Friday, March 20, 2015


Khartoum was my first port of call on a quick visit to East Africa betwen 11 and 17 March. This was my first visit to Sudan, but I've been following Tom Jenner's mouth-watering Blog, Birding Sudan, since I started working on the country last summer. Have a look for yourself and you'll see a lip-smacking list of species, united, for the most part, by their affinity to water. Alas, Tom and I missed each other on this occasion, as he was travelling homebound as I arrived. I can't help thinking that my birding suffered grievously as a result.

A dusty day in Khartoum

Khartoum is built on the confluence of two of the world's great rivers, the Blue Nile, rising in Ethiopia, and the White Nile, flowing down from Lake Victoria. Their merger preduces the Nile, sensu strictu, and you'd think that a city built in such propitious geographical circumstances would open its heart to this miraculous surge of water passing through the parched land. But not a bit of it. In fact, travelling around the city between meetings, my only glimpses of water were as we crossed the Blue Nile over high bridges. Those roads that do follow the River do so at some distance, so you can barely catch sight of the glint of reflected light as you zoom (or crawl, depending on the time of day) from place to place. Charmingly, though, the land between these roads and the river is often, for now, given over to agriculture, even close to the city centre, and I'm sure these areas would be well worth exploring on a future visit. In fact I know they would be from reading Tom's blog.

I'd planned to come to Khartoum fully a month before I actually managed to do so, and as a consequence I arrived after the heat had already returned. The days were baking - high 30s and even low 40s Celsius - though it's a dry heat which is a good deal more manageable than the sauna of Mogadishu I experienced afterwards. Nights were cooler and pleasant. Dust blew in on my second day in town, hanging in the air like a mist, and was followed by a steady wind for the last couple of days.

Just in case you couldn't see it first time. It was quite dusty.

Since I was deprived of the river and its banks, the birds I saw in the city were restricted to roadside verges, the small hotel garden, and the sky overhead, and they certainly had an arid flavour to them. The sky brought me Black Kites (Milvus migrans aegyptius), of course, including my first migrant nominate birds of the year (M.m. migrans), plus African Palm Swifts (Cypsiurus parvus), Laughing Doves (Spilopelia senegalensis) and Namaqua Doves (Oena capensis). Roadside verges added Spur-Winged Lapwings (Vanellus spinosus). The hotel garden was honestly a bit of a disappointment; huge numbers of House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), making a din like a forest-load of cicadas in the morning, a Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis) or two, some African Mourning Doves (Streptopelia decipiens), a pair of Spur-Winged Lapwings and a few Common Bulbuls (Pycnonotus barbatus). The only real surprise was a goodly number of Blue-naped Mousebirds (Urocolius macrourus) whistling away from the top of a bamboo hedge like a gang of slightly drunken Eurasian Scops-Owls (Otus scops).

A Spur-winged Plover (Vanellus spinosus) and a male House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) hanging out on the hotel terrace.
And so passed my two and a half days in Khartoum. And that would have been it, for a normal business trip, but since I was travelling onward within the region afterwards, and since I have to spend the weekend somewhere, I and a colleague elected to do so in Sudan, and were rewarded with a sneaky trip in the desert North-East of the city for the penultimate night of our stay.

This is scrubby desert, with occasional stretches of stony ground bereft of plant life, but without large expanses of sand. There are numerous small trees and bushes and good expanses of dried grass and other low herbiage, but very few large trees, and, needless to say, almost no open water (except for a single waterhole that we saw beset on all sides by vast flocks of goats). I've had a limited experience of desert birding, and knew that I couldn't expect a cornucopia. Like all life in such marginal habitats, birds are relatively few and far between. Still, even I was shocked by the almost complete lack of any birds at all on the long drive through the scrub after we left the tarmac. I began to think I'd brought my binoculars for nothing but to get the lenses covered in sand.

