Trip Report: Tunisia, January 25 - February 1, 1997

Joan Thompson, Hertfordshire, UK;

This is a report of a trip that I went on to Tunisia 25th January-1st February 1997. I went on an organised trip, and one big mistake was to go during Ramadan. I don't know if we were just unlucky but our driver and guide (no birdwatcher) insisted on being back at the hotel by 5.30PM to prepare for breaking the fast or to pray. As it didn't get dark until after 6 this was a large waste of birdwatching time.

I would largely agree with Anssi's remarks on the common or lack of common birds in his opening remarks, except that we did not see Rock Pipit, although to be honest, we were not in the right habitat most of the time.

Additional species

Great Crested Grebe    Podiceps cristatus
Black-necked Grebe       "      nigricollis
Gannet                 Morus bassannus

    No shearwater for us

Squacco Heron          Ardeola ralloides
Cattle Egret           Bubulcus ibis
Great White Egret      Egretta alba
Glossy Ibis            Plegadis falcinellus
Spoonbill              Platalea leucorodia
Greylag Goose          Anser anser
Ruddy Shelduck         Tadorna ferruginea
Shelduck                 "     tadorna
Wigeon                 Anas penelope
Teal                   Anas crecca
Pintail                Anas acuta
Shoveler               Anas clypeata
Marbled Duck           Marmaronetta angustirostris
Tufted Duck            Aythya fuligula
Ferruginous Duck       Aythya nyroca
White Headed Duck      Oxyura leucocephalia
Golden Eagle           Aquila chrysaeetos
Bonelli's Eagle        Hieraaetus fasciatus
Osprey                 Pandion haliaetus
Lanner                 Falco biarmicus.
Kestrel                Falco tinnunuculus
Barbary Partridge      Alectoris barbara
Golden Plover          Pluvialis apricaria
Temminck's Stint       Calidris temminckii
Black-tailed Godwit    Limosa limosa
Spotted Redshank       Tringa erythropus
Marsh Sandpiper          "    stagnatillus
Green   "                "    ochropus
Little Gull            Larus minuutus
Slender-billed Gull      "   genei
Lesser Black-backed Gull "   fuscus
Caspian Tern           Sterna caspia
Whiskered Tern         Chlidonias hybridus
Little Swift           Apus affinis
Calandra Lark          Melanocorypha calandra
Desert Lark            Ammomanes deserti
Crag Martin            Ptyonoprogne rupestris
Water Pipit            Anthus spinoletta
Desert Wheatear        Oenanthe deserti
Red-rumped "             "      moesta
Black    "               "      leucura
Blue Rock Thrush       Monticola solitarius
Scrub Warbler          Scotocerca inquieta
Fulvous Babbler        Turdoides fulvas
Raven                  Corvus corax

This trip to Tunisia was based at Hammamet with a 1 night stay at Gabes, another at Douz, another at Gafsa and then back to Hammamet for our final day before an evening departure. At Hammamet we stayed at the Hotel Phenicia.

Jan 26th

Before picking up the driver and bus in the morning we had about half an hour of daylight to look around the hotel grounds. The best part for me was the stony muddy Oued et Temad which produced close views of Little Stint, Sanderling and Kentish Plover most days with the odd Green Sandpiper on another. Gulls flying overhead were mainly Black-headed with Mediterranean Gulls in amongst them. 2 Little Gulls flying along the beach were 2/3 of our total for this species.

