Photos with this report (click to enlarge)
African Rock Martin
Greater Painted Snipe
Pharoah Eagle Owl
With the advent of some recent successful trips to Egypt (centred on the Red Sea coast and the Nile Valley) Chris Bell, Richard Taylor and myself decided this year would be a good time to make a visit to the land of the Pharaoh’s ourselves. This would be the first trip to Egypt for all three of us, with both Richard and myself having very little experience of birding in either the Middle East or Africa in general, whilst Chris has previously visited countries with a similar avifauna such as Morocco and Israel and as such had a greater experience of the bird life we were hoping to observe.
With previous commitments earlier in the year we decided on July for a visit, confident that we could cope with the potentially uncomfortable birding conditions (with temperatures potentially in excess of 40ºc). Whilst bird data for Egypt in July is lacking in the extreme, all indications were that this is actually a good time to visit to target the Egyptian specialities, although the actual quality of the general birding could be poor due to the lack of migration and therefore the low density of birds in the country.
After musing about the length of visit and a proposed route, we decided that we would spend approximately 11-12 days and incorporate almost all of the recognised birding areas from the Sinai right down to Abu Simbel. The main purpose of the visit was to target the Western Palearctic specialities that can be found in the country and although incorporating the Sinai isn’t essential from a Western Palearctic speciality point of view (as many of the species can be found in Israel), we wanted to pay homage to this area as we had a site for Hume’s Owl and we were all keen to bird as many new areas as possible (such as St Katherine’s Monastery).
We booked our flights through KLM, with Chris and Richard flying from Durham Teeside at a cost of £323 whilst I flew from Heathrow, costing £297. Both flights went via Amsterdam, at which point we took the same connecting flight to Cairo. We found this to be the best option as the flights were cheaper than any direct flight and it meant that neither Chris, Richard, nor myself had vast amounts of travelling to complete before we reached the airport.
We hired a car through Hertz, a Hyundai Matrix, costing £280 for 12 full days. The car proved adequate for our needs and although we managed to get stuck on a couple of occasions (once in sand, once in mud – see diary for details) this was more due to our readiness/stupidity in attempting to drive over any kind of surface. One note about car hire – on landing in Cairo airport we searched for a short while for the Hertz office with no success, only to be told that the Hertz office was at Terminal 2 (we had landed at Terminal 3). A short cab ride to Terminal 2 enabled us to locate the car rental office and be on our way.
Independent travel through Egypt, as has been widely documented, is possible although due to terrorist attacks (e.g. the Luxor Massacre in 1997 and the Sharm el Sheikh bombing in 2005) security is paramount with the Egyptian authorities taking the utmost ‘care’ of visiting Western tourists. This protection consists of numerous police check points along most roads, particularly at major junctions, whilst several roads are in theory only traversable by joining a police escorted convoy (namely the road from Safaga to Luxor, Luxor to Aswan and Aswan to Abu Simbel).
As it turned out, despite visiting all these locations, the only time we actually took part in a convoy was on the drive from Abu Simbel to Aswan. This turned out to be little more than a glorified high speed coach race and ironically we would have felt much safer had we been on our own rather than being overtaken by coaches at 140kph! Based on the routes we took, we actually should have taken part in all the above mentioned convoys as well as the return legs, but through a generous helping of good luck and to a lesser degree good negotiating skills we were able to make our own way around most of the country. The most important aspect of our journey is the possible alternative route from the Red Sea coast to the Nile Valley, particularly if you are planning on visiting Abu Simbel. Obviously most birders visiting the coast will want to head as far south as Shalatein, so depending on the route you are taking this could mean a drive right back up to Safaga in order to cut inland using the convoy. The alternative route heads due west from Marsa Alam to Edfu, and after receiving advice from another group of birders that had recently visited the area, we thought we would try this route instead rather than negotiating the considerable dogs-leg by going as far north as Safaga. After setting out on the aforementioned route we quickly ran into a police checkpoint whereby we had to stop and I had to enter the checkpoint to talk with the police. After being told repeatedly that we couldn’t drive the road ‘as it wasn’t safe’ (there was apparently no mobile phone coverage and they were concerned in case we broke down) eventually the police relented and agreed that we could use the road providing we were accompanied by an officer for part of the journey. I would recommend this route as it saves a significant amount of time and the need for a convoy from the coast to the Nile Valley, and by being polite and persistent with the officers at the checkpoint it is indeed possible to drive this road, providing you don’t mind additional company for 100km or so!
Lastly, we used the services of knowledgeable local guide Ahmed Riad for our birding around the Abassa area. Ahmed can be contacted at email@example.com and was invaluable for guiding us quickly and safely around the labyrinth that is the Cairo road network. We used Ahmed on our first day and penultimate day, for a fee of $200 per day.
We took Dave Gosney’s ‘Finding Birds in Egypt’ as a site guide, but it should be noted that this book is quite out of date in many places although the directions around Wadi El Natrun and Crocodile Island are still valid. The Insight Travel Map was the best map we found for traversing the country (kindly lent to us by Richard Bonser) and the Lonely Planet guide proved useful for locating hotels.
Special thanks go to Richard Bonser and Pierre-Andre Crochet, Richard for providing an extensive array of information on the sites around Cairo and the Red Sea coast and Pierre for an equally extensive set of information on Abu Simbel in particular. Additionally several trip reports were used in conjunction with this information, with that by Richard and Erica Klim the most useful. Richard Bonser’s trip report can be found under http://www.freewebs.com/richbonser/egyptmarch2006.htm and contains detailed and invaluable information on the sites around Cairo and the Red Sea coast, whilst Richard Klim’s is located under http://www.travellingbirder.com/tripreports/tripreports_redirect.php?id=6886
12th July – Arrived Cairo Airport early morning. Met Ahmed at the Novotel near the airport, then drove straight to Abassa fishponds and birded there until early afternoon. Drove to Hume’s Owl site in South Sinai, night at Hotel Plaza in St Katherine’s.
13th July – Birded from dawn at St Katherine’s Monastery, then drove mid morning to Sharm el Sheikh. Birded Na’ama Bay Treatment Works early afternoon and then caught the fast ferry from Sharm to Hurghada at 6:30pm, arriving in Hurghada at 8:10pm. Night at Conrad Resort, Hurghada.
14th July – Dawn seawatch at Conrad Resort, Hurghada, then birding down coast to Wadi Lahami (Safaga Mangroves, Wadi el Gemal, Hamata Mangroves, etc) night Wadi Lahami Diving Ecolodge.
15th July – Birded mangroves at Wadi Lahami at dawn, drove south to Shalatein on administrative border with Sudan. Returned late morning, birding at Hamata Mangroves, then drove inland to Edfu via Marsa Alam, arrived Aswan at dusk. Night at Aswan Nile Hotel, Aswan.
16th July – Left pre dawn for Abu Simbel in attempt to take convoy. Ended up driving straight to Abu Simbel, arriving just after dawn. Birded all day at Lake Nasser and Abu Simbel. Night Hotel Nebulah Ramsis in Abu Simbel.
17th July – Birded Lake Nasser and Abu Simbel all day, with a visit during the heat of the afternoon to Abu Simbel Temple. Night Hotel Nebulah Ramsis in Abu Simbel.
18th July – Left Abu Simbel mid morning via convoy to Aswan, then continued driving straight to Luxor. Birded Crocodile Island late afternoon. Night at Movenpick Hotel, Crocodile Island, Luxor.
19th July – Visit to the Valley of the Kings early morning, then left Luxor mid morning for what turned out to be a 13 hour (!) drive to Cairo. Night south side of Cairo in Cairotel Hotel.
20th July – Left pre dawn for Wadi El Natrun, birded there until mid morning. Back to Cairo/Giza late morning, touristy visit to Pyramids of Giza, then birding visit to the Pharoah Eagle Owl roost at the Pyramid of Zoser at Sakkara. Afternoon spent at Abassa Fishponds. Night Novotel Hotel near Cairo airport.
21st July – Mid morning drive to Hume’s Owl Site, south Sinai, via Wadi Hagul. Night at Hotel Plaza, St Katherine’s.
22nd July – Again mid morning start, drove along east Sinai coast, birded the area around Taba near the Israel border, then drove back west towards Cairo, birding the Suez Bay mid afternoon en-route. Night flight to Amsterdam.
The Egyptian Western Palearctic specialities were our key target birds over the course of the trip, with several additional species also targeted (such as Pharaoh Eagle Owl and Egyptian Nightjar). The details of where we found each one are contained in the diary section below and also in the associated species list following this report.
Many of the targeted species feature in the aforementioned report by Rich Bonser along with detailed directions. Where species were found in the same locations I will not go into the same level of detail, but in the case of new sites or different locales I have detailed the precise directions within the relevant diary section.
