Skinks are lizards and lizards are reptiles and reptiles do not get good press
One of the advantages of working for an Egyptian-American institution is that I get both Egyptian and American holidays. This month I am lucky. November 20 is El Mawled El Nabawi and I have an Egyptian holiday. November 22 is American Thanksgiving, as always a Thursday. Friday and Saturday are the weekend. My fickle mind worked out that by playing hooky on the 21st I get five days off and I can do something substantive.
That substantive thing is going to Siwa, that oasis in the Western Desert that I have visited many times before and to which I very much look forward to returning. I will be going for the birds and the bees of course and a very special butterfly. I will also be going for skinks.
Skinks are lizards and lizards are reptiles and reptiles do not get good press. But please skink again. Skinks are actually rather beautiful. My first experience with a skink was in an apartment in Garden City where I was flat-sitting. This was 1990. There was a commotion between my then cat, unimaginatively named Oter and a small lump, and a moving, indeed writhing, small lump, beneath a rug. Once the rug was lifted it proved to be an Ocellated Skink, a rather stout, small-limbed lizard strikingly patterned with bold black-rimmed white eyes or ocelli on a beige background. Said skink was gently grabbed much to the chagrin of a very privileged, rescued baladi cat and removed into a neighboring garden. What struck me was not how beautiful the patterning was but just how smooth the lizard was. It was like clasping silk.
There is a reason for this. Many skink species live underground particularly in soft substrate such as sand. This extremely smooth skin allows them to literally swim through that loose sand. The Ocellated Skink is not one of those species but in evolutionary terms it is getting there. I have seen it alive and, in as much as its diminutive limbs can, kicking in Siwa and have a very flat and very deceased specimen from the old fort of Shali. I was presented this by a young lad who had heard that I was interested in wildlife and who wanted to know exactly what it was. It was so very, very flat and so obviously very deceased but I hope my narrative gave some life to it. But I will be looking for three other species of skink in my November visit two of which I have seen before but in Zaranik in North Sinai and one, the Golden Skink, which will be new for me.
The first of these species is called the Sandfish. It is not a fish, it is a skink and hence a lizard but it is aptly named. The Sandfish is robust, perhaps even chunky, with much reduced limbs and around 20cm long which includes a short tail. It is uniformly ochre-beige, paler below and with a series of grey bands across the back. It does literally swim through the sand, as if through sea, ambushing insect prey not from above but from below. Its activity can be traced as the burrows it creates just below the surface collapse as it worms its way through leaving a distinctive trail.
The Audouin’s Sand-skink that I have also seen in Zaranik takes this adaptation even further. It is similar in length to the Sandfish but is much more slender and the limbs are tiny; indeed the forelimbs are vestigial. It lacks the bands of the Sandfish and the ocellations of the Ocellated Skink but is patterned by a series of slender dark stripes along the back. It is often described as snake-like and superficially is but note the limbs, however small, and it blinks. Snakes do not have eyelids. Never try to outstare a snake.
But my skink bucket list (does anyone else, anywhere, ever have a skink bucket list?) for Siwa is topped by the Golden Skink. I’ve never seen it before in the wild and will be looking out for a lizard similar to the Sandfish but much more impressively patterned in bold orange and olive green reticulations and a bright yellow side stripe that becomes particularly bold at the base of the mouth. And it has relatively substantial legs. O for a Golden Skink! A golden fleece with scales.
So to the birds and bees—or rather butterflies. Birds should be aplenty. Although there are smaller bodies of water around Siwa that are fresh, the main lakes such as Birket Zaytun, Birket Siwa and Birket Maraqi are saline but attract a host of wintering wildfowl and waders and also Greater Flamingos. Incidentally wintering Greater Flamingos in Egypt are not particularly pink. Look out for incredibly long and slender necked birds with incredibly long and slender crimson legs. But the rest will be white or at best rose-tinged. When they take flight the black primaries contrast with the deep pink secondaries now exposed. The sharply downcurved bill distinguishes from all heron and egret species.
I have many memories of birds in Siwa. Flocks of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters sweeping over the desert at dusk to the south of the oasis in spring 2014. Or my first ever Subalpine Warblers for Egypt at Birket Shiata in April 2012. The Subalpine should not be called sub-anything. The male is slaty grey above with a rich deep red throat and breast, pale belly and distinct white moustachial stripe. Sub? Ha! And I found my own Wood Warbler. I had seen Wood Warbler before in Egypt at Zaranik but that was found for me. I found this Wood Warbler—it was my Wood Warbler and that is always more rewarding.
Perhaps my favourite birds from Siwa came from way, way back in April 1993 on my very first visit to the oasis in a clapped out Fiat 131 that did actually get there and even more amazingly got back. I found my first ever Spotted Redshank in a small irrigation pool above which hawked Whiskered Terns in newly acquired breeding finery. Both would be heading north to breed in Europe. And I found a small flock of Garganey.
The Garganey is a species of wild duck that migrates through Egypt every spring and fall and I found this flock not far from Cleopatra’s Pool. I was familiar with Garganey flying in over the Mediterranean across Lake Bardawil each October but they were flying quickly and at a distance. In Siwa, almost in the shadow of the Temple of Amun I watched them at rest on the water. The male is a truly stunning bird with a gleaming white eye-stripe that extends down the back of the neck and, perhaps even more strikingly, pale, grey-blue flanks. How my heart stirred for a bird.
And finally to the butterfly and I’ll be making a beeline for the Grass Blue. The Grass Blue Zizina otis, unlike the male Garganey, is unlikely to turn heads. It has a wingspan of under 2cm and is at best a rather dull blue above in the male and duller still in the female. But what marks it out as extraordinary is its distribution. It is found throughout the Pacific Islands, across South Asia and west to Pakistan. And that is it. And then it reappears as an isolated population in Siwa 3000 kilometers from its nearest kin. The only Siwan records are from 1935 and were almost certainly introduced with imported crops. Even so it is going to be worth a stomp through the Siwan alfalfa fields to see if it can be rediscovered.