My close friend during a lifetime, Jørgen Schultz and I invited our dear wives on a vacation trip to the sunny Red Sea, the Egyptian East Coast, and an extension trip across the Eastern desert to visit Luxor and the impressive temples and The Valley of Kings.
A small return for the many hours and days we have left them behind going power birding.
We had promised our dear ones not to turn this vacation into any form of bird race - but after all, Hurghada is located close to the migration super highway.
We left Denmark a wonderful morning with temps around 15°C (60°F) and landed less than 5 hours later in the military airfield of Hurghada.
A dramatic change in climate and landscape. Stepping out of the airplane, first thought was: They forgot to stop the jet engines! A burning hot wind met us. No vegetation, no birds, just sand and blinding light. A very short bus ride to the formidable hotel complex of Grand Hotel. Yet another change of scene: With an army of young men, a very big and wonderful garden was spotlessly maintained. The desert shore had been turned into flowering trees and lush green lawns. After getting installed in large and pleasant rooms, we met and went the few steps to the beach. Eyes focused on any movement by feathered creatures.
First encounter: Laughing Doves (Streptopelia senegalensis). It turned out the garden complex had 5 or 6 pairs of this charming small dove.
Standing at the beach, binoculars ready, a bit of disappointment. Not a feather to be seen over the blue waters. But not for long. A couple of gulls came closer and spirits rose: White-eyed Gull (Larus leucophthalmus). A gull looking very different from the gulls at the shores back home. Deeply grey back and upper wings. Very long deep red bill. They proved to be the most common bird during our stay. Just before sunset, groups of Barn Swallows flew North - was it not in the wrong direction this time of year?
A morning round in the hotel garden began rather frustrating. There were warblers around, but they were not co-operative at all. Experts in hiding in the low hedges, palms and Acacias. One bird stayed put though: Lesser Grey Shrike (Lanius minor). A young bird sitting in the morning sun and allowing us to set the scope and study the details of the mask.
Finally, after much sneaking around, one of the warblers got identified: Orphean Warbler (Sylvia hortensis). Grayish-white outer tail feather, dark eyes, characteristic warning notes. A single raptor made a round, a possible Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni).
But we needed to start earlier in the morning to beat the apparently ever present staff, sweeping lanes, watering grass, nursing the planted palms, one by one, by hand.
Jørgen and I got up at 6 a.m. Vacation or not, work had to be done - battling the evading warblers!
First to be positively identified was a very well known bird from our own forests in Denmark: Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus). What a strange place to meet this warbler of the green hardwood forest of Scandinavia.
Suddenly a bird did not perform the vanishing trick: A Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata), another well-known species from home, just doing what it always does, apparently indifferent to the surroundings: Sitting quite open waiting for passing insects and making a strike, then returning to the same vantage point.
Yet another bird played with open cards: Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio), a hunting pattern not unlike the flycatcher.
But finally, one of the fleeing warblers had to identify itself: Olive-tree Warbler (Hippolais olivetorum). A very large warbler, with a vocalization not unlike our Blue Tit. Good show, something to celebrate!
To my surprise, a Hooded Crow (Corvus corone cornix) flew over the area. I was not prepared for this subspecies of Crow here in Egypt.
The afternoon was spent with our loving wives at the beach.
But you will not catch Jørgen and me without binoculars, not even wearing swimming trunks! No way.
Suddenly, Hanne, my wife, called from the warm waters of the Red Sea: Look behind you. Turning around we faced a cloud of White Storks (Ciconia ciconia) A low estimate said 600 of them in a ball shaped formation. Swirling slowly around to catch thermal they drifted with the wind. The binoculars were filled with Storks. A sight for us Danes, where only 3 breeding pairs are left these years. During the day the count reached 1.200 migrating Storks.
A late afternoon walk presented another Corvid: Brown-necked Raven (Corvus ruficollis), fooling around a less than half completed new hotel building. We saw these Ravens again later during our trip, but it took a while for us to get an impression of the brown coloring around the neck - mostly they looked very black.
We chose this fine day to go on a boat trip to the famous corals. A smooth sailing to an anchored vessel a couple of miles out and then transferring to a specially formed vessel that, staying on top of the water, was designed for us to go down below and watch through panorama windows, as it was navigated among the corals. More species of fish showed themselves than I have ever seen before. One of the highlights for all of us - but of course, Jørgen and I had a hidden agenda:
Sailing out to the low islands, would produce birds. Bingo! White-cheeked Terns (Sterna repressa) were quite common. But more eye-catching were the dark terns. Bridled Tern (Sterna anaethetus) and a single Lesser Crested Tern (Sterna bengalensis). Sights for sore eyes.
Yet again, we got up with the sun and inspected the lush garden. New avian guests had arrived during the night.