Wednesday 12th July
After meeting up in Amsterdam airport and catching our connecting flight we arrived in Cairo at an unsociable 3am, where after going through the usual rigmarole associated with disembarking the plane and collecting our luggage, (and in this case buying a visa on entry for £10), we had to transfer terminals from three to two via a taxi ride in order to get to the Hertz office and collect our car. Initial reservations about the office being closed at such an ungodly hour proved unfounded and after completing the usual paperwork we were able to pick up our car and head the short distance to the Cairo Novotel to meet local birder and guide Ahmed Riad.
From here Ahmed directed us swiftly northeast to the Abassa area that was to be the first area we visited on our trip. Our first target birds were seen on the Ismailiya Canal, found after taking the turning signposted to El Abassa from within the town of Bilbeis. Here the road runs parallel with the canal and approximately 5km before reaching the town of Abassa we noted a Striated Heron in the dawn mist feeding along the edge of the canal. At least 3 Pied Kingfishers and a White-breasted Kingfisher fed along the waterway whilst a pair of Spur-winged Plovers were also observed next to the road. A further 2km along the road a pair of Senegal Thick-knees gave extremely close views next to the car whilst several Common Bulbuls attracted us to their presence with their distinct melodic call.
The first real birding site we visited is the large area of fishponds to the left of the road (as you head from Bilbeis to Abassa) approximately 17.4km from the junction in Bilbeis. Here there is a track that leads down off the road through a small area of trees and next to a couple of houses. This track leads into the fishponds and after driving a short distance we immediately noted a female Streaked Weaver in the small reed fringed canal on the left hand side of the road. Knowing this can be a hard species to locate we were chuffed to see this so quickly and so easily, but as it turned out July would appear to be a good month to observe this species in the area as driving on further produced a total of at least 15 birds spread around fishponds, including several colourful males.
Careful scanning of the canal around the bridge failed to produce any Painted Snipes (seen here by Bonser et al) and we concluded that the water levels were significantly higher than they had been when the birds had been observed in March. Despite this, the birding in the area was reasonable with the highlights being several singing Clamorous Reed Warblers and the relatively abundant local savignii race of Barn Swallow. After driving and scanning this area for over an hour (and an encounter with an enthusiastic local with a bagful of captured African Grass Snakes) we moved to the next area of fishponds, found by heading over the canal bridge and into Abassa itself. After taking the first left turn in the village you come out on a dirt track which leaves the village and opens up into arable land. The paddyfields here and the stands of trees are one of the best locations in the area for Senegal Coucal but despite scanning and listening we were unable to locate any of these birds and so continued to follow the track over another canal and into another area of fishponds. An hour or so spent here produced another c5 Streaked Weavers, 3 Little Green Bee-eaters (of the race cleopatria) and 10 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, whilst 4 Wood Sandpipers was a meagre return on waders considering the number of appropriate looking muddy pools in the area. Heading back through the arable land another concerted effort failed to produce a coucal although a huge roost of over 100 Black-crowned Night Herons was certainly an impressive sight.
Feeling a little downbeat at our failure to so far locate either the Snipe or the Coucal we retraced our steps through the village and back past the first set of fishponds we visited. We had gone about 200 metres past the entrance to the fishponds when our spirits were lifted by a Purple Gallinule (madagascarensis) feeding out in the open in a small reed fringed pool next to the road. A check of an open wooded area next to the road about a km further towards Bilbeis again failed to produce any Coucals although 2 Goldfinches noted here proved to be our only ones of the trip, whilst slightly less welcome proved to be the continual flyovers by the Egyptian military performing aerial manoeuvres above our heads. Seeing fighter planes circling and releasing flares could at times be considered quite impressive but the constant noise soon turned out to be extremely grating…
Our last stop in the area was by the Shell petrol station approximately 13km east of Bilbeis. Parking on the concrete area here we made another concentrated effort for Painted Snipe but without joy, this was another area Bonser et al had success at on their visit but again despite walking the edge of the fields and even getting some local kids involved on the act by running through the paddies we drew a blank. Ahmed managed to plunge into a muddy ditch up to his waist which compounded matters, and I guess he was thankful this was our last stop in the area before dropping him back in Cairo! Coming to the conclusion that we would have other chances of Painted Snipe (most notably in the Luxor area) and if time permitted we may be able to try again for Senegal Coucal at the end of the trip, we decided that we needed to continue our tour of Egypt and start heading east to the Sinai. After dropping Ahmed back at the Novotel in Cairo we took the main Suez road with the intention of arriving in the southern Sinai area just prior to dusk. A fairly uneventful drive ensued, with the desert between Cairo and Suez fairly birdless bar 6 House Crows observed at a Total petrol station c6km east of Suez and the odd Brown-necked Raven.
10km north of the village of Abu Rudays on the west Sinai coast 4 Crested Terns were observed as they roosted on groynes. As it turned out this opportune sighting was our only one of the trip, despite this being a species we had expected to see in reasonable numbers along the Red Sea coast. 2 Sooty Falcons further enlightened the proceedings on our drive south before we arrived at our destination – a Hume’s Owl site. As this site is prone to disturbance I have refrained from publishing details of its exact location.
Despite extensive searching of the rocky wadi there was no sign of our quarry although birds noted before dusk included a Blackstart, 1 Desert Lark, 4 White-crowned Black Wheatears, several African Rock Martins, 8+ White-spectacled Bulbuls and another Sooty Falcon. With no light left we realised our chance of Hume’s Owl had vanished (for tonight at least) and being pretty tired after a lack of sleep on the flight the previous night we thought it prudent to find a hotel. Our plan was to start at dawn the next morning at the monastery at St Katherine’s so with this in mind we drove to the village. Being a tourist area we had no trouble in finding a hotel and checked ourselves into the Hotel Plaza at a reasonable £X each for 3 single rooms, before retiring to a well earned rest.
Thursday 13th July
Leaving our hotel just prior to dawn we drove the short distance to the entrance to St Katherine’s Monastary. Walking up the entrance track provided views of a covey of 15 Sand Partridges, whilst it didn’t take long to encounter our first Sinai Rosefinch. Further views were had and within a couple of hours we had observed over 30 individuals including some very smart looking males. 3 Scrub Warblers (of the race inquieta) were also much appreciated as they darted over the rocks, as were at least 4 Tristam’s Starlings and over 15 Desert Larks that were also observed in the monastery’s surroundings, whilst White-crowned Black Wheatears were common.
Very satisfied with our early morning visit we headed back to the hotel where we had a pleasant surprise in the form of a pristine male Palestine Sunbird as it fed amongst the flowers in the hotel gardens.
Checking out from the Hotel Plaza mid morning we headed towards Sharm El Sheikh, arriving at the resort early afternoon. The road network here is like a maze and after sometime we eventually worked our way to the coast, noting at least 8 White-eyed Gulls loafing around the fishing boats. Making our way to the port we intended to enquire about the Sharm-Hurghada ferry, a relatively simply task made more eventful by a local idiot who decided it would be a good idea to try and undertake us on a single carriageway road as I was indicating and turning right… Needless to say such a moronic manoeuvre was bound to end in tears and as it was we were lucky to remain undamaged, with the local realising the error of his move too late, applying the brakes heavily and screeching into a high kerb. Thinking what a prat, I stopped to make sure he was unharmed only to be greeted with a barrage of abuse as he jumped out his car yelling what were presumably Arabic insults at us! Not taking too kindly to this I yelled a few choice words of my own before thinking ‘what the hell’ and just driving off.
Anyway, this fun event aside, we reached the port to attempt to book the slow ferry the next day. Previous research on the internet prior to our trip had indicated that there were two ferries, a slow ferry going on Fridays, Mondays and Wednesdays and a fast ferry on alternate days. We had planned to take the slow ferry so as to provide us with decent seawatching for a few hours and simultaneously saving a long drive. However, as it turned out there doesn’t appear to be a slow ferry anymore which left us with rather limited options. Basically, we could have another look for the Hume’s Owl in the evening and then drive overnight to Hurghada or catch the fast ferry in the evening instead, thereby still getting a chance to do some seawatching and allowing us to get a decent nights sleep. In the end the majority decision was to take the ferry in the evening, as it would put us a day ahead of our original itinerary thereby potentially providing us with an opportunity for a second go at missed species later in the trip. We paid for the ferry and then decided we would kill the few hours to spare with a trip to Na’ama Bay Treatment Works. Traditionally the site is visited at dusk to watch sandgrouse come in to drink and if heading from Sharm el Sheikh can be found by turning left (west) on the north side of Na'ama Bay at the Marriott Hotel (if you reach the Sonesta Hotel you've gone too far) and head along this track towards the desert. A lot of road construction is underway here and you need to head over what appears to be a new (but not yet open) highway and carry on the track. After this you'll come to a crossroads with the main Sharm-Dahab road. Apparently it used to be possible to go straight over here and carry driving on the track to the treatment works but large concrete bollards now block the last part of this track and it is necessary to park up here and walk the last km or so to the treatment works, which are on the right. As to be expected in the heat of the afternoon birdlife wasn’t plentiful but a Shoveler was recorded along with 1 Greenshank, 1 Wood Sandpiper and 2 Black-winged Stilts.
