Friday, December 28, 2012

Red Sea Birding : November 2012

Teresa and myself left our annual holiday quite late this year and travelled from London Gatwick on 17.November to Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt for a week in a beach hotel followed by the second week on a Red Sea cruise with Italian cruiseline MSC.
The Royal Albertros Moderna turned out to be a great choice of hotel and as with most of the hotels along the beach had a timber jetty stretching out 250m or so to the edge of the reef for those wishing to indulge in scuba diving for which the Red Sea is world famous.
I got up at first light every morning for the first week getting out for a few hours birding before returning to join Teresa for breakfast.
It was a great time to be up and about as the beach was quiet with very few people about and there was more chance of catching up with birds feeding along the shoreline which would disappear as the sunworshippers descended on the beach.
There were always Laughing Doves around the grounds and each hotel seemed to have it's own Common Kestrel patrolling for a feed,along the shoreline Western Reef and Little Egret fed with both Common and Pied Kingfishers diving for a meal.
The occassional tern (mainly Caspian) passed and Sooty Gulls loafed along the shoreline.
Waders consisted mainly of Greenshank and Grey Plover feeding in the shallows with Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers,Spur-winged Plovers,and Little Ringed,Ringed and Kentish Plovers resting in the sand away from the shoreline.
A distant speck on a communication mast turned out to be an Osprey which was resting after a meal and which stayed put and let me approach for some nice photos.
After a couple of days I met up with with fellow birders Dave Ousey from Whitworth,Lancs who was staying in our hotel and Clive Greenley from Hartlepool who was staying at the next hotel along the beach.
We met up most early mornings and late afternoons for a "wander" together and also enjoyed some trips a little further afield sharing the cost of an excellent local taxi service.
Outside the pristine hotels Sharm is a town typical of most middle eastern countries ie scruufy with a lot of ongoing development and directly across the road from the hotel was a development site with some pools and sandy/muddy areas where we found Spotted Redshank,Greenshank,Ringed Plover,Bluethroat,flyover Rock Martin,Little and Cattle Egrets,Barn Swallow and Coot.
We called into this site several times when out and one evening walked up to the partially completed golf course where there were a couple of Teal and many Coot on the artificial pools,Mourning and Desert Wheatear and in the distance c20 Black Kites flying in to roost.
We made a couple of visits to Sharm Pools which is a posh name for the local sewage works and which was excellent for waders and raptors and always had about 200 White Stork in residence,what they find to feed on is a mystery and several succumb to the heat and lack of food.
Waders included Spur-winged,Little Ringed,Greater Sand,and Ringed Plovers,Common,Green,Wood and Marsh Sandpipers,Greenshank,Redshank and Spotted Redshank,Temmink's Stint and Common Snipe.
There was also a pack of feral dogs marauding around the place and we found a litter of youngsters living in an open manhole.
The highlight of the visit to the pools was connecting with both Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouse coming in to drink early in the mornings but we "dipped" on Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse during a late afternoon/evening visit when they come in to drink at late dusk.
Raptors included Black Kite,Steppe Buzzard,Steppe,Booted,and Short-toed Eagles with the real highlight being a pair of juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagles at the side of the main road on our return journey one morning which offered me a great photographic opportunity from our taxi.
Three Common Cranes was a nice surprise on our second visit.
Just north of the main resort area was the Nabq Reserve which houses the most northerly area of mangrove in the world which can sometimes house Goliath Heron although try as we might we couldn't quite "string" a Grey for a Goliath !!
The area was however good for Striated Heron.Spoonbill and Western Reef Heron,African Collered Dove,a single Curlew Sandpiper,Oystercatcher,Greater S P and Ringed Plover.
We also ventured into the desert/scrubby area adjacent the mangrove where we found Desert,Persian and Hooded Wheatears and a flyover Brown-necked Raven.
On my last day in the resort a stroll down the beach one morning gave me great views of Red-rumped Wheatear which was frequenting the gardens of a nearby hotel as well as Caspian Tern and Spanish Sparrow,and a flyover Namaqua Dove which unfortunately Dave and myself were not able to relocate.
We said our goodbyes and left the hotel for our second week on the MSC Armonia which from a birding point of view was nowhere near as good as the first week.
We were scheduled to call in for two days in Eilat,Israel but because of the recent troubles this was cancelled and we spent an additional couple of nights in the remaining ports,this was disappointing as I had done some research on Eilat and made contact with a bird guide in the city.
Our first stop was Safaga on the opposite side of the Red Sea from Sharm and my only new bird was a small group of White-eyed Gulls roosting on a concrete breakwater.
Next port of call was Aqaba in Jordan where we stayed for two days including an overnight stop in port.
I ventured into town on the afternoon of the first day and added House Crow,Spectacled Bulbul and Chiffchaff to my list before a visit into a local diving shop enabled me to find out about the Aqaba Bird Observatory about a half hour taxi ride from the city centre and near the border with Israel.
I arranged a taxi for the following morning and enjoyed four hours or so walking around the woodland scrub and pools.
Basically the observatory is an extension of Aqaba Sewage Works which consists of very large concrete edged pools with more "natural" reedy pools excavated and planted out with a very nice modern visitor centre and offices offering some invaluable shade and cool.
It was fairly quiet and although I saw several species the only addition to my list was the one bird I really wanted which was Little Green Bee-eater in two separate groups of 3 and 5,the taxi fare was worth it alone for this little gem of a bird which allowed a reasonably close approach and some nice shots.
Our final destination was Sohkna Port where I added Southern Grey Shrike to my list before returning to Sharm El Sheikh where "string" as I might I couldn't turn a Eurasian Sparrowhawk into a Levant's,although a pale Kestrel sat in a dummy palm steel camera tower still has me guessing whether or not it is a Lesser ?
Birds that got away were brief glimpes of what looked like Barbary Falcon and Palestine Sunbird which moved on quickly and could not be relocated.
Sharm El Sheikh was a great place to visit and the birding is excellent with certain species that can only be seen in this small corner of the Middle East,it must be fantastic during peak migration.
If I did it again I would prefer to stay the full two weeks in a beach hotel as this provides better birding opportunities and if we had stayed the second week I would certainly have ventured even further afield.
I didn't manage a huge trip list my final total being 75 species,it did however include some quality birds of which 28 were "lifers".
Most importantly I met two fellow birders who became great freinds and whom I hope I will stay in touch with for a very long time.