Tunisia - 23rd - 30th December 2007

Published by Pamela C. Rasmussen (rasmus39 AT msu.edu)

Participants: Pamela C. Rasmussen (Michigan State University), Michael D. Gottfried


This report covers an eight-day winter trip to Tunisia which included less birding than intended. I was with Mike, my (mostly) non-birding husband, and we encountered mostly bad weather, hence spent little time successfully birding. This was my first time in North Africa, and my only previous time in Palearctic deserts was one trip to Turkey, so I got quite a few lifers (16), although I had expected several more. Heavy rain resulted in some washed-out bridges and deep water on roads that prevented us getting to some key sites, and blankets of dense fog in two sites greatly limited the birding. Given the weather conditions, I now realize we really needed at least a couple more days to see most of the target species. With good weather or at a more auspicious time of year, 8 days might have been sufficient. Still, the trip was definitely worthwhile.

Despite this, Tunisia is a relatively easy and pleasant place to travel and drive in. It’s a good place to go with a non-birder who is interested in seeing Berber and Roman ruins. Unlike most Muslim countries, I think it would be feasible and relatively safe, if not entirely comfortable, for a single woman to bird there. Many Tunisian women dress in Western clothes, and we saw very few wearing chador. People were friendly and helpful in a reserved way, and we had only pleasant interactions with the locals. Some people went to considerable lengths to be helpful and refused payment. Driving was mostly fairly conservative for a non-western country, although you do have to be vigilant and we avoided night driving. Most roads are well-marked and in good condition, so you can get just about any major destination in the country in a matter of a few hours. Some roads are only marked in Arabic, and it can be difficult to get directions if you don’t know French. We only had an Insight map from 2001 which was quite inaccurate, presumably due to being so out of date. We could not find some roads indicated, while others were new or recently paved, and many towns that looked tiny or weren’t even indicated on the map were actually quite large and took considerable time to get through. Also, large areas of the country (mainly the northern half) are completely converted to farmland, while farther south shrublands are heavily degraded mainly through grazing, urban sprawl, road works and a general enthusiasm for bulldozing and upheaving the land. Especially in outskirts of towns, the ground and bushes are covered with trash. Even so, birding in Tunisia is pleasant and can be productive, and I certainly recommend it, especially with a little more time than we had unless you only have a few target species.

Highlights for me were Hoopoe Lark, five species of wheatears (all lifers!), Trumpeter Finch, plenty of Moussier’s Redstarts, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, and Desert Sparrow. Possible good record: Eurasian Siskin at Ain Draham. Worst misses: Fulvous Babbler, Tristram’s Warbler, Streaked Scrub Warbler, all sandgrouse, etc. Barbary Partridge only glimpsed in the fog. Confusing species: I made no attempt to distinguish winter-plumaged Spanish Sparrows from “Italian” sparrows, and after seeing Thekla Larks well on 25 Dec did not attempt to distinguish most Galerida larks seen.

Itinerary and comments:

23 December: Tunis to Hammam Sousse (Dreams Beach) and Selbkhet Halk el Menzel (afternoon; weather mild, cool, not too windy). Lots of waterbirds, including flamingos, spoonbills, and Slender-billed Gulls, easily seen at the Selbkhet. One Spectacled Warbler in the surrounding shrubs. The Dreams Beach Hotel still has a patch of disturbed coastal scrub that is worth exploring.

24 December: Dreams Beach to Matmata. Overslept due to coming down with bad cold; birding half an hour in mid-morning at Dreams Beach then off to try to find Ksar Ghilane (where we had a reservation), but ended up at Matmata instead (mainly driving; fairly clear). Made arrangements to go by 4WD next day to Ksar Ghilane since locals advised us we couldn’t get there by our 2-wheel car.