Heading back to the port with enough time to check in, we boarded the ferry and were pleasantly surprised at the swiftness of the boarding operation and subsequently leaving the port at the scheduled time of 6:10pm. Any enthusiasm though was quickly dashed by the boat staff, who insisted that no-one could stand on the decks whilst the boat was in motion. This was a major pain, as it meant we could only bird by looking through the glass at the rear of the boat. Despite fighting our corner, it was clear that it was a losing battle and we soon resigned ourselves to that fact and went inside. Birding was not impossible though and we had soon observed at least 30 Lesser Crested Terns, whilst several White-eyed Gulls trailed the boat. The middle part of the journey proved relatively birdless and it wasn’t until the final part of the journey, when we approached the Giftun Islands opposite Hurghada, that we observed 2 Brown Boobies, 1 Bridled Tern and 1 Sooty Gull before docking at 8:05pm at Hurghada port.
Leaving the ferry, again surprisingly quickly, we headed south towards the airport which is where the majority of hotels are said to be found. This proved to be the case, with a large tourist resort just south of the airport containing dozens of hotels, although we did have to ask in a few to find one with room. We eventually ended up at the decent and well priced Conrad Sea Resort (at £X per person) and settled in to an evening of a few beers and a few games of pool.
Friday 14th July
Rising at dawn we found that the hotel was well positioned on the seafront for an early morning seawatch, although it should be stressed that with the sun rising in the east the light conditions become awful as soon as the sun breaches the horizon. Despite this in just over an hour we recorded 2 Bridled Terns, 1 Caspian Tern, c50 White-cheeked Terns, 1 Sooty Gull and c15 White-eyed Gulls. Thoroughly satisfied with our seabird haul over the last evening and morning respectively, we headed the 50km or so south down the coast to Safaga and our first real taste of mangrove birding. Immediately south of Safaga is a decent sized area of mangroves accessed from a sandy track to the south. Upon entering the area we immediately noted a dove appearing to collect nesting material, which on closer inspection proved to be an African Collared Dove. A second bird was soon observed in the area and we were able to get good views before heading into the mangroves proper. 2 Caspian Terns patrolled the area, whilst a Greater Sand Plover fed on the beach along with 2 Kentish Plovers and a Whimbrel. Other birds noted here included at least 10 Western Reef Herons, a Striated Heron and several White-cheeked Terns. Eastern Olivaceous Warblers were common in the mangroves as they betrayed their presence by constantly ‘tekking’ and an Osprey was the first of many that we encountered along the coast. A smart White-winged Black Tern flew briskly south through the area and was something of a surprise.
Happy with our early success with the doves we continued headed south, calling in speculatively at another small area of mangroves about 15km south of Safaga. Bird activity was more limited here though with another Caspian Tern, 8 Western Reef Herons and 8 White-cheeked Terns the avian highlights.
The next unscheduled stop came approximately 55km south of Safaga, where 2 Crowned Sandgrouse were observed next to the road. A longer period of inactivity came and there was no further cause to stop until we reached the Balboa Hotel, about 20km north of Marsa Alam. Here 3 African Collared Doves were observed on wires around the resort, it is worth noting that this is the same location that Bonser et al observed this species at in March. A further 10km along the road a stop at what were now becoming familiar police checkpoints gave point blank views of both Hoopoe Lark and Bar-tailed Lark, thankfully both species were right next to the car as for obvious reasons it is not advisable to raise one’s bins at a checkpoint! Approximately 50km south of Marsa Alam is the Wadi El Gemal National Park, an area of greenery well signposted on the main road. A short stop here produced a surprise European Bee-eater and 2 Greater Sand Plovers, whilst a further 2 African Collared Doves boosted our day tally to an almost unbelievable 7. It is worth going into Marsa Alam itself en-route to fill up with petrol, as it has one of the very few reliable petrol stations along the coast.
The next scheduled stop was due to be Hamata Mangroves about 55km further south of Wadi El Gemal, although a small area of mangroves about 20km before this demanded attention and produced 2 Striated Herons, 2 Caspian Terns and a Sooty Gull, whilst some offshore islands presumably held a colony of Bridled Terns with 100+ birds present distantly offshore. Additionally Caspian Terns appeared to be fairly numerous along the coast, with several birds noted on the drive south.
The large area of mangroves immediately north of Hamata have a good pedigree, being the best site along the coast for attracting Crab Plover and with several records of Goliath Heron. We arrived early afternoon, entering the site via a sandy track on the south of the mangroves off the main road. Before our anticipation levels could get too high, one of the first birds we clapped our eyes on as we got out of the car was one of the main target birds of the entire trip, the unique and beautifully black-and-white marked Crab Plover. We made sure we all got decent, if distant, views before heading down to the beach to get closer views. With the tide out it was a bit of a tricky walk over muddy-sand, although it was made enjoyable by the thousands of crabs that covered the way ahead that quickly retreated into their holes as we approached. Once out by the sand banks with the warm sea splashing around our ankles we all had a thoroughly enjoyable birding experience. 8 Crab Plovers were present and gave exceptional views, whilst over 100 White-cheeked Terns fed offshore amongst an estimated 500 Bridled Terns. Our tern list was rounded off by 5 White-winged Black Terns, 11 Caspian Terns and 3 Lesser Crested Terns, as several Sooty Gulls loafed around the area and this far south now outnumbered White-eyed Gulls, whilst a Slender-billed Gull was also present. Other birds here included a Greater Sand Plover, Spoonbill, Wood Sandpiper, several Western Reef Herons and 9 Ospreys.
Reluctantly moving on from this excellent location another 5 Crab Plovers were noted immediately south of the mangroves before we drove the short distance to the Wadi Lahami diving ecolodge. Arriving at the ecolodge we were met by the very friendly proprietor and checked ourselves in for a night into one of the bungalows. With the formalities out of the way we quickly headed into the accompanying mangroves in an attempt to locate our main target for this area. We had barely entered the mangroves when we flushed a large heron that flew out into the open. We raised our bins and confirmed our luck was truly in today – an immature Goliath Heron. Excellent views were obtained as it stood alongside a Great White Egret and we all took a bit of time to enjoy the bird and reflect on our luck at the ease in which we had observed the days target species. Decidedly happy with our lot and with dusk fast approaching we retired to the ecolodge for dinner and a beer.
Saturday 15th July
Rising at dawn again we headed into the mangroves. There was no sign of yesterday evenings Goliath Heron, but again we ran into 2 more African Collared Doves, I think it’s fair to say we had not expected to encounter this species so numerously. Other birds included our only Lesser Sand Plovers (2) of the trip, as well as 35 Greater Sand Plovers, 5 Striated Herons, a Common Kingfisher, a Marsh Sandpiper, 2 White-winged Black, 1 White-cheeked and 1 Caspian Tern and 2 Sooty Gulls with many Western Reef Herons in the vicinity. After our early morning birding we ate some breakfast before checking out and heading south to our last destination on the coast, Shalatein, some 200km further down. Stopping at a police checkpoint c5km south of Wadi Lahami produced 3 Bar-tailed Larks, whilst c2km south of the town of Berenice a Spotted Sandgrouse gave brilliant views as it sat on the road and allowed us to drive right up to it. The advantage of the coast road, as well as it being of surprisingly good quality, is the lack of traffic meaning that impromptu and sudden birding stops are quite easy to make. This aside however, the remainder of the drive to Shalatein produced nothing of note before we arrived at this dusty town.
Shalatein has a real border town feel to it and we didn’t expect the police to have to deal with many self driven tourists, so we anticipated having to answer a few more questions at the checkpoint to the town than we had become accustomed to. It was gratifying to note then the ease in which we were able to enter with just the usual questions and then a pleasant ‘Welcome Shalatein’ offered to us. After driving into the town we drove around looking either for any vultures or the camel market, but initially were unsuccessful on both counts, although Egyptian Vultures were common. Eventually we spotted a distant dark shape perched in an Acacia, which on examination proved to be our target bird – Lappet-faced Vulture. Unfortunately the distance of the bird meant the views were quite unsatisfactory so we continued to search for the camel market. It wasn’t long before we were stopped by a uniformed, official looking person who spoke English well enough to say that if we wanted to go around the town we needed to be accompanied by a guide. We were initially sceptical and thought this was probably a way of getting money out of us but as we didn’t have a lot of choice and we could do with finding the camel market we agreed. Another uniformed chap joined us and jumped in the car alongside us, he proved to be pleasant although his English was understandably very limited, in fact more or less restricted to a repetitive ‘Welcome Shalatein’. After managing to get across the fact we wanted to visit the camel market he was able to direct us straight there, my advice on getting there would be to take the first left as you go through the police checkpoint into the town, then taking the second right into the town proper and head along this road for 200 yards or so. The camel market should be on your right behind the buildings, accessed by taking one of the dusty tracks off the road here. Upon entering the market, we were greeted by a lot of interested locals, but more interestingly for us were c30 Lappet-faced Vultures in close proximity affording crippling views. Our guide again proved his worth here, doing a very efficient job of keeping inquisitive locals (particularly children) to a minimum and hence making it easier to bird. Happy with the morning, we departed the area and dropped our guide at the petrol station on the outskirts of the town. To his credit at no point did he ask for or look like he wanted cash and this greatly impressed us, although to be honest it wasn’t to be the last time we would be impressed by the generosity of the locals. Needless to say, we insisted on him taking a small amount of cash and with a final ‘Welcome Shalatein’ (probably about the tenth time he uttered those immortal words…) we departed.
