Tunisia, January 1997
Northern Africa is situated between two huge natural elements, a sea and a desert, the Mediterranean and the Sahara. Between them, there's the Sahel - the word in Arabian actually meaning coast. We are used to hear it meaning the Sahel zone in Africa south of Sahara, as the "coast of desert", but in Tunisia they mean with Sahel particularly the Mediterranean coast, like Riviera in Italian or Costa del Sol in Spanish. The observations which I'll give are concentrating these two elements, the coast and the desert, due to my falling seriously ill, which prevented us from the planned highlights of our Tunisian trip, Lac Ichkeul (which is probably the best-known bird place of the country) and the mountains. The total number of species I saw remained only 71, but luckily 17 of them were lifers, raising my ESTV (Enumeratio Speciorum Totalis Vitae) i.e. total list of lifers up to 410.
Literature and Such Stuff:
I had the Finnish edition of Lars Jonsson's magnificent book Birds in Europe and I consider it well sufficient; North African conditions are paid well attention in Jonsson's book. For further and more local information I had Birds of the Middle East and North Africa by Hollom, Porter, Christensen and Willis. It's a very good as additional, but not sufficient alone, because it doesn't pay attention on the familiar European species (which, however, form the majority of North African species). It has beautiful colour plates (only of the 'strange' species) and it's informative, accurate and authoritative. The maps are current but show only breeding ranges and are therefore useless in winter. In the English edition of Essential Tunisia by Michael Tomkinson there is a very good introduction into Tunisian nature by Paul Sterry. Read that and you'll learn all the biotopes as well as best-known bird places of the country. Warning to the users of the Finnish edition: the translator has made some little mistakes and even dropped away some chapters, for example that about remaining forests of Tunisian mountains.
If you are a poor student (like me) and if you want to be both economical and ecological by not using a private car, buy a "carte bleue", which allows free travelling on Tunisian railways for a week or more. Already two long trips will pay well back the price.
In inland towns use "taxi louage". It's utile, quick and trustworthy. Also lifting is a good way, easy, brings experiences, but wastes time. We lifted over the Great Salt Desert Chott el Jerid from Kebili to Tozeur in two totally broke-up old Peugeots of some Algerian people coming from Libya and going to Algeria. We had to stop in the middle of the desert, because one of them got a sudden need for praying - so we stopped to a stone desert (a good stop for me in the ornithological sense) and others smoked while the one walked a couple of hundred metres to the desert to pray. After that we had to push the car moving again. Also police checked us thrice on the way in search of drugs and armaments (didn't find them) and I had to explain that it's because of lack of visas, not because of politics or such, that we are not going to come to Algeria with them.
Don't go to North Africa during the Ramadan if you are not a sociologist and student of islamology. You won't find much food outside touristic places and the schedules of trains and buses are very bad during the Ramadan.
Avoid local zoos and bird parks if you love animals, especially birds. Especially hawks, falcons, ravens and such are treated horribly and they are in much too little cages.
