Tunisia and the Cap Bon Peninsula (26th April – 3rd May 2000)

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Hoopoe - Martin Birch

by Dirk Raes

The Belgian ornithological society De Wielewaal organised one of their yearly birding-trips with me as guide. We left Brussels-International for Monastir, Tunisia with some 30 birders. The virtually unknown Cap Bon was this year on our list. The area is not that well known to birders except from Autumn onwards for wintering ducks. Our group left with great anticipation and as you read it, you will see that it was worth it.

After an early-morning flight, we could already see the first birds as we landed: Greater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) in the Salinas of Monastir. During the ensuing bus trip towards Hammamet already a Collared Pratincole (Glareola pratincola) and several Eurasian Hoopoes (Upupa epops) were spotted.

If you decide to go to Hammamet , choose one of the hotels towards the old center. These hotels have nice gardens with a lot of greenery. The new Hammamet-sud area is totally bird-unfriendly. We chose the Hammamet Hotel (very good, situated 100m from the beach, a swimming-pool, extremely good buffet-food, friendly people and above all some nice birds in the garden). New for the group and immediately seen in the hotel garden were Blue Tit of the racial variation ultramarinus (Parus caeruleus ultramarinius) , Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis) , Spotless Starling (Sturnus unicolor) and Common Bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus). These four birds can be seen from your room, in the garden or in the street!

During the morning we took a walk along the beach and spotted the first Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea), several gannets (Morus bassanus) and some fishing Little Terns (Sterna albifrons). During the afternoon we visited the Cultural Center of Hammamet (about 1km towards Hammamet-Center). It has a garden with some trees and scrub looking towards the sea. The area is very nice, calm and very interesting for birds. A quick passing Hobby (Falco subbuteo), A Barbary Dove (Streptopelia roseogrisea risoria) , a Hoopoe (Upupa epops) and - of course - Sardinian Warblers (Sylvia melanocephala) were the most outstanding observations of that day. This arrival was promising !

The next day - the 27th of April - we went to the Soliman lagoon. This lagoon is just north of the village of Soliman, on the north side of Cap Bon. You can enter the area by a small road, leaving the C26 road, at the point where a little beton industrial plant is beside the C26. This road brings you along gardens and later towards the lagoon. During the preparation of this trip (March 2000) I saw two Black-Shouldered Kites (Elanus caeruleus) in this area but, unfortunately, not this time. The wind was probably the reason, indeed a 50km/hr was very disturbing that day. Sure we lost a lot of observations, not pleasant for a guide either. Anyway the best sightings were extremely good views of Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus), Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea), Little Stint (Calidris minuta), Calandra Lark (Melanocorypha calandra), Fan-tailed Warbler (Cisticola juncidis), Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor algeriensis) and a probable Trumpeter Finch (Bucanetes githagineus). Most remarkable were the migration of 42 Honey Buzzards (Pernis apivorus), 1 Black Kite (Milvus nigrans) and 135 Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber). Worth mentioning for the site is 11 Marbled Ducks (Marmaronetta angustirostris) and Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia). As already said, the wind had an negative effect on our bird-list. The guide was starting to panic !

Friday the 28th of April , some wind but also some rain, not ideal for visiting El Haouaria at the end of Cap Bon. Our local guide wanted the group to visit the local tourist area for ceramics and textiles, but with me as group-guide he had difficulty. We were not here to bird ceramics and so probably gone was his pocket-money. Up to El Haouaria with a superb visit to Les Grottes and good views over the sea. Within an hour or so some 180 Honey Buzzards (Pernis apivorus), 1 Black Kite (Milvus migrans) and 1 Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) - this is the famous migration at Cap Bon. Then a state of panic in the group - where to look first: Lanner Falcon (Falco biarmicus) or Barbary Falcon (Falco pelegrinoides) or Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) [still under question!], Moussier’s Redstart (Phoenicurus moussieri), Blue Rock Trush (Monticola solitarius), Pied Wheatear (Oenanthe pleschanka) and Little Owl - race lilith (Athene noctua). Great moments.

We took the lunch in the restaurant Les Grottes, from where the Moussier’s Redstart (Phoenicurus moussieri) was still showing. The afternoon, however, didn’t bring us anything better. Back to Hammamet, a nice day but again due to the weather not the "big list".

Saturday 29th of April , a major weather improvement and a visit towards Zaghouan, west/south-west of Hammamet and also towards the mountains. But before you should visit the new dam/barrage of Oued Rmel. To arrive at the best place, just continue along the road towards Zaghouan , after a village called Bouachir turn right into the C35 road and at the small bridge just wait ! This place and its direct surroundings are very productive. From the bridge we saw Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus), Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) and Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis). Everywhere Little Egrets (Egretta garzetta) and migration of White Stork (Ciconia ciconia). Also more Geater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) and several Gull-billed Terns (Sterna nilotica), Whiskered Terns (Chlidonias hybridus) and Black Terns (Chlidonias niger). Different species of waders and plovers and regular Collared Pratincole (Glareola pratincola) hawking over the water. A Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) and a group of Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) passed by. Just before leaving a couple of Marbled Ducks (Marmaronetta angustirostris) were feeding along the edge of the reeds. The place is just great, we’ll be back !

For lunch we went to Zaghouan, more specifically Le Temple des Eaux. This place, at the foot of the mountains was an old Roman Nymphaeum. Take your picnic, sit down at the little restaurant, order a drink and then try to eat. Impossible, too much to see: Red Kite (Milvus milvus), at least 2 Egyptian Vultures (Neophron percnopterus), 3 Long-legged Buzzards (Buteo rufinus), 4. Booted Eagles (Hieraaetus pennatus), some 12 Kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) hunting like Lesser Kestrel, Peregrine (Falco peregrinus), perhaps as many as 3 male Moussier’s Redstarts (Phoenicurus moussieri).