For the first time in a couple of days we headed north back up the coast, with a long drive back up to Marsa Alam ahead of us. A small area of mangroves at a village called Marsa Hamira (c45km north of Shalatein) may be worth a check at migration times, we made a brief stop but noted no birdlife of interest, although 2 Egyptian Vultures were present in the village itself.
We made another stop at Hamata Mangroves although this time the tide was in and this greatly reduced the bird activity at the site, with no Crab Plovers present. The remainder of the drive to Marsa Alam was uneventful, although another Hoopoe Lark was noted c20kms south of the Shams Alam resort. Our rough itinerary had our next scheduled birding stop at Abu Simbel, but this was dependent on our being able to use the road that joined Marsa Alam and Edfu. If we could not get permission to travel on this road, we would have to drive a further 200km north to Safaga in order to catch the convoy to Luxor at 6:30pm, a time we may struggle to make. Information provided by Pierre-Andre Crochet (who had visited the area a few months earlier) indicated that the Marsa Alam road may be traversable though, as they had been able to drive it after half an hours or so worth of negotiating at the police checkpoint. So it was that we arrived at Marsa Alam mid afternoon and attempted to drive the Edfu road. After 100m or so we came to the inevitable checkpoint, where, as the driver, I was beckoned out of the car and into the modest building that made up the checkpoint. I stated my request and was initially told it wasn’t possible to drive the road. This situation continued for a good 20 minutes, during which all the time one of the plain clothed police (who spoke fluent English) was constantly speaking to his ‘big boss’ (in his words) via walkie-talkie to see if it could be done. Making sure I was constantly polite I persevered, saying how there had been no trouble on this road ever, that we had a new car and a full tank of petrol all of which limited the chance of breakdown. Their main concern appeared to be us breaking down on a road with very little habitation and no mobile phone signal. Suddenly, for reasons unknown, they relented and agreed to us driving the road on the condition that we were accompanied by a policeman for 100km or so. Obviously I was happy to acquiesce to this request and gleefully returned to the car to inform Chris and Richard. With the main barrier removed all that was left was the simple matter of driving the 300km or so to Aswan via Edfu. Our passenger left us as agreed about 100km from Marsa Alam, deciding to depart the car when he flagged down a bus passing in the opposite direction.
The arid landscape quickly changed as we got within a few miles of the Nile valley, with green, lush farmland replacing the rocky desert. With the change in landscape came an unsurprising increase in birdlife, with Black-shouldered Kites soon found to be common with regular sightings every mile or so, whilst colourful Little Green Bee-eaters sallied from what seemed to be every stretch of wire. The remainder of the journey to Aswan passed fairly uneventfully, the police at the checkpoint on the junction with the main Nile valley road seemed unsurprised by our appearance, and seemed to nod with familiarity when we told them we had come from Marsa Alam, potentially as they had been informed of our arrival by the police at the previous checkpoint.
Arriving in Aswan at dusk, we navigated ourselves to the banks of the Nile where we were able to find the reasonable Hotel Aswan Nile, before checking ourselves in and getting a decent sleep, ready for an early start to catch the convoy at 4:00am.
Sunday 16th July
Rising ourselves with enough time to get the early convoy, we left the hotel and headed south along the Nile to try and find the convoy start point, by the TV station, or so we were told…
Despite giving ourselves plenty of time, and asking for directions, we somehow managed to get completely lost and found ourselves on the south side of Aswan crossing the old dam. We passed several checkpoints, always stopping and asking the way to the Abu Simbel convoy, kept heading in the direction we were pointed in, and eventually found ourselves leaving Aswan and on the main road to Abu Simbel! We soon realised that somehow we had completely bypassed the convoy and for better or worse we were on our way. We decided to keep going and hope we didn’t get turned back 100km or so down the road, but as it turned out there are no checkpoints until about 10km before Abu Simbel (there’s not a lot of anything in fact – make sure you have a full tank of fuel when leaving Aswan!). Not having to follow a convoy made for a much more relaxed journey, able to travel at our own pace and undoubtedly contributed towards a couple of wildlife sightings as well, both probable Sand Cats.
Upon reaching the checkpoint for Abu Simbel, we were greeted with some rather bemused traffic police who enquired ‘No convoy?!’ Obviously trying to explain that we had done our best to find the convoy with no knowledge of Arabic to police with very limited English wasn’t very successful and not appearing to be too bothered the police just waved us on into the town. Our appearance without being accompanied by a convoy did in fact appear to create an issue with the local police, as soon as we entered the town proper we were flagged down and asked where we were going. We pointed to the nearest hotel, which turned out to be the Hotel Nebulah Ramsis, which seemed to satisfy the policeman and we went and checked in. However as soon as we left the hotel with the intention of going birding the same policeman jumped us again and this time jumped into the car and insisted we go to the temple to ‘talk to big boss!’ as he put it. This unnecessary hassle left us rather exasperated but with little choice we went to the temple and met with the local chief of the police. After a fairly tedious conversation for half an hour or so (mainly about mobile phones and watches…) whereby we explained we were in Abu Simbel to bird for a couple of days, he eventually agreed that this wasn’t a problem and sent us on with his blessing and his mobile number for good measure (after we had also cleared this with the chief of the tourist police as well that is). The one condition was that we had to be accompanied by one of his officers to make sure we would be ok out by Lake Nasser. Again this was not ideal, but lacking much of a choice and not appearing to be a big issue we agreed.
Now, finally onto some birding. There are three main bays north of Abu Simbel that are worth checking that should produce the main four – namely Pink-backed Pelican, Yellow-billed Stork, African Skimmer and African Pied Wagtail. Our gen was very kindly supplied by Pierre-Andre Crochet who had visited a few months previously and cleaned up. It is mainly his directions that I repeat here. The first bay is effectively known as the airport bay, because it is viewed from the coast just east of the airport. We found the best way to view was to head past the airport back around the back of Abu Simbel town, so the lake is on the left and the town on the right. If you follow the road you come to a 90 degree right bend at which point there is a large flat, sandy area on your left that with a bit of care you can drive onto and park. From here you gain a good, if distant view over the bay although the majority of the birds appear to be over the back of the bay, but more of that later…
Bays 2 and 3 are both out of the town. Access is via a tarmac road on the way out of Abu Simbel, from the junction where the road splits for the airport and the town head away from Abu Simbel (as though you are taking the road back to Aswan). 3.8km from this junction is a tarmac road on the right, take this to access the shores of Lake Nasser north of the town. To get to Bay 2 you need to follow the tarmac road from the start for 3.4km until a track leads south here. Take this sandy track for about 800 metres were it joins another small, rockier track. Follow this track past two large rocky outcrops on the left until it approaches an obvious bay. From here you can view Bay 2 with relative ease. It should be noted that on our visit the first part of the track appeared perilously sandy to us and we were unwilling to try to cross it by car (although this may be due to the fact we had already lost considerable time stuck in sand – details to follow…). This meant a hefty walk for us following the rocky track until Bay 2 came into view but with a bit of conviction it should be possible to drive the entire way.