25 December: Matmata to Ksar Ghilane. Morning birding around Matmata was almost completely ruined by dense fog. We tried several spots on either side of the town and did manage to see a few birds, mostly Black Wheatears which are very common in the Matmata area, Thekla Larks (the only definite ones of the trip), and later a couple of Desert Larks and a Trumpeter Finch at the hillside Matmata sign made of large white rocks. I flushed a group of Barbary Partridges, which in the dense fog were seen just as dark hurtling shapes, and were identified solely on the basis of range (not counted as a lifer). Then at 11 we were taken to Ksar Ghilane via ruins at Ksar Hallouf and Ksar Haddada (the latter Star Wars film site) as well as a Berber village en route. Ksar Ghilane is an oasis surrounded by dunes and near a Roman ruins. We arrived there by 4, and I did a little birding around the oasis. Saw one Desert Sparrow at the oasis, and Mike (who was in the front seat on the drive) got a good look at a Hoopoe Lark in the sandy bunchgrass areas on the approach to Ksar Ghilane. There were several Brown-necked Ravens around the rubbish tip. After dark it started raining and continued much of the night.

26 December: Ksar Ghilane to Gafsa via Matmata. Tried birding around Ksar Ghilane from 7-7:45 a.m., but it was cold and there was little bird activity. Camel ride into dunes and Roman ruins 8-10 a.m., accompanied by up to 10 or so Desert Sparrows foraging in the camel tracks ahead of us most of the way. Adult White-crowned Wheatear at the fort. Then drive back to Matmata, with two Hoopoe Larks very well seen in the road, and another two glimpsed. Heavy rain the previous night made the sand roads difficult for our driver even in the 4WD, and it was still densely foggy when we returned to Matmata. We were headed to Douz from El Hamma but were directed by a policeman to a diversion due to flooding on the road, and we had gone several miles on this diversion when we got to a river crossing at which a crowd had gathered, evidently to gawk at a stuck vehicle; the river was clearly impassable. We then decided to go to Gafsa instead, and we arrived there after dark. The fog was limited to the mountains, and it was cloudy and windy at Gafsa.

27 December: Gafsa to Seldja Gorge, then Tozeur area and north end of Chott el Djerid, then to Sbeitla (arriving after dark). Left Gafsa around 7, stopped in steppe about halfway to Seldja Gorge and saw a beautiful pair of Red-rumped Wheatear (the female particularly interesting looking with her rufous head; the male’s rump was less rufous than his vent area, and he showed an extensively white-edged wing). This was the only time I saw this species. Then at Seldja Gorge I saw all the other four wheatear species possible at this time of year (a few Mourning, some Blacks (broad tail band seen), several White-crowned (both adults and black-crowned juveniles), and a male Desert Wheatear. No luck with Thick-billed Lark, Scrub Warbler, or Tristram’s Warbler… Very windy and rather cold at Seldja Gorge. This site is worth visiting for the scenery alone. Shortly after we arrived a man drove up on motorbike, claiming to be a bird guide, but he was loud and annoying and we turned down his services. There were some small boys there but they did not follow us as one other trip reporter experienced.

We then drove to Tozeur during the middle of the day, encountering a huge herd of feral camels en route, making a brief stop at the zoo (worth it more for the Pharaoh Eagle-owl and Long-legged Buzzard than for the caged dogs, pigs, and goats, and the Coke-drinking camel). Then a brief drive to the northern edge of the Chott el Djerid, where an hour spent searching the wastes with a scope produced not a single bird.

Up to this point I was still hoping we could still make the Douz area since most of the birds that would have been lifers occur there, but it became clear that if we were to make our reservation at Ain Draham we would not be able to get to Douz, and I reluctantly had to concede that I had already missed several key species.

28 December: Sbeitla to Ain Draham. Spent the morning at the ruins, where there was a big flock of Greenfinches with a few Rock Sparrows and Serins. Then drove to Ain Draham, arriving around 4 p.m. Overcast and cool all day. Took a brief drive through the oaks to the south of Ain Draham after 4, and saw a group of four Siskins feeding very close to me on the verge of the road. One was an adult male, with black crown and throat seen clearly, and the others were distinctly streaked with yellow in wings. According to the book this species looks to be at the edge of its range here.

