Egypt Trip Report
29 November to 6 December 1998
Na´ama Bay / Sharm el Sheikh, Southern Sinai, Egypt
Basically a family holiday, so the time available for birding was somewhat limited. On the other hand in Sharm el Sheikh area the known birding spots are reasonably close and no excessive driving is involved. All in all the area has great promise. There is a great deal of development going on with much the same thing happening as in the UAE ( gardens, golf courses etc popping up) and the place is along the same spring raptor highway as Elat (though part of the raptors obviously choosing a more northernly route) and Hurghada possibly having a better location at least during spring migration.
I received assistance from Andrew Grieve and Agris Celmins, who gave details of the logistics and the places worth visiting. The Gosney-guide (Finding Birds in Egypt) is already badly outdated. Also bear in mind that I did not take much effort to see the desert species (having seen the one´s that are possible here repeatedly in UAE and Israel, I will also be heading to Tunisia soon) and avoided, because of the limited time available the longer trips (i.e. St Katherine´s, Wadi Feiran, El Tur etc). I have not written a complete list of the species because of the limited time available at the moment, maybe later.
Day 1 (29.11.):
Flight from Helsinki- Vantaa airport to Ovda, transport from Ovda via Taba to Sharm el Sheikh by bus. No birding (already dark).
Day 2 (30.11.):
Since we got our car from Avis late in the afternoon, most of the morning and the afternoon spent on the hotel grounds ( Hotel Sofitel in Na´ama Bay), which occupy the northern end of the Na´ama Bay Beach. The hotel has a garden area with lawns and small bushes, which held a lot of Chiffchaffs, 2 Bluethroats, 1 Red-throated Pipit and 3 Meadow Pipits. African Rock Martins and Laughing Doves are common. 2 Kestrels frequented the area the whole week. 2 Common and 1 Long-legged Buzzard and a very ragged large dark raptor seen briefly (from the hill the hotel occupies) flying low on the plains north of Na´ama Bay, most likely a juvenile vulture? Around 300 White Storks coming from the mountains in the morning, spending their days close to the Sewage Farm (visible from the hotel grounds) and returning in the evening to the mountains. Snorkeling was wonderful!
Day 3 (1.12.):
At sunrise to the Sewage Farm and the Orchard. The highlights included Crowned Sandgrouses coming around 7-8 AM in small parties of 4-6 birds to drink, a 1st cy Lesser Spotted Eagle hanging around, 1 Water Pipit, 2 Red-throated Pipits, 3 Little Grebes, 1 Marsh Harrier (juv), Squacco Heron 1, Little Egret 1 and Spur-Winged Plover 1. Chiffchaffs and Bluethroats again abundant, White Wagtails, 1 1st winter Yellow Wagtail, Black Kites , 2 Sparrowhawks , 1 Tufted Duck , 1 Shoveler, 2 Pintails, 1 Teal, 1 Mallard, 4 Moorhen, 3 Coots, 2 Redshanks, 1 Wood Sandpiper , 1 Common Sandpiper etc. The White Storks mentioned above very wary and quite a few of them deppressingly oily.
No great surprises. On the way back to the hotel a flock of 50 Spanish Sparrows close to the Gas Station. Crested Larks, 2 Mourning Wheatears and 2 Hooded Wheatears, all of which turned out to be easy to find and common. In the afternoon no active birding, but 4 Long-legged Buzzards coming from the mountains and slowly heading SW in large circles, obviously crossing the Gulf of Suez. Great snorkeling again.
Day 4 (2.12.):
Full day birding. Before breakfast to the Sewage Farm, with no new species, but a very sick Moorhen that let you come as close as you wanted, standing openly in the sand. Dead meat with all the raptors around. After breakfast to Nabq. On the way 10 Brown-necked Ravens by the road (close to the international airport) and a 1st cy Imperial Eagle circling slowly from the mountains to the coast, low right above us. No problems at the gate (but we did´t try to stop close to the military checkpoint). Desert Wheatear 2 after the checkpoint, and the first Sooty Gulls. Greater Sand Plovers 30, were the most common waders, Oystercatchers, Ringed Plovers, Curlews, Redshanks and Greenshanks coming next. 5 Western Reef Herons, one of them dark phase, 2 Spoonbills, 1 Greater Flamingo, 2 Pied Kingfishers, 1 Common Kingfisher and 2 Slender-billed Gulls worth mentioning. 3 Sooty Gulls flying close to us belonged to the coastal highlights. 5-6 Caspian Terns and 2 Ospreys made me feel at home.
More inland Scrub Warbler, the usual Wheatears (Desert , Mourning and Hooded), a surprise male Sardinian Warbler ( close to visitor´s centre, in a place that is said to be good for Cyprus Warbler) and 2 Great Grey Shrikes ( too far away for the race to be determined) worth mentioning.