The Tunisia List:
English Name NOMEN SCIENTIFICUS suomalainen nimi Little Grebe TACHYBAPTUS RUFICOLLIS pikku-uikku Mediterranean Shearwater PUFFINUS YELKOUAN idänpikkuliitäjä Great Cormorant PHALACROCORAX CARBO merimetso Little Egret EGRETTA GARZETTA silkkihaikara Grey Heron ARDEA CINEREA harmaahaikara (White Stork CICONIA CICONIA kattohaikara) NEST Greater Flamingo PHOENICOPTERUS RUBER flamingo Mallard ANAS PLATYRHYNCHOS sinisorsa Gadwall ANAS STREPERA harmaasorsa Pochard AYTHYA FERINA punasotka Ferrugineous Duck AYTHYA NYROCA ruskosotka Tufted Duck AYTHYA FULIGULA tukkasotka Saharan Long-legged Buzzard BUTEO R. CIRTENSIS 'saharanhiirihaukka' Marsh Harrier CIRCUS AËRUGINOSUS ruskosuohaukka Kestrel FALCO TINNUNCULUS tuulihaukka Crane GRUS GRUS kurki Moorhen GALLINULA CHLOROPUS liejukana Coot FULICA ATRA nokikana Avocette RECURVIROSTRA AVOSETTA avosetti Common Snipe GALLINAGO GALLINAGO taivaanvuohi Curlew NUMENIUS ARQUATA isokuovi Common Sandpiper ACTITIS HYPOLEUCOS rantasipi Wood Sandpiper TRINGA GLAREOLA liro Greenshank TRINGA NEBULARIA valkoviklo Redshank TRINGA TOTANUS punajalkaviklo Little Stint CALIDRIS MINUTA pikkusirri Ringed Plover CHARADRIUS HIATICULA tylli Lesser Ringed Plover CHARADRIUS DUBIUS pikkutylli Kentish Plover CHARADRIUS ALEXANDRINUS mustajalkatylli Yellow-legged Gull LARUS CACHINNANS MICHAHELLIS keltajalkalokki Mediterranean Gull LARUS MELANOCEPHALUS mustanmerenlokki Black-headed Gull LARUS RIDIBUNDUS naurulokki Sandwich Tern THALASSEUS SANDVICENSIS riuttatiira Rock Pigeon COLUMBA L. LIVIA kalliokyyhky Feral Pigeon COLUMBA L. DOMESTICA pulu Palm Dove STREPTOPELIA SENEGALENSIS palmukyyhky Barn Owl TYTO ALBA tornipöllö Hoopoe UPUPA EPOPS harjalintu Lesser Short-toed Lark CALANDRELLA RUFESCENS pikkukiuru (?) Crested Lark GALERIDA CRISTATA töyhtökiuru Thekla Lark GALERIDA THEKLAE kivikkokiuru (?) (House Martin DELICHON URBICA räystäspääsky) NESTS Willow Pipit ANTHUS PRATENSIS niittykirvinen Water Pipit ANTHUS SPINOLETTA vuorikirvinen White Wagtail MOTACILLA ALBA västäräkki Yellow Wagtail MOTACILLA FLAVA keltavästäräkki Grey Wagtail MOTACILLA CINEREA virtavästäräkki Common Bulbul PYCNONOTUS BARBATUS tarhabulbuli Great Grey Shrike Ssp. LANIUS M/E. ALGERIENSIS/ELEGANS isolepinkäinen Blackbird TURDUS MERULA mustarastas Stonechat SAXICOLA TORQUATA mustapäätasku Mourning Wheatear OENANTHE LUGENS surutasku White-crowned Black Wheatear OENANTHE LEUCOPYGA kalottitasku Black Redstart PHOENICURUS OCHRUROS mustaleppälintu Robin ERITHACUS RUBECULA punarinta Fan-tailed Warbler CISTICOLA JUNCIDIS heinäkerttu Blackcap SYLVIA ATRICAPILLA mustapääkerttu Sardinian Warbler SYLVIA MELANOCEPHALA samettipääkerttu Spectacled Warbler SYLVIA CONSPICILLATA pikkupensaskerttu Tristram's Warbler SYLVIA DESERTICOLA atlaskerttu Chiffchaff PHYLLOSCOPUS COLLYBITA tiltaltti African Bluetit PARUS C. ULTRAMARINUS sinitiainen House Sparrow PASSER D. DOMESTICUS varpunen Italian House Sparrow PASSER D. ITALIAE italianvarpunen Spanish Sparrow PASSER HISPANIOLENSIS pajuvarpunen Tree Sparrow PASSER MONTANUS pikkuvarpunen Serin SERINUS SERINUS keltahemppo Goldfinch CARDUELIS CARDUELIS tikli Greenfinch CHLORIS CHLORIS viherpeippo House Bunting EMBERIZA STRIOLATA SAHARAE kyläsirkku Starling STURNUS VULGARIS kottarainen Spotless Starling STURNUS UNICOLOR mustakottarainen Brown-necked Raven CORVUS RUFICOLLIS pronssikorppi
Vicinity of Habitation
After a long history of human cultures there are hardly any virginal coastal areas in Tunisia. In the north you can see both fields and fruit gardens, in the south rows after rows of olive trees. The birds of such areas are like those in cities, towns and villages. The most numerous species seems to be House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), which is worth mentioning, because in these landscapes is its origin as a companion of man. The sparrows are mainly "Italian" type of House Sparrow, having brown cap. I also saw minor amounts of "clean" Spanish Sparrows (P. hispaniolensis) and very few "clean" domesticus type of House Sparrow. In the yard of a hotel in Monastir I saw, recognised and absolutely identified one specimen of Tree Sparrow (P. montanus) which both my books point not breeding in Tunisia. I don't know if it was rarity or escapee, but I didn't see more of them anywhere.
