Sketch by Richard Hoath - Djibouti Francolin with acknowledgments to Norm Arlott Sketch by Richard Hoath - Djibouti Francolin with acknowledgments to Norm Arlott

A Wild Goose Chase?

Sat, Dec. 16, 2017
So Christmas. And on the food front, it should be a turkey. This big, bronzed balloon of a bird fattened first for Thanksgiving and then for the 25th suffers this double whammy for little reward. It gets eaten both times, save for a Presidential pardon on a particularly favored, as opposed to flavored, individual. It is not even appreciated. Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the US, famously decried the Bald Eagle as that nation’s national bird saying, “[F]or my own part, I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as a representative of our country” and then in a letter to his daughter, extolled the virtues of the Common Turkey as a “much more respectable bird.”

I have never seen a Common Turkey in the wild. I have, however, seen its cousin, the much rarer and more localized Ocellated Turkey. I encountered this endemic of Central America’s Yucatan Peninsula in the rainforests of Guatemala. This bird is listed by the IUCN as Near Threatened. As I got off the bus in the Tikal National Park, I almost tripped over a small flock and they were constant and quite charming companions throughout my visit—spectacular in gleaming greens and bronzes with the naked head and neck bright cobalt ornamented with crimson wattles. Such a rare bird should not have been so easy—I almost felt robbed. The thrill is in the chase.

This Christmas, visa permitting, I will be in Djibouti. This small country strategically positioned at the mouth of the Red Sea has an area roughly twice that of Cyprus and a population of somewhat over 700,000. For naturalists, it is perhaps best known for the Whale Sharks, the world’s largest species of fish, that congregate in the Bay of Ghoubbet each winter. For those of more geographical bent some 100 kilometers west of the rather unimaginatively named capital Djibouti City is Lac Assal, at 150 meters below sea level the lowest point in Africa. I have every intention of catching up with Whale Sharks and am a sucker for geographical quirk. But to carry on the game-bird theme, my real target this Christmas is the Djibouti Francolin.

The francolins are a group of partridge-like birds, like that which sits atop the pear tree, with short tails and stout spurred legs—indeed one I have seen in Ghana is called the Double-spurred Francolin. The Djibouti Francolin is the rarest francolin and is classified as Critically Endangered. Only formally described as recently as 1952, it is entirely restricted to Djibouti, an endemic, and even there found only in the Goda Mountains to the west of the capital and the Mabla Mountains to the north. In both areas it is threatened by habitat destruction, its dry forest habitat disappearing due to wood cutting, livestock grazing and clearance. There may be fewer than 1,000 left and it is found nowhere else on the planet.

The Djibouti Francolin, according to my “Pheasants, Partridges and Grouse” by Steve Madge and Phil McGowan, is some 35 centimeters long, rather dark brown above and heavily blotched and streaked buff below. The face is dark with a rusty crown and the legs are pale yellow. To find it, I am going to need a lot of luck and field craft. It is described as “shy and elusive” and “most active just after dawn and very difficult to locate except by voice.” I will be stomping the acacias and junipers ears pricked for a loud erk, rapid kaks fading to a chuckle and a “low conversational clucking.” Oh for an erk.

I’m not sure how the Djibouti Francolin was first discovered, but game-birds have the unfortunate tendency to be described after being served for dinner. Tanzania’s Udzungwa Partridge, described as recently as 1994, was first brought to the attention of the scientific community when an odd pair of feet turned up in a local cooking pot. In Vietnam, the extremely rare Imperial Pheasant, Edward’s Pheasant and Vietnamese Pheasant are virtually unknown in the wild, save for specimens trapped for the dinner table. It makes the Common Turkey seem very pedestrian. Hunting is a further threat to the Djibouti Francolin, so perhaps I will steer well clear of chicken on my trip just to be on the safe side.

Possibly even more enigmatic than the Djibouti Francolin is the Toha Sunbird. Not yet formally described, in my Birds of the Horn of Africa by Redman, Stevenson and Fanshawe it is merely given the moniker Chalcomitra sp. With only one sight record of three birds in Djibouti in 1985, it is estimated to be 13 centimeters long, grayish above, grayish white below and with a dark tail. What was assumed to be the male had the chin, throat and crown metallic yellow-green while in the presumed female this was limited to the crown. There is much debate as to its status as the yellow-green may have been a dusting of acacia pollen (most sunbirds feed on nectar and insects) rather than true color. There’ll be no erks or kaks or chuckles or conversational clucking with the Toha Sunbird—its voice is utterly unknown.

So Djibouti, all 22,000 square kilometers of it, has one, possibly two, endemic bird species. Egypt, with an area of over 1 million square kilometers has, er, none. Zilch. Nil. Not even one. I can remember talking with the late, great Mindy Baha El Din about this when she was on a mission to show that the form of the Yellow Wagtail breeding in Egypt Motacilla flava pygmaea the “Egyptian Yellow Wagtail” was actually a good species. It is found throughout the Nile Delta and Valley in agricultural areas, wetlands and marshes.

It is a slim bird, 19 centimeters long with a longish (though not as long as the wintering Gray Wagtail) tail that it does indeed wag. It is olive green above, bright yellow below, especially in the male and in breeding plumage has a gray head with darker cheeks and a white throat.

But why should Egypt have no endemic bird species whereas a country as small as Djibouti has one if not two? The answer lies in border and habitat. Djibouti’s borders, like most African borders, were drawn by the colonial powers but within these borders, it has areas of habitat that have long been isolated—notably the forested mountains of Goda and Mabla. They are, in effect, islands and on islands, evolution works rapidly.

Egypt’s modern borders too are a colonial legacy and have little bearing on natural features. Egypt’s Western Desert sweeps seamlessly into Libya and to the south, along with the Eastern Desert into Sudan. In the east, the deserts of North Sinai continue across the border into the Negev. The Nile is a green corridor running up from the Nile Basin countries. There are few or no isolated pockets of habitat. Even the oases of the Western Desert are relatively recent. Until perhaps 10,000 years ago, or even less, the Western Desert was largely savannah. That said, the breeding form of the Palm Dove from the oases is sometimes described as a unique subspecies Streptopelia senegalensis dahklaea. But even that is largely disputed.

Endemics aside, I’ve come up with a list of Djibouti birds that would be new for me were I to find them. Most are African species such as the Red-fronted Warbler, Somali Starling, Greyish Eagle Owl, Somali Courser as well as the Yellow-breasted and Black-throated Barbet. Others, unsurprisingly given Djibouti’s location, are also found in Arabia, including Ruppell’s Weaver and the Arabian Golden Sparrow. But a few make it into Egypt. The stunning Rosy-patched Shrike and the Arabian Warbler both creep into the country on Gebel Elba in the very southeast of the country. I’ve never got permits to visit, so Djibouti might be my best chance.

So this Christmas, what I want from Santa is a festive francolin, a Djibouti Francolin. Let’s hope it is not just a wild goose chase.

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