Saturday, 10 May 2014

Spur-winged plovers

Ubiquitous and noisy everywhere around Cairo they are particularly vocal at this time of year when they are raising chicks.

The chicks are well camouflaged.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Violet dropwing

The ponds on the golf course where I live just outside Cairo attract a few dragonflies. This is a violet dropwing on a hibiscus.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Spotted flycatchers at Marsa Alam

Always one of the last summer visitors to arrive in England, spotted flycatchers were moving through Marsa Alam in large numbers. I saw around 40 individuals in the hotel garden over the weekend.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Cattle egret predates tree pipit

One of the more unusual sights in Marsa Alam was a cattle egret catching a tired tree pipit. It was still trying to swallow it an hour later.

Marsa Alam - Egypt

Last week I flew down to Marsa Alam in southern Egypt. It lies half way down Egypt's Red Sea coast and has the reputation of a migration hot spot. I stayed in a small beach side resort with a small area of lawns and palm trees but it was packed with migrating passerines.

The commonest species resting up on their passage north were whitethroat, lesser whitethroat, tree pipit, spotted flycatcher and yellow wagtail. Hundreds of barn swallow and sand martin streamed through overhead, buffeted on the winds being enjoyed by the wind surfers.

Whitethroat, a common migrant at Marsa Alam

Amongst the greenery and manicured grass I found several sedge warbler, redstart, reed warbler and single golden oriole and nightingale.

One of many tree pipit on the lawns
I found 45 species over the weekend and added 19 to my Egypt list.

A summer plumage sooty gull on the beach

Monday, 21 April 2014

My new patch

My work has now taken me to Egypt, and I live about 20 kms to the west of Cairo, in a 'new town' called 6th October City and through the wonders of Google Earth I found a large area of wetland some 10 kms further west.

It seems to be two lakes (each covering about 400 ha) formed by the 'grey water' outfall from the city at 29°56'46.12" N  30°48'30.73" E and given that it is on the very edge of the western desert it looks to be a very promising site.

I've driven out there three times so far and managed a total of 72 species. The commonest water birds are squacco heron, cattle egret, common moorhen and little grebe. The water edges currently hold quite a few waders passing through on migration such as wood sandpiper, green sandpipercommon sandpiper and ruff together with good numbers of little stint and the ubiquitous spur-ringed plovers.

I've seen large numbers of hirundines hawking above the lakes. Mainly barn swallow (with plenty of the Egyptian sub-species, hirundo rustica savignii), sand martin, house martin and a few red-rumped swallow.

Marsh harrier are predictably the commonest raptor but I've also managed pallid harrier, black-winged kite, steppe eagle and common kestrel.

Of the passerines, I've seen three species of bee-eater, three species of pipit, plenty of woodchat shrike and amongst the yellow wagtails of various hues there are a few colourful m. f. pygmaea, another Egyptian sub-species. On my first trip I also managed to kick up a common quail and an egyptian nightjar from the low scrub.

Odonata are evidently fairly thin on the ground in Egypt. Some believe this is due to much of the water being either polluted or overly managed. But I did get this photo of a male red-veined darter.

Red-veined darter

March round up

March saw the end of my all too brief sojourn in Azerbaijan. Although I was only birding there over the winter I still managed 148 species including 21 lifers. Lammergeier, little bustard and dalmatian pelican were amongst the many highlights. It was a pity that even the hardiest birds had vacated the mountains during the depths of winter but it's an area I will certainly return to.

I moved to Egypt towards the end of March and started birding here in the Cairo area so my months total was a fairly decent 106 including just the one lifer, a smart male Ruppells warbler on the golf course where I live which was bird of the month.

Egypt may not have a huge amount of lifers for me but the deep south should hold some surprises and Western Palearctic rarities.  

Sunday, 2 March 2014


Today I took a trip up to Namran to bird the coastal forest near the Russian border and hopefully find some wintering woodland birds. The woods are quite extensive and at this time of year devoid of people although the well worn paths and cafes closed for winter suggested that isn't always the case.