Lesser White-throat (Sylvia curruca). Was it perhaps the same one that had spent the summer breeding in our garden back home?
Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaneus) had crossed the Sinai Peninsula and found the coast of Hurghada.
A bird came flying pretty low directly towards us. First split second impression - just another Laughing Dove. But seeing us, it turned a bit, and showed the coloring, the size and the jizz of a woodpecker. But that could not be! No woodpeckers could possibly be expected at this desert beach. Only other possibility seemed likely: a Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus). With the kind help of Mrs. Mindy Baha El Din we put our best bet on this species, known to migrate through this area.
A kind hotel supervisor making early morning inspection of the garden told us the warblers we so eagerly looked for were Abu Fasada. Oh, my first Arabic words! All I now had to figure out was what exact species is Abu Fasada in English. We had something to go by. But again Mindy helped us out by e-mail. Abu Fasad is White Wagtail !! OK., nice try!
Time to venture out from the Grand Hotel and cross the coastal mountains and go through the Eastern Desert to the shores of the Nile. A bus ride of about 320 kilometers. Tourists in Egypt are well protected after some unfortunate incidents a few years ago. The busses left the hotel areas of Hurghada to meet at the Southern city limit, and wait for a convoy to be formed. Then we drove off in the sunrise with police escort. First stop was at a police/military check point. Time to stretch the legs and get the binoculars to work. For the first time in Egypt we found House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) As could be expected in this area, they were lighter in color than found in Scandinavia, but House Sparrows just the same. But soon a true desert species showed up: White-tailed Wheatear (Oenanthe leucopypa). This beautiful Wheatear, showing a pure white crown, jet-black head, breast and belly, but white underpart from the legs to its tail, can practically do without water. Also, Pale Crag-Martin (Hirundo obsoleta) lives in this barren countryside. The silhouette of this Martin is not unlike a Starling.
After a long drive through these naked, rough mountains and the even more barren desert, we reached the rich soil along the mighty river of the Nile. Birdlife improved.
First again a flock of White Storks - 350 circling around. I called the attention of our tourist guide in the bus in an attempt to get her to announce the great sight. She was on about the 19th dynasty of Pharaohs or some such. She did say in the microphone that some large birds could be seen to the left, Stork, she was told, but perhaps vultures!! I told her to walk back to Hurghada.
Anyway, some of us saw:
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) very common in the fields.
A Roller (Coracias garrulus) sat on an electric wire and literally glowed with its blue back.
Hoopoe (Upupa epos) were easy to spot, the unmistakingly pattern on the wings when flying.
Pied Kingfishers (Ceryle rudis), very common along the canal we followed from Qena towards Luxor. So were dead cattle in the canal.
We reached Luxor around midday. If we had thought it was hot in Hurghada, we now got wiser. 41°C (106°F) in the shadow. Only there is no shadow!
After being installed in a smaller hotel, the four of us found the way to the banks of the Nile - and a table with a view. Cold soft drinks in hand, we started counting:
Cattle Egret (Bubulus ibis) 60
Squacco Heron (Ardeola rallioides) 11
Black-eyed Bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus) - what a forceful songster.
White Stork (Cicocia ciconia) 120
Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) drifting southwards.
Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea)
Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) among the Cattle Egrets.
Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) 11
Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) young birds, very dark.
Spur-winged Lapwing (Vanellus spinosus), strikingly colored.
A Coot (Fulica atra) would you believe, well, well.
Cream-colored Courser (Cursorius cursor) a young specimen, not showing the delicate light brown coloring, but yet recognizable in colors and posture. Perhaps a minor hit.
Black Kite (Milvus migrans) using the Nile as guiding line for the migration.
So did a Greenshank (Tringa nebularia)
An early morning raise to drive to the Valley of Kings, trying to escape the burning sun. No such thing! But the graves of the Pharaohs in the valley among the hills on the west side of Nile are breathtaking. Even this hard-core birder would lower the binoculars and pay attention to this fantastic historic area. History of a civilization and craftsmanship back when my ancestors lived from hand to mouth were presented unbelievably escaping the tooth of time. Respect and wonder.
But let me finish the birding part:
Black-winged Kites (Elanus caeruleus) were seen on electric wires. 5 of them within a few miles.
Rock Pigeon (Columbus livia) were scattered around, but I can never be sure if they are the real thing or just domestic pigeons, can I?
Little Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) were quite common, again decorating the wires hanging over the dug canals along the Nile.
I must also mention the local variation of Barn Swallows. The subspecies Hirundo rustica savignii is abundant, sporting a deeply red underside in lieu of the almost white that I am accustomed to.
Admittingly, quite a few species escaped proper ID. Especially, a leisurely sailing trip on the Nile revealed lots of Egrets and Herons, but also shorebirds which we had to pass up. This area presents a rich birdlife - and is a even more interesting during migration.
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