Saturday, 21 April 2012

Egypt 2012 - The Nile Valley

First up, a warning. If you are reading this as preparation for a trip to Egypt soon, think very hard about your trip. We had a very difficult time of it due to a massive fuel crisis all over the country. Our first experience of it, on the first night, was an hour and a half wait at the pumps, we didn't realise at the time, but we had got off pretty lightly. After that, we drove past multiple closed stations due to lack of fuel, had to wait 5 hours plus for fuel to arrive at one station, and queued for many, many hours at other stations. We had to organise an expensive trip in a locals vehicle to get to Shalatein and back as no-one could guarantee petrol in the three stations between Lahami and Shalatein (there wasn't any in the end, but some did arrive whilst we were there). If you are still going, make sure you keep a very close eye on the news to find out what is happening with the fuel crisis, and talk to the locals to find out where has petrol, and when its arriving, although they quite often didn't seem to know either.
Above photo's from Tut Amon Fishponds and the Nile. The 1st April saw me heading out from Gatwick to Hurghada with Josh Jones and Rich Bonser on a birding trip to Egypt. Expectations were high for lots of high quality birding, although we had been warned by Rich that it wouldn't necessarily be as relaxing and pleasant as our Spanish jaunt this time last year. Our plan for the week was to get the Nile Valley section of our trip done first, hopefully cleaning up some of the trickier speciality species, before having a few days to relax and look for migrants on the Red Sea. We knew it was going to be less than luxurious, with a long drive, a high density of people and lots of pollution. I wasn't quite prepared for how bad it was.

It got off to a bad start; a long drive down from Hurghada to Aswan was greatly extended by queues for petrol, police checkpoints, unplanned police escorts, and mountainous speed bumps every kilometre or so on on the road (for several hundred kilometres). We had planned to get there for around midnight and find a room; we finally rocked up at 4:30 and spent a few fitful hours napping in the car. Our days birding began with a brief walk around Aswan, picking up commoner species like gull-billed tern, eastern ollie, masked shrike, purple gallinule, Nile valley sunbird, lesser whitethroats littering every bush, and our only white-winged black tern of the trip.

Proper birding commenced with a guided tour (you can only get in with a guide) of Tut Amon fishponds. This was a pretty good site, with a series of saltpan-type lagoons holding a nice variety and quantity of birds, but it took a bit of searching before we found the target, three-banded plover, apparently at a breeding site on the edge of Lake Nasser with a couple of Senegal thick-knees. By that stage, we had already notched up the likes of clamorous reed warblers, graceful prinia, spur-winged plovers, night, squacco, purple and grey herons, more sunbirds and masked shrikes, temminck's stint, wood sand, LRP, bluethroat and many others. The guide was decent, but disappeared pretty quickly after finding us the plovers. If you wan't to go, you'll need Hosni, his e-mail is

 The rest of the afternoon was written off queuing for petrol, but we did have the advantage of getting plenty of time to meet up with Aswan fixer extraordinnaire Yasser. He was fixing us up with the boat trip the next day in Abu Simbel, and suggested we also went on one down the Nile that evening from Aswan. At $10 each, we jumped at the chance to fit in a bit more birding. In the end, it was a great idea, one of the more relaxing experiences of the trip, lots of birds, good views and a chance to get out of the smog, noise and heat of Aswan. The next day we were up early (no sleep for the wicked, or WP tick-obsessed), to make the organised convoy down to Abu Simbel for African Mourning Dove, and a 4 hour trip on Lake Nasser. In the end, the convoy was pretty pointless, as we had to do 50mph to make sure we could get there and back on one tank of fuel with no hope of petrol at Abu Simbel due to the crisis, and the convoy soon left us far behind.