Bay 3 is the hardest one to find but on our visit was the best for birding. Just to be different this was the first bay we visited as it offers the best chance of Skimmers and this is the species we assumed would require the most time to see, hence we were keen to allow us much time searching as possible. To reach Bay 3 follow the tarmac road for 9.3km from the start, and take a track on the right opposite a small square black signpost. Follow this track towards two large rocky outcrops until you pass near the bottom with the outcrops on the left hand side. Shortly after this the ground becomes rockier, here you need to head away from the hillocks (almost due south) over the rocky ground. The desert then dips with the track following the dip until it opens up on a more sandy plain. As the track goes down the dip it becomes very uneven and again we were unwilling to risk taking the car down here, but a 4-wheel drive would have no issues negotiating it. If you do get the car down here it is a very straightforward drive over the sandy plain until you reach a small rise with a wall about 1.5km further on, a perfect place to view the bay. From here you can walk around the shores of the bay to get a better view over the lake proper if you so wish (although this is the only real way to stand a chance of seeing Skimmers). Any changes to the levels of the lake may make these directions redundant although it is unclear as to how much the water levels fluctuate…
As previously mentioned we thought we would start at Bay 3 and work our way backwards. However, in attempting to reach the lake we took a different track to the ones mentioned above and this proved to be a very poor decision – after getting barely 200 metres we managed to get the car totally stuck in sand! Attempting to push ourselves out only ended up digging ourselves deeper and in the end we realised the only way of getting out was to be towed out. This was where we turned out to be very glad of having a police escort! We got him to radio for help and after what seemed like an eternity in 40°C+ heat another policeman appeared on a tractor. After several ill-fated attempts at pulling us out (first using wiring akin to lead soldering and then rope that was so thin it was tantamount to string!) they found a metal pole from a nearby farmer, which they ingeniously bent and successfully used to pull us free. Delighted to be free after two hours of kicking our heels in the hot sun (with only a pair of flyover Spotted Sandgrouse to distract us) we proceeded to Bay 3 as described above although our incident in the sand made us very cautious, meaning we weren’t willing to take the uneven rocky track down the slope. This gave us a longish walk in the heat before we reached the small ridge from which the bay can be viewed. Immediately evident were 12 Yellow-billed Storks feeding around the bay in the company of many Little and Cattle Egrets, whilst White-crowned Black Wheatears were common around us and c30 Whiskered Terns fed over the bay. Walking around the north side of the bay enabled us to get a view of some of the offshore islands on the lake, said to be the best places for African Pied Wagtail. This quickly proved true with one bird seen flitting between the nearest island and the shore. Additionally 14 Egyptian Geese were noted at the entrance of the bay and a Rufous Bushchat gave exceptional views in the scrubby vegetation. Despite scanning the lake for a considerable time unsurprisingly there were no Skimmers.
With two of our target species in the bag and the day now dragging into late afternoon we decided to depart and try Bay 2. After heading back into town we dropped off the policeman and went back to the hotel to get some water. We headed back out without company and without trouble back to the tarmac road and onto the track towards Bay 2. Again deciding that it was too risky to drive we walked a reasonable distance before getting into position to view the bay. Unfortunately it proved pretty birdless on our visit, with just the ubiquitous Black Kites and Little Egrets present around the bay’s shore, although 6 Turtle Doves were flushed out of the Acacias whilst walking to the bay. Getting frustrated by the lack of birdlife and the limited amount of birding we had been able to do, we returned to the car for dusk. Crochet et al had several observations of Egyptian Nightjar around these tracks at dusk but we had no success although views of a stunning adult Barbary Falcon were more than welcome, before we returned to Abu Simbel for a well earned rest. The Hotel Ramsis where we were staying was extremely cheap at £4 per night, but in return for this it was very basic and shabby by western standards with the added attraction of many resident geckoes. The proprietor here is extremely friendly and well connected within the town and is a good person to ask about boat trips onto the Lake. This is by far and away the best way to observe Skimmers, as they seem to feed out on the lake itself and it is very difficult to gain a decent vantage point with unrestricted views of the lake due to the number of islands. We had been aware of issues with taking boats out on the lake as apparently the Lake Police (there seem to be police for everything in Egypt…) are restricting this at the moment, Crochet et al had been unable to do this previously and indeed after making enquiries we were told it would not be possible. It is still worth enquiring though on each visit as the Lake Police could conceivably lift restrictions at any time.
Monday 17th July
Rising at dawn we headed straight to Bay 3, without the need for police escort this time. In the bay itself there was no sign of yesterdays’ storks, although a female Pochard was something of a surprise. 2 Gull-billed Terns fed amongst c20 Whiskered Terns while 2 Egyptian Geese roosted on the shore. Again we walked around the north side of the bay producing 4 Senegal Thick-knees in the process whilst this time 6 African Pied Wagtails gave excellent views along the near shore. Setting ourselves up to scan what we could of the lake we found ourselves wishing that one of the many fishing boats may come to shore close enough that we could ask for a cheeky trip out. As if answering our prayers after an hour or so a boat came in and moored less than 100 metres from us. Deciding to take a chance I walked up to the fishermen on the boat and got across the point that we would like them to take us out for a boat trip, for a fee of course. The initial response through limited English and hand gestures was that they couldn’t as they were working, although they offered to take us out in one of the many rowing boats they had to hand! Thinking it couldn’t do any harm we agreed, and climbed into the boat to be rowed out by one of the fishermen. They took us around the islets producing a decent list of species, 2 Yellow-billed Storks, 5+ African Pied Wagtails, 1 Little, 5 Gull-billed and 5+ White-winged Black Terns, c15 Egyptian Geese (including several young), a Striated Heron, 3 Black-crowned Night Herons and 6 Senegal Thick-knees. Additionally we also had a brief sighting of a Nile Valley Crocodile and more prolonged sightings of a Nile Valley Monitor. Realising we wouldn’t see a distant skimmer from an undulating rowing boat, when we rounded one of the outlying islets we got the boatman to let us get off. The vantage point here gave us an excellent view and made us realise just how little of the lake can be seen from the shore. We were scanning amongst the distant terns when, as calmly as you like, Richard announced, ‘I’ve got one in the distance’. Chris and I were less of a picture of serenity as we attempted to get on the bird, which didn’t prove too difficult as it flew in from the south giving decent views at mid distance. Elated with this sighting we watched the bird until it flew out of view before getting back in the boat. Evidently we had been out for too long because the original boat we had bartered with came and had a moan at our boatman before transferring us to their motorised boat and taking us back to shore. Offering them cash at the end we were amazed to find they didn’t want anything for taking us out! We insisted as they had lent us the use of one of their fishing boats for over an hour but again we were very impressed by the generous nature of the locals. By now it was midday and getting pretty hot so we headed back to town via the airport bay, which proved to be birdless. To kill a bit of time we did the tourist thing for an hour or so by walking round the near deserted and impressive King Ramses Temple.
A little worried by the lack of pelicans (we had expected this species to be relatively easy) we headed back to Bay 3 but still had no joy with our last target bird, with the only bird of note being 1 Yellow-billed Stork present in the bay. Heading back into Abu Simbel we went to the airport bay. After a few minutes of scanning the relatively birdless near shores Richard noted some extremely distant Yellow-billed Storks over the back of the bay. It was quite clear that a number of birds were present but mainly concealed in a dip and heat haze. In a sudden move of desperation with the knowledge that the light was soon due to fade we took a majority vote that we would drive down to the bay, around the shores and over to the far side. Scanning the shores gave us the impression it was driveable and tractors over the far side added to that notion. So it was that we used a convenient dirt track to descend to the lake and negotiate our way around. In the light it was actually a fairly easy drive as we were able to give a wide berth and stay on the clearly dry, sun-baked mud. Upon reaching the far side we suddenly realised there were plenty of birds here as the view opened up. Jumping out of the car I raised my bins and clapped eyes straight on a Pink-backed Pelican! Amazed at our stroke of luck and with the knowledge that we had cleaned up Abu Simbel we proceeded to count 54 Yellow-billed Storks and 4 White Storks that were keeping the sole pelican company. Unfortunately, in our excitement, we dwelt a little too long at the site and experienced a typical Egyptian sunset, where, before you know it, the sun has set below the horizon and you are plunged in complete darkness. This meant we had to negotiate the drive back in the dark, something we didn’t manage to do without incident. Getting the car stuck in sand in the middle of the day is one thing, but stuck on a mudflat in the dark on the shores of Lake Nasser is a slightly more worrying proposition. Getting prepared for the fact that we may not be moving until dawn, Richard and I set out across the mud in the direction of a fire hoping to encounter some more friendly locals. Again we struck gold, instead of coming across some old timer with just a donkey for company we came across 6 young able-bodied fishermen, who eventually agreed to help in return for payment. With their help we were able to actually lift the car free and get on our way, this time giving the lake a ridiculously wide berth. Somehow we managed to navigate our way back to the track we had entered on (no mean feat in the dark…) and to top this off as we approached the street 2 Egyptian Nightjars were observed hunting under the streetlights!
Relieved to be leaving Abu Simbel with a clean slate we returned to our hotel for a good nights sleep. In contrast to what we had expected the pelican had proved to be the most tricky species, and based on timings of the visit and other birders reports we made the assumption that Pink-backed Pelicans appear to be commoner in March-May and September, potentially as they visit the site on migration. Certainly with the extensive coverage we gave the area we felt confident the bird we saw was the sole pelican in the bays around Abu Simbel.
