In December, I attended a medical conference in Cairo, Egypt, and did a little birding on the side. The antiquities in Egypt are probably the best preserved in the entire world and they are quite fascinating, but my principal interest has always been birds, and I am an inveterate life-lister. This a brief narrative of my birding experiences in Egypt.
Swarovski 7 x 50 binoculars
Bausch and Lomb Criterion 4000 spotting scope with tripod
The Birds of Britain and Europe by H. Heinzel, R. S. R. Fitter, and J. Parslow
Shorebirds: An Identification Guide by P. Hayman
Seabirds: An Identification Guide by P. Harrison
Our flight arrives from Frankfurt at 1900 hrs. We emerge an hour later from customs/immigration (no questions about the scope). Taxi direct to hotel and sleep away the jet lag.
Register for conference in Gezira (upscale Cairo suburb) and do a little urban birding around Cairo University campus. Cairo has a high pollution index, and there are relatively few green areas, but this was one of them, and I did see some birds. Turtle Doves were common, and there was a White Wagtail picking at the grass near the medical school. On the way back to my hotel on the corniche I spotted a Black Kite soaring along over on of the Nile river bridges. Also noted some gulls over the river, but they were too far off to identify. Spent the afternoon shopping in the bazaar.
Spent these days in conference. No birding.
Drove out to Saqqara ruins and spot many Hooded Crows along the road. Also spot a small flock of Spanish Sparrows in tamarisk trees at roadside along a canal. Cattle Egrets are in evidence as are water buffaloes. Two Black Kites soaring over the step pyramid of Zoser. Hooded and Desert Wheatear sighted amongst the ruins. This site is at the very edge of the western desert and birds are few. Also sighted another White Wagtail. Stayed at the ruins until dusk.
We fly down to Aswan for some true relaxation. Aswan is basically the last civilized outpost north of Kenya, and it feels very African. The climate is superb and the scenery is exceptional. There are impressive ruins and the whole place is quite birdy. The Nile river here is a deep aquamarine blue, and everywhere you see native sailboats, feluccas, gliding along. Stayed at the Cataract Hotel which is classic (they also have a Club Med). In the hotel garden there was a beautiful green bird which was perched on a palmetto tree. When the light struck it, I was moved to rapture. This was my first view of a Little Green Bee-eater. We ate lunch on the hotel veranda, and there were numerous Palm Doves scrambling around for handouts. A walk down to the riverbank revealed several Common Bulbuls, and there was a Grey Heron on a rock across the river. Several Lesser Black-backed Gulls were flying along dodging the feluccas. I heard a clattering call which I normally associate with kingfishers, and sure enough, here was a fine black-and-white specimen of the Lesser Pied Kingfisher. These were quite numerous along the Nile. In the late afternoon I spotted an Egyptian Nightjar which began hawking for insects just as the sun went down. It was a light-colored bird similar in size to a Common Pauraque [a neotropical species of nightjar].
Up at dawn with scope in hand to watch birds along the river. There is a small marshy area on an islet in mid-river (S of Elephantine Island), and this is where I focus my scope. I see waders/shorebirds, a pair of Spur-winged Plovers, a Squacco Heron hiding in the reeds, a Grey Heron fishing from a rock, several Common Sandpipers, a Little Egret, and an unidentified stint-like sandpiper. Over the river there are several Black Kites, which are just beginning to soar. There are numerous Palm Doves and Common Bulbuls in the gardens and a few "lbj's" flitting around which turn out to be House Sparrows on closer examination. After an incredible oriental buffet breakfast set with the best hummus and pita bread in the entire world we set out for the Isle of Philae site in Lake Nasser. At the lake bank (they take you out to the island in a homemade outboard-propelled launch for 12-15 Egyptian pounds), I sighted several rafts of Tufted Ducks and several lone Ferruginous Ducks among them. Also sighted a raft of Northern Pintail and some Northern Shoveler. No grebes/divers in evidence [strange, it was a large body of water and excellent diver habitat]. Overhead, there were the ubiquitous Black Kites and a few terns, which I identified as Lesser Crested Terns in winter plumage. At the ruins, there were many Pale Crag Martins nesting in the rocks and in the ruins themselves. There were also several Spanish Sparrows and many House Sparrows. Along the bank in some acacia bushes I spotted a bright blue bird which upon focusing revealed itself as a Blue Rock Thrush. Great bird. In the late afternoon we take a felucca cruise on the Nile around Elephantine Island and on the sandbars I spot some good birds, Pied Avocets, and several larger black-and-white shorebirds which are, surprisingly, Crab Plovers. We pass a small marsh and along comes a Purple Heron gliding low over the river. Several Reed Warblers sighted in the marsh and Little Egret. At the north point of Elephantine there is a sandbar with a small flock of Egyptian Geese and a few domestic white ducks. On the way back downriver to the hotel I spot a small accipiter fluttering/hovering along beside a highrise hotel which I identify as a Levant Sparrowhawk, another good bird.
