Saturday, February 28, 2015

On the margins - Cairo (4-7 February)

They really are very big. Not many birds, though.
In the diplomatic world, as in all jargon-prone professions, there are a number of idiotic phrases. The stupidest of all is "non-paper", which I genuinely thought was a joke when I first heard it. Another is that we often arrange "brush-pasts" for senior people - meaning a sort of five minute choreographed "Goodness, fancy meeting you here" meeting in a corridor during a summit or conference.

In one of our less stupid phrases we talk about having meetings "on the margins" of other meetings, which always makes me think of people huddling on the edge of a room in furtive conversation while the proper discussion takes place in the centre. And, of course, that is quite often what is actually meant, except the real discussion is the furtive one while the one in the centre is just for show.

My birding often takes place "on the margins" as well; in this case on the margins of visits to other countries for work, and between meetings, furtively, in hotel gardens. Much of my birding is literally marginal; I see birds on motorway verges or beside runways, or in lost patches of habitat in the centre of cities. But I'm not complaining, because many of the places I do visit are pretty interesting, and are often home to species I've never seen before. And much as I make this sound rushed, as it usually is, there are sometimes opportunities for a more leisurely approach by tacking a day or two onto an official visit.

That's what I did on my first proper work trip of this year. And it was a beaut. Cairo. I've never been before. A vast city with very little greenery, but with one rather famous river and some ruins. We stayed in the centre for the first couple of days during the official part, and then I headed out to one of the hotels near the Pyramids for the last two nights, so I could take in some history and culture. I also hoped for some birds and, although it wasn't an ornithological feast, I wasn't disappointed.

The banks of the Nile, where the more interesting species hang out.
I had looked, as I usually do - at Paul Milne's fantastic Where to Watch Birds: World Cities - before heading out. When is the 2nd edition of this wonderful book going to come out? Or when is it going to be turned into a user-friendly online version? Anyway, in that book Milne states that "the birder in Cairo will be immediately struck by the real African 'feel' to its avifauna". Having lived, if only for a little while, in equatorial Africa, I'm not sure I agree with this. But that's largely because African birding is not for me so much defined by species, as by the feeling of staggering abundance that you get there, even in cities like Kigali and Nairobi - a feeling that can be close to overwhelming sometimes. In Cairo, things work at a slower pace. 95% of the time you're going to be looking at Feral Pigeons (Columba livia var. dom), House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) or Hooded Crows (Corvus corone cornix).

My well-thumbed, and well-annotated copy of Paul Milne's excellent Where to Watch Birds: World Cities. Where's the second edition, Paul?

Since I arrived at night, my first birds were in the hotel garden in the morning, and, aside from the three mentioned above, were predictable enough - Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis), Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis), Common Bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus) and White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba). Overhead were a few Kestrels (Falco tinnunculus), one or two widely spaced Pallid Swifts (Apus pallidus) and a large parakeet that looked like a Rose-Ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri) and which I counted as such, even though it seemed abnormally big and with rather slow wingbeats. The river - as viewed from my balcony - produced a few more species, some of them more surprising:  Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides), Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) and a few Swallows (Hirundo rustica) of the local, resident savignii subspecies with brick red underparts.

Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis)

There was little sign even of early migration on this first morning, and not much more the second. No terns or gulls over the river, for instance, but there were two singing Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita) in the garden. And I got another view of that parakeet. It wasn't Rose-ringed (though there were some of those too, in a small flock). It was a LIFER for me - an Alexandrine Parakeet (Psittacula eupatria). Very similar in looks to its smaller cousin, but bigger and beefier. I've looked online for any information about how established this species is in Cairo, but found nothing, and in the absence of that information I'm choosing to count it.

But that was it, for the centre. So, bidding goodbye to my colleagues, I headed out to the Pyramids and, like everyone, I suspect, got a shock. If you haven't been, there's nothing to prepare you. These things are massive. Far larger than any photo can make them look. They're man-made mountains, particularly in the context of the local topography. And, as I discovered the next day, the birds treat them that way.

I was staying at the historic Mena House hotel - an old, but refurbished, hotel right next to the Pyramids, at which Churchill and Montgomery stayed during the war. It has at least some garden. I've had good experience birding hotel gardens, and first impressions of this one were positive: A small group of Indian Silverbills (Lonchura malabarica), a few Hoopoes (Upupa epops) and the usual White Wagtails etc. But the highlight of the first night was, at a time when I didn't have my camera with me, another stunning LIFER - a White-breasted Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis - the taxonomic name harking back to this species' old, and much more romantic, name - Smyrna Kingfisher). The bird flew up from next to one of the small pools in the garden and sat long enough in a tree to feast my eyes and move on myself. Lovely.

Indian Silverbills (Lonchura malabarica) and...