Tuesday 18th July
Having a little bit of a lie in we quickly birded the airport bay before we had to leave Abu Simbel. As with the previous night the bird activity was concentrated on the far side, but even from a distance we could make out 34 Yellow-billed Storks although nothing else of note could be seen. With the convoy leaving at 9:30am we headed to the temple and this time found it a simple process to join the convoy back to Aswan. A fairly boring drive ensued, enlightened by 4 Spotted Sandgrouse 40km south of Aswan. Upon arriving in Aswan we dropped off the end of the convoy and had a quick look at the Aswan High Dam before continuing straight on towards Luxor. Unsure whether a convoy was necessary between Aswan and Luxor we thought we would just risk it and drive and this proved to be successful, with a relatively uneventful drive up the Nile valley to Luxor. Black-shouldered Kites and Little Green Bee-eaters ensured there was always something to look at and by late afternoon we were on the south side of Luxor. As the birding and target species are all contained on Crocodile Island we thought we would experience a night of 5* opulence and headed to the Movenpick Hotel present on the island for convenient doorstep birding. It should be noted that the hotel is not obvious when approaching from the south as most signs seem to be for traffic coming from the north, hence we overshot the turning and had to head back a couple of km to pick up the right road.
Once on Crocodile Island and checked in to the hotel we didn’t waste any more time in getting out birding. At least 6 Nile Valley Sunbirds were observed in the hotel gardens including some resplendent males. 2 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were also present and Little Green Bee-eaters were common whilst at least 5+ Common Bulbuls gave us a chance to reacquaint ourselves with this species again.
A lot of the birding on the island is centred around the bridge and the marshy area accessed from the fields adjacent to the bridge. Walking across the fields to the view the marsh from the obvious crates produced a decent array of birds with 1 Little Bittern and 4 Purple Herons present amongst the more numerous Squacco’s. Red Avadavats were common in the reeds here with over 15 birds noted and these, together with several Yellow Wagtails of the endemic pygmea race, accounted for more of our target species. The undoubted highlight though was the superb female Painted Snipe that sat motionless on the edge of the reeds for almost the entire duration of our visit. With this we retired to the hotel complex happy with our evenings success.
Wednesday 19th July
With the success of our last few days we had accounted for the majority of our target species on the trip and with four days left had ample time to try for the remaining species. Another look around the hotel gardens after breakfast produce at least 4 Nile Valley Sunbirds, before we decided to make a flying visit to the Valley of the Kings on the west side of Luxor. After all, we were so close it would be a shame not to visit… The drive across Luxor produced 6 White Storks in the fertile farmland but the Valley itself was utterly birdless, although it is said to be a good site for Trumpeter Finch.
We then left for Cairo, hoping to be at the pyramids at Sakkara and Giza by evening. What was to follow was an almost intolerable 13 hour drive to Cairo, eventually arriving on the south western outskirts before midnight. There are no official convoys from Luxor to Cairo and instead for our protection at one of the checkpoints the police decided we should have an escort for the remainder of the journey. This slowed things down considerably as we had to change escort cars at pretty much every checkpoint – some as close as 20km apart – which meant frequently having to wait 10 minutes for a car to turn up. Additionally, the roads along the Nile Valley are in a much poorer state of repair than the Red Sea coast road with speed bumps frequently appearing without warning and much higher traffic levels. Anyway, once we finally got to the outskirts of Cairo we were able to find the adequate Cairotel and booked ourselves in for a night.
Thursday 20th July
Our original itinerary had not included a visit to Wadi El Natrun, regarded as the best site to observe Kittlitz’s Plover, as we had not been sure we would have enough time and would have hoped to have seen the species by now at Abu Simbel. As it was our success to date had left us with time to spare and with this being one of the few target species remaining a trip to Wadi El Natrun was now a necessity. This meant a pre-dawn rise in order to journey north west of Cairo to the town of Natrun.
The site itself is quite easy to find, on the main Cairo-Alexandria road take a left in the town of Natrun (marked by a large tacky looking archway, signposted to el Natrun and opposite a service station). Follow this road into the town and at the obvious monument go left. Follow this dusty road out of the town and after a short while the lake opens up on the right. The best site we found was to take a right onto a quite passable sandy track, just after passing a tall tower on the left hand side of the road.
Follow this track to the bottom of a small grassy hillock and park up here. Viewing can either be from the small hill or by walking quietly to the edge of the dry lake. On our visit the whole lake was dry and exceptionally good for Kittlitz’s Plovers with 42 of these attractive birds counted in a variety of plumages. We also recorded our only Southern Grey Shrike and Little Ringed Plover of the trip here.
Leaving the site satisfied mid morning we headed back towards Cairo. Our plan was to complete our tourist activities for the trip by seeing the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx close up, before heading to the Pyramids of Sakkara and then back to Abassa Fishponds to try once more for our last target species in the area, Senegal Coucal.
Visiting the Pyramids of Giza and seeing the last standing ancient wonder of the world in the Pyramid of Khufu is not something you get to do every day and as such was worth the minor detour for an hour or so before we headed a few km south to Sakkara. Here our destination was another pyramid, the step Pyramid of Zoser at Sakkara to be exact, but this time we were not merely looking at the aesthetics of the place but going for a bird as well. This pyramid is a well known roost site for Pharaoh Eagle Owl and after arriving and paying our entrance fee we were able to locate a pair of these magnificent birds roosting on the pyramid. The favoured site was on the south side of the pyramid, in a hole above and to the right of the pyramid entrance, about 20 metres off the ground. Once we had our fill of the owls we headed back to Cairo with the intention of meeting Ahmed. We had arranged to meet him again primarily to help us work our way through Cairo as we had to get back to the north east side to get to Abassa. After meeting Ahmed we negotiated our way to Abassa, arriving late afternoon. The best area for coucals is apparently the arable land beyond Abassa village, (the second site described under my previous directions for Abassa), just by the fishponds. After searching here for a short while we heard the unmistakeable call coming from a distant row of trees. Despite a lot of scanning we couldn’t locate the source of the sound and so headed across the paddyfields to get closer to the trees. Once amongst the trees we soon observed up to 4 Senegal Coucals showing exceptionally well above our heads. Contented we headed back to the nearby fishponds for a couple of hours of excellent birding just prior to dusk. c50 Collared Pratincoles hawked around the dry ponds whilst over 200 Glossy Ibis moved through the area. 51 White Storks were counted roosting whilst over 100 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters appeared to be gathering over the fishponds prior to going to roost. A couple of ponds were almost dry leaving plenty of muddy areas perfect for waders with over 20 each of Wood Sandpipers and Ruffs noted with a single Little Stint and Redshank as well. With the onset of dusk we headed back to Cairo, said our goodbyes and thanks to Ahmed and checked ourselves in at the Novotel.
Friday 21st July
With the success of yesterday we were in the fortunate position of being able to have a fairly relaxed day. With Hume’s Owl now being the only bird we had missed we decided to head back to the south Sinai area to try again. Leaving the Novotel in Cairo mid morning we headed east, stopping at Wadi Hagul en-route. Wadi Hagul is little more than a road heading south of the main Cairo-Suez road, following a large and shallow wadi for several km. Ahmed had advised us that a few bird species could be seen here and even though our visit was in the heat of the day we did record our only Mourning Wheatear of the trip, although no other birds of note were observed in the hour or so we spent here. Apparently Hooded Wheatear has been seen along this road by other birders.
The rest of the drive was taken at a leisurely pace and we arrived in the evening in south Sinai at our destination. An anxious hour or so was spent scanning the rocky wadi but as far as our target bird went searching proved fruitless, although we did see another Sooty Falcon, up to 4 Blackstarts and 2 Tristam’s Grackles as well as a Golden Jackal, before we decided that with the light fading we would widen our search further along the wadi. We had come armed with a powerful spotlight that helped the search but we were beginning to lose hope when distantly we heard the distinctive call of Hume’s Owl. Frustration set in as the bird went silent for a minute or two but suddenly it called again, much closer this time. Before we knew it the bird amazingly flew over our heads, with Richard even more amazingly managing to spotlight it in flight as it went over despite us all being in a state of panic! As it was the bird settled in view allowing us reasonably close views in the gloom, enough to ascertain the salient features.
Retiring back to the car over the moon with the success of the evening (despite being given a scare by a local Bedouin that made us all scream like girls…) we headed to the village of St Katherine’s and checked back into the Hotel Plaza again for the night.
Saturday 22nd July
This was our last day on what had turned out to be a highly triumphant and eventful trip. With all our target birds ‘in the bag’ and with the knowledge that in one fell swoop we had managed to see all the Western Palearctic specialities that one must visit Egypt for, we had a relaxed day heading up the east Sinai coast before heading back to Cairo via some birding at Suez bay. Before this though a quick walk through the gardens of the Hotel Plaza produced a family of Palestine Sunbirds with at least 5 birds present including juveniles.