29 December: Ain Draham to Bulla Regia and back. Extremely foggy in the morning at Ain Draham. Spent the morning trying to find Levaillant’s Woodpecker. The fog layer ended below the real forest but there were patches of pine, heath, and oak below the fog so I searched there, and did hear the woodpeckers there and glimpsed one unsatisfactorily. Also lots of tit flocks and other birds in this mixed disturbed habitat. Then we went to Bulla Regia for a few hours, then back up to Ain Draham, where it was still extremely foggy in the late afternoon. Booked into the Hotel Foret, a good hotel in a nice woodland setting outside of town.

30 December: Ain Draham to Tunis via Tabarka, Lac Ichkeul and Bizerte. Fog lifted overnight but it was windy and raining variably in Ain Draham. Went first to the junction of the Ben M’tir/Ain Draham road mentioned by other trip reports, and immediately heard and glimpsed Levaillant’s Woodpecker, but could not see it properly. Also, with the wind and rain, there was practically no other bird activity that morning. Later that morning we went back to the hotel and despite the rain Levaillant’s Woodpecker was calling right on the hotel grounds, where we were able to see it briefly when it responded to a little tape playback.

We then left, bound for Lac Ichkeul and hopefully Audouin’s Gulls at Bizerte harbor, but were quickly overtaken by heavy rains and wind. We did see a big flock of four gull species plus Sandwich Terns at Tabarka, but it was so windy I had difficulty even seeing through my scope. By the time we got to Lac Ichkeul the weather was awful, and I didn’t try too hard to see the distant waterfowl. Much of the lake edge is built up and fairly trashed. It seems that, in order to see birds properly on the lake, one would have to hike out through fields to get close to the water. We were headed to Bizerte harbor for a chance to see Audouin’s Gull but the heavy rain had flooded roads in the city to the point where it didn’t seem safe to try to get through, especially with more rain on the way. We finally gave up and headed back to the airport at Tunis, where it rained especially heavily. An unsatisfactory last few days to a rather frustrating trip, but still definitely worth it!

Species Lists

Day lists (ER = en route):

23 December: Tunis to Hammam Sousse (Dreams Beach, DB) and Selbkhet Halk el Menzel (SHM).

Black-necked Grebe: many SHM
Great Crested Grebe: several SHM
Northern Gannet: 2 D
Great Cormorant: many SHM
Little Egret: several SHM
Great Egret: few SHM
Grey Heron: many SHM
Eurasian Spoonbill: several SHM
Greater Flamingo: many SHM
Common Shelduck: many SHM
Black-winged Kite: 2 ER
Common Kestrel: 1 ER
Common Crane: 2 SHM
Pied Avocet: several SHM
Kentish Plover: 1 SHM
Dunlin: 2 SHM
Little Stint: 1 SHM
Common Redshank: 2 SHM
Common Greenshank: 1 SHM
Slender-billed Gull: many SHM
Yellow-legged Gull: several SHM
Gull-billed Tern: 2 SHM (these were seen in flight, and identified by heavy dark bills, white upperparts, and black patch over eye)
Rock Pigeon: many
Laughing Dove: few
Eurasian Hoopoe: 1 DB
Crested/Thekla Lark: several in plowed fields, not seen well
Meadow Pipit: several groups at SHM
White Wagtail: 3 south of Tunis
Robin: few DB
Stonechat: many
Eurasian Blackbird: several including in Tunis
Spectacled Warbler: 1 seen well in low salt heath at SHM; puffy white throat, rufous wings
Zitting Cisticola: several SHM
Common Chiffchaff: several Tunis, DB, SHM
Southern Grey Shrike: many
Common Starling: presumed this, a big flock of starlings including brown birds
Spotless Starling: many, in small groups often atop telephone poles
Spanish Sparrows: several; none clearly distinguished from hybrids