The shore and sea were almost devoid of birds except for a few LWHG's but the mixed deciduous woodlands were fairly lively.

Commonest birds were great tit and chaffinch but I did manage a few new Azeri birds such as treecreeper (not the short-toed variety though), together with wood pigeon, long-tailed tit and a couple of jackdaw on the open fields.

There were plenty of woodpeckers drumming, most of which were great-spotted woodpecker but I added middle-spotted woodpecker to my life list with a couple of individuals. It was also good to find several hawfinch which I haven't seen for a few years.

But perhaps the most interesting sightings were the two mammals I saw. Firstly a rather sleepy raccoon resting outside his home high in an old tree. These are an introduced species culled for the fur trade. Then in the early afternoon as I was slowly driving the back road I saw a very large cat wander across the road in the middle distance. It was twice the size of any feral cat I've ever seen with long legs and a long tail giving a very elegant appearance. Jungle cat?

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Hajigabul lake

Hajigabul lake is about one and a half hours drive south of Baku. A large, shallow lake with a causeway dividing it from some abandoned fish farms it seems to be a much better site for winter wildfowl than Shirvan NP. Although 'Birdwatching in Azerbaijan' says it's a top spot for white-headed duck, marbled teal and black-necked grebe I didn't see a single bird of any of those three species.

The lake held about 10,000 ducks, mostly teal and shoveler and the shore held good numbers of waders mostly dunlin and pied avocet.

55 species in the day... and 9 new Azeri ticks in bold...

8 Mute swan
45 Ruddy shelduck
1,500 Shelduck
70 Gadwall
300 Wigeon
100 Mallard
2,500 Shoveler
400 Pintail
3,000 Teal
400 Red-crested pochard
300 Common pochard
200 Tufted duck
135 Greater flamingo
250 Pygmy cormorant
3 Dalmatian pelican
30 Grey heron
6 Great egret
5 Little egret
1 Golden eagle
50 Marsh harrier
1 Hen harrier
1 Little bustard
5 Moorhen
1 Coot
400 Avocet
1 Grey plover
50 Lapwing
45 White-tailed lapwing
6 Kentish plover
20 Ringed plover
6 Green sandpiper
200 Redshank
4 Ruff
1,200 Dunlin
10 Little stint
8 Snipe
20 Med gull
2 Pallas's gull
1 Black-headed gull
6 Kestrel
6 Magpie
50 Hooded crow
4 Bearded tit
25 Crested lark
15 Skylark
1 Great tit
70 Starling
1 White wagtail
1 Meadow pipit
50 Reed bunting
15 Corn bunting
30 Chaffinch
1 Brambling
50 House sparrow
5 Spanish sparrow

Friday, 28 February 2014

February round up

Although I didn't get out as much as I would have liked in February I did add Finsch's wheatear and white-tailed eagle to my life list which is now 1,025. My Azerbaijan list now stands at 129 although my year list is still a very slow 104.

Bird of the month has to be the obliging white-tailed eagle that posed for photos on some ice at Red Lake.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Gobustan and the coast

South again and a couple of Azerbaijan ticks. First was red-crested pochard, around 200 were in a couple of large rafts of ducks off shore at Sangachal, on the coast just before Gobustan:

18 Whooper swan
20 Mallard
1 Shoveler
200 Red-crested pochard
3,000 Common pochard
500 Tufted duck
150 Greater scaup
2 Goldeneye
2 Red-breasted merganser
1 Great-crested grebe
200 Coot

Second tick of the day for Azerbaijan was chukar at Gobustan. Highlights as follows:

8 Chukar
1 Marsh harrier
2 Hen harrier
7 Rock nuthatch
2 Finsch's wheatear

And at Red Lake on the way home I had a high count of 31 dalmatian pelican.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Absheron NP... I give up

Still closed today but as I can't speak Azeri or Russian I have no idea why, maybe it's closed all winter?