Ahmed had informed us that he had observed Verreaux’s Eagle in the area around Taba (near the border with Eilat) on previous visits and as we could easily make a detour via this area on the way back to Cairo we birded around the rocky hills here until midday. Unsurprisingly we had no success with the eagle but a pair of ravens observed in the hills on the road to El Kuntillah, c5km west of the Israeli border, were eventually seen well enough to be identified as Fan-tailed Ravens, an uncommon species that is very rarely observed in Egypt.
Bidding farewell to the Sinai we headed back through the Suez tunnel and into Suez for some birding around the bay. The best way we found to reach the bay is to follow signposts to the docks, taking the (new?) dual carriageway that runs south west just before the main dock area. After a few hundred metres the bay becomes very obvious on the left and by parking up safely here you can cross the road and view the bay very easily. Our visit turned out to be timed to the rising tide with birds clearly departing the area and flying out to sea whilst we were there. One of the most obvious birds was the Slender-billed Gulls that were dotted around the bay, numbering over 40 individuals, with 3 Sandwich Terns and 2 White-cheeked Terns observed actively fishing over the bay. Walking out onto the sand we soon picked up 5 small terns, with 4 being quickly identified as Little Terns. The fifth bird was noticeably different however, in flight showing a greyish rump and tail that were uniform with the upperparts and after several views could be clearly seen to have the outermost three primaries black, (as opposed to the accompanying Little’s which only had the outermost two black). At rest the legs were duller than the accompanying birds appearing browner and the mantle was slightly paler grey too. The head pattern differed, with the bird showing rounded corners to the white forehead patch, contrasting with the accompanying birds which all showed the white tapering to a point above the eye. The black loral line was also thicker on this bird which, combined with the differences in the white forehead patch, gave a more ‘cute’ expression. All these features kept bringing us back to the conclusion that this bird was in fact a Saunder’s Tern and scanning of available literature afterwards has only served to reinforce this opinion.
Heading away from Suez we returned to Cairo airport as the day drew to a close ready to bring an end to our successful sojourn in Egypt.
1) Little Grebe
1 Abassa Fishponds 12th July; c4 Abassa Fishponds 20th July
2) Brown Booby
2 Giftun Islands 13th July – observed from Sharm el Sheikh-Hurghada ferry
3) Pink-backed Pelican
1 Airport Bay Lake Nasser 17th July
4) Little Bittern
6 Abassa Fishponds 12th July; 1 Crocodile Island 18th July
5) Striated Heron
1 Ismailiya Canal c5km SW of Abassa 12th July; 1 Safaga Mangroves, 2 Mangroves 20km N of Hamata both 14th July; 5 Wadi Lahami Mangroves 15th July; 1 Lake Nasser from boat trip by Bay 3 17th July
6) Little Egret
Common at most wetland sites visited
7) Western Reef Heron
Common in mangoves along Red Sea Coast
8) Great White Egret
1 Wadi Lahami 14th July
9) Squacco Heron
Very common at all inland wetland areas, including along Nile valley
10) Cattle Egret
Very common at most sites visited
11) Grey Heron
5 Lake Nasser N of Abu Simbel 16th July; several Lake Nasser N of Abu Simbel 17th July; 4 Airport bay Lake Nasser 18th July; 1 Abassa Fishponds 20th July
12) Goliath Heron
Immature Wadi Lahami 14th July
13) Purple Heron
1 Wadi Lahami 15th July; 4 Crocodile Island 18th July
14) Black-crowned Night Heron
100+ Abassa Fishponds 12th July; 3 Lake Nasser N of Abu Simbel 17th July; 3 Crocodile Island 18th July; c200 Abassa Fishponds 20th July
15) White Stork
4 Airport Bay Lake Nasser 17th July; 6 c5km S of Luxor between Nile river and the Valley of Kings 19th July; 51 Abassa Fishponds 20th July
16) Yellow-billed Stork
12 Bay 3 Lake Nasser 16th July; 2 Lake Nasser from boat trip by Bay 3 and 54 Airport Bay Lake Nasser 17th July
17) Glossy Ibis
200+ Abassa Fishponds 20th July
18) Eurasian Spoonbill
1 Hamata Mangroves 14th July
19) Egyptian Goose
14 Bay 3 Lake Nasser 16th July; 2 Bay 3 Lake Nasser and 15 Lake Nasser from boat trip by Bay 3 17th July
20) Northern Shoveler
1 Na’ama Bay Treatment Works 13th July
21) Common Pochard
1 Bay 3 Lake Nasser 17th July
22) Egyptian Vulture
Common in Shalatein town and 2 Marsa Hamira both 15th July
23) Lappet-faced Vulture
c30 Shalatein town 15th July
24) Black Kite
Common around Abu Simbel 16th, 17th and 18th July (birds noted were of local aegyptius race)
25) Black-shouldered Kite
5 10km E of Edfu and c30 observed travelling between Edfu and Aswan both 15th July; 2 between Edfu and Luxor and 2 Crocodile Island both 18th July; 2 between Luxor and Aknim 19th July; 2 Abassa Fishponds 20th July
1 Safaga Mangroves, 2 Wadi El Gemal NP, 9 Hamata Mangroves all 14th July; 1 Wadi Lahami 15th July
27) Barbary Falcon
1 Bay 2 Lake Nasser 16th July
28) Sooty Falcon
3 Southern Sinai 12th July; 1 Southern Sinai 21st July
29) Eurasian Kestrel
1 Abassa Fishponds 12th July; 1 Crocodile Island 18th July; 3 Wadi Natrun 20th July
30) Sand Partridge
15 St Katherine’s Monastery 13th July
31) Purple Swamphen
1 Abassa Fishponds 12th July (of race madagascariensis)
32) Common Moorhen
Several Abassa Fishponds 12th and 20th July
33) Greater Painted Snipe
1 female Crocodile Island 18th July
34) Crab Plover
13 Hamata Mangroves 14th July
35) Black-winged Stilt
2 Na’ama Bay Treatment Works and 1 Mangroves c15km S of Safaga 14th July; 8 Bay 3 Lake Nasser 16th July; 4 Bay 3 Lake Nasser 17th July; 3 Abassa Fishponds 20th July
36) Senegal Thick-knee
2 3km W of Abassa Fishponds 12th July; 4 Bay 3 Lake Nasser and 6 Lake Nasser from boat trip by Bay 3 both 17th July; 3 Abassa Fishponds 20th July
37) Collared Pratincole
c50 Abassa Fishponds 20th July
38) Spur-winged Plover
Common at Abassa Fishponds 12th and 20th July; 1 Airport Bay Lake Nasser 17th July; Several Wadi Natrun 20th July
39) Little Ringed Plover
1 Wadi Natrun 20th July
40) Kentish Plover
2 Safaga Mangroves 14th July
41) Kittlitz’s Plover
42 Wadi Natrun 20th July
42) Lesser Sand Plover
2 Wadi Lahami 15th July
43) Greater Sand Plover
1 Safaga Mangroves, 2 Wadi El Gemal NP and 1 Hamata Mangroves all 14th July; 35 Wadi Lahami 15th July
44) Eurasian Curlew
2 mangroves 20km N of Hamata and 5+ Hamata Mangroves both 14th July
1 Safaga Mangroves 14th July
46) Common Redshank
2 Hamata Mangroves 14th July; 4 Wadi Lahami 15th July; 1 Abassa Fishponds 20th July; common Suez Bay 22nd July
47) Marsh Sandpiper
1 Wadi Lahami 15th July
48) Common Greenshank
1 Na’ama Bay Treatment Works 13th July; 1 Safaga Mangroves 14th July; 2 Wadi Lahami 15th July; 1 Bay 3 Lake Nasser 16th July
49) Green Sandpiper
1 Wadi Lahami 15th July; 1 Wadi Natrun 20th July
50) Wood Sandpiper
4 Abassa Fishponds 12th July; 1 Na’ama Bay Treatment Works 13th July; 1 Hamata Mangroves 14th July; 20+ Abassa Fishponds 20th July
51) Common Sandpiper
1 Safaga Mangroves and 7 Wadi El Gemal both 14th July
52) Little Stint
1 Abassa Fishponds 20th July
20+ Abassa Fishponds 20th July
54) White-eyed Gull