Picked up the bus and headed for Korba North along the coast for the lagoons. A stop briefly 3km N of Korba where we saw our first Flamingo, and Shoveler were the most numerous duck. The rain came down heavily and we moved 7km N of Korba and stopped again. The "rain gods" were on our side as the heavy rain ceased and then stopped. We walked down a rough track towards the sea where we saw Crested Larks, Great Grey Shrikes (resembled algeriensis here), Little Owls, and my first new bird, Barbary Partridge, in a small field where we had the odd good view, but often all you could see was a part of the bird. 2 pairs were found here. Marsh Harriers were common. A flock of Avocet flew in and a single Gannet flew past out at sea. The rain restarted in earnest just as we were boarding the bus. We had seen it coming! and just got back in time. Drove towards Cap Bon where after lunch in clear weather we found 3 Thekla Larks seen closely by us all. Many Crested Larks in the area. The Theklas were just up the road from a car park near the cliff edge and quarries with deep holes on the right. A track leading to the left had been explored first and these birds were seen from the road. We had driven through El Haouria where we had had lunch. Discovered second mistake of the trip here in that lunches were booked in hotels, and more good birding time lost. Had assumed lunch would be on the hoof, so to speak. Learned a lesson for the future. Many of us on the trip had made the same mistake.

We then moved on to Barrage Mlabi signposted off C45 where we saw 28 Black-necked Grebe, a distant Whiskered Tern, and that was about it. Moved on to Barrage Lebna signed off C27 around Menzel Heurr. Lots of Cattle Egret coming into roost with the odd Little Egret and a distant Great White. More Black-necked Grebe, Marsh Harriers flying around, and suddenly the driver started hooting the horn and saying it was time to go. Explanations were discovered by our leader later, but no forewarning of the Ramadan problem until this outburst on the horn! The driver was prepared to be early in the morning to help offset this losing of time.

Mon 27th Jan

A trip to Lake Ichkeul, a place I had long wanted to go, ended in the biggest disappointment of the trip as far as waterfowl were concerned. It was a long haul from Hammamet and we passed through Tunis in the rush hour. We had our best view of Long-legged Buzzard from this trip as we found one on a post near the road and stopped the bus got out and had excellent close views. On to Lake Ichkeul where on the access road the driver hit a pot hole far to fast, and the 3 of us on the back seat lifted several inches in the air. If we had been tall we would have hit our heads as well! The driver slowed down and we got to the entrance with no further problems. The entrance permit had a no photography clause which was difficult to understand. As I had already discovered my camera had gone on the blink and wasn't working it was no hardship for me, but why cameras couldn't be used remains a mystery unless they didn't want photographic evidence of the poor dwellings we passed between the entrance and the lake! At the parking place the lake was a long way out, and for once the sun was shining and guess what we were looking straight towards it! Only a few hundred duck were visible, and all of them I could find within a few miles of home. The highlights here were on the Jebel slopes where a pair of Lanner Falcons gave good views both perched and flying. Extremely good views of next lifer: Moussier's Redstart, mostly cracking males were seen together with 4 Barbary Partridges which must have been flushed flying straight over my head at low level! Blackcaps were singing here. Distant views of Blue Rock Thrush at the top of the crags and 4 close Thekla Larks were my highlights. These were the only Theklas that we saw on the trip. Every lark giving good views in the desert later were Crested. Cetti's Warbler was seen and heard by those at the front, but at the time I was right in the rear and so missed out altogether on this bird! Still if you are going to dip make sure it is a bird you can see at home.

Went to Bizerte for lunch and to find Common Bulbul, another new bird, which definitely wasn't common. This was for most of us the only sighting of the trip. Another Gannet flew by from the sea. Discovered here that the driver wouldn't go to another part of Lake Ichkeul because the road was even worse than the road this morning which wasn't too bad if only he went slowly. Having driven on a road in Costa Rica in a bus of similar size on a road which I didn't think was navigable by a vehicle. We all had to get out to walk in Costa Rica. I don't know what this road was like -- never got the chance to find out. Stopped at the NE corner of Lake Tunis as a recompense, but this only held a few common-to-the-UK duck and a flock of 8 Whiskered Terns. Then at high speed over the causeway between the lake where a few close Black-necked Grebe were seen but little else other than gulls. With the long distance covered and disappointment of lake Ichkeul it was definitely the low point of the trip.

