New Year found me in Germany. I was there for a family Christmas, the Hoath clan gathering at my sister’s place idyllically located beside a lake outside the small town of Starnberg near Munich.
While it was terrific to catch up with all the family news, the undoubted star of the festivities was Ben, a 12-week-old black Labrador puppy.
It is amazing how something so small can have such an impact on something as huge as a multi-bedroomed, elaborately furnished and hominoid-filled (including teenagers) house.
At less than three months, Ben was not yet up for the long walks that Labradors relish and need in adulthood. Little and often was the order of the day and I happily took on the task of lake side ambles with the pup.
I needed no real incentive. Said house adjoins a nature reserve consisting of the lake itself and adjoining acres of mixed deciduous and pine woodland.
I was on cloud nine. Mixed flocks of tits, nuthatches and Goldcrests flitted through the boughs; acrobatic bands of wintering Siskins, a small yellow-green species of finch, foraged in the aspens; and there were woodpeckers, Great-spotted and Grey-headed.
I quickly honed the skill of wielding my binoculars one-handed, the other hand controlling, or trying to, a sniffing and snuffling ball of canine curiosity.
Mammals, as always, are far harder to catch up with than their feathered counterparts.
My first mammal encounter provided a heart-stopping thrill followed by an almost immediate, but private humiliation. Bounding through the dead leaves toward a small stream was a brown, slender, cylindrical form. The mind went into overdrive.
Otter! But no. Within a nanosecond, common sense prevailed and I encountered my first genuinely Teutonic Dachshund (the name comes from German meaning Badger dog) and Ben had a new friend.
I did manage to find Red Squirrels though. These very attractive arboreal rodents are distinguished by their extravagantly bushy tails and elegantly tufted ears.
Apparently two a penny in the Bavarian woods, this species is now rare and in decline in my native United Kingdom, unable to compete with the taxonomic imperialism of the Gray Squirrel, an alien species introduced from America in the late 19th–early 20th century.
There are no squirrel species in Egypt but perhaps the closest we come is the Middle Eastern Dormouse, also known as the Asian Garden Dormouse or Large-eared Garden Dormouse.
This is an attractive rodent about 11cm long with an addition 11cm of tail. It is rusty brown to grayish above, grayer along the flanks and whitish below. The face is boldly patterned with a blackish ‘bandit’ mask through the eyes. The tail is grayish-brown toward the base then bushy and black often, but not always, tipped white.
The Middle-Eastern Dormouse has been recorded from the coastal desert from Marsa Matrouh to Sallum, though there are very few records, and from the mountains of South Sinai where there are a number of recent sightings and photographs from the vicinity of St. Catherine. It should be looked for in the vicinity of buildings, gardens, walls and on rocky screes and slopes.
Classified by the IUCN as Endangered, the northern population is probably of most concern due to rampant habitat destruction.
While I have found no evidence in the literature, it is possible that a second dormouse, the Fat or Edible Dormouse, may have found its way here during the Greco-Roman period. Its possible presence is thus for the archeologist to confirm, not the naturalist. This is an altogether larger animal, twice the size of the Middle Eastern Dormouse and much more uniform, lacking the black facial and tail markings of the latter. Its common name comes from the fact that in Roman times it was eaten and indeed kept in a state of semi-domestication.
They were reared in clay or ceramic containers that even had a special name glisarium — the Edible Dormouse’ scientific name Glis glis has the same root.
But back to Ben. There was a nice irony in walking the little chap through a lake side nature reserve in that the Labrador Retriever was first bred as a gun dog and specifically for retrieving waterfowl.
All recreational activity on the lake, Starnberger See, is banned during the winter to prevent the disturbance of the tens of thousands of waterfowl, ducks, geese and swans that flock there during the colder months. And that means no hunting, so Ben is going to have to find other work once he’s older.
But the policy was working. Huge rafts of wild birds could be found close to shore; where persecuted, they rest far from the shore.
There were large numbers of Tufted Ducks, drakes all black with white flanks and belly and a prominent tufted crest, the female duller and browner.
There were Common Pochards with dull rufous heads, black breast and gray back and flanks. There were Mallards and smaller numbers of Common Teal, Goldeneye and Goosander.
One of the challenges of duck watching is to scan a flock of hundreds perhaps thousands of birds and look for something just a bit different and possibly a bit special.
It was doing just this that turned up a half dozen or so Red-crested Pochards, the male a stunning bird with a flaming orange head and crest and a bright crimson bill.
I even learned the German word for the Red-crested Pochard: Kolbenente. I am now searching for a conversation in which to use it.
Many of these species are also found in Egypt, and in winter a visit to any wetland area should provide good sightings. Lake Nasser is an important area for wintering waterfowl, as is the lake between the Old Dam and the High Dam.
This is a particularly fruitful area for the uncommon Ferruginous Duck, a uniform dark chestnut duck with a white vent. While the sexes are alike in plumage, the male can be told by his bright white iris (eye). Those lucky enough to be on a cruise should keep their eyes peeled along the river.
Near Cairo, depending on the water level, the lake in the shadow of the Dashour Pyramids is worth an outing. I have had my best views of the very uncommon Ruddy Shelduck there.
Further afield, the Delta Lakes are important wintering grounds as is Lake Qaroun in Fayoum. It is on Qaroun that I found my first and to date only Red-breasted Merganser in Egypt.
Many of these areas are declared Protected Areas — protected, that is, on paper. Unfortunately that protection, already flimsy, is now almost nonexistent.
This winter there have been numerous reports in the local press and on the social network sites of widespread abuse of this Protected status and of the return of hunters both local and foreign taking advantage of the political and economic uncertainties.
As Nature Conservation Egypt Chairman Sherif Baha El Din told the Egypt Independent last month, “It’s difficult to raise issues of birds getting killed when the same thing is happening to people.
The solution is extremely complex, and honestly I wouldn’t know how to prevent such hunting without cooperation across the board, which isn’t likely to happen”.
I read this and the rural lake side idyll of Starnberger See seemed a long, long way away. At least Ben would have a job here. et