The place seemed very promising and I would expect it to be swarming with birds during migration. You could not follow the coastline all the way (would have needed a 4 wheel drive) and we chose the inland route back to the hotel, along the Wadi Kid , but the day had passed so quickly and the sunset approaching so rapidly that we had very little time for birding in the wadi - producing thus only 1 black morph Mourning Wheatear, and Desert Larks? 30.
Day 5 (3.12.):
After breakfast to Ras Mohammed on the southernmost tip of the Sinai Peninsula. The checkpoint after Sharm el Sheikh had the 1st White -crowned Black Wheatear of the trip, but there was no possibility of stopping. On the way to the area when startin to come down there are some buildigs on a hill slope to your left, right next to the road (if you go any further, there is a small bay at the foot of that slope). The surroundings of that building were favored by 12 Desert Larks and by a lifer to me, House Bunting, showing off very well. At the bay there were 2 Slender-billed Gulls, a Curlew and a hovering Pied Kingfisher (the place is called The Laboratory by the divers and the National Park -leaflet you receive at the gate).
Near the park gate 1 Great Grey Shrike (pallidirostris) and right after the gate the best beach for gulls and waders in the area facing the Gulf of Suez. I had time to identify 1 Great Black-backed Gull (which I guess is a quite scarce vagrant), a few Black-headed Gulls, Slender-billed Gulls, Common Gulls and Yellow-legged Gulls, and to note much the same coastal species as in Nabq (look above) plus 1 Greenshank when we were chased away by some guards passing by (we blocked the road though surely a full size truck would have had no trouble passing us... seemed more as if they wanted to have at least something to do and say...). 2-3 local Ospreys, 1 Sooty Gull flew past us but sadly no White-eyed nor Great Black-headed Gulls. The White-eyed are supposedly absent in mid winter?
The mangrove channel had a Kingfisher, but the tip was very quiet save for some of the usual Wheatears, but at the main beach above us 3 Common Cranes (2 ad 1juv) turned around and headed back to the north, calling loudly ! To the west of the mangroves there is a shallow bay with yet some more Greater Sand Plovers and 1 white morph Western Reef Heron, but I can only guess what it would be like during migration!
The main attraction here is the underwater though. Best snorkeling I have ever experienced...! There is a 250 meter underwater cliff, the wall of which is covered with corals down to 60 m and you start feeling dizzy all of a sudden when you swim over the top of it, almost fearing that you would fall. In the afternoon the beach was visited by 2 Desert Foxes, that after pouring water into a small crevice in a rock showed very well coming to drink the water offered (you are NOT allowed to feed them). Again this was a place with great promise, but the time was not quite right, and the disturbance caused by the guards left me wondering what it was that I missed.
Day 6 (4.12.):
The last day with a car. Being a family holiday, and since we shared our car with another family, this was the day when the others went shopping. I decided to stay at the hotel and see what raptors I might see from the hill that belongs to the hotel complex we stayed at, it is right at the northern end of Na´ama Bay. One gets a 270 degree view from there and sees most of the mountain range, but the mountains are pretty far away (and so are the birds, if they do not follow the coastline).
From 10 AM to 2 PM I saw: 1 at least 6 cy or + Imperial Eagle circling over the mountains, the first old Imperial I have ever seen, after seeing 20+ young and subads on my previous trips. What a bird! It is also very distinctive, even from far away, and appeared - luckily - quite early with the visibility not disturbed by the heat, I managed to see even details of its plumage (it headed slowly to the northeast, coming a bit closer to the beach). 8 Black Kites and 3 Long-legged Buzzards, one of them black morph and following the coastline passed Na´ama Bay up close and low , heading north (why were most of the raptors heading north? What is up there? A dump?). A few Common Buzzards, but did not spare much effort to them, since most of the time I was distracted by two things. First, almost all the time there were 4-6 Aquila eagles circling over the mountains, but since their plumage was not that distinctive and since they never ventured any closer, I was not able to identify them. I wonder if there are any better places to watch them, accessible by car? And are there any dumps?
The second distraction was one of the highlights (with a sad undertone to it, read further…) of our trip. First I found a lifer, a Lanner (tanypterus, adult, quite unlarge cf let us say a Peregrine, possibly a male??) that circled over Na´ama Bay and showed off very well indeed, then it came closer and perched first on a hilltop behind (north of) me, then stayed allmost all day perched on the cliffs that are part of the beach that belongs to the hotel´s property. I had studied its identification quite a bit beforehand, but had the opportunity to study Forsman´s new, incredible raptor-identification book and check features for prolonged periods of time. Second there actually appeared another falcon, that at first looked like the first one, and I first identified it as a Lanner too, but this time the lumage seemed funny, and it had a very well visible rope hanging from its leg. For example the underparts of its wing did not seem to match with anything I have seen or could find in a rush from Forsman. I subsequently identified it as a probable Lanner x ? hybrid, an escape. It did not stay long. I wondered whether I was actually seeing a couple, and what their offspring might look like.
