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An Early Start

Cooler weather in Europe may bring the birds and the butterflies to Egypt sooner than expected
By Richard Hoath

Anyone interested in wildlife movements in Egypt in fall needs to look at what is happening in Europe right now. This fall appears to be falling early up north. Already in the UK there are reports of hazel trees bearing nuts, beeches bearing mast and hawthorns haws. Holly is in full berry, the clumps of brilliant scarlet fruit a very early sign of Christmas – though not as early as the displays in some supermarkets. And Blackbirds have started to stop singing, nuptial duties complete.
This all has implications for Egypt. Given an early fall in Europe, migrants might start to appear just that bit earlier here, either passing through or coming here to spend a relatively balmy winter. And migrants does not just mean birds. Some insect species too are migratory and none more so than certain butterflies. Many aficionados of Discovery Channel may be familiar with the incredible migration of Monarch butterflies, a close relative and similar in appearance to Egypt’s Plain Tiger, from breeding grounds across the United States to wintering roosts in the forests of Mexico where they coat the trees in their multiple millions. And each year there are reports of off-course individuals appearing in Western Europe after having — quite incredibly for a butterfly — crossed the Atlantic.

One butterfly I will be looking out for here earlier than usual is the Clouded Yellow. This species has a wingspan of around 5cm and the male is largely orange yellow with broad dark borders to the wings and a prominent black spot on each forewing (the female African Migrant is similarly orange yellow but lacks the dark borders). The female is similar, though often paler. It is a highly migratory species spreading from southern wintering grounds across Europe and west to the UK, where this year there have been unprecedented numbers recorded. They will have bred there, and come fall, the new generations will retreat south. Because of the early fall and because of the bumper year, perhaps we will be seeing Clouded Yellows in larger numbers and rather sooner than usual. Look out for them in any area of farmland, especially where alfalfa is grown. Fortunately, unlike the common all-white Small White, the Clouded Yellow is not considered an agricultural pest.

But the king, or perhaps queen would be more appropriate, of lepidopteran migrants is the Painted Lady. This species has a wingspan of up to 6cm and is intricately marbled in black, browns, oranges and white. It is one of the few animal species in Egypt which one can truthfully say could turn up anywhere and, going by the records, at any time, though reportedly less common in the hottest months.

Just how far the wanderings of this species go is evident in my journal from a 2008 trip I made to the Gilf Kebir in the southwest of Egypt. For those unfamiliar with the Gilf, this cliff-bounded massif is one of the driest, hottest and most inhospitable parts of not just Egypt but of the world. It was just across the border in southern Libya that the highest-ever shade temperature of 58 degrees centigrade was recorded in 1922. It is virtually devoid of vegetation save for the most hardy, stunted and dry thorns. And there is no water. A small group of us had spent the very early morning sketching and photographing the ancient rock paintings at the Mestakawi-Foggini Cave, paintings some 10,000 years old from a time when the climate was far cooler and wetter.

We then walked south exploring the side wadis. It is perhaps one of the few areas I have visited that is devoid of birds. Not even the White-crowned Black Wheatear, an almost constant companion in rocky deserts, was in attendance. And then from nowhere a pair of Painted Ladies appeared fluttering erratically through the air to settle on some nearby rocks. As I wrote at the time:
What on Earth are they doing here? Where did they come from and is this a one-way trip for them, or will they survive to breed somewhere? It is intriguing, as is the evidence of any life here.

A slightly similar and closely related species, the Red Admiral also occurs as a migrant in Egypt. It is a handsome butterfly similar in size to the Painted Lady but much more boldly patterned: matte black with a brilliant scarlet border on each hindwing and band on each forewing, the latter blotched with strikingly contrasting white. It is largely restricted to agricultural areas in the north of the country and also in South Sinai. I recorded the species in Siwa this April.

Of course when people think of migration, they think primarily of birds. In avian terms the fall migration really begins in August, and one of the earliest migrants is the Common Swift. Swifts are the most aerial of birds and the Common Swift is built for flight ­— and flight at speed. It is 16cm long with an aerodynamically slender body and long scythe-like wings with a span of 44cm. The tail is deeply forked but often appears as a single point when seen in flight, and swifts are only ever seen in flight. Like virtually every swift species — and there are many — it is drably plumaged in dark brown, relieved only by small pale patch on the throat. It will be passing through Egypt from mid August but may be moving through a little earlier this year. It is very similar to the resident Pallid Swift but generally darker with a smaller whitish throat.

Another early migrant is the Common Cuckoo. The male and some females are handsome birds superficially similar to Eurasian Sparrowhawks decked out above in rather pale grey and boldly barred below. In the female a brown phase appears that is largely barred brown above, paler below. The juvenile is similar but has a distinct white patch on the nape. The Common Cuckoo can appear as early as mid-August with adults passing through first and first-year birds following later. This is because the adult Common Cuckoo is a brood parasite. On its northern breeding grounds, the pairs will mate and then the female will lay her eggs in the nests of other birds, generally small warblers, pipits and chats. The parent cuckoos play no part in rearing their young whatsoever, that role being left to the unwitting foster parents.

One other species of “true” cuckoo occurs in Egypt (I am not including the distinctive Senegal Coucal). This is the Great Spotted Cuckoo. It breeds here very rarely along the Nile Valley, the latest confirmed records being from 1970. However, I know of one anecdotal record from Aswan in the 1990s where the host species was the Hooded Crow. The Great Spotted Cuckoo is bulky and long-tailed, 40cm long, pale below and dark above, heavily spotted with white. The adult sports a pale grey crest. The juvenile is similar but with a dark crest and a bright chestnut patch on the wings.

I have never seen the Great Spotted Cuckoo in Egypt — at least not alive. On a 2009 trip to the Gilf Kebir, our expedition stopped off in the middle of the Great Sand Sea. The desiccated bodies of migratory birds not up to the challenge of crossing the Sahara are liberally scattered over the remoter areas of the Western Desert, and I bent down to pick up the wing of a bird I took from its size and shape to be that of a small raptor. I hit the books back at camp. The dark secondary coverts tipped white and the chestnut primaries were diagnostic. It was a juvenile Great Spotted Cuckoo. This would have been its first migration. Sadly it also proved to be its last.

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