Nature Notes: Birds Of Passage



Sun, 15 Nov 2015 - 11:19 GMT


Sun, 15 Nov 2015 - 11:19 GMT

One of the glories of migration is that anything can turn up almost anywhere.

By Richard Hoath

At the end of October Cairo was still sweltering in heat of thirty degrees plus, and a humid muggy heat too, a humid mugginess that will probably only get worse as the black cloud from burning rice chaff is expected to descend soon. Yuck. The annual fall migration of birds flying through Egypt to sub-Saharan wintering grounds does not seem to have really taken off yet — though there was a passage of European bee-eaters early in October — but I have yet to spot my first White Wagtail, a bird that will spend the winter here.

How different from the news from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge in southern England. They have already recorded their first Bewick’s Swan of the winter a full 25 days earlier than its 2014 counterpart. This, the environmental pundits have been pondering, is the precursor of a particularly long and cold winter. Bewick’s Swan is an arctic species breeding in Siberia and wintering farther south and west. They have been studied for decades at Slimbridge where the iconic naturalist Sir Peter Scott, founder of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), pioneered the study of swans by identifying individual birds by their unique bill patterns. The beak of the Bewick’s Swan is patterned black and yellow and the extent and shape of each color enable researchers to recognize individual birds. It is a technique used now to study creatures as diverse as Humpback Whales, Basking Sharks, tigers and Little Bustards by looking at tail patterns, dorsal fins, stripes and neck plumage.

Bewick’s Swan, now more widely known as the Tundra Swan, is a large, long-necked, pure white species of waterfowl. It has never been recorded in modern Egypt though the very similar Whooper Swan has, albeit very rarely. One was ‘collected’ on Lake Idku in the northern Delta in 1948 and another seen on the Nile south of Assiut in 1976. Both species have been claimed from a number of Ancient Egyptian tomb and temple friezes but size apart, the two species are so similar as to probably not be reliably separated in ancient art.

A third species of swan, the Mute Swan, is also a rare visitor to Egypt, mostly to the Delta wetlands. Relatively recent records include a dead bird from Lake Bardawil in 1985 and a singleton noted on Lake Qarun in 1987. This species can be distinguished from the previous two by the bill which sports a distinct black knob, larger in the male (cob) than in the female (pen), at the base of the bill and by its neck. In the Bewick’s and Whooper swan the neck is held straight and vertical. In the Mute Swan it is held in a beautiful, sinuous S.

This latter feature has enabled experts to positively identify a particularly striking wooden sculpture from the tomb of Princess Itiwert at Dahshur. Dating from the 12th Dynasty thus some 4,000 years old, this near life-size representation is so accurate in detail that it can be specifically identified. The neck, made up of several segments, exhibits that beautifully sinuous S and the head, though rather damaged, bears the diagnostic knob at the base of the bill. The purpose of the sculpture is unclear though Patrick Houlihan, author of The Birds of Ancient Egypt, suggests it “must have possessed some religious significance” based on earlier studies. Today it resides in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and is, to my mind, one of the finest animal representations in Egyptian sculptural art. Sadly the neck and legs are much the worse for wear though I sincerely hope that the curators do not resort to epoxy resin for a botched repair job!

One of the species I will be looking out for will be a small but very elegant falcon, the (Eurasian) Hobby. This slender, longwinged raptor is a scarce migrant and winter visitor to Egypt. It is 30-35cm in length (as is common in birds of prey the female is slightly larger than the male), slate gray above, pale streaked dark below and with red-rufous ‘trousers.’ The head is clearly patterned with bright white cheeks and throat and a black moustachial streak. I have only seen it a few times in the country but it is a beautiful bird with real elan and worth looking out for. While it also feeds on small birds, it is often associated with wetlands and reed beds where it hunts for dragonflies, especially the big-bodied species of the genera Anax and Aeshna. The prey is caught and consumed almost exclusively in the air.

Another small falcon passing through in fall is the slightly smaller Red-footed Falcon. In this species, the sexes are very different. The female is bright rufous below fading to yellowish on the crown and nape, and gray above barred and spotted dark. She sports a black mask through the eye. The male is perhaps even more distinctive, slate gray throughout with a red vent, red legs and feet and a red eye ring and base to the bill. Like the Hobby, it too hawks for dragonflies in similar habitat. Indeed in his stunning cover portrait to his Birds of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, Lars Jonsson painted a pair of Red-footed Falcons perched on a bare tree limb with a dragonfly beautifully rendered in the bottom left-hand corner. This is a bird almost exclusively of passage. It has only been recorded in Egypt once in winter.

A third small falcon is a bird of very different habits and habitat. This is the Sooty Falcon, another slim and agile species. Superficially both sexes resemble the male Red Footed Falcon but the Sooty Falcon is slightly larger, lacks the red below and has yellow legs, eye ring and base to the bill. It is largely a summer visitor here lingering through to late November and with good cause. The Sooty Falcon feeds largely on birds and delays its breeding until fall so it can take advantage of the massive numbers of migratory small species passing through at this time. Wadi el-Gimal in the southern Red Sea seems to be a particularly rich breeding spot for them with large numbers nesting on the island. They are also found in Sinai and the Eastern Desert and more sparsely in the Western Desert. In the desert, encounters are more generally with isolated pairs or individuals.

One of the glories of migration is that anything can turn up almost anywhere. The late Mindy Baha El Din even had a record of the Sooty Falcon from the Gezira Club! The Gezira Club is also renowned — or used to be — as one of the best sites in Egypt for wintering Long-eared Owls. These handsome and very nocturnal birds are extremely cryptic and difficult to find but used to winter in the Club until they started to prune the trees rather more fiercely, thus removing much of the protective foliage into which they blended almost invisibly with their cryptic browns and beiges, bars and banding. I will still look out for them. To stare up into a dense tangle of leaf and twig and branch and find a pair of glaring orange eyes staring right back down at you is a wonderful, even unsettling experience. And not one you expect in the center of a city of some 20 million people.



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