Tues 28th Jan

This day was our departure for 3 days although we still had our hotel room in Hammamet as well for the desert trip. First day was going to be long drive to Gabes with stops on the way down. First stop was Enfida where we found our only Little Swifts of the trip and stocked up on water which was half price or less compared to the hotel. We must have looked very strange to the local townspeople. The driver who had showed a slight interest in what we were up to had come up with his own monocular which he looked through from time to time but not always. This area around Enfida is good for cranes. The first stop 3km SE nr slip road P1 joins A1 turned up 2 White Storks but no cranes. Apparently the leader said last year this field contained 250 cranes but not for us. Tried another road P2 SW to Kairouan. After 5km we stopped and found 15 Cranes dotted distantly around us, another Long-legged Buzzard but best of all several Calandra Larks which almost disappeared into the soil when on the ground but when flying were stunning and the next new bird for me. Also large flock around 350 Golden Plover here. Then back towards Gabes where the next stop was a lake near Hergla. Here the highlights were many Flamingoes, 4 Caspian Terns fishing, and a fly by of 9 Slender-billed Gulls which were only seen by me and the leader. I had picked the birds up in the distance flying by and couldn't think what I was seeing to start with. Only Pat, the leader, picked up on the birds and by the time we called them properly they were unfortunately disappearing behind the hills on the other side of the lake. Still the others caught up later! Quick look at the outside of El Jem where the rain came again in earnest and no self-respecting Rock Sparrow was visible. We departed towards Gabes and Thyna Salines where the weather was improving and the rain stopped by the time we arrived. Took the first track and then walked. The pools contained around 1000 Flamingoes, 4-5 Marsh Sandpipers, 250 Black-tailed Godwits, 30 Spoonbills, 4 Great White Egrets. We didn't really have time to explore the whole area before the long drive to the hotel in Gabes where we arrived after dark at Hotel Oasis.

Wed 29th Jan

A fine start to the day and an attempt to find Audouin's Gull in the harbour before we set off. Went towards the harbour and through the gateway. Saw lots of birds on the beach opposite and set up scopes. Vehicle stopped and we were asked what we were up to. Explained we were birdwatchers, no camera and vehicle went on. Birds found first Lesser Black-backed Gull and Caspian Terns and Black-necked Grebe in harbour. Stopped again and luckily for me I was not being spoken to as a Peregrine flew close by and was virtually missed by the 2 who were being asked what we were doing. Continued around harbour finding Kingfisher, Common Sandpiper and 4 close Slender-billed Gulls. Stopped again this time by Capitain du port and allowed to stay. Obviously been told that suspicious looking foreigners were wandering around. No Audouin's unfortunately as it would have been a lifer. A friend went back early to catch up on her drawings and had singing House Bunting just outside the port. We all went back and had good views before getting on coach to head towards Douz.

As we headed towards the desert, we suddenly went into a fog bank, a sight I didn't expect to find. Before our first stop at Oued en Nakhla at km57 which had water in it. A good stop where we found lots of birds. Apparently, our driver said a notice in Arabic said the area was used as a firing range. Being intrepid birders we explored the area finding 2 flying Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Red-rumped, Desert and Mourning Wheatears, 5 Lesser Short-toed Larks plus Moussier's Redstart and Spanish Sparrow. With Mourning, Red-rumped, Sandgrouse and Lesser Short-toed Lark being lifers it was hard to know where to look. There was also a Temminck's Stint here which provided my best-ever views of this species. With all these goodies around I missed the Short-toed Lark which I has seen in Elat before. All too soon it was time to move on to the next oued at km75 where we found a party of Fulvous Babblers which numbered at least 7 birds. To start with, a member of the party said I have a funny looking shrike perched in a bush. Always worth listening to such comments! A Great Grey Shrike here appeared to be a classic looking elegans race. Meanwhile someone else came back with a story of a bird which she described and sounded like a Desert Warbler which was never re-found although the area then turned up with a skulking bird which for some of us turned into a Scrub Warbler, but others never got a good look. I was one of the lucky ones, as I had never seen the race which occurs in Tunisia before.