Palm Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis) is extremely common and abundant everywhere, from the cities to the most distant oases of Sahara, and surely belongs to the most common birds of Tunisia. Also Feral Pigeon (Columba livia) is common even in the smallest oasis villages in the desert. The wild form Rock Pigeon was breeding as a colony in an islet off Monastir coast.
Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) was a common predator of habitation. Also the local form of Great Grey Shrike was very common, but more about it later. My real personal highlight was seeing a Barn Owl (Tyto alba) near Sousse - a species which I have always somehow avoided in Europe.
The Starlings are very numerous. The absolute majority of the starlings in the towns of Sousse area and Gabès area were Spotless Starlings (Sturnus unicolor) but in Tunis there were also Common Starlings (St. vulgaris)
From train window I saw huge flocks of starlings, but I don't know which species was more numerous in those flocks. I noted surprisedly that the Spotless Starlings seemed to be having breeding plumage, not the winter plumage (look Jonsson's). Yellow bills, silky plumage with blue hue etc. Does anyone know if for example the resident Spotless Starlings of North Africa have permanent breeding plumage? Tell me how it is.
Other common resident birds of human habitation were Crested Lark (Galerida cristata), Hoopoe (Upupa epops) and Blackbird (Turdus merula). Blackbird is the species mostly resembling the so-called Common Bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus), also known as Pepperbird, which was not common at all! It was not easy to find anywhere and I only surely found it in Tunis. Paul Sterry and others let understand that it would be very common.
Everywhere, as well in human habitation as in wilderness, you can find a lot of European passerines in bushes and trees of yards, gardens, coasts, spiny bushland, macchia and garigue etc. The most common and abundant species was Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala), probably the most common resident warbler of Tunisia. The most numerous of the purely wintering species was Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), which was quiet, but as far as I know it's the only wintering Phylloscopus species in Tunisia. Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) was singing in the Tunis zoo. There are also lots of the following species: Robin (Erithacus rubecula), Stonechat (Saxicola torquata), Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros), Serin (Serinus serinus), Blackbird (Turdus merula), White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). On the coasts there were lots of wintering pipits, mainly Meadow Pipits (Anthus pratensis), but also some Rock Pipits (Anthus spinoletta).
By the way, I think it's a little miracle if Black Redstart doesn't breed in Tunisia. There were lots of them, singing with what resembled territories. The habitats are perfect for the species and there are no competitive species - excluding the endemic Moussier's Redstart (Phoenicurus moussieri) of mountainous areas.
The Coasts and Salt Pools
The sea is feeding more birds. There are lots of gulls, terns and cormorants. The most common gull is Yellow-legged Gull (Larus cachinnans). Also Mediterranean Gull (L. melanocephalus) was common. Black-headed Gull (L. ridibundus) was less numerous and a more focused observer would find Gene's Gull (L. genei) or even Audouin's Gull (L. audouinii) on the lagunes and salt pools. The main species of tern was Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis). Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) was very numerous and I didn't recognise any specimen of Shag (Ph. aristotelis) though Shag should breed in Tunisia, the Great Cormorant being only hang-around bird. In Gabès the cormorants were flocking for nights into the TV tower with hundreds of individuals. Off the coast you may see great flocks of shearwaters. I saw Mediterranean Shearwaters (Puffinus yelkouan) which occurs here as two subspecies, the Eastern (yelkouan) and the Balearic (mauretanicus). Also Cory's Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea) should be available.