Once it got light, migrant Ospreys were a bizarre sight adorning many of the pylons in the middle of the desert, with no water for miles. On arrival, we headed for the gardens where the Mourning doves had been found. We heard them singing as soon as we stepped out of the car, and a bit of a search found one singing from the top of a tall tree, and occasionally display flighting. After half an hour of good views, we left to get on a boat round Lake Nasser. The boat trip was great, with lots of fantastic birds, although we were clearly to early for two of the semi-hoped for birds, African skimmer and pink-backed pelican. Highlights included 3 yellow-billed storks, Kittlitz's plover, several pairs of African pied wagtails which came and landed on our boat, 19 black-winged pratincoles, 100's of waders like marsh sands, little stints and wood sands, 3 ospreys, 2 Senegal thick-knee, 250 odd great white pelican, and 50ish each of greater flamingo and spoonbill. All in all very pleasant, and we were pretty happy when we returned to shore to begin the tedious drive back.

On returning to Aswan, panic began to set in as neither petrol station had any fuel, but they did have the longest queues I have ever seen waiting for non-existent benzine. We rang Yasser, who happily got a call as fuel arrived at one of the stations, and somehow got us to the front of the queue! Incredible. We had Yasser's number for the boat trip, but he seemed exceptionally happy to help with any problems we had in Aswan, and organised the Nile boat trip for us; if you need something in Aswan or Abu Simbel he is probably the man to ask We went to bed with a full tank, and looking forward to leaving the Nile Valley the next morning.

Photo's from Abu Simbel and Lake Nasser:

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Fade to grey?

Having been back from the aforementioned Irish trip a while, I was having a flick through my photo's of the adult Kumlien's gull at Reenard point, Kerry:

Then this photo caught my eye:

I thought I had a different bird, one that we hadn't noticed in the field, paler but with still enough grey in the webs to make a decent candidate for Iceland gull. However, I looked again when I got back from Egypt (blog post soon), and there seems to be a bit of a scale in the darkness of grey shown in my photos of Kumliens gull(s) at Reenard, for instance:

I'm now pretty confused. In the field we only had one bird we thought was Kumlien's, which appeared to show charcoal grey in the outer primaries, although most of my attention was focussed on photography, rather than observation. There were certainly a few adult Icelands knocking about as well. Are there two birds, or is the camera just responsible for the colour change?

Any comments gratefully recieved.

Irish gulls are always classy

1w Iceland gull in Bantry harbour

2012 started in much the same way as 2011 ended, fairly quiet locally, but enough nationally to keep hopeful. The highlight of January was a weekend away with Cat, when I somehow managed to sneak in the time to see the western sand at Cley and the Spanish sparrow and dark-eyed junco in hampshire (she's such a lucky girl), although i did bugger my scope dipping the fudge duck at Blashford lakes.

The year really started to pick up when storms in the north atlantic caused huge wrecks of Iceland gulls on the west coast of Ireland and the Northern isles, which eventually led to decent numbers spread through the rest of the UK. Effort at the local tip was increased, and I found a very small adult Iceland, then Tim weighed in with a couple of Casps, before the floodgates truly opened, and white-wingers started popping up all over the place locally. I reckon I have seen about 10-12 different white-wingers this winter personally in the York area, and there were clearly more individuals than that knocking around. Myself and Chris Gomersall worked out we had seen 9 different Iceland gulls, of all ages except 3+4w (maybe just lack of attention), and 3 different Glaucs. Pretty impressive stuff.

Despite this, the truly astounding numbers coming from places like Killybegs were still very tempting, and I decided to tag along on a trip to Ireland already arranged by Rich Bonser and Alan Clewes. In total that trip, we had 150 white-winged gulls including 5 Kumlien's, and other good birds in the form of Todd's canada goose (found by JJ on an earlier trip), 3 Richardson's canada geese, black brant found by Alan and a scattering of ring-billed gulls. The residing memory of the trip will always be the regularity in which we found ourselves looking at flocks of white-wingers in harbours and beaches, and the excitement and confusion of trying work out counts, when often birds were seemingly everywhere, whilst also commonly having several extremely confiding birds to study and photograph.

Not gull photos:

Ok, there is a glauc in this one, couldn't get away from them...

Rich doing what he does best.

Gull photos (in no particular order):

Castletown Bearehaven, Cork:

Reenard Point, Kerry:

Bantry, Cork:

A very unconvincing 'Kumlien's' in Stab city:

Compulsory visit to Nimmo's pier, Galway

Somewhere else in Ireland: