A midsummer kayaking trip on the Nile yields a surprising number of different bird species.
by Richard Hoath
I’ve travelled the Nile in a number of different ways. I’ve done Aswan to Esna by felucca and Cairo to Fashn (north of Minya) by a small and eclectic cruise boat. I’ve experienced the posher side with cruises on Lake Nasser and, less posh, travelled by ferry in Sudan. I’ve white-water rafted at Jinja, Uganda, just north of the White Nile’s source at Lake Victoria, and I’ve traversed said lake by canoe and motorboat to and from the Sese Islands in search of the elusive Sitatunga, a spectacularly beautiful semi-aquatic antelope that failed to appear. But I had never kayaked the Nile, not until this summer.
I was contacted by Watter Al-Bahry, formerly of Nature Conservation Egypt and now of Wildlife Masry, his own and splendid initiative. The plan was to birdwatch the Nile by kayak courtesy of Sherif Khedr of the Nile Kayak Club through the Royal Club Mohamed Aly. The date was July 22 and the ‘on water time’ was 7am. That was fine. After three weeks in Vietnam chasing all things furred and feathered, I had been up most mornings before 5am. Seven on the water was no problem.
And so it transpired. Shortly after 7am I was sitting astride a luridly pink-mauve shaft of kayak, double-bladed paddle in hand cleaving the early morning water of Egypt’s greatest river with a dozen other pioneers. Buoyant and buoyed and boy at that time of the morning it felt good. But midsummer. In Cairo. Birds? I need not have worried.
Midsummer in Egypt is not the best time for wildlife, and for birds especially. It is too late for spring migration and too early for fall, and while many bird species breeding in Eurasia come here to spend winter, very few — the Blue-cheeked beeeater and the Rufous Bushchat spring to mind — actually visit Egypt in summer. So it is left to the stalwarts, the residents, to show up and by late July and August most of them are keeping low profiles with breeding done and young fledged. So late summer is not good for birds.
Neither is being in a city of 21 million or so human inhabitants. There is precious little room for us let alone our non-human metropolitans. Urban naturalists exist. One of the most notable is David Lindo from my native London, the self-styled “urban birder” — I am just reading his August piece in Birdwatching magazine Ravenna in northern Italy — but I don’t think he’s done Cairo, and if he has, he won’t have kayaked Cairo.
We, a group of a dozen early birds, paddled out from southern Giza to cruise a series of small, cultivated islands rimmed by Phragmites reeds and clogged by Water Hyacinth. Across the river was the high rise skyline of the Maadi Corniche, while on our western bank the gardens of the bold and beautiful ran plushly down to the river. And the birds showed and showed by midsummer standards in profusion. Little Egrets, Cattle Egrets, Blackcrowned Night Herons, Squacco Herons, a Purple Heron and even a Little Green Heron flaunted themselves. And a little Bittern. Seven heron species in one morning and excellent views too. It very soon became apparent that one of the huge advantages of birdwatching by kayak was the ability to get much closer to the birds. It was possible to see the intricate patterning of the Squacco, so often just beige at a distance, and to marvel at its transformation in flight as the all-white wings gave the impression of a stocky egret.
It was not just the herons. Pied Kingfishers hovered and plummeted all the time, uttering a high-pitched twitter that seemed at odds to their black dagger bills. Then there were Smyrna or Whitethroated Kingfishers, less water-tied and brilliantly turquoise with a stonking great red bill. A Senegal Thick-knee, the karawan, scurried across a boat mooring. Familiar to everyone for its nocturnal orchestrations, a penetrating kvi kvi kvi kvi, it is hard to get good views of this elusive wader with huge, staring yellow eyes — all the better to see you with from the kayak. Its somewhat distant relative, the Spur-winged Plover, was also around, boldly patterned in pale brown, black and white.
There were also birds of prey. A female Kestrel showed well as did a Black-shouldered Kite now properly known as the Black-winged Kite to avoid confusion with a very similar Australian species. This is a common bird of the agricultural Delta and Valley, but I had never seen it so close to the city before. Both sexes are pale dove-gray above with a black patch on the ‘shoulder’ and gleaming white below. But for me it is the eyes that make the BwK. They are blood-red, and boy do they glare. The bird is only some 33cm long but glares well above its weight.
From the reedbeds Clamorous Reed Warblers clamored loudly, but even from a kayak it was hard to get a glimpse of the bird. It is a large warbler, dull uniform brown above and pale below with a substantial straight bill. Graceful Prinias, a much smaller warbler, were also calling, in its case an incessant zitting, and overhead flocks of Barn Swallows, the rusty bellied resident race, and bee-eaters Little Green and Blue-cheeked swooped and soared.
In all, us orni-kayakers picked up nearly 30 species before it started getting seriously hot on the water. However, it was not just the number of species but the quality of the views that counted. This was Al-Bahry’s first kayak outing and proved a great success. As summer wanes and the autumn migrants pass through and the winter visitors arrive, things will get even better. This fall I look forward to Marsh Harriers patrolling the reeds, wings characteristically held in a shallow V and to waders and ducks — who knows perhaps even a rare Marbled Teal. Even in summer we found a female Mallard with three almost fledged young. The kayaks, with their ability to get up close and amongst the tangles of floating vegetation, would seem ideal for spotting the rails and crakes, a notoriously difficult group of wetland birds. There could be Baillon’s Crake or Little or Spotted Crake and Water Rail, all of which have, to date, eluded me in Egypt. They are shy and stick to dense cover, but the kayak allows birding by stealth.
I could very much get into this. If it appeals to you too, contact Wildlife Masry on Facebook at facebook.com/WildlifeMasry. There should also be a trip report and photos to whet your appetite. Do not let recent images from the 2016 Olympics intimidate! While in Rio there were the ultra fit paddling at insane speed or hurtling breakneck fashion through walls of white water, the Olympians were not birdwatching at the same time. For us, no kayak experience is required as basic coaching is given and lifejackets provided. I got back to my apartment at 10am with fresh air in my lungs and 30 bird species under the belt. What a way to start the weekend!
Richard Hoath is a Senior Instructor at AUC’s Department of Rhetoric and Composition. He has published extensively about Egypt’s wildlife and fauna.