The salt pools near almost every coastal city are good places to see lots of waders, ducks, herons, egrets, flamingoes and of course gulls. It's a greatest pity that I couldn't get to Lac Ichkeul, but there's a good place very easily available for every tourist, namely salt pools of Skanes, near international airfield of Habib Bourguiba. The place offers most of the species same as in the better-known places. There were lots of sandpipers, stints, avocettes, curlews, plovers and such birds. Because I didn't have any better optics than my 50-year old normal binoculars, I didn't positively identify all the available species and so I only mention the few main species: Little Stint (Calidris minuta), Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos), Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola), Redshank (Tr. totanus), Greenshank (Tr. nebularia), Avocette (Recurvirostra avosetta), Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula), Lesser Ringed Plover (Ch. dubius) and Kentish Plover (Ch. alexandrinus). I think there were also Knots (Calidris canuta) and Spotted Redshanks (Tringa ochropus) and some others, but I wasn't sure.
The ducks were flocked in certain distant water places all together, but sometimes they were available also in easier places. There were Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), some Gadwalls (A. strepera), lots of Aythya ducks: Tufted Ducks (Aythya fuligula), Pochards (A. ferina) and Ferruginous Ducks (A. nyroca). With the ducks there were Coots (Fulica atra) and Moorhens (Gallinula chloropus).
The most spectacular birds of the salt pools and lagunes were of course the ardeids and flamingoes. Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) was the most common species. There were also Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea). The most spectacular sight were the great flocks of Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) - best sight when ascending or descending as a huge rosy mass, descending or rising sun back of them. Near Gabès I also saw four Cranes (Grus grus) - probably Finnish cranes?
The South - Deserts
It's very recommendable to travel in South Tunisia, although the distances between desert towns are long and you feel all the daytime is passed in different vehicles. Go from Gabès to inland oasis towns, such as Kebili, Tozeur and Douz. Stop in the middle of nowhere and forget the hurry when searching for cautious desert birds. Patience is your best friend. Try different types of desert; rocky, sandy, mountainous, bushy, semi and maybe even the worst of all, the salt desert. When we first time wandered in the middle of grotesque mountains and dry riverbeds, we remembered the StarWars - we even bought the huge camel things, the tourguses, the hooded monk thing, kind of kaftan, which people wear there, which is like those of Obi Wan Kenobi and those little beeping creatures. Later someone told us that the movie was actually filmed there! Not hard to believe.
Anyway, the most abundant desert bird is Crested Lark, or actually Galerida Lark, because my skills are too limited to identify Crested Lark (G. cristata) and Thekla Lark (G. theklae) in field, especially because they don't occur together for comparison. Especially in Northern Africa they are almost impossible to separate. Both are common, but they have different preferences of habitat: Crested prefers human habitation whereas Thekla likes more distant stony deserts and also mountains. By the way, there are 13 species of larks in Tunisia, but at least I didn't see anything but Galeridas, with a couple of single Calandrellas probably being Lesser Short-toed Larks (Calandrella rufescens) because Short-toed (C. brachydactyla) makes movements away from Tunisia in winter - though not entirely. The other lark species are very hard to see outside the time before breeding season.
Another typical group of desert birds are the wheatears. There are seven species of wheatears in Tunisia, but two of them, namely Seebohm's Wheatear (Oënanthe oënanthe seebohmi) and Black-eared Wheatear (O. hispanica) are absent in winter. Of the remaining five full-year resident species I saw two, both in very typical habitat, a drought-up riverbed with some dry grass and big stony banks. First I saw Mourning Wheatear (O. lugens), then twice White-crowned Black Wheatear (O. leucopyga). So three species, Desert (O. deserti), Black (O. leucura) and Red-rumped Wheatear (O. moesta) remained off my list. Let it be mentioned that I first thought a probably young White-crowned Black was a Black, because lacking of the white crown. Be aware of this mistake!
The local subspecies of Southern Great Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis) are very common everywhere in Tunisia. There should be two subspecies, namely the typical NW African subspecies algeriensis and the Saharan subspecies elegans. Jonsson's note that algeriensis's back would be dark grey is either too strong an expression or there are mainly elegans in Tunisia, because all the shrikes had in my opinion quite light grey backs. And Hollom, Porter etc. doesn't show algeriensis's back so dark either. To make the thing even more complicated, Tunisia belongs to the intergrading zone of these two subspecies.