Time to move on and, after lunch in hotel went to large pool on Zaafrane road, first water we saw and then walked down a track towards water. Loads of Marbled Teal which numbered at least 270 but it wasn't easy to see total area with bushes in the way. Another new bird and seen in large numbers -- magical. Missed a Spectacled Warbler to start with -- not good news as I had never seen one before, but eventually it returned to the same area much to my relief. 2 Wood Sandpipers here were surprising for us but a delight to see. On the way back to the vehicle noticed lots of gorgeous looking flowers starting to appear through the sand. No doubt due to the rain which had fallen in the area. Unfortunately none of us were botanists, and the plant remains a mystery. Really missed my camera for this no doubt one-off occasion, as with a macro lense I would have had a frame filling photo -- made me very cross. Back to the vehicle and to another pool which only held common waterfowl and 28 Kentish Plovers. Then to a village El Hessai at the end of a track which has been good in the past for Desert Sparrow.

Unfortunately the driver tried to go beyond the tarmac road and got stuck in the sand. Here it was advantageous being a woman as we were not expected to help push the vehicle. Made a nice change to watch the proceedings and also for birds, but the only good bird was another Desert Wheatear. No Desert Sparrows. By the time the vehicle had been pulled out of the sand by another one it was time to get back to the hotel! Apparently another tour had failed to find the sparrows 2 weeks earlier.

Thur 30th Jan

An early walk to Douz rubbish tip got us lost to start with and valuable time was lost. You take the track immediately North side of the zoo from hotel Toureg. By the time we found it, no Brown-necked Ravens were visible, and it was time to head back to the hotel. People were taking a short cut via the tip which didn't help. We left Douz for Kebili, and after 11km just before palms at Jemna at a new pool we had 21 Ruddy Shelducks, which might well have been my first truly wild birds of this species. Didn't really explore the area too much as had to get on to next place. On the road made a stop for a raven which the others identified as Brown-necked, but I was distracted by 2 jackals crossing the road, called by the driver, and by the time I had watched these dissappear, the raven had gone too far away for me to properly identify -- so its not on my list. Had seen before in Elat, and the jackals were worth watching! On the journey through El Mahassen area we saw several White-crowned Black Wheatears and others which may or may not have been Black although one certainly was. Next stop was Gorge de l'oued selja and we walked along the track and into the gorge mouth. Had Mourning Wheatear and Great Grey Shrike, including a shrike's larder of 2 dead dung beetles on low vegetation before getting into gorge. Highlights here were proper views of both Black and White-crowned Black Wheatear, as well as excellent views Desert Lark. I never wanted to leave this area, but it was time to move on.

After lunch which seemed to take for ages left the desert and made mad dash for vehicle we went to a rocky pass at Jebel Ank, and even before all of us were off the bus, a Bonelli Eagle had been found. How jammy can you get. We watched not 1 but a pair displaying to each other for ages, Another new bird. At times the eagles were mobbed by a pair of Kestrels which looked minute in comparison. It was here that another skulking bird was found by some, but its ID was never totally resolved, but it might have been a Tristram's. I was half way up the hillside and by the time I got there it never materialised again before we had to depart to get to the hotel by 5.30. Really sad as it was a wonderful evening with good scenery and a possibility of another lifer. At the hotel in the middle of town I open the window to suddenly observe hundreds of White Wagtails flying past. I don't know how many I missed to start with, but it was obviously a large roost somewhere in Gafsa.

Fri 31 Jan

First stop Barrage Haquareb which is clearly signed off P3 about 35km S of Kairouan. Here last year the leader had 35 White-headed Ducks. Loads of wildfowl here, and suddenly a White-headed Duck, then another and another until 1 person counted 352 of them. Unfortunately they were rather a long way down from the dam wall and out into the middle, but another new bird. Squacco Heron immature was on dam wall as well. Many other wildfowl and waders here as well. Driver said another eagle which turned out to be Long-legged Buzzard. We had at last got them semi-interested in our proceedings.

