Out of the Blue



Sun, 22 Oct 2017 - 08:00 GMT


Sun, 22 Oct 2017 - 08:00 GMT

Cranes from the Fifth Dyansty mastaba of Ti, Saqqara, with one Demoiselle Crane (left) and one Common Crane(right)

Cranes from the Fifth Dyansty mastaba of Ti, Saqqara, with one Demoiselle Crane (left) and one Common Crane(right)

CAIRO – 22 October 2017: Great wildlife experiences can come completely out of the blue—literally. I was on AUC’s New Campus early on the morning of August 27 when the air filled with a soft honking, a series of low, sonorous krrros. I looked up and in the blue was a flock of around 150 Common Cranes spiraling upward before heading west toward the Valley in a series of skinny Vs. To paraphrase my favorite poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, how my heart stirred for the bird, the mastery of the thing. Common Cranes are serious birds, stately birds. Pale grey with black necks and wingtips they stand 110cm tall and fly with a wingspan of over two meters and neck outstretched distinguishing them from the larger herons. To quote a zillion adolescents—awesome.

It’s an unfortunate name, Common Crane. Cranes are special. Some, such as the Whooping Crane of North America, are extremely rare. Others, such as the Sarus Crane of South and South East Asia and the Red-crowned Crane of Japan are revered in their respective cultures. While not deified in Ancient Egypt like the Sacred Ibis, cranes are frequently portrayed in Egyptian tomb and temple friezes. Sometimes the portrayal is almost of semi-domestication. The cranes were almost certainly wild-caught, not captive bred, and there are scenes of trapping and of cranes being force-fed such as at the VIth dynasty tomb of Mehu at Saqqara. My favorite is a portrayal in the Vth Dynasty tomb of Ti at also Saqqara. Here, a flock of Common Cranes 14 in number are depicted being herded in a scene of almost semi-domestication. A close look at the depiction reveals two interesting anomalies. Firstly, the number of legs is wrong. With 14 cranes there should be, barring accident, 28 legs. There are 24. Secondly, while the bulk of the cranes are clearly Common Cranes, three are smaller, with a curl of feathers curving round from behind the eye. These are Demoiselle Cranes.

The Demoiselle measures stand at 90 cm, with a wingspan of around 180 cm smaller than its Common relative. It is uniform dove grey with elegantly ornate plumes falling over the tail—demoiselle means maiden or young lady. The head and neck are black, and that curved plume contrastingly white. While the Common Crane is reasonably numerous on migration, the Demoiselle is much rarer. It breeds on the steppes of western Asia and winters in sub-Saharan Africa, but is rarely recorded in Egypt. I have seen it here just once—a single bird at the sewage ponds at Sharm El Sheikh way back on September 6, 1993.

What a day that was! Early morning, a flock of some 200 White Storks descended on the ponds all gleaming white and black with coral red bills. The gleaming white was not to last as the birds foraged in the garbage mounds that surrounded. There was my first male Golden Oriole for Egypt. This is a 24 cm exercise in brilliant yellow and black with a deep pinkish bill. For all that brilliance, it is hard to see in dense sun-dappled foliage; this was my first clear view amongst the eucalyptus groves. The female is even more cryptic in olives and yellow-tinged greens. At dawn, I watched flocks of Crowned Sandgrouse fly in to drink while at dusk; as a further 300 White Storks arrived, they were replaced by Lichtenstein’s the males dipping their breasts in the ponds to absorb the water sponge-like prior to flying back to their desert nests.

Other demoiselles are rather easier to find. Over virtually any irrigation canal, pond, stream or marsh will be dragonflies and damselflies. At rest, the two groups are readily distinguished as dragonflies settle with their wings spread out either side, and the damselflies with their wings closed over the back. Few insect groups are more spectacular. To turn once more to Hopkins but this time to quote, “as kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame.”

Dragonflies are robust insects and powerful fliers sometimes found far from water. While some are short and stocky, others are large, long and exquisitely colored. Those of the genera Aeshna and Anax are especially impressive, with a wingspan of up to 10 cm and a length of over 7 cm. Despite their intimidating appearance dragonflies—they are sometimes known as Devil’s Darning Needles—are harmless, do not sting and are beneficial preying on many insect pests. Damselflies are much more delicate with extremely slender abdomens, often brightly colored and sometimes with dark patches on the otherwise clear wings. One group is called the demoiselles and number among some of Egypt’s most beautiful insects as befits the name.

The true demoiselles include those of the Genus Caloptery, that includes the Mediterranean Demoiselle commonly found in the northern part of the country. In a wider definition, the Tropical Bluetail Ischnura senegalensis has been described as “the most abundant [dragonfly] in Egypt” in a report published in Ornithological Studies in Egyptian Wetlands. It is a slender insect less than 3cm long and with a wingspan of 4cm. And it is beautiful. The needle-thin abdomen is dark bronze above with a brilliant turquoise subterminal segment. The thorax is black and turquoise and the wings clear but clearly veined. In the female, the turquoise is largely replaced by rich rufous. The key to the success of this species in Egypt is its tolerance of stagnant and polluted water, in which the larvae live for up to a year.

Damsels and demoiselles are found elsewhere too. The same day I found my Demoiselle Crane in the prosaic surrounds of Sharm’s sewage ponds, I cleansed myself with a mid-morning snorkel. Even in the developed confines of Naama Bay, admittedly far, far less developed than now, I clocked up 34 species of fish of which four were damselfish.Damselfish are generally small reef fish related to the larger and often more flambuoyant angelfish. On the list that day was the Red Sea Clownfish whose close relative found fame as the protagonist in Finding Nemo. I communed with shoals of very confiding Indo-Pacific Sergeants, one of the most familiar reef fishes named for its bold black and white stripes, the stripes of authority for a senior NCO. I saw the Sulphur Damselfish, which is glowing sulphurous yellow relieved only by a small black spot at the base of the pectoral fin and the back of the dorsal fin. And I found a Half-and-half Chromis, a damselfish of just 9 cm long and uniform chocolate brown infront and bright white behind.

Damselfish are very numerous on the reefs, with 37 species recorded from the Red Sea alone. In all probability, I saw but failed to identify many more that day. I’ve caught up with more since. I’ve found the Royal Damselfish, the Onespot Damselfish, the Reticulated Damselfish and the Black-bordered Dasyllus amongst others. One I missed on this particular day was of the genus Chrysiptera namely the Black-barred Demoiselle Chrysiptera annulata. It is white, with five black bands, and while I have caught up with it several times over the years, it is relatively uncommon—perhaps partly because of confusion with the delightfully named Humbug Dasyllus, which only has three black bands.

I mention the Black-barred Demoiselle as its alternative name is the Footballer. As Egypt nears qualification to the 2018 World Cup, top of its group table two points clear of Uganda as I write, it seems very apt. And if to reinforce a perhaps tenuous sporting link, Egypt’s Mohamed (Mo) Salah, the Flying Egyptian of England’s press, has just scored for Liverpool in its 1-1 draw with Burnley in the English Premier League. Dreadful match. Fabulous goal. And a wildlife connection. Footballer.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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