In the evening we drove to the Sewage Farm once again, this time the Lichtenstein´s Sangrouse in mind (usually accompanied by small numbers of Spotted Sandgrouse). They did come very late, when it was almost fully dark already, and impossible to tell whether there were any Spotted ones there, but some of them came very close indeed at first. I guess we chose as our place the same they normally use for landing. What we did not realize was that the street lamps on the nearby tarmac road would be lighted, so most of the birds we had to observe against the background lights. The lesson is that if you do the same, choose the corner of the sewage ponds that is the closest to the lights and you will see a lot more birds well than we did. Having done the same thing in Eilat Pumping Station I must say that this one won 10-1. The amount of birds was hard to tell, but my wife and I both independently estimated 200- 350 birds, and here we were the only observers, in Eilat it is like being in a busy movie theatre. A Desert Fox (which we had seen already once in the morning in the same place) appeared from somewhere and caught one of the birds (?) causing some panic. All in all, a true highlight. Birds popping up all of a sudden right next to you, out of nothing it seems, calling quietly, and then more and more and more… And what kind of birds… Charm of Sharm indeed.
Day 7 (5.12.):
No active birding and had to leave our car also, but truly great snorkeling, lots of fish in the coral reefs just outside our hotel, the Lanner(”s”) had disappeared.
Day 8 (6.12.):
Early in the morning by bus to Taba Hilton Hotel where we had a late breakfast. On the way the White-crowned Black Wheatear seemed to be anywhere there were camels also, counted 6 on the Egyptian side ( one of them was seen from a slowly moving bus, others on the run). Probably would have seen Desert Warbler too, if I only was in charge of the driving. A few of the more common Wheatears also and a few unidentified larks perched close to the road.
In Taba Tristram´s Grackle, Yellow-vented Bulbul and when we had just crossed the border we saw a couple (i.e. 2) of Bonelli´s Eagles circling from the Egyptian side and heading slowly towards Elat. A soldier in a watchtower got a little nervous at first, then realized what it was we were staring at with binoculars and relaxed. Must be the same regular couple we saw in March 1997 in Elat from the Coral Beach (then a lifer) but this time they were closer.
Once we got to the Israeli side I saw still two more White-crowned Blacks (right next to the place where I think they organize camel trips for tourists) and we heard the news that our plane will be 2-3 hours delayed. Our guide made a sensible decision. We would stop for two hours in Elat.
Taina and I headed straight to the small park next to Hotel Cesar. The moment we came to the top we saw 2 Rufous Bush Robins noisily fighting with each other! A few Blackcaps and Lesser Whitethroats also, when all of a sudden they gave out an alarm note and disappeared: there was a pale morph Booted Eagle hovering above us, it stayed there for the next hour, only disappearing for a few minutes now and then, at the level of the hotel roofs. It missed its left 7th primary and ca2nd secondary ( counted outwards to inwards). Then first one normal and second one dark morph Long-legged Buzzard circled in large circles from NE to SW above us. Then a tricky Spotted Eagle (Aqu pom/cla) flew over us, its plumage was like an adult Greater (cla), very dark with just one crescent, but the wing formula was like Lesser (pom) with quite a short 7th primary. No barring (cf Aqu nip), and no upperparts seen, so best left unidentified. Quite a 70 min or so!
We headed to the beach, saw one Slender-billed, a House Crow and a female Rose-ringed /necked Parakeet. It was Finland´s Independence Day and we were, despite the delay, in a good mood :=))
So what did I miss that should have been there (not counting the species I did not give a try)? Saker, Striated Heron and Steppe Eagle (perhaps some of the unidentified ones were this) first come to mind. Cyprus Warbler would have been nice ( I never found the wadi south of the sewage farm mentioned by A Grieve), as would have been Greater & Lesser Crested Tern, White-eyed Gull, Melanocorypha- Larks, Red-rumped Swallow, Citrine Wagtail, Tawny Pipit, Isabelline Wheatear and Trumpeter Finch. Luckily I have seen most of them more than once. Considering the very limited amount of effort put to it, the limited time and the season I am overall happy with our trip, and recommend the place.
Perhaps, if there were more birders around, the places to watch raptors more closely and more nice spots would be found? I did not visit the golf course, which, I imagine, must have a very strategic location indeed!
It is also true of this place that what is true today might be history tomorrow, with all the development going on.
Last but not least to those of us who are not just bird fanatics… try snorkelling/ diving ;=))
Mikko & Taina Seppänen