8+ Sharm el Sheikh port and several Sharm – Hurghada ferry both 13th July; c15 Conrad Sea Resort, Hurghada, 1 Safaga Mangroves and 1 Hamata Mangroves all 14th July
55) Sooty Gull
1 Sharm – Hurghada ferry 13th July; 1 Conrad Sea Resort, Hurghada, 1 mangroves 20km N of Hamata, several Hamata Mangroves all 14th July; 2 Wadi Lahami 15th July
56) Slender-billed Gull
1 Hamata Mangroves 14th July; 40+ Suez Bay 22nd July
57) Gull-billed Tern
2 Bay 3 Lake Nasser and 5 Lake Nasser from boat trip by Bay 3 both 17th July; 1 Airport Bay Lake Nasser 18th July
58) Lesser Crested Tern
c30 Sharm – Hurghada ferry 13th July; 10 Conrad Sea Resort, Hurghada and c3 Hamata Mangroves both 14th July
59) Great Crested Tern
4 10km before Abu Rudays (west Sinai coast) 12th July
60) Sandwich Tern
3 Suez Bay 22nd July
61) Caspian Tern
1 Conrad Sea Resort, Hurghada, 2 Safaga Mangroves, 5 en-route from Wadi El Gemal NP to Hamata, 2 mangroves 20km N of Hamata and 11 Hamata Mangroves all 14th July; 1 Wadi Lahami 15th July
62) Bridled Tern
1 Sharm – Hurghada ferry 13th July; 2 Conrad Sea Resort, Hurghada, 100+ mangroves 20km N of Hamata and 500+ Hamata Mangroves all 14th July
63) Little Tern
1 Lake Nasser from boat trip by Bay 3 17th July; 4 Suez Bay 22nd July
64) Saunder’s Tern
1 adult Suez Bay 22nd July
65) White-cheeked Tern
c50 Conrad Sea Resort, Hurghada, several Safaga Mangroves, 9 mangroves c15km S of Safaga Mangroves and 100+ Hamata Mangroves all 14th July; 1 Wadi Lahami 15th July; 2 Suez Bay 22nd July
66) White-winged Black Tern
1 Safaga Mangroves and 5 Hamata Mangroves both 14th July; 2 Wadi Lahami 15th July; 5+ Lake Nasser from boat trip by Bay 3 17th July
67) Whiskered Tern
c30 Bay 3 Lake Nasser 16th July; c20 Bay 3 Lake Nasser and several Lake Nasser from boat trip by Bay 3 both 17th July
68) African Skimmer
1 Lake Nasser from boat trip by Bay 3 17th July
69) Spotted Sandgrouse
1 c2km S of Berenice 15th July; 2 Bay 3 Lake Nasser 16th July; 4 c40km S of Aswan 18th July
70) Crowned Sandgrouse
2 c55km S of Safaga 14th July
71) Rock Dove
1 St Katherine’s Monastary 21st July could have been a wild bird, otherwise feral types seen around most settlements
72) Eurasian Turtle Dove
6 Bay 2 Lake Nasser 16th July; 2 Bay 3 Lake Nasser, 1 Lake Nasser from boat trip by Bay 3 and 2 Abu Simbel temple all 17th July; 1 Crocodile Island 18th July
73) Eurasian Collared Dove
2 Abassa Fishponds 12th July; 1 Wadi Natrun 20th July, otherwise common around Cairo and Suez
74) African Collared Dove
2 Safaga Mangroves, 3 c20km N of Marsa Alam by Balboa Hotel, 2 Wadi El Gemal NP all 14th July; 2 Wadi Lahami 15th July
75) Laughing Dove
Common in Cairo, along the Nile Valley and in the Sinai
76) Senegal Coucal
4 Abassa Fishponds 20th July
77) Pharaoh Eagle Owl
2 Pyramid of Zoser, Sakkara 20th July
78) Hume’s Owl
1 south Sinai 21st July
79) Egyptian Nightjar
2 Abu Simbel near Airport Bay 17th July
80) Common Kingfisher
1 Wadi Lahami 15th July and again 16th July
81) White-throated Kingfisher
3 Ismailiya Canal W of Abassa Fishponds 12th July
82) Pied Kingfisher
Several Ismailiya Canal W of Abassa Fishponds 12th July; 1 Safaga Mangroves 14th July; 2 Wadi Lahami 15th July
83) Green Bee-eater
3 Abassa Fishponds 12th July; c30 10km E of Edfu 15th July; 4+ between Edfu and Luxor and common Crocodile Island both 18th July (all birds of the local race cleopatra)
84) Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
10+ Abassa Fishponds 12th July; 2 Crocodile Island 18th July; 100+ Abassa Fishponds 20th July
85) European Bee-eater
1 Wadi El Gemal NP 14th July
86) Eurasian Hoopoe
Several Abassa Fishponds 12th July; 3 Crocodile Island 18th July; 6 Abassa Fishponds 20th July
87) Bar-tailed Lark
1 c10km S of Marsa Alam 14th July; 3 checkpoint c5km S of Wadi Lahami 15th July
88) Desert Lark
1 south Sinai 12th July; 15+ St Katherine’s Monastery 13th July; 1 south Sinai 21st July
89) Greater Hoopoe Lark
1 c10km S of Marsa Alam 14th July; 1 c20km S of Shams Alam resort 15th July; 1 c10km S of Suez Tunnel on Sharm El Sheikh road 21st July; 1 c50km E of Suez 22nd July
90) Crested Lark
c10 Abassa Fishponds 12th July; common Bay 3 Lake Nasser 16th July; 3 Lake Nasser from boat trip by Bay 3 17th July; common Abassa Fishponds 20th July
91) Sand Martin
10+ Abassa Fishponds 12th July
92) Rock Martin
c5 south Sinai 12th July; 2 Hotel Nebulah Ramses 16th and 17th July (roosting outside room)
93) Barn Swallow
Common Abassa Fishponds 12th July (with all birds of resident red-bellied race savignii) and several along Red Sea coast 14th July (with birds here of nominate race)
94) African Pied Wagtail
1 Bay 3 Lake Nasser 16th July; 6 Bay 3 Lake Nasser and 5+ Lake Nasser from boat trip by Bay 3 both 17th July
95) Yellow Wagtail
11+ Crocodile Island 18th July (birds were of endemic race pygmaea)
96) Common Bulbul
2 Ismailiya Canal W of Abassa Fishponds 12th July; 5+ Crocodile Island 18th July
97) White-spectacled Bulbul
8+ south Sinai 12th July
98) Zitting Cisticola
Common Abassa Fishponds 12th July; several Crocodile Island 18th July; common Wadi Natrun and common Abassa Fishponds both 20th July
99) Streaked Scrub Warbler
3 St Katherine’s Monastery 13th July
100) Graceful Prinia
Common Abassa Fishponds 12th July; 4 Bay 3 Lake Nasser 16th July; several Bay 3 Lake Nasser and c6 Lake Nasser from boat trip by Bay 3 both 17th July; common Crocodile Island 18th July; common Wadi Natrun and common Abassa Fishponds both 20th July
101) Clamorous Reed Warbler
Common Abassa Fishponds 12th July; 2 Abassa Fishponds 20th July
102) Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
3 Safaga Mangroves, 1 Hamata Mangroves and 4+ Wadi Lahami all 14th July; several Wadi Lahami 15th July; 1 Bay 3 Lake Nasser 16th July; 2 Bay 3 Lake Nasser and 2 Abu Simbel temple both 17th July; 3 Crocodile Island 18th July
103) Mourning Wheatear
1 Wadi Hagul 21st July
104) White-crowned Black Wheatear
4+ south Sinai 12th July; several St Katherine’s Monastery and 2 Hotel Plaza gardens, St Katherine both 13th July; 5+ Bay 3 Lake Nasser and several Bay 2 Lake Nasser both 17th July; several Bay 3 Lake Nasser and 10+ Lake Nasser from boat trip by Bay 3 and 2 Abu Simbel temple all 17th July; 2 south Sinai 21st July
1 south Sinai 12th July; 4 south Sinai 21st July
106) Nile Valley Sunbird
6+ Crocodile Island 18th July; 4+ Crocodile Island 19th July
107) Palestine Sunbird
1 Hotel Plaza gardens 13th July; c5 Hotel Plaza gardens 22nd July
108) Southern Grey Shrike
1 Wadi Natrun 20th July
109) House Crow
6 Total Garage c6km E of Suez 12th July; 5 Conrad Sea Resort, Hurghada 14th July; common Suez Bay 22nd July
110) Hooded Crow
Common Abassa Fishponds 12th July; common Crocodile Island 18th July; common Wadi Natrun and Abassa Fishponds both 20th July
111) Brown-necked Raven
5+ en-route Suez to Sinai 12th July; 2 Na’ama Bay Treatment Works 13th July; several Hamata Mangroves 14th July; 2 Wadi Lahami and common Shalatein both 15th July
112) Fan-tailed Raven
2 c5km W of Israeli Border, on road to El Kuntillah
113) Tristam’s Starling
4+ St Katherine’s Monastery 13th July; 2 south Sinai 21st July
114) House Sparrow
Common around habitation
115) Streaked Weaver
20+ Abassa Fishponds 12th July
116) Red Avadavat
15+ Crocodile Island 18th July
117) Sinai Rosefinch
30+ St Katherine’s Monastery 13th July
118) European Goldfinch
2 Abassa Fishponds 12th July