Tunisia 14 – 21 February, 1999
Tour company Airtours out of Gatwick to Monastir, staying at the Hammamet Holiday Village fully inclusive, meals and drink. Cost £249 plus flight supplement £39.
Aim of holiday was to give 15 year old son some quality time with his father just prior to GCSE’s, give him an idea of life in North Africa and combine birdwatching and golf on a championship course. 4 days birdwatching/touring plus 5 rounds of golf was our agreement which we achieved.
The golf course offered birds as well and indeed provided some excellent views of Lanner, very tame Southern Grey Shrikes (must be one of the best places to photograph them, if you can get permission) and marvellous evening views of the returning to roost European Starlings in great numbers. Citrus Golf is just one stop up the motorway to Tunis and offers excellent opportunities with 8 Hoopoes on one tee, watered greens, small lakes and brilliant views. Serins and SG Shrikes constant companions.
Hammamet is well placed for the North Eastern corner of Tunisia. The motorway from Sousse to Tunis is tolled at Hergla in the south – 4 Dinar and is fast and quiet. The other roads are good in the countryside, but often dire and poorly signed in town. Most signs are in English and Arabic. Fuel is cheap, it cost us 35 dinar for 780KM, and readily available as is food. Buy bottled water in 6 packs and it should last a week, although it may get warmer later in the year and consumption may go up. For us it was cool and often overcast with some rain, occasionally heavy.
The driving is interesting, expect to get hooted at, cut up, undertaken and be prepared for the unexpected. Whilst the driving appears aggressive, it is more a short sighted approach to get where ever as quickly as possible than anything personal. Everyone seems to want a lift! I found the people friendly and non alarming, the kids at Sidi Jedidi can be a pain and ask for money, but were not threatening. Use of French is helpful.
The hire car cost £289 and was waiting for me opposite the airport and I was in Hammamet. There is a Budget sign in Hammamet, the Hotels are keen to organise. I chose Holiday Autos as I expect a better car then the locals would offer but got a Peugeot 106 with 130,000KM on the clock. It was serviceable.
Birding started with Barn Owl quartering the car park at the Airport at 20.30.
Started with plans to get the car. We decided on the train as an experience. It was easy once we found which platform as there were no signs. Common Bulbul and distant Long-legged Buzzard were our rewards at the Station. Crane and White Storks plus plenty of larks were really the only highlights of the ride. The yellow taxi at Sousse which tried 3 hotels before finding the right one was more exciting.
The pools along side the road to the airport hold Slender-billed Gull, Avocet , Little Egrets and some waders. Monastir has Med Gulls on the beach, Caspian and Sandwich Terns in the bay. We saw no Swifts what so ever.
We bought Crisps, Biscuits and Bottled Water at a Mini-market in Sousse and then drove back up the coast route as best we could. Set Halk el Menzel was excellent although it was here that I discovered that the telescope I had carried on the train was of little use without the tripod left safely in the cupboard of our hotel room! Osprey, Caspian Tern and Flamingo were easy, but the ducks and waders were really too distant . We stopped to watch a Curlew fly over the road and land to the east of us on a gravel ridge. The flock of roosting birds it joined included at least 4 Stone-curlew.
We drove from here inland towards the motorway over a very flat area of saltpans which were quickly drying out. I guess that the water retreats by many metres a day following the winter rains so every visit and year are likely to be different. We drove on to Enfidaville in search of the elusive Little Swift (from the direction turn left off the main road into the town and then right at the main junction, the tower is shortly on your left) and stood looking skyward briefly. School was out and the streets busy and the sky clear, westerners somewhat stick out and peering heaven ward attracts strange glances. This is only for the brave or groups as the Police station is only yards away!
My son was asleep in the car, time to move on and find the hotel, always easier if you have driven from it and taken notes of how to find it! After a brief panic we were able to collect the tripod and put a few golf clubs in the car and set off to locate the golf course. Well the visit to the driving range may have produced some pretty poor golf, but the birds were excellent with Southern Grey Shrike sitting on your ball basket and 8 Hoopoes together on the practice green and Lanner stirring the ducks off the pools.
Up at dawn to witness one of the largest flocks of European Starling moving south that I have ever seen. Refugees from the cold of central southern Europe and from the notes that I have seen very unusual. As to number of birds 1m plus for certain. The hotel grounds produced the first Tunisian race of Chaffinch which is a delightful bird so different to ours. This was to be a day of golf for my son but was far from birdless with the Lanner again soaring over us, SG Shrikes of the Algerian race and Serins everywhere. Biggest surprise was two Fieldfare, again part of the influx that has been seen in northern Italy this year. By late afternoon large numbers of Starlings were returning north again to roost.
Day trip to Zaghouan. Take road to motorway and continue across. Sidi Jedidi is about 15km from Zaghouan laying close to the road on your right. There is little to see before you get here. Stop at the edge of the town by the barrage. An excellent viewing point in early morning sun. The kids only 2 or 3 are a pain but can be ignored for a while at least. Several Marsh Harries can be seen over the reeds and were carrying nesting material whilst I was there. The number of ducks visible seems to vary and our first was better for numbers than our second. White-headed ducks often roost at the edges of the reeds and it may take several counts to reach a maximum. A male feed right below us before moving off. Ferruginous all appeared to be males, I am sure females are present, there is just too much else to look for. Perhaps the best birds are Black Wheatear on the slope to your right and Moussier’s Redstart any where from behind you to amongst the rocks below and to the right. We had a pair here each time we visited and a male by the side of the road two km further on, but not on the slopes of Zaghouan as we had expected.