After the barrage Haquareb we continued through Kairouan and stopped on the road just before El Metbasta to look over flooded pools finding Greylags, 500 Golden Plover, Cattle Rgret and 330 Kentish Plovers together with many other waders not always easy to id in the far distance. Others here claimed Bar-tailed Godwit, but for me the distance was just too great, and they were standing in water making leg length criteria impossible! I am sure they were right as others often see more detail than I can see, but for me they had to remain godwit sp. 4 Cranes were also seen here. Be careful here as we soon attracted kids from the local village and vechicles thundered past at your back.

We then moved on to other pools on the right hand side which weren't easy to get too at Sebkhet Kelbia where the km signposts were no longer there, so previous directions were of no use. After one wrong turn we found a good pull off in open land just before village Kondar with a wide view of part of the waters. Just in front of us 2 Glossy Ibis were feeding and the only ones of the trip. More Marsh Harriers, 30 Whiskered Terns and a few Black-winged Stilt and Avocet. The lake here held vast numbers of Flamingoes and Coots numbering into the 1000's plus 430 Pintail and the usual 150 plus Shoveler. A further 2 Calandra Lark were found here as well. At this point the shrike showed characteristics of both races elegans and algeriensis. Time to get back to the hotel for 5.30.

Quick look at the beach showed it hadn't changed much since our last visit 3 days before, but 2 Green Sandpipers had arrived.

Sat 1 Feb

This was a free day but everyone elected with the UK leader to go to Zaghouan and explore. So we went in a small minibus and taxi which cost us £9 each. Well worth the money as on route we stopped at a new dam by the road on C28 just past SIDI JDIDI where we found 21 Marbled Teal, 8 White-headed Ducks giving much closer views than our previous ones, and 10 Ferruginous Ducks. This one small area provided 11 species of duck. 2 Ravens and more Marsh Harriers were also present. This pool was not very far from Hammamet by vehicle.

We then moved on to Zaghouan and parked right in front of the ancient Roman temple. Here we had good views of Blue Tit race ultramarinus which sounds more like a British Great Tit than Blue Tit. This was very confusing at the start of the trip. Suddenly I saw movement in the branches of a tree and started to see bits of red which eventually materialised into a Crossbill just before it flew off into the distance. Eventually I was vidicated by my call as others started to hear Crossbill as well. A while later several birds flew in front of us over the valley. We got the vechicles to take us up a road which we then walked back. The drivers were not keen to stay on the road and wait. This road passed beautiful dramatic cliffs where we heard Song Thrush for the first time but never did see this bird. Blue Rock Thrushes were seen as dots at the top of the cliff plus Peregrines and Kestrels. Highlights however were Bonelli's Eagle which passed straight over the top of my head and perched on a lowish outcrop of rock. Stunning views through the scope might never be surpassed! Apparantly there were 2 birds but I only saw this one which didn't matter in the slightest. Also had 2 close Golden Eagles on the way back plus 2 Rock Bunting. A terrific last day out before getting back to hotel for late lunch as supper would be on plane on way home.

After lunch back to the beach to make the most of last hour or so before 5pm departure. Loads of gulls loafing on the sea provided many Mediterranean ones amongst the Black-headed and 4 adult Slender-billed Gulls but no Audouin's -- sigh! Eventually 1 Mediterranean Gull came onto the end of the oued for a wash and brush up, providing my closest ever views. The odd thing about the gulls on the sea was that they sat higher in the water than Black-headed. I know they are bigger bulkier gulls, but on the local reservoir near Watford where the odd one can be found amongst the 20,000 Black-headed I have been told that they sit lower in the water, and when I saw one that was indeed the case. I suppose salt makes a difference to the buoyancy. Has anyone else noticed this? Also a badly oiled gull was seen here luckily only the one. No Yellow-legged Gulls were seen at Hammamet.

The Grey Wagtail which appeared on the oued had a completely white tertial and at the time couldn't be found in any of my field guides, but on getting home it seems to be of the North African race Montacilla cinerea cinerea.

In all it was a very good trip which would have been better with packed lunches and no Ramadan curfew. Despite its limitations we seemed to do very well with many good sightings but some birds that got away. If anyone wants any more info let me know. The last day provided no new birds for me but several best ever views.

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