Trip To Fayoum Yields First Sighting Of Grey Wagtail
A trip to Fayoum leads to naturalist Richard Hoath's first sighting of the illusive Grey Wagtail.
by Richard Hoath
Meidum, about an hour or so south of Cairo, is famous largely for two things. Firstly, it is the site of the Pyramid of Meidum. Perhaps started by the Third Dynasty ruler Huni but completed by Sneferu, it collapsed after a supposed downpour and the outer casing lies now as rubble at the base of three huge steps. Collapsed it may be, but it is still impressive. Secondly it is the site of the discovery of the Meidum Geese. This exquisite frieze now housed in the Egyptian Museum comes from the Fourth Dynasty mastaba of Atet at Meidum. It portrays six geese in such stunning realism that they can be identified not only by species but by age. There are two White-fronted Geese and a brace of Bean Geese, both very rare in winter in modern Egypt. And two Red-breasted Geese unrecorded in modern Egypt save for a couple of questionable records from the 19th Century. The rather mottled plumage of one of the birds suggests a juvenile.
On a recent visit to Meidum there were no geese. ‘True’ geese are a rarity in modern Egypt though the Egyptian Goose, which is really an overgrown shelduck, is common breeding in the south around Lake Nasser and found further north in winter. However, hanging around the security offices in the shadow of the pyramid was a small flock of Hooded Crows (or to use the proper collective noun, a murder). Three took time off to fly after and mob a bird of prey with a gleaming white rump. It was a Hen Harrier, a female, slightly larger than the crows and with a harrier’s ever so buoyant flight. An old British name for the Hen Harrier is Skydancer, which says it all. The male is very different — blue-gray throughout, paler below and with black wing tips. The Hen Harrier is a rare migrant and winter visitor to Egypt.
The star attraction, though, came inside the pyramid. A long straight shaft angles down into the very center of the pyramid and then a series of wooden stairways take the explorer up into the central chamber of the pyramid — possibly a burial chamber though no sarcophagus was found by the early archeologists. But the chamber had bats. I could tell that from the smell, a lovely, musty scent redolent of special places. The bat calls were audible, and hanging from the corbelled stone ceiling were the bats themselves.
There are some 22 species of bat recorded from Egypt. The huge Egyptian Fruit Bat can be told by size alone but the 21 species of insectivorous bats are much more difficult to identify except in the hand or by the frequency of their sonar. With the exception of the free-tailed bats, most Egyptian bats have very short tails or tails enclosed entirely or largely within the flight membrane. These bats at Meidum showed well and had very long, slender tails that were held slightly recurved. These were rat-tailed bats, two species of which occur in Egypt, the Larger Rat-tailed Bat and the Lesser Rattailed Bat. The former is a rare species recorded sparsely from the Delta and Valley. The latter is much more common and widespread over a similar range and other than size very difficult to distinguish. In the hand in the Larger the forearm is longer than the tail, in the Lesser shorter. My bats had proportionately very long tails and were almost certainly Lesser. This is the species from the bat cave in Wadi Degla.
Meidum was not the object of the trip, however — it was a productive stepping stone to Fayoum. Fayoum is always worth a winter visit. Lake Qarun plays host to large numbers of wintering waders and waterfowl and some winters there is a flock of Greater Flamingos in the saline shallows at the lake’s Western end. The agricultural land is not only brilliant green with barseem but supports its own community of birds. It is worth scanning the telephone wires for dove-gray Black-winged Kites, emerald Little Green Bee-eaters and toward dusk Little Owls. From the olive trees and palm groves comes the sonorous call of the Senegal Coucal. This is a large relative of the cuckoos, bright chestnut above with a long, graduated black tail, black cap and creamy underparts. Its call is akin to blowing over an open bottle top at regular intervals. It is an African species that makes its way into Egypt, its only Palearctic outpost, along the Nile Valley.
For the very lucky there are mammals too. I have seen the Egyptian Mongoose more often in Fayoum than anywhere else. This distant relative of the weasels is about a meter long, half of which is tail, broad and long haired at the base narrowing down to a short tuft. It is a grizzled salt and pepper gray throughout with small ears and a slender muzzle. For the very, very very lucky Fayoum is also home to the Swamp Cat. I have never seen one there but, to use the old cliché, I have a friend who has and on a number of occasions. This species of wild cat is bigger than the domestic cat, longer limbed and with a shorter tail. Granny’s cute little Mishmish it is not. It has a reputation for ferocity if cornered.
The only mammals this Fayoum trip were over 40 million years old and lying out in the desert at Wadi El-Hitan. These were the famous fossil whales but also turtles, sirenians — represented in modern Egypt by the Dugong — and even whole mangrove swamps cast in rock.
I was staying at the Auberge du Lac, which makes an Englishman so much at home with a portrait of Winston Churchill hung over the fireplace. I had a room looking out over a deserted building site which was fine with me as my balcony overlooked flooded foundations patrolled by Redshanks and Ringed Plovers, Dunlins, Little Stints and the odd Slender-billed Gulls. The gardens too were productive and the hotel saved it best ‘til last.
A final walk through the gardens barely minutes before departure found lawns patrolled by loose flocks of White Wagtails all black and white and gray. One was different. It too was gray above but was bigger and much longer tailed. As it wagged — and wagtails are well named — a yellow vent and rump were revealed. There was a white eye stripe and most tellingly the legs were pinkish brown. Pinkish-brown legs! That eliminated Yellow Wagtail and Citrine Wagtail. This was a Grey Wagtail, a bird described in the literature as a scarce winter visitor to Egypt, but in over 25 years here I had never seen one. Now I have.
And then from nowhere a small bird with a gleaming white rump flew into a Box Tree and it had the good manners to stay there in good view. It was smaller than a female House Sparrow perched nearby and very uniform plain pale brown, unstreaked and unspotted above and uniform pale below. The bill was chunky — a true seedeater — and pale but the rump was key, a bright white rump contrasting with a black tail and a rump I was familiar with from the Gezira Club in Zamalek. This was an Indian Silverbill, a small finch barely 12 cm long and an escaped cage bird now breeding in the greenified confines of the club.
My first sighting of the Indian Silverbill in Egypt was in Zamalek on January 11, 2011. It’s important to keep records. Now nearly six years later I had found the species in Fayoum, a first record for the oasis. So five minutes to go to departure and a first for me in Egypt and a range expansion noted. Natural history? It’s a walk in the park.
Richard Hoath is a Senior Instructor at AUC’s Department of Rhetoric and Composition. He has published extensively about Egypt’s wildlife and fauna.