Harriers, herons, swamphens and more birds can all be seen at this time of year — and you won’t even have to leave the city to find some of them
By Richard Hoath
I was in Oman this winter. Regular readers will know that. I wrote in February how wonderful Oman was and of the species I might see there, the Arabian Oryx and the Arabian Tahr. I even painted the Arabian Tahr. In March I wrote, indeed eulogized, about what I had seen, the breeding Green Turtles and the elusive Hume’s Wheatear. But this is Egypt Today. And it should be about Egypt. Today. But allow me two last paragraphs about Oman because Oman was incredible and I will home in on Egypt and why Egypt is incredible too.
I was in the Al Qurm Natural Park in Oman. This is a protected area within the capital Muscat and really protected. It is an area of tidal mangrove swamp and peripheral acacia scrub. In the midst of an urban conurbation, but one that would be completely dwarfed by Cairo — and that includes New Cairo and this bizarre and ill-conceived new capital, is a tranquil mangrove swamp. I walked there — a lot. Blessed with a hotel very close, I could do Al Qurm very early in the morning and later at twilight. And in twilight, on January 18, I had an amazing encounter. It was a dusk encounter in the woods with a blonde-headed female that left me legless.
I was in Al Qurm on one of my last evenings in Muscat. I had all the usual suspects under my belt. I had Red-wattled Lapwings all gaudy and with their did-he-do-it cry. I had bulbuls, all three, White-spectacled, White-cheeked and Red-vented all individually and then amazingly all together on one standout acacia. I had Grey Francolin, a gamebird either scurrying away underfoot or erupting skywards. And then I turned through a particularly dense patch of salt-sodden mangrove and reedbed and came across a Marsh Harrier so close and so immediate that I could see her eyes, umber eyes but not deep brown enough to obscure the black pupils.
I am not sure who was more surprised: I or she. It was a female Marsh Harrier. The Marsh Harrier is a splendid bird of prey, slender winged and elegant. The female is some 55 centimeter long and deep chocolate brown throughout save for a pale yellow crown and nape and throat. In flight she has pale “headlights,” the leading edges to the wings. The male is slightly smaller and with uniform pale grey wings, black-tipped, and tail. But I had a female and a successful female. In her bill was a very recently deceased hedgehog, on range and size and habitat an Ethiopian Hedgehog Paraechinus aethiopicus. I looked at her. She looked at me and then she took off, hedgehog in beak, into the vastness of the mangroves. Encounters with birds of prey, and certainly of birds with prey, rarely get closer or more intimate.
And so to Egypt and to Egypt Today and to Egypt today. The Marsh Harrier is a frequent winter visitor here and regularly seen on migration in Autumn and, as we are talking about today, Spring. It should be looked out for in any wetland habitat at this time. I have seen it in Fayoum and Wadi El-Rayan, in North Sinai and in Aswan. I have seen it in April patrolling the reedbeds on lakes outside Siwa borne on wings held in a shallow V — and both times, 2014 and 2012 on the same lake, males. But you do not have to travel to see these birds. An April felucca trip at twilight from Maadi should produce a Marsh Harrier cruising and circling the reedbeds midstream.
But there are other harriers around and while the males are relatively easy to differentiate, the females are not. My favorite is the Pallid Harrier. The male is subtly spectacular, a slender, very pale grey raptor with black wing tips and white rump. The female is very different, similarly slender but largely brown, paler below, streaked and with a white rump. Montagu’s Harrier is similar in that the male is also pale grey throughout but a darker grey and with a black bar on the wing and chestnut streaking on the flanks. The female is virtually indistinguishable from the female Pallid Harrier, a female harrier often being ticked off as a ‘ringtail’ with reference to that white rump.
But not always. Some years ago I was bird watching at Zaranik in North Sinai with fellow addicts. We had a female harrier in our binoculars arching her way casually across the reedbeds on those so distinctive slender wings held in a shallow V. Was it a Pallid or was it a Montagu’s? We looked at the extent of barring, at the facial pattern and at the extent of white on the rump. We vacillated and argued. I was for Pallid, the others for Montagu’s and still she swept to and fro, back and forth. It just had to be Pallid. And then up from the reedbeds flew the male. Pure pale grey with no vestige of a black wingbar. Pallid. And guilty by association we all wrote in the female as Pallid too. And I felt good!
A fourth harrier has been recorded in Egypt, the Hen Harrier. It is a bigger bird at around 55 centimeter, similar to both the Pallid and the Montagu’s but with more heft. I have seen it only once in Egypt, a female in Spring in Wadi Rishrash in the Eastern Desert.
A twilight felucca excursion is likely to bring up much more than harriers. Those reedbeds off Maadi could also yield Purple Swamphens or Gallinules, great purple-green rail-types with stonking great crimson bills, legs and feet. Listen out for their crepuscular honking and clucking and braying. As for the purple and green, do not hold out too much hope. The most likely view of a Purple Gallinule is its startlingly white backside as it slinks into the reeds.
Also look out for the Squacco Heron, a skulking and secretive egret of the reedbeds that looks cryptic, streaky and reedy at rest. Once flushed it is transformed as the wings are pure white. And then there is the Little Egret that is pure white at rest and in flight but with dark legs and bright yellow feet. And the Little Bittern, smaller than either of the above, the female streaked above and below and the male subdued chic in pale chestnut and black.
Last June I wrote about the Kestrels breeding on AUC’s new campus out in New Cairo. These small falcons, surprisingly common even in the center of the city, bred successfully last year. The female laid five eggs and all five hatched; against the odds all five hatchlings were successfully reared and fledged. Normally the youngest and smallest don’t make it but in this case they all did. And they are back. On February 25 at 7.54am (special moments need accurate reportage) I saw the pair mating with much shrieking and shrilling – a snapshot of an event that had probably taken place many times before and after. They are now calling incessantly in and around their nest site. I expect the patter of tiny talons very soon. Spring has well and truly sprung!