The desert. More Sahel than Sahara and a bit of a lurid picture.
But as we approached our intended camp site, things began to look up. The first sign was four Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles exustus),  a LIFER for me, flushed from beneath a bush. Then came the Bar-tailed Larks (Ammomanes cinctura), another LIFER, and then the first of several big flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks (Calandrella brachydactyla), which must have added-up to at least 300 or 400 birds in total. A Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor - or Southern Grey Shrike, Lanius meridionalis, if you prefer - in either case of the "Aucheri" race) was the only predatory bird I saw, but there were large flocks of African Silverbills (Lonchura cantans) in one location, and quite a few Black-crowned Sparrow-larks (Eremopterix nigriceps), again a LIFER, scattered around. All this before we'd stopped the car.

While camp was set up, I took a walk around as the heat faded. I'd already picked-up three LIFERS, and soon added two more; a pair of strutting Greater Hoopoe-Larks (Alaemon alaudipes) and a few skulking Cricket Warblers (Spiloptila clamans), some of which responded to pishing.

Setting up camp. The first, and most essential stage - brewing-up.
Camp consisted of three old portable iron bedsteads with thin mattresses drawn-up in the lee of the parked car, but though we lay and wondered at the stars, we didn't go straight to bed, instead venturing out in the car again to see what a vast halogen lamp could reveal of the nighttime wildlife. The desert floor was full of holes, and it soon became apparent that these were almost all made by Desert Jerboas (Jaculus jaculus), who careered around in front of the car in large numbers like a host of miniature clockwork kangaroos. There were a few Scrub Hares (Lepus saxatilis) around, as well.  But the highlight was a tiny Fennec Fox (Vulpes zerba) which pelted along with its tail flat behind it, not much bigger than the Hares we'd just seen.

The morning of the last day dawned surprisingly slowly, and surprisingly coolly, giving me time for a bit more wandering before the heat set in. Aside from the species of the day before, there were two more to be found; a pair of Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse (Pterocles lichtensteinii) flushed from a tiny depression in the ground, and, my last LIFER for Sudan, two softly-spoken Brown-necked Ravens, (Corvus ruficollis).

Sunset in the desert. Waiting for the Nightjars and Owls that never came.
You can't beat a night in the desert. It's a salve for the soul, and there's something primordial about lying there with nothing between you and the sky. Not that I slept very well. It was windy as hell. But never mind. Those stars and the resounding sound of silence (at least before my colleague started snoring) will stay with me for a while.

Still, from a birding perspective, and despite my six LIFERS, it was, frankly, a rather disappointing trip. I saw only 21 species in my time in Sudan, including the time in Khartoum. I was surprised at the lack of Nightjars, or of Owls, or of any bird of prey, in the desert. We were there for more than 24 hours, so I can't put this absence down to a want of searching. And at least as far as Owls are concerned there was no shortage of prey in the Jerboas. Have they been hunted out, or is this just such a marginal habitat that they're merely very thinly-spread?

I thought that this might be my first and last trip to Sudan, but it seems I will probably be back fairly soon, and next time I would dearly love to spend more time next to, or even just near, the river. And I'll certainly make more of an effort to ensure that when I go I can meet up with Tom Jenner, if he's free and keen. This is not a country in which you can wander around with binoculars hoping for the best. That lesson has definitely been learned.


  1. I lived in Sudan for a year in the 1980s. February and March were very disappointing months for birding, I must say, even close to water. Your species list more or less resembles what I would have expected in that habitat but perhaps with a few migrating raptors too. Things started hotting up after the spring equinox but August - November after the rains are best. Be prepared for some serious humid heat though!

    1. Paul - many thanks. I got similar feedback from Tom Jenner. Hopefully will be back in May or early June and again in the autumn. Sounds like that's the best time. And humid heat - well, it's not my favourite (is it anyone's?) but I'll cope if the birds are worth it.

  2. I just saw a Lang-tailed Nightjar along the blue Nile, 100 KM southeast of Khartoum in 2003. Thanks to know some info about birds in Sudan.

    1. Bird - lucky you! I've never seen this species, and as I said in my post, I was surprised by the lack of Nightjars in the desert. My own visit, detailed in the post, was my first and so far only trip to Sudan (I didn't go back as expected over the summer, but will do again this coming year). Tom Jenner has now left Sudan, but his Blog (Birding Sudan) is still the best guide to birding there that I've found. Good luck.