24 December: Dreams Beach (DB) to Matmata (M).

Unidentified buzzard-like raptor (Long-legged Buzzard?) near M
Common Kestrel: several ER
Common Crane: 4 flying ER
Gull sp.: ER
Rock Pigeon:
Laughing Dove:
Eurasian Hoopoe: 1 ER
Crested Lark: many, some seen well with rufous underwing coverts and long rather curved bills
White Wagtail: many
Black Redstart: pair at DB
Moussier’s Redstart: one male at airport near M
Black Wheatear: 3-4 near tourist stop on north approach to Matmata
Stonechat: few ER
Blue Rock Thrush: 1 male DB
Eurasian Blackbird: several
Blackcap: one male and one female, DB
Sardinian Warbler: several DB
Zitting Cisticola: 1 DB
Southern Grey Shrike: many
Brown-necked Raven: several at airport; tail not very wedged, bill not very thick, call crow-like
Spotless Starling: many in small groups and singles
Spanish Sparrows: many

25 December: Matmata to Ksar Ghilane.

Long-legged Buzzard: 1 ER
[Barbary Partridge: covey of c. 8 flushed in dense fog at M]
Rock Dove:
Collared Dove: several KG
Laughing Dove: many
Little Owl: ER
Eurasian Hoopoe: 1 M
Crested Lark: several seen with rufous wing linings
Thekla Lark: several studied carefully around Matmata; showed relatively short bill compared to Crested Larks studied on 24 Dec, rufescent tinge to upper tail coverts, grey underwing coverts. Some photographed.
Desert Lark: 2 at Matmata
Hoopoe Lark: glimpsed ER, Mike saw one well near KG
White Wagtail: several, including in dunes near KG
Moussier’s Redstart: 3-4 ER
Black Wheatear: many in mountains
Desert Wheatear: one male glimpsed in flight near KG
Sardinian Warbler: several at KG
Common Chiffchaff: many at KG
Southern Grey Shrike: several; one studied at KG was of elegans-type (others seen only in passing)
Brown-necked Raven: several KG
Spanish Sparrow: several KG
Desert Sparrow: 1 in palm in oasis KG
Greenfinch: several at M
Trumpeter Finch: 1 at M
House Bunting: several at towns e.g. Berber village ER

26 December: Ksar Ghilane (KG) to Gafsa (G) via Matmata (M).

Common Kestrel: 1 KG
Rock Pigeon: flock near KG, appeared to all be wild type
Collared Dove: KG
Laughing Dove: KG
Eurasian Hoopoe: near KG
Crested Lark: many en route to G, some clearly showing rufous underwings. Most not checked carefully.
Hoopoe Lark: 2 seen will, 2 others glimpsed
White Wagtail: several especially in dunes near edge
Desert Wagtail: several especially in dunes near edge
Desert Wheatear: 3 males near KG
White-crowned Wheatear: 1-2 KG
Black Wheatear: 1 near M
Stonechat: few near KG
Sardinian Warbler: several KG
Chiffchaff: several KG
Southern Grey Shrike: several en route
Brown-necked Raven: several KG including out in dunes
Spanish Sparrow: many KG
Desert Sparrow: c. 15-20 KG, in dunes in front of camels well out into dunes. What a great bird! Sweet varied lark-like calls, beautiful soft fluffy plumage and rounded shape. White edgings to tail feathers show well in flight.

27 December: Gafsa (G) to Seldja Gorge (SG), then Tozeur area (T) and north end of Chott el Djerid, then to Sbeitla

Long-legged Buzzard: 1 near G
Common Kestrel: 1 near G
Rock Pigeon
Laughing Dove
Eurasian Hoopoe
Crested/Thekla Lark: abundant, most not distinguished but some the former
Desert Lark: several SG
Crag Martin: 1 SG
White Wagtail: several
Moussier’s Redstart: several SG
Desert Wheatear: several SG
Mourning Wheatear: 2-3 males SG
White-crowned Wheatear: several SG including 2 white-crowned
Black Wheatear: 2-3 SG, broad black tail band seen well
Red-rumped Wheatear: pair half way from G to SB
Stonechat: SG
Redwing: 1 SG
Sardinian Warbler: 2-3 SG
Spectacled Warbler: 1 male SG
Southern Grey Shrike: few
Common Starling: very large flock in distance, presumed to be this but not seen well
Spanish Sparrow
Trumpeter Finch: 1 SG
House Bunting: 1 T

