Unexpected Finds



Sun, 27 Jan 2019 - 09:51 GMT


Sun, 27 Jan 2019 - 09:51 GMT

Picture of birds

Picture of birds

The twilight days of 2018 found me in Siwa Oasis some 360km southwest of Marsa Matruh, isolated in the Western Desert not far from the Libyan border. It was my fifth visit and much has changed since my first time, way back in 1993. It has grown in terms of people and buildings but also in terms of tourism. That first visit, made in a clapped-out Fiat 131 (I was so proud of her getting there and back) felt almost pioneering. On my last visit it was heaving with tourists both local and foreign—great for the local economy, great for business but frustrating for those in search of a little tranquillity.

And birds. All my previous trips had been in spring or fall when the oasis was heaving not with tourists but with migrating birds. Previous visits had clocked up nearly 60 species as the olive orchards and palm groves were bursting with warblers, chats and flycatchers and the lakes and springs, saline and fresh, were packed with plovers, shanks and other waders. This time, in winter, I was surprised by the paucity of birds. It seems that Siwa is largely a stopover for migrants rather than a wintering ground. Not all was lost. At my resort I found a small flock of Spanish Sparrows, an unseasonal Tawny Pipit and a brace of Common Snipe which were all new to me from the oasis. And the obligatory sunset at Fatnas Island produced a flock of some 30 Greater Flamingos. The island was packed and I stood out as the only person not taking a selfie.

The highlight of the trip was a huge surprise and was totally devoid of feathers. I was stomping round the palm groves barely a stone’s throw from the old fortress of Shali with the air filled not with birdsong but the calls of what I took to be Green Toads (the Egyptian Toad is the toad of the Valley and Delta—it does not reach Siwa. I stumbled through the undergrowth and came across a small pond and a chorus of plops as the amphibians dived for cover. And there they were in the water, heads emerging from above the pond weed. These were not Green Toads ,these were frogs.

Frogs and toads are superficially similar but toads are generally less tied to water, walk rather than hop and have a rough warty skin covered in tubercles. Frogs are more aquatic, hop and have much smoother skins. These were frogs —bright green frogs with the rear legs banded with dark brown and the back with similarly dark, seemingly variable, spotting. I took my notes, I took my photographs. Definitely frog but which frog?
Egypt is not a great place for frog-lovers. There are five species. Savigny’s Tree Frog is confined to North Sinai and the Sudan Ridged Frog has very few records from near Lake Manzala and Fayoum. The two more widespread frog species, the Mascarene Ridged Frog and the Levant Green Frog, are residents of the Nile Delta and Valley. None of these species have been recorded from Siwa.

So imagine my joy (probably no-one normal can!) when on returning to Cairo and consulting my Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt by Sherif Baha El Din I was able to identify my frog. The fifth frog species for Egypt is the Saharan Green Frog and the only place it has ever been recorded in Egypt is Siwa. The description rang true too and it really is very green. So too the habitat. “Found in highly isolated localities in the Sahara, where it survives in very small water bodies, such as wells and cisterns, usually in oases”. Absolutely spot on! While the birds had let me down, I now have a new amphibian species under the belt.

It also seems to be rare. The guide continues, “Apparently restricted to Siwa Oasis, where it was first noted in 1994. Farid (1979) did not encounter the species during a 6 day search for the herpetofauna of the oasis in 1976.” Oh wow!

But Siwa left its best until last. Or rather the trip to Siwa left its best until last. Halfway along that road from Siwa to Marsa Matrouh is a rest house. Michelin star it is not. It is hygienically challenged and behind the latrines are piles of garbage that make conventional landfill seem positively alluring. It was at this ‘oasis’ the bus chose to stop and grasping the opportunity to stretch my legs Idisembarked with nothing more than an overpriced tea on my mind. As I stepped out immediately there were a number of birds around, some that I was able to identify immediately as Temminck’s Horned Larks.

This is a small desert bird, rather uniform orange brown above, pale below with a striking black and white head pattern and two small horns on the head, actually black feather tufts. A wonderful find in itself. And there was an adult male Blackcap non-resplendent in all gray with that black cap and a male Black Redstart. All good stuff.

And amongst these were three heavy, bulky small birds scurrying across the desert and at first glance just rather mousy dull. Up went the binoculars to reveal rather unstreaked upperparts, a distinctive head pattern with a rather darker circle arcing from behind the eye to the throat and the most enormous bill. A stonking great pale nutcracker of a bill. These were Thick-billed Larks. The streaking on the underparts was apparent and when they flew so did the dark primaries and white edge. These were definitely Thick-billed Larks.

This was a new species for me but the importance of the record only became apparent when I did my homework. It has been recorded in Egypt before but only in Sinai and occasionally along the Cairo-Suez road as a winter visitor. Here were three in Egypt’s Western Desert and almost certainly dispersals from the breeding population in the Mahgreb. More joy. I put the descriptor oasis in quote marks above but this rest house was exactly that. On all sides the Western Desert stretched flat and barren and austere but it proved to be a magnet in the wilderness for some very special species. I strode off the bus and almost tripped over a new life bird for me and a new record for the Western Desert. It was almost criminal such an enigmatic species should have been so easy. I never got my tea.



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