After this ‘ lunch’ we went for a walk along the road behind the restaurant with most rewarding views of Barbary Partridge (Alectoris barbara). On the way back we stopped near the relicts of a Roman Forum (not mentioned on any map) and apart from the cultural aspect, more birds including Alpine Swift (Apus melba), Bee-eater (Merops apiaster) and Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus).

A family to which we didn’t pay enough attention during the trip were the sparrows of which today we saw Spanish Sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis). Ending this great day on the beach of Hammamet with Mediterranean Shearwater (Puffinus yelkouan) is just great !

Sunday the 30th of April , the last day of the month and very good weather for birding. Salinas of Korba , north of Hammamet and Barrage Lebna, known from its ducks in winter. Wait , read and see !!

The Salinas of Korba are just north of Hammamet direction El Haouaria. You should consider the position of the sun when visiting this place. Just after Korba you can stop along the road and walk between the fields towards this great birding area. A first look brought us some 570 Greater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber). Also a lonely Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) and one Great Egret (Egretta alba) on a dike. A few Shelducks (Tadorna tadorna) and 3 Marbled Ducks (Marmaronetta angustirostris) passed by. On migration were a Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) and one male Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus). Black-winged Stilts (Himantopus himantopus) were everywhere and a beautiful Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus) flew over. All the time about ten Slender-billed Gulls (Larus genei) flew over our head. Going a little bit further along this road , you can stop alongside and walk towards a fishermen's house on the other side of the Salinas and along the beach. In the middle of this road [so also in the middle of the salinas] we continued to add to our list with Gull-billed Tern (Sterna nilotica), Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos), Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola), about 50 Little Stints (Calidris minuta), Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) and "black" Spotted Redshanks (Tringa erythropus). Between all this, some Sandwich Terns (Sterna sandvicensis), Little Terns (Sterna albofrons) and a few Whiskered Terns (Chlidonias hybridus) flew over. In the sky some ten to twelve Collared Pratincoles (Glareola pratincola) were hawking over the water. Several juvenile Great Grey Shrikes (Lanius excubitor algeriensis) were near our picnic place on the beach and also a Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator badius) was present. During the lunch several hundred Swallows (Hirundi rustica) migrated. I have to say that this place was difficult to leave, it was just great.

During the afternoon I brought the group to the Barrage Lebna, a place known in winter for its hundreds of ducks and coots. It’s an agricultural area which is using water from a Barrage, so water in spring could provide birds. But, after such a great birding-morning, I could not promise as much again to the group

Already from the bus -a guide is quite privileged as he is sitting in front - I spotted 2 Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus). Using the microphone to announce this, I never had a group so quick out of my bus. And then the fiesta started: a third Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) appeared; 7 or 8 Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides) together, 30 Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and a Grey Heron (Ardea cinera). A male White-headed Duck (Oxyura leucocephala) was in the reeds. Another male Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus) was on migration, while a flock of Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) came down into a tree. A Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) was – in our opinion- uncommon in this place and a magnificent Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator badius) was sitting about 15m from the group. So as your read this, with birding you never know. Nobody wanted to leave this place, as you can expect.

Monday 5th May: a ‘rest’ day visiting Kairouan, the fourth city of Islam. Beautiful place, worth a visit, high culture and a great place for taking photos. Birders had a great time when they spotted very well Pallid Swift (Apus pallidus) amongst the Common Swift (Apus apus) and this in the Medresse of Kairouan. The little streets and the open-market provided the so necessary change from birding although during the late afternoon we made a ‘quickie birding’ stop along the road. Signpost km. 30 along the road Kairouan-Enfidha is the place-to-be. Just out of the bus over 25 Red-footed Falcons (Falco vespertinus) hunting insects; all ages, males and females, flying low and high - never seen such a spectacle. Apart from a few Stone Curlews (Burhinus oedicnemus), some Black-bellied Sandgrouses (Pterocles orientalis) and a Thekla Lark (Galerida theklae) not special !!!

Today is the 2nd. of May. Yes, we went again to the undiscovered area of the new dam/barrage of Oued Rmel. Remember, wait ! Yes, again the same results. After lunch we went for a walk towards the lake and at about 3pm we spent again about one hour on this magic bridge with a Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) at about 35m in scrub and then flying over. But now the list of that day. Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides), Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and an against-the-sun flying Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) were spotted. The group of 12 Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) and 2 Marbled Ducks (Marmaronetta angustirostris) were the same as some days before. Raptors included Black Kite (Milvus milvus), close views of Egyptian Vulture (Neophron pernopterus), Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus), Long-legged Buzzard (Buteo rufinus), Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus), a couple of Short-toed Eagles (Circaetus gallicus), a Lanner falcon (Falco biarmicus) and a Peregrine (Falco peregrinus). Worth staying on that bridge, isn’t it ! Also worth mentioning were the Gull-billed Terns (Sterna nilotica) feeding in the fields and several Calandra Larks (Melanocorypha calandra). Some Alpine Swifts (Apus melba) passed over. During the picnic a Rufous Bush Chat (Cercotrichas galactotes) came very close, also a Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) and a Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) were next to that famous bridge.

Let me end by giving an impression from the "bridge". Cap Bon and its surroundings, staying in Hammamet, are more than worth a visit. Tunisian people are extremely friendly, our group always felt safe, the hotel was great and of course as you have read, the birding was great.

If you have enjoyed reading this please mail me at dirk.raes@ping.be

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