28 December: Sbeitla to Ain Draham.

Cattle Egret: several ER
Long-legged Buzzard: 1 ER
Common Kestrel: c. 2 ER
Rock Pigeon: several groups
Eurasian Hoopoe: S ruins
Crested Lark: many, most not definitely IDed
White Wagtail: few
Grey Wagtail: 1 ruins at S
Robin: 1 S ruins, several AD
Black Redstart: c.4 S ruins
Moussier’s Redstart: c. 6 S ruins, 2 more ER
Black Wheatear: c. 8 S ruins
Stonechat: few S ruins
Blackbird: several, S ruins and AD
Sardinian Warbler: 1-2 S ruins
Chiffchaff: 1 S ruins, 1 AD
S. Grey Shrike: several, including ruins, ER
Common Raven: 2 AD, flyovers, looked much bigger-billed and more wedge-tailed than Brown-necked Ravens seen earlier
Spotless Starling: many, some at S ruins
Spanish Sparrows: many, esp. at S ruins
Rock Sparrow: several with Greenfinch flock at S ruins
Greenfinch: flock of c.150 at S ruins
Siskin: 4 individuals including 1 male seen very well and close up feeding on roadside near AD, in light mist at c. 4:30 p.m.
Serin: c.3 with Greenfinches at S ruins
House Bunting: c.10 at S ruins

29 December: Ain Draham (AD) to Bulla Regia (BR) and back.

Cattle Egret: several
Sparrowhawk: 1 female by size in flight, AD
Rock Pigeon: several BR
Levaillant’s Woodpecker: 2-4 heard, one glimpsed poorly
Crested Lark: several BR
White Wagtail: few
Robin: several AD
Black Redstart: c.8 BR
Stonechat: 2 BR
Blue Rockthrush: 1 male BR
Mistle Thrush: several in flight and heard, AD
Blackbird: few AD
Blackcap: 1 male, 1 female below fog line AD
Sardinian Warbler: 1 AD
Chiffchaff: 2-3 AD, 1-2 BR
Goldcrest: 1 female AD in a.m., with tit flock
Firecrest: 1 male AD in p.m., with creeper
Great Tit: few in mixed flock
Coal Tit: several in mixed flocks, much yellow cheeks than shown in Mullarney et al. Quite bright yellow, more so that Great Tit
Blue Tit (African): 1 AD in p.m., alone in heath
Short-toed Treecreeper: 2 AD, in separate flocks
Southern Grey Shrike: few in open areas
Eurasian Jay: 2 AD in flight, very distinct black-capped, white-cheeked look
Spanish Sparrow: few BP
African Chaffinch: 1 male, 1 female, other probables in flight
Greenfinch: several AD, several BR
Serin: flock of c. 100 BR

30 December: Ain Draham (AD) to Tunis via Tabarka (T), Lac Ichkeul (LI) and Bizerte (B).

Great Cormorant: 1 LI
Cattle Egret: many
Great Egret: 2 LI
Greater Flamingo: large flocks LI
Wigeon: 3 with coots LI
Long-legged Buzzard: 1 near B
Kestrel: 2-3
Coot: hundreds at LI
Little Ringed Plover: 2 at T
Lapwing: c.6 in flock east of T
Greenshank: 1 LI
Black-headed Gull: several T
Slender-billed Gull: Several T
Mediterranean Gull: c.100 T
Yellow-legged Gull: 2-3 T
Sandwich Tern: c.50 T in dense flock with gulls
Rock Pigeon
Laughing Dove: 1 road near Tunis
Levaillant’s Woodpecker: several heard AD and glimpsed. 1 near Hotel Foret responded to playback
Crested/Thekla Lark: several
White Wagtail: many
Stonechat: several
Mistle Thrush: several AD
Blackbird: several
Sardinian Warbler: 1-2 AD
Southern Grey Shrike: several ER
Common Raven: 2-3 AD
Spotless Starling: few
Spanish Sparrow: many