Romance is in fine feather amid the olive groves
By Richard Hoath
I have just got back from Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert – four days exploring the old town of Shali, the new town that sprawls around Shali’s crumpling ruins, the palm and olive groves and the desert environs. It is not an oasis in the cartoon sense, a single palm on a lump of sand in an infinite ocean. But it is close. Some 300 kilometers from the nearest town of Marsa Matruh and surrounded on all sides by an ocean of desert, its very remoteness makes it of enormous interest to the naturalist.
I was last there two years ago almost to the day, which makes comparison interesting. That last trip was memorable for my first Subalpine Warbler, not just in Egypt but ever. It was in the tamarisk scrub bordering a lake in the desert west of Siwa. I had long sought the species and eventually found a male resplendent in deep reddish chestnut underparts and with a striking white moustachial stripe skulking in the undergrowth. Further stomping around the lake revealed more males and also the drabber females. A new species is always special.
There were no Subalpine Warblers this time round, but there were other gems. The old town of Shali in the center of modern Siwa is a crumbling edifice of salty mud-brick, kharshiif, abandoned in 1928 after prolonged and extremely rare rain. Today it stands like some Dali-esque edifice over the modern town. Here I found an Ocellated Skink, a deceased lizard but an interesting record. The crumbling walls resemble those of a limestone wadi and the dominant small bird there reflects this. It is the White-crowned Black Wheatear, 17cm of black and white pugnacity, a bird with attitude. The male is as the name describes, all black save for a largely white tail and a white crown. The female and subadults often lack the white crown.
Everywhere in Egypt from the centers of the major cities to the towns and villages of the Delta and Valley the ubiquitous small bird is the House Sparrow. But in Siwa that niche has been adopted by the White-crowned Black Wheatear in the old city and in the new, expanding and unattractive sprawl that surrounds it.
In the countryside the House Sparrow too should be dominant. This time it is usurped by the Olivaceous Warbler. This 13cm species is dull olive brown-green above, paler below with a pale eyestripe and a rather slender, straight bill. Dull and drab and inconspicuous, it is never going to win a beauty contest but boy can it sing. The song is not particularly tuneful but rather a loud, messy tumble of notes — some musical, some jarring. But it fills the air amongst the date palms and olive groves like a Siwan equivalent of elevator music. In modern terms it is the default.
And that is useful. Because once you have your default you can filter through and detect the new and exciting. Filtering through the stochastic chattering of the Olivaceous Warbler was a much more musical, more lyrical tune. Not that of the Common Bulbul, it was even more musical and lyrical than that, but a song that told not just of walks through Zamalek but walks far longer ago in the English countryside. This was the song of the Blackbird Turdus merula, a thrush 25cm long, the male pitch black throughout with a bright yellow bill and eye ring, the female dark but dingier and without that splash of bill and ring. It has never been recorded breeding in Siwa, and yet here I was wandering the farmlands with the air filled with their song at once familiar and yet alien.
According to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), a widely respected benchmark, there are three levels of breeding probability. The first is Possible Breeder, which means the presence of a singing male and the presence within suitable breeding habitat. The males were certainly singing and the habitat, while geographically remote, also ticked the boxes. It could be a first record but Possible Breeder is hardly a headline writer. An atmosphere heady with Turdus testosterone was not enough. More walking, more groundwork was needed.
The second category is Probable Breeding and the criteria are more rigorous. Requirements include “agitated behavior or anxiety calls from adults,” “pair observed in suitable nesting habitat during nesting season” and “permanent territory presumed through registration of territorial behavior.” And the groundwork worked. A second morning stalking the palm groves and working stealthlike amid the olives brought ornithological gold. I witnessed territorial males and heard their calls. I had my ears jarred by the cacaphonic crescendo of Blackbird alarm calls and, at the end of the second day, I witnessed the duller and drabber female alongside a matte black male with that golden bill and orbital ring. Probable Breeding.
The third category Definite Breeding will have to wait for a nest and eggs. But Blackbirds are breeding in Siwa.
Two years ago I had similar evidence of Common Kestrels and Moorhens breeding in Siwa. Both were observed on several occasions on this trip confirming my suspicions – Probable Breeding. It is Spring and in Siwa it seems it has truly sprung.
On my last day I ventured southwest of the oasis to visit Bir Walid, a tiny speck of green in a huge canvas of beige and brown and ochre. The spring, surrounded by limestone and dunes is much more the popular perception of an oasis. The periphery was riddled with myriad tracks of jirds and jerboas and gerbils and of their nemesis Ruppell’s Sand Fox. And the palms, tamarisks and phragmites reedbeds were simply humming with migrant birds. In our in-your-face digital age, monochrome is not popular outside the arty world of contemporary cinema, but here in the desert the black and white of Collared and Pied Flycatchers was simply stunning. I found a female Golden Oriole, gracefully cryptic in lime and lemon and green. A male would have been stunning in brilliant yellow and contrasting black. In a neighboring cold water lake densely fringed by reeds was a solitary male Marsh Harrier and, most unexpected, three Squacco Herons. All are important records.
But Siwa left its best until last. As our group slumped on a dune to watch the sun set, the air cooled and all was well with the world. As the shadows lengthened the air filled with a rich, slightly shrill kripp, kripp, krtpp and from the northeast swept wave after wave of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. They were heading southeast to roost in the reedbeds we had just left. Some will stay here to breed over summer. Most will be heading for breeding grounds in southeastern Europe and further east.
In the pale light of dusk, they passed as silhouettes and my companions were curious to know what these birds were. The bane of travel now became of use. Siwa is no longer an oasis in the age of technology. The mobile phone and WiFi technology pervades even this remotest of places and the supposed wildernesses around. It is a curse. But as night fell and the bee-eaters passed over I could at least use the curse to show my fellow travelers through Google images that far from being a silhouette the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater is a stunning bird in brilliant green with a turquoise and white eyestripe and chestnut throat.
And if the Blue-cheeked is stunning, watch out for the European Bee-eater resplendent in chestnut, turquoise yellow and black over Cairo at the beginning of this month. et