Skip flight down to Abu Simbel (been there/done that and didn't see any birds) and catch an Egyptair flight up to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. Luxor is very tour-groupy and crowded with German/Japanese tourists and many kids begging, hustlers selling trinkets, etc. Not the ideal birding locale, really. The Valley of Kings is a great site with fantastic tomb art. Spotted some Black Kites and more Crag Martins (probably not Pale Crag Martin at this site). In the extreme distance I spotted a soaring raptor which was black and did not have the profile of a Black Kite and may have been a Tawny Eagle (frustrating). Took another felucca ride in the afternoon and spotted more Avocet, Ferruginous Duck, Common Teal, and Eurasian Widgeon. Also spotted a lone Redshank Sandpiper and Great Cormorant. Cattle Egrets in the fields. A few Lesser Pied Kingfishers.
Take the bus to Hurghada (no flights) and cross four hours of broken desert which is birdless (well, I slept through most of it). Hurghada is a beach resort on the Red Sea which is famous for diving and fabulous coral reefs. At the hotel I spot several small stint-like birds on the beach, running back and forth with the surf. These are Kittlitz' Sandplovers. Some larger stint-like little guys are Greater Sandplovers. There are a few seagulls flying around which I identify as Great Black-headed Gulls in winter plumage. Also spot a Great Cormorant on the water. In the afternoon we go out on a large motor launch to a little reef about half a mile offshore. We do some snorkeling and see some anemones/clownfish, coral, butterfly fish, etc. and I scan for birds. I spot some terns, Swift Terns and more Great Black-headed Gulls. A late afternoon walk along the beach reveals more Sandplovers, some Ruddy Turnstones, and another Egyptian Nightjar.
We get up before dawn for a jeep trip to St. Anthony's monastery/cave. This site is some two hours north of Hurghada by paved road and then another half hour of gravel-surfaced disaster to the monastery. This is a medieval Coptic monastery at the edge a rock escarpment, and the cave is higher up in the escarpment itself. We did breakfast at the monastery (this was a guided jeep tour with an itinerary), and I hiked up towards the cave. This is a famous Egyptian birding spot. It gets a little steep, too. Very birdy hike. Red-rumped Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Sardinian, Spectacled and Fan-tailed Warblers, Stonechat, Black Redstart, and Crested Lark on the way up. Brown-necked Raven and Trumpeter Finch upon reaching the cave area. Sat on a rock (no scorpions in sight) and scanned the skies for raptors.... marvellous luck! A soaring Imperial Eagle! This cave hike is really worth it. Later in the morning more soaring raptors.... Griffon vultures! On the way back down picked up another lifer, Sand Partridge (a pair on a distant rock). Back to Hurghada, hung out, chilled and scanned the shore/water with no new sightings.
Flight back to Cairo, visit the bazaar again, go to the pyramids in Giza (no birds but the sphinx is pretty cool, and I bought a nice keffiyeh from a camel driver). Go to the belly-dance show at the Sheraton (good show complete with Saudi sheiks/princes).
Depart Cairo at 0700 hrs on Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, and so ended my Egyptian outing.
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