As this is Egypt Today’s now traditional spring break issue, I have been exercising the gray matter thinking back to exotic locations I have travelled to in recent years to share with readers the weird and the wonderful. Ethiopia last April was an undoubted highlight with all its incredible endemics – animal and plant species found there and nowhere else. Or Yemen from the previous winter – again the endemics but sadly now too much frisson from the current political situation there. A bit too weird and currently not wonderful.
Then I attended a large environmental festival on AUC’s new campus out beyond Katameyya (only slightly closer than Addis Ababa) organized by the student group Green Hands. The theme of the festival was Go Green – Go Local. On prominent display there was the huge poster I mentioned last month, the one celebrating Egypt’s Protected Areas and its natural heritage. That was inspirational enough. I too will go green and go local and share a few beautiful and uplifting locations here in Egypt that are accessible and yet certainly of the road less travelled.
My first is a group of islands in the Red Sea about 40 kilometers north of Hurghada and well off the normal diving circus, for the attraction here is not underwater but the islands themselves. Known as the Hurghada Archipelago, these bare, rocky and desolate bits of land are completely uninhabited and save for some extensive mangrove patches, virtually unvegetated. And yet they are home and breeding ground to many of Egypt’s seabird species including Hemprich’s Gull and the White-eyed Gull, various tern species including White-cheeked, Bridled, Lesser Crested, Swift and Caspian Terns, as well as the Brown Booby, Western Reef Heron, Spoonbill, Osprey and Sooty Falcon.
The White-eyed Gull is of particular interest as it is a species largely confined to the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf — a regional endemic. For most of us, gulls are various shades of gray above and white below and in possession of a powerful bill and correspondingly big voice. The White-eyed is a far more handsome bird with a slightly drooping dark-tipped, red bill, a black head relieved by striking white patches above and below the eyes, and a gray mantle. It retains the voice though.
The less common Hemprich’s Gull (formerly the Sooty Gull) is darker and drabber with a largely yellow bill and a dark brown hood relieved only by an indistinct white brow above the eye. The terns are generally smaller and slimmer with an often deeply forked white tail. The exception is the huge Caspian Tern, the largest tern in the world with a great carrot of a crimson orange bill.
Breeding sea birds can be very vulnerable, and Hurghada Archipelago is now a Protected Area. Much damage has been done to the colonies and indeed habitat on the popular island of Abu Minquar south of Hurghada. But these islands — Tawila, Shadwan, North and South Geisum —and the others can be enjoyed and birded from a boat, a most relaxing and enjoyable experience. This will also afford the best chance of seeing the islands’ biggest secret, and one that has so far eluded me, the Red-billed Tropicbird. This is one of the species’ only known breeding sites in Egypt. It is largely white, barred black above with black wing tips and a bright red bill. However its most distinctive feature is its tail, two long white streamers that effectively double the bird’s length to nearly a meter.
Of course there are all the marine attractions too. Sea turtles, Green and Hawksbill, are often seen as well as a number of dolphin species such as Indo-pacific Spotted, Bottle-nosed, Spinner and Risso’s. One spring I also saw Manta Rays cavorting in the water in what was either a feeding frenzy or courtship.
For those who like their natural history more upmarket, I can think of nowhere better than heading down to Aswan and ensconcing oneself in the Old Cataract. I have actually never stayed in the Old Cataract myself. I have stayed in the New Cataract which has the distinct advantage of the view from the balcony not being disrupted by the concrete monolith one is staying in. At the Old Cataract there is all the history of course — and what better book to take than Andrew Humphreys’ new Grand Hotels of Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel (see page 108 for a review). But for me the real charm lies just upstream with yet more islands and another protectorate, the Saluga and Ghazal Protected Area. The islands between the Old Cataract and the Old Dam are perhaps the last vestiges of Egypt’s native Nilotic habitat. Southwards, Lake Nasser has drowned the valley and north to the Mediterranean itself the landscape has been totally transformed by man’s activities. In this labyrinthine maze of channels between richly vegetated, granite islets, a last fragment of primal Egypt clings on.
The islands are at their best in the very early morning when a boat — rowing or motored, not sail — either from the hotel or from any of the vendors along the corniche, can be arranged. The birds are stunning and approachable. There are roosts of stocky Black-crowned Night Herons, elegant Little Egrets, Squacco Herons and Little Bitterns. Watch out for Little Grebes diving with barely a ripple and for Lesser Pied Kingfishers hovering meters above the water before plunging down to emerge, if successful, with a fish in their bill.
But keep an eye out especially for the Purple Gallinule. This is like a Moorhen on steroids, 50 cm long and violet-blue throughout with a gleaming white “bottom” and a bright red and stonking great bill, legs and elongated toes. In most places the view you get of this rather wary bird is that bottom disappearing into the reeds. Here they seem tamer and certainly can be seen at much closer quarters. And O that beak!
In winter there are ducks, and the area is especially renowned for the now globally threatened Ferruginous Duck.
After slaving away at early birding, one can retire for breakfast and preferably to a hotel with a garden, for arguably Egypt’s most beautiful bird is relatively easy to spot while getting round the bacon and eggs — or the fuul and taameyya. The Nile Valley Sunbird is only 9 cm long. The male is brilliantly iridescent green above, shimmering in the sunlight, and sulfur yellow below with tail projections that almost double his length, and a slender down-curved bill. The female is much more dowdy in muted olive, paler below. In Spring the male will be calling and fluffing himself up and waving that tail around as he makes his pitch for a mate. Watch for them around any flowering shrub or blooming acacia.
Sunbirds look strikingly similar to the hummingbirds of the Americas but are not even closely related. While hummingbirds are renowned for their unparalleled aerial skills, hovering back and forth between blooms, sunbirds take the same nectar generally from a perch. The closest relatives of the sunbirds are thought to be the tits, the titmice and chickadees, while the hummingbirds are most closely related to the swifts.
And it is the swifts that bring us back to Tahrir. The Pallid Swifts are back on or rather over the Square hurtling through the urban airspace hawking up their insect prey. It is good to see — and indeed hear as their shrieks pierce the air. Swifts do everything on the wing. They eat on the wing, they sleep on the wing and, yes, they mate on the wing. It is spring and there is a veritable Pallid Swift orgy taking place just meters above us. But don’t tell the Salafis.