Hoopoe (Upupa epops) in the garden of the Mena House Hotel, Cairo

My final full day in Egypt was for myself, and I naturally used it to visit the Pyramids. After the initial awe, there was not much to see, and since it was a weekend, the area was packed with people - overwhelmingly Egyptians, which was a positive confounding of my expectations. Apparently this area can be good for Wheatears and Larks. But not today. The only bird to make the heart beat faster - and it did - was a big, presumably female, juvenile Lanner Falcon (Falco biarmicus), which used the Pyramid of Khafre (the middle and best preserved) as a surrogate mountain crag to chase the innumerable Feral Pigeons there. It was, for a while, mobbed by a Kestrel, for reasons I found obscure.

The Pyramid of Khafre - perfect habitat for Lanner Falcons (Falco biarmicus)

Other than this, birding-wise, the day went slowly, even when I returned to the hotel; a few Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) overhead and a Black Kite (Milvus migrans) of the local aegyptius subspecies at sunset. But as the light fell, another LIFER bobbed through the lights of the hotel; a Senegal Thick-Knee (Burhinus senegalensis), which called as it came to ground, from where I later flushed it by mistake while trying to get some decent views of it.

Those Pyramids again. This taken shortly before the Senegal Thick-knee (Burhinus senegalensis) made its appearance

Driving to the airport the following day, I got my last year tick for this trip - a truly marginal sighting: a Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) on the barbed wire surrounding the airport. A nice downbeat end to the visit which brought in three lifers, a good haul of year ticks and a genuine life experience.

By the way, if anyone can tell me the subspecies of Common Bulbul that lives in Egypt, I'd be grateful. Can't find that information anywhere.

A female Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) in the gardens of the Mena House Hotel. I just liked the photo

Getting my geese - Uitkerkse Polders, Blankenberge and Zeebrugge

16 January 2015

I'm beginning to realise that the activity of trying to photograph birds is quite different from merely trying to see and identify them. It's much more time-consuming, you move much more slowly, and you have to be much more sensitive to the birds' behaviour. None of these are bad things. On the contrary. But if, like me, you have hitherto been a member of the "observe-identify-record-move on" school of birding, then shifting to photography involves an abrupt change of pace. During the course of today I kept on finding myself wondering what was going on around the corner while I laboriously adjusted the light settings on my camera for yet another shot of a Wigeon (Mareca penelope)

Eurasian Wigeon (Mareca Penelope) at Uitkerkse Polders

But it is motivating, as learning any new skill can be, and it makes you think a lot more about what you're doing. It also, in my case, has made me seek out new birding spots to test my newly-acquired equipment and woeful lack of capability. And it has even, for only the second time ever, brought my elder son onto the margins of the birding world on the basis that he's passionate about, and interested in, photography rather than birds. Both these things were played out when he and I took a trip to the Uitkerkse Polders near Blankenberge on the Belgian coast.

Jovan looking dapper while teaching me how to use all that technical stuff

The Polders are not easy to find, and the road signs (at least if I understood the Dutch correctly) seem to indicate that you can't drive into reserve. You can. And it's worth it. The most impressive thing about this place is the sheer number of birds. Huge flocks of geese and ducks, and a reasonable number and variety of other species as well. It's worth taking the time to imagine that the entire coastline of Europe - from the northern tip of Jutland to Calais - must have been like this not too long ago. The numbers of birds must have been staggering. The very first goose I saw, oddly alone on a flooded meadow, was the species I'd missed a couple of weeks earlier at Het Zwin - a Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus). Strangely this species did not seem especially numerous elsewhere among the vast flocks of White-fronted and Greylag Geese (Anser albifrons and Anser anser), which had a good smattering of Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) thrown in. But I did get another species of wildfowl I'd missed on 1 January - Gadwall (Mareca strepera). I don't know about Belgium, but when I was growing up in the UK, this was not a particularly common species and in recent years it seems to have exploded in numbers.

One of thousands of White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) at Uitkerkse Polders

The bird of the day, though, across a field full of geese, was a glowering great Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) on a fencepost. I managed only to get a blurry record shot of this bird before it flew, but what a stunner.

Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) at Uitkerkse Polders. Note its size in comparison to the Geese in the foreground

Moving away from the polders themselves, which will be well worth exploring for warblers and other juicy things in the Spring, we moved briefly onto the beach at Blankenberge, a clean and well-maintained stretch of coast with consequently little wildlife. The groynes supported the usual cluster of Turnstone (Arenaria interpres), Dunlin (Calidris alpina) and Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), with Sanderlings (Calidris alba) on the beach, and there were the usual Gulls too, but nothing of great note except for a smattering of Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima), which I'm beginning to realise are a good deal more common on this side of the Channel than they are on the other.

Just because it's a nice photo - amazingly taken by me. An Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) at Blankenberge
Moving onwards in exploratory mode we made a quick loop around the small nature reserve on the northern side of the port of Zeebrugge, adding a Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) by the sea and a surprising group of three Avocets (Recurvirostra avosetta) in flight over the port. I'm told that there's a nature reserve inside the port with good numbers of breeding terns in the summer, but I could see no indication of if and how you can access it. Presumably the port is also good for "white" gulls in the winter, so any advice on how you can get into it would be very gratefully received.

Another nice photo, by Jovan of course. A Eurasian Robin (Erithacus rubecula) at Blankenberge