A quick stop on the Pirallahi causeway on the north of the peninsula gave up the following...

500 Tufted duck
300 Coot
113 Whooper swan
40 Pochard
15 Mallard
2 Gadwall
2 Black-necked grebe
2 Red-breasted merganser
1 White-tailed eagle
1 Pygmy cormorant

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Absheron National Park... almost

Only in Azerbaijan would a national park be closed on a Sunday, the one day when most people would want to visit.

I drove out to Absheron NP today only to be met by locked gates but the drive out there past miles of grassy sand dunes made me think this could be one of the great passerine migration points in the whole of Europe... think a twenty mile long Blakeney Point curving out into the Caspian.

There are several miles of dunes before the (closed) park gates which at this time of year were largely empty but off shore there were several large rafts of duck. Amongst some 800 tufted duck I picked out 5 black-necked grebe, a single male greater scaup (although I'm sure there were more further out) and a female goldeneye.

And like London buses, I followed yesterdays white-tailed eagle with two more drifting along the shore.

I just hope I can make it back before I leave for Egypt.

A flock of dalmatian pelican seen on the drive home

January round up

Although my life list is probably around 1,500 I have only been listing seriously on ebird for the past couple of years. That list is now 1,017.

In January I added serin, twite, caspian gull, little bustard, black francolin and lammergeier (all in Azerbaijan).

My Azerbaijan list is now 118 and my world list for the year is 90.

Bird of the month was a lammergeier life-ticked in Jek in the northern Caucasus Mountains.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

White-tailed eagle at Red Lake

Another fruitless trip to Red Lake today in search of white-headed duck but I did fluke a fabulous adult white-tailed eagle that settled on a sheet of ice some 50 yards from me.

These beautiful eagles, with a wing span of eight feet are never common in their range but they winter in Azerbaijan in reasonable numbers.

I then rounded the day off with a drive through Gobustan National Reserve and added a second lifer, two fabulous male Finsch's wheatear.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Shirvan National Park

I took a second trip to Shirvan National park today. Overall bird numbers were lower than last week, (400 greylag goose and 120 little bustard), but I did add four species to my Azerbaijan list which now stands at 110.

Goitered gazelle

Shirvan is nationally renowned for wintering greater flamingo which in spite of their size can be a little hard to find in the extensive pools but today a flock of 30 were far out on the lake sheltering from the cold. Not so far out among the commoner ducks and a good count of 10 smew were two fine male pintail.

Crested lark

The flamingo and pintail were both new Azerbaijan species for me, the third was three water rail found picking through the drainage ditch reeds.

Dalmatian pelican

Raptor numbers were much as last week, 25 marsh harrier, 2 merlin, 2 common kestrel and a sparrowhawk which was was all set to land on the boardwalk above my head until it noticed me at the last minute.

The fourth new Azerbaijan species was corn bunting, a small flock was perched on the electricity cables by the lake.

Corn bunting

Saturday, 11 January 2014

'Duck hunting' at Red Lake

Today I took another drive down to Red lake specifically looking for white-headed duck and marbled teal. I drove as much of the shore line as was possible but to no avail. The nearest I came was a possible distant sighting of two of the latter but too far off to discount teal. The windy conditions and low winter sun didn't help.


Dalmatian pelican numbers were up to 12 and marsh harrier were everywhere, hunting over the extensive reed beds together with a single sparrowhawk.

A good thing about having only been in country six months is that I'm still seeing new 'country ticks' on each trip. The first of the day was a single black-necked grebe diving close to the shore.

The commonest ducks were shoveler, with smaller numbers of mallard, pochard, tufted duck and gadwall. Generally waterbird numbers appeared to be increasing with 150 pygmy cormorant, 300 coot and 30 great-crested grebe.

Mediterranean and black-headed gull

The mostly man-mad rocky shores aren't too welcoming to waders but I did manage to find 35 common redshank and 20 dunlin. A couple of pied avocet and a single little stint were both new Azerbaijan species for me.