To the left is an area of flooded scrub so water levels appeared high. On the mud at the western end were 2 Little Ringed Plovers and Lapwing, but by the time we returned the stream had stopped flowing and they were gone, possibly disturbed by locals and their sheep. We looked at the dump at Hamman Jedidi but it was market day and decided not to stop.
When you reach the T junction at Zaghouan turn right, drive through the town until you see a clock tower in the middle of the street and turn left (west) before this where a large yellow P T &T sign points east (easier to see when you’ve missed it and trying second time around!). Follow the signs to Hotel Nymphes and then Parc Temple des Eaux. Turn right once inside the gate not like us before the gate and ending back where you started. The road is fine and eventually leads high into the mountain to a military sign which forbids you to go further, which is of course the only choice as you can not turn round until you have past it!
The pine woods hold Chaffinch and Crossbill. We had a pair here feeding young. As you get higher with the ridge to your left then you presumably enter the territory of Moussier’s Redstart. We heard song but could see no birds. In fact small birds were hard to see. Soon however Golden Eagle was in sight. We had excellent views of a pair and then later a bird displaying high in the mountain. Blue Rock Thrush was chanced upon. A pair of Long-legged Buzzards were displaying by the Military sign and a Bonelli’s Eagle flew over them high. There was snow on the ground up here.
This is an excellent place and probably more so later in the spring with migration underway.
Brief stop at Sidi Jedidi but fewer birds with more activity by the locals.
Evening visit to the beach at Hammamet producing Gannets, Sandwich Tern, a party of 4 noisy Bulbuls and 4 Fan-tailed Warblers.
Another golf day. Stone Curlew calling from alongside the fairway and Common Buzzard over.
Drive to Cap Bon along the south side of the peninsular. Had missed the market at Hammamet yesterday so called in a Nabeul. Plenty of tourists and local people. Pay no more than a third of the original asking price!
Pools and lagoons start on your right after Ben Khiar. We found it difficult to get near and settled with views through the telescope. Managed to access the beach at Korba and had two little owls by the car on a pile of rocks. With mote time we might have found more waders and perhaps Marbled Teal. At Kelibia we followed the signs to Le Port with large castle above. Pool to the right just before the marina/harbour held 50 Avocet, Little Egret, Black-winged Stilt and a party of Crag Martins. The first I saw was tail less and got the heart pounding. Two White Storks were circling above. On the rocks to the left of the harbour entrance were Cormorant, Lesser Black-backed Gull plus Cory’s and Mediterranean Shearwaters. Jumping tuna was the star surprise.
We then drove north to towards Cap Bon but never succeeded in finding it marked from the main road. By the time we found we had missed the turning it was too late so we continued and took the turning to Menzel Temime looking out for the two lakes. Both are visible from afar but not so easy once you get there. We decided to seek out the damn to the east of the road. The first left turn was muddy so we continued on and took a reasonable side road. Very quickly the road descends to a ford with horrendous pot holes. We decided to draw up short of this and look out over a wet valley with distant Cattle and Little Egrets, Cetti’s Warbler calling and Long-legged Buzzard sitting on a near bush with Lapwings flying around.
We watched the locals thread their way through and after a while decided to follow. I’m glad we did because this road gives excellent views of the lake which was covered in duck including 1 male white headed. Rain precluded better exploration but Barbary Partridge was heard calling and eventually flew away from us exhibiting the dark crown, but leaving me disappointed having expected it to wander into view given time.
We decided to give the other lake a miss due to inclement weather and returned to Hammamet by the same coastal route. At one stop we heard quail calling and saw our only Greenshank in flight.
Back to Cap Bon to look for Black-headed Bush Shrike beyond Menzel Bouzelfa. Just beyond Grombalia at Oued El Gobba we were delighted by a roadside Black-winged Kite hovering and parachuting down into an Orange Grove. Despite several maps I am not 100% convinced that I walked the correct path, but I heard nothing to alert me to their presence. I did however come to terns with the local race of Blue Tit ultramarinus with its’ Great Tit and Crested Tit calls. Having seen Bulbul well in Hammamet we did not explore the other paths.
Having resigned oneself to having to go to Morocco to see it we decided to return to Sidi Jedidi for further views of Moussier’s Redstart and to seek out the Black Wheatear we had missed earlier. It proved to be a good decision finding both quickly and watching them for long periods through the telescope.
The kids returned and were allowed to look through the bins and scope but did not seem keen to pay for the privilege! Black Redstart, White-headed and Ferruginous Ducks and Marsh Harriers completed the day.
Last day, golf in the morning evidenced a fall of Chiffchaffs and moving Meadow Pipits. An afternoon tour of the building sites south of Hammamet once a place to see Barbary Partridge and Larks produced Little Stint and 2 LRP. Out to sea were the usual Gannets and Sandwich Tern.
780 km and 106 species. With a fellow birder and into the migration season with longer days then a 2 day expedition to Douz would be very worthwhile.