun too, but at least relieved by spines. So it is refreshing when a species is brazen, brash, flamboyant and colorful and despite this increasingly common. This is the Whitethroated Kingfisher.
The White-throated (sometimes called White-breasted) Kingfisher is a spectacular bird. Some 30cm long, it is big in kingfisher circles. A full 6cm of this is an enormous dagger-like bill in stunning crimson. The head is chocolate brown, the throat and breast bright white and the upper parts and tail are brilliant turquoise. In flight there is a white wing patch. Also known as the Smyrna Kingfisher, its scientific moniker is Halcyon smyrnensis. Halcyon comes from the Greek for kingfisher and is now in the English language defined as calm and peaceful as in ‘halcyon days.’ I would like to dispute this.
Over a recent week in urban, and I would like to think urbane, Garden City, I have been waking up to a loud though slightly musical wittering, a twitter that starts off high-pitched but then descends and is often repeated. The wittering call I could recall, but frustratingly I could not recall from where. And then I had a sort of epiphany moment and the memory clicked in, memories: from drives out to Saqqara to go horseback riding at a time, not so long ago when that was a doable option even midweek. By the early 2000s traffic made that impossible on a regular basis, but one of the memories of that drive was the witterings in the agricultural areas. I found the witterer. It was the White-throated Kingfisher often perched prominently on a telegraph wire or exposed branch, and all kaleidoscopic in turquoise and crimson and brown and white and with that huge bill that seemed so incongruous given the high- pitched twitter.
And now it is here in Garden City. Last weekend after a particularly intense bout of wittering a very early morning sojourn onto the balcony produced views of the courting culprit calling from atop a satellite antenna followed by fly pasts from the mate presumptive with typical kingfisher flight silhouette, huge bill and top heavy and short-winged.
The rise and rise of the White-throated Kingfisher in Egypt has been spectacular. In 1989 the definitive The Birds of Egypt by Steven Goodman and Peter Meininger referred to it as an irregular winter visitor possibly breeding in North Sinai and perhaps a few pairs in the southern Nile Delta. By the early 1990s, I had recorded it from Sheikh Zuwayd east of Al Arish in North Sinai and at Gebel Asfar just outside Cairo off the Ismailia Road. What a bird! By the late 1990s and 2000s I was seeing it regularly in the Delta and down to Saqqara alerted to that wittering. And they were clearly breeding. I had males and females clearly as pairs. I had callings and interactions and suspected but never proven nest sites. I was finding them further south at Dahshur at the lake in the shadow of the Black Pyramid. The White-throated Kingfisher is indeed a kingfisher, but it is one of a group known as the woodland kingfishers. It rarely actually fishes but rather preys on large insects, small reptiles and the like.
In 2009, I saw my first in central Cairo on the Nile across from Manial. It was perched in a doum palm looking extremely unobtrusive, but that turquoise just shone. And that enormous red bill. And since then I have been seeing them all over. In 2011, I was in Alexandria and found a very vocal threesome in the gardens of the catacombs. In November last year, I found one just south of Minya toward Beni Hassan. This has been my southernmost record of the species so far, though I once met a man on Crocodile Island in Luxor who assured me he had recorded the bird there a few days previously. In February this year, specifically February 13, I saw one in Fayoum not far from Qasr Qarun and have further reports of it from friends in the oasis at the village of Tunis. The spectacular Whitethroated Kingfisher is thriving and expanding and doing very well indeed. Look out for it in the Delta and Valley, but also now it seems in central Cairo itself.
If the kingfisher eludes you, then look out for the equally spectacular European Bee-eater. “Look out” is the wrong phrase. Listen. Just as I was alerted to my Halcyon by its high-pitched descending twitter, the European Bee-eater announces its arrival with a soft but very audible and oftrepeated ‘kroop kroop kroop.’ Once heard, look up and soaring overhead may well be flocks of these birds, slender-winged and long tailed. A not-too-distant relative of the kingfishers, the European bee-eater is bright turquoise below, chestnut above with a startling yellow throat and a black bandit mask through the eyes. It is a migrant in Egypt passing through in spring and fall save for a breeding population in North Sinai. Two related species may be found throughout the summer. The Bluecheeked Bee-eater is all green save for a red throat and white and turquoise and black eye mask. It is a migrant, but breeds in the Delta, at least until recently at Abu Sir. And then there is the Little Green bee-eater which is indeed little and green but with a black throat collar.
As the weather heats up, many heading for the beaches of the Red Sea may take relief under water and the kaleidoscope of color continues. Watch out for parrotfish. They are amongst the most obvious and easily observed of the coral reef fishes. Most are large up to 1.3 metres in the Bumphead Parrotfish. Many are brightlycolored especially the mature males and it may be that they got their popular name from their gaudy coloration. One of the more common is the Rusty parrotfish that is more indigo and emerald and mauve and blue than rusty. The female is much drabber in brown and beige with a bright yellow tail.
Those who just lie on the beach rather than enter the water have a special reason to appreciate parrotfish. Another explanation for their name is their parrot-like beak. The teeth of the parrotfish are fused together to form a formidable grinding tool. Parrotfish are herbivores and graze on the algae coating dead coral. As they scrape away at the reef, the coral is ingested with the living algae and then evacuated finely ground and cleansed, and it is this sand that forms much of the white coral beaches so beloved of the tourist brochures. Lay your towel on the beach and you are laying it on stuff that has passed through the digestive system of a fish — albeit possibly a very attractive fish.
Parrotfish are not the only creatures eroding away at Egypt’s reefs – though they are at least natural. The ceding or giving back or surrendering or whatever the experts and/pundits call it, of Tiran and Sanafir islands in the Gulf of Aqaba to Saudi Arabia has raised the specter of the Red Sea bridge once more. Such a project, like the windmill in Orwell’s Animal Farm seems a folly and in environmental terms is a potential disaster. The Gulf of Aqaba supports some of the richest coral reefs on the planet, an area of immense, barely rivaled biodiversity. To bulldoze a mega project over it for political expediency is a travesty even at proposal stage. Much of the Gulf falls under Egypt’s Protected Area network. Ras Mohamed at the mouth of the Gulf is a National Park declared in 1983 under Prime Ministerial Decree 1068 and adjusted by Prime Ministerial Decree 2035 of 1996. Tiran Island is included under these decrees and is part of that National Park, Egypt’s first. Its status is now, shall we say, unclear.