Sunday, 5 January 2014

Shirvan National Park

Shirvan National Park is about 100 kms south of Baku and was set up in 2003 primarily to provide a refuge for the dwindling population of goitered gazelle against hunters and shepherds dogs.

It's one of the best winter sites for birding in Azerbaijan and as it's on a migration route it should also be worth visiting in spring and autumn.

The 50,000 hectares are mostly featureless coastal salt scrub and today it was bright and clear and cold and I had the entire park to myself all for a four euro entrance fee.

The nearest thing to a desert in Azerbaijan

This isn't the kind of place to bird on foot. Get yourself a 4WD and hit the extensive tracks.

The first few miles were endless (at this time of year) dead grassland with only the occasional tamarisk bush. Apart from a few hooded crow and magpie the first bird I saw was a lifer, a smart male black francolin flushed from the side of the track.

This time I drove out to the 40 hectare lake in the middle of the park, some 12 kms from the gate, but there are tracks out to the Caspian sea some 40 kms away.

Shirvan is renowned for 3 species of wintering bustard and pretty soon I saw the first flock of little bustard (another lifer) take to the air, their white wing flashes visible from miles away. They over winter here in massive numbers (up to 30,000, some 10% of the worlds population) but as they are so far out in the scrub the number I saw (still over a thousand) probably accounted for a mere fraction of their true presence.

Little bustard

Also in big numbers were greylag goose, which in this environment feeding out on the scrub, looked so much wilder than their English cousins.

The lake is maybe a little too far from the two storey viewing platform but there is a resident day warden there who made me a welcome pot of tea.

Up to 25 marsh harrier were quartering the lakes and four bittern (probably the most I've seen in a day) were crashing into the reeds.

About ten minutes walk from the platform is a short boardwalk out to the lake edge and this was a fantastic place to view the open water. Mute swan, dalmatian pelican, greater white-fronted goose and whooper swan were all present plus plenty of common ducks including gadwall and wigeon but best of all were a flock of seven smew (all 'redheads'). I also heard a water rail in the reed beds and a Pallas's gull landed on the lake.

This really was a fantastic spot and much as I love birding with my mates, to be miles from anyone and anywhere was awesome.

Then it was back into the jeep for a slow crawl back to the park gate. The electricity poles out to the lakeside house provide a perch for both long-legged buzzard and rough-legged buzzard, add to that kestrel, a wonderful male hen harrier and a male merlin the raptor species count for the day was a not too shabby six.

Long-legged buzzard (juvenile?)

Now I've bagged a lot of the birds I'm familiar with I'm looking forward to going back and nailing some of the more unusual birds, especially the larks.

And the gazelles? Well, I saw about 200, mostly their white bums as they disappeared into the distance. I guess they are still a little wary.

Shirvan National Park Official Site

Saturday, 4 January 2014

South again

Pouring rain put me off heading out until mid-day and again I went south to the lakes around Bakim Market about 30 kms south of Baku to try out my new Swarovski scope, 400mm Canon lens and Gitzo tripod... toys for boys eh?

The idea was to get some flight shots of mediterranean gull that were hovering and posing last time I went but the wind had shifted although they were still present and happy enough to pose on the rocky shore (by which I mean concrete demolition fly tipping!).

Dalmatian pelican numbers had increased to seven and there were still plenty of pygmy cormorant and great cormorant and with the little gulls were a few black-headed gull and caspian gull.

Mediterranean gull

Then I drove further south to the petroglyph site at Qorbustan, not for ancient cave paintings but to bag a few year ticks such as western rock nuthatch. Unexpectedly I got two lifers, a small flock of twite (these are the isolated caucasian sub species brevirostris which are quite likely to be split from the nominate species at some time) and with them a single european serin.

Eurasian sparrowhawk, meadow pipit, robin and dunnock were also all additions to my fledgling Azerbaijan list.

Gobustan always suprises and as it's an isolated mountain it should be good in spring.

Western rock nuthatch