Bird - Richard Hoath Bird - Richard Hoath

Natural Cycles

Fri, Sep. 22, 2017
September finds many natural cycles coming full cycle. If spring was for canoodling and courtship then summer was for family stuff, of rearing and raising. Now those young are leaving the nest and, in bird terms especially, spreading their wings. The newly fledged will be dispersing and it is an exciting time for the naturalist. With practice and a good eye it is possible to distinguish this year’s youngsters from their parents.

But it should first be noted that parental care is relatively rare in the animal kingdom.

Most invertebrate species exhibit no parental care whatsoever though there are exceptions. Female scorpions make attentive mothers, the young scorpions climbing on to the mother’s back and benefitting from the protection of her formidable pincers and even more formidable sting. Female wolf spiders carry their cocoon of eggs around in in some species make the ultimate sacrifice with the female dying and sacrificing herself as food for the emerging spiderlets. But they are spineless exceptions. Perhaps the greatest example occurs below water with coral blooms where a multitude of coral sperm and ova meet at random but at very specific times when the water turns cloudy as a result. But there is no parental care—not even contact.

Staying beneath the waves though some of the most dramatic differences between adults and juveniles can be witnessed—so dramatic that the juvenile creature might even be taken as a different species to the adult creature. In the Red Sea fish families such as the angelfish and butterfly fishes, the parrotfish and wrasses and even some sharks exhibit this phenomena. My favorite is the Clown Coris. This is a wrasse species the adult male of which is a fairly unassuming, though up to a meter long, dull green with a single pale band down the side and a slightly bulbous forehead. He looks nothing like a clown—no red nose, big shoes or wacky haircut. The name comes from the juvenile. Much smaller this is pure white with the head and fins dotted with black and with two large black spots with red blotches below - the tears of a clown—on the dorsum that do look very much like clown eyes. In my experience the juvenile is much harder to find than the adult but should be looked out for on shallow reefs.

Another wrasse species is the African Coris where the adult male is unresplendent in 40 cm of rather dull greenish brown but the juvenile is brightly orange boldly striped with three white bands bordered with black. In this case the juvenile may well be a clownfish mimic, gaining protection from that species, elevated to stardom by the movie Finding Nemo through its association with poisonous anemone.

In these cases the juveniles and adults may be found together though in slightly differing habitats but there has been little parental care. In the reptiles and amphibians that too is often the case. With sea turtles such as the Green Turtle and the Hawksbill Turtle that both breed on Egyptian beaches there is no rearing of the young. After perhaps years at sea the female sea turtle will return to her breeding beach, the beach where she will have been born, and she will clamber ashore and bury her dozens of eggs in an excavated burrow in the sand. She makes her laborious way back to the sea that same evening and that is that as far as she is concerned. Weeks later the eggs hatch and entirely independently the hatchling turtles emerge from the sand and make their hazardous way down to the sea to embark on their careers as marine reptiles. Sans mere. While dozens of eggs are laid very, very few will make through the vagaries of life on the open wave to return to that beach to repeat the process years later.

So to the birds. One of Egypt’s big natural success stories of recent decades has been the spread of the Blackbird. Until the 1970’s this 27cm relative of the thrushes was merely a winter visitor to Egypt. By the 1990s it was breeding in the Delta and in North Sinai and since then has hugely expanded its ramge along the North Coast and south up the Nile Valley and to the Western Oases, even Siwa. The male is matt black throughout relieved by a canary yellow bill and eye ring. The female is plain dark brown.

Many residents may have heard the fabulously mellifluous song of the males in parks and gardens throughout Cairo and elsewhere in spring. The young will have fledged the nest some time ago but may still be distinguished from the adults by being paler and browner and with rather more scaled underparts. Look out for them scrabbling around at ground level beneath deep shrubbery or out in the open on grassland.

Another resident that is dispersing is the Great Grey Shrike. This is a grey, black and white bird with a distinctive black bandit’s mask through the eyes. An alternative name for the shrikes is butcherbird. Shrikes feed on large insects, small reptiles, nestling birds and the like and in times of plenty they impale excess prey on thorns—the result known as a shrike’s larder. Modern birds now use barbed wire. The Great Grey Shrike was known by that moniker until the 1990s when many experts felt that the birds breeding in Egypt and the region should be split as Southern Grey Shrikes. It now seems the pendulum has swung back and in recent publications we are back to Great Grey Shrike again. While the adults are rather striking slim and long tailed birds the juveniles may be distinguished by a shorter tail, stubbier bill with a pinkish base and discreet barring below. Again this is a common bird of farmlands parks and gardens through much of Egypt even down to Gebel Uweinat in the very south-western corner of the country.

In most birds the immature or first winter plumage is short-lived before the bird molts into the full adult garb but in some of the larger, longer-lived birds this aging process takes much longer and in the case of some of the larger eagles up to six years. For me September marks the true end of summer as the migrants start passing through after leaving their breeding grounds in Europe and Asia and flapping and soaring their way through Egyptian airspace. A few, such as the Common Swift may have started passage in August but September is the beginning of the real flypast. Scanning the skies for the large birds of prey such as the Steppe, Greater-spotted, Lesser-spotted and Imperial Eagles it is possible to not identify the birds just down to species but by looking carefully at the plumage to age them as first, second or third year birds. For instance, the Greater-spotted Eagle as an adult is completely devoid of spots—it is almost completely plain dark brown. The juvenile and first winter birds however are very clearly spotted but by the second winter this spotting is much less apparent. The lake at Dashour used to be a good spot for at least one of these eagles in winter.

My favorite though is the Cuckoo. This slender winged, long-tailed rather hawk-like bird passes through Egypt in Fall, the male dove grey above and white, barred black below. Some of the females are similar but others are deep chestnut barred black above. The immature is similar to the rufous female but with a white patch on the nape. It is uncommon in Egypt and indeed I have never seen an adult Cuckoo here just juveniles.

And there is the fabulousness. The juvenile Cuckoos will never have seen an adult Cuckoo either. The female lays her eggs in the nest of a much smaller wren, or pipit, or warbler somewhere in northern Europe. Brought up by the duped foster parents the juvenile Cuckoo heads towards its sub-Saharan wintering grounds in fall with no parental guidance whatsoever driven purely by instinct. Incredible! et

Richard Hoath is a Senior Instructor at AUC’s Department of Rhetoric and Composition. He has published extensively about Egypt’s wildlife and fauna.
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