The most common bird of prey in the deserts was Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), which was very common in the oases but even in dry deserts - wintering individuals, I think. I didn't see any Lesser Kestrels (F. naumanni) and even though I searched and particularly wished to see Lanners (F. biarmicus), I didn't see any. It's said to be common - I suspect. Probably they are all caught already as chicks to be pets and hunting falcons, which are very popular in Arab countries. They told me they are badly decreasing because of that. I saw several Saharan Long-legged Buzzards (Buteo rufinus cirtensis) which is sometimes considered as a full species, Buteo cirtensis. It's the only resident buzzard in Tunisia - Steppe Buzzard (Buteo vulpinus) doesn't breed neither winter in Tunisia, so there are no possibilities of mistaking there, like in the east. I saw one Marsh Harrier (Circus aëruginosus) from the train window, too.
On the way via Douz to Zaâfran, the last village in middle South before uninhabited desert, I also saw many Brown-necked Ravens (Corvus ruficollis) which remained only corvid I saw in Tunisia. In the middle of dry desert about on the frontier of provinces of Gabès and Kebili I observed a strange-looking bird flying arrogantly towards west where there was nothing but desert. It was quite a surprise for me to notice that the bird was a Curlew (Numenius arquata).
There were lots of birds in the oases, though mainly not very interesting species. The palms were often totally occupied, absolutely full of birds, mostly sparrows and House Buntings (Emberiza striolata) which was very common in desert towns and villages. All the basic culture birds were common in the oases, because all the major oases are densely inhabited. There were also ponds with wagtails, waders, avocettes, moorhens, Little Grebes (Tachybaptus ruficollis) and some ducks. Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola) and Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) were numerous in Zaâfran oasis.
In a little sandstorm I saw some birds running in the sand near an oasis. I first thought they were some larks or something, but nearer them I noticed they were waders. As I approached, I identified them as Kentish Plovers (Charadrius alexandrinus), and so that cute little plover became my legendary number 400 lifer. Yes, I had seen them in Skanes already and I saw them afterwards as well, but for a lifer I needed an absolutely absolute identification and that was in the desert.
To find "real" desert birds you'd better leave the oases and go to somewhere middle of desert and search in the few bushes. First there seems to be no other life than Galerida larks and little blue beetles. Patience... You will find masses of Galerida Larks, but also masses of warblers. There are Sardinian Warblers (Sylvia melanocephala) and Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita) even in the distant deserts, if there are some bushes. There are also Spectacled Warblers (S. conspicillata) and very nice species, Tristram's Warblers (S. deserticola) which comes also lowland deserts in winter.
[Note added March 1997: After the little discussion with Joan Thompson, I have decided to add to my Tunisia report the following, but still with a little question mark due to the short time which I have possibility to watch this beautiful bird:
Moussier's Redstart (Phoenicurus moussieri) sepelleppälintu: In a bushy desert area south from Zaafran, S Tunisia;
one male seen in and under a bush, before it flew and disappeared. Red breast and stomach, clear white in head. I considered it probable then already, but because I suspected the bird being in southern limits of its wintering range, I didn't mention it in the report. In the same place there were Tristram's and Spectacled Warblers and wintering Chiffchaffs.]
I didn't see Sandgrouse (Pterocles) and also many other birds remained dreams. I checked some oasis ponds but didn't see any Marbled Teals (Marmaronetta angustirostris). Also Fulvous Babblers (Turdoides fulvus) avoided me. Mostly I'm sad of the terrible fever episode which wasted three days and prevented me from both the salt lake trip and from mountain-climbing, which should be a tradition in all my trips and has often brought the most interesting observations. By the way, camel is not the best possible vehicle for bird identification...
Many thanks for my travelling companions, both permanent and temporary. Also some thanks to Willem Pier who had wrote good tips and to Annika Forstén, who forwarded them to me. Also many thanks to Mid-Finland branch of Luonto-Liitto who helped me a bit with photo material expenses for articles and lectures for her use.
For questions, comments and criticism, which all are welcome, please use my personal address