Lucky sightings of Egypt’s three kingfishers — all in one early morning stroll in Zamalek.
by Richard Hoath
Egypt’s meant to be hot but when I left Cairo on the morning of January 10, the temperature was 9 degrees. When I arrived in London five hours later it was 8 degrees and the touchingly concerned apologized for the low temperature and how I must feel the cold so much. Not all stereotypes work. And then a couple of days into my UK trip it snowed. Snow is not ordinarily on the Egyptian climate agenda although in 2013 Cairo did experience its first snow in over a century. I can remember the photos in the local press of diminutive snowmen in New Cairo gardens. Ordinarily though snow is only regular in Egypt in the mountains of South Sinai. For recent photographs, including the monastery blanketed in white, go to Omar Attum’s excellent Sinai: Landscape and Nature in Egypt’s Wilderness.
Snow in these mountains that rise to over 2,600m is not unusual but again in 2013 the fall was unusually heavy. Dr. John Grainger, former director of the St. Katherine’s Protectorate, once explained to me that snow was especially valuable as a water resource. When rain falls it often runs off, rapidly failing to seep down into the substrate. After a blizzard the snow thaws slowly and percolates the soil with minimal runoff or loss to evaporation. Snow works. Snow’s good. And in South Sinai and elsewhere some of the desert denizens are surprisingly well adapted to it.
Perhaps the camel may be an odd example to choose. The One-humped Camel or Dromedary that is so familiar to us here is synonymous with the desert, with heat and sand and aridity. It is famed as the “Ship of the Desert.” Its single hump is not water as popular belief may have it but fatty tissue that can metabolize, meaning it can survive without food and water for days on end in the most adverse conditions. The Dromedary is not a native Egyptian mammal but came to Egypt probably in late Pharaonic times from the Arabian Peninsula. The Dromedary is today completely extinct as a wild animal and rather incongruously the largest feral population lives in the vastness of Australia’s interior. There is another camel though, the Bactrian Camel of Central and Western Asia. It has two humps and while it is largely known as a domestic animal it still clings on in the wild with a few hundred still extant in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and China. This is cold desert, temperatures sinking well below freezing at night and the Bactrian Camel is thus adapted. The fur is long and shaggy and the animal can survive without water thanks to its ability to metabolize snow. In the mountains of South America the camels’ relatives, the wild Vicuna and Guanaco and the domestic Alpaca and Llama, are all adapted to cold, often freezing, dry environments.
Back in Egypt, smaller on the ungulate scale but nonetheless enormously impressive is the Nubian Ibex. This species of wild goat from the mountains of South Sinai and the Eastern Desert is either a full species Capra nubiana or a subspecies of the Alpine Ibex Capra ibex nubiana of the mountains of Central Europe. Not unlike a large goat in size and form, the Nubian Ibex is up to 90 cm at the shoulder, dun, grizzled brown above and pale below with distinctive black and white markings on the legs. Both sexes sport horns but in old males these are particularly impressive, huge, knobbed, backswept and curved and used in winter as the testosterone-fueled males battle for females and the right to mate.
How the ibex got here is complex. Millions of years ago African antelope-type ancestors expended north into Europe. There with competition with the ancestors of the modern deer they evolved to take advantage of marginal, montane habitat. With the drop in temperature due to successive ice ages these proto-ibexes retreated south to North Africa and on to the Horn of Africa. When the ice retreated once more some tens of thousands of years ago, the ibex populations of northeastern Africa were isolated, the Nubian Ibex of Egypt and, far to the south in the mountains of Ethiopia the distinctive and highly endangered Walia Ibex.
Not all species adapt to snow and ice quite so readily. When I am in England in summer one of the birds I most look forward to seeing is the Common Kingfisher. It is hugely spectacular on a diminutive scale. At barely 15 cm long it is decked out in brilliant shades of blue and iridescent turquoise above, chestnut below and with a white throat and a chisel of a bill. In the male the bill is all dark; in the female the lower mandible is based red. It looks like a king and it fishes and in an English summer it may be found over brooks and burns countrywide discreetly perched on an overhanging bough poised to dive after any minnow or stickleback that dares reveal itself. In winter things change and often the streams freeze over rock solid and kingfisher numbers collapse due to natural causes or to the birds flying south in the face of such cold weather. They look unlikely migrants, so stubby and short winged, but migrate they do and migrate to Egypt they do.
The Common Kingfisher is a winter visitor here and I’ve seen them along the North Coast, in the Delta and by Lake Qaroun in Fayoum. This winter I have not needed to travel far for my kingfishers, indeed no further than Zamalek and the stretch of Nile promenade in front of the Marriott.
In October, I was contacted by the friend of a friend who was a keen naturalist and who had one morning in Cairo and wanted some birds. Given the very tight time constraints I decided on the Gezira Club where, for the price of LE 100 I could definitely find Common Bulbuls, Hoopoes, Graceful Warblers, Common Kestrels, Rose-ringed Parakeets and hopefully a load of migrants and who knows, perhaps Sardinian Warbler and Indian Silverbill. The Indian Silverbill had seemingly returned to India and the Sardinian Warbler to Sardinia and the “loads of migrants” amounted to a female Isabelline Shrike — a great bird but scarcely “loads.”
Not wishing to disappoint I headed out past the croquet lawns to the Zamalek promenade. Many years ago I had seen peregrine Falcons from here hawking for pigeons over the bemasted rooftop of Maspero. Along the promenade are a series of walkways out to the river edge. These are normally locked but one was open to a boat dock. I was immediately rewarded by wittering and hovering Pied Kingfishers. These are the largest bird capable of true hovering flight (as in the New World hummingbirds) rather than windhovering by flying into the oncoming air as in the Common Kestrel. The Pied Kingfisher is stunning in black and white, the underparts white with, in the female one and in the male two, black breastbands.
Then there was a flash of cobalt and chocolate and there, perched on the chrome rail of a moored boat was a Smyrna or White-throated Kingfisher. All kingfishers have dagger-like bills but the Smyrna’s is bigger than most and stands out for being bright crimson. Though a true kingfisher, the Smyrna Kingfisher is one of a group known as the woodland kingfishers of the genus Halcyon as they do not require water and as well as fish eat small reptiles, even mammals and large insects.
And another flash! Of deeper greenish cobalt with a rump and back a flash of turquoise. And so small. The flash had the good grace to land and perch in the open on a rusting hulk of steel, the last remnant of Eiffel’s Bridge. In the early morning winter sun the breast and belly glowed deep chestnut — so warming. A European Kingfisher. A male; the bill was all black. In the female the base of the lower mandible is red.
My guest was from the States. In the US there is (save vagrants) only one species of kingfisher, the chunky Belted Kingfisher. Egypt has three — the Pied, Smyrna and Common and in one early morning stroll in the center of a metropolis of perhaps 22 million humans I had got all three.
Richard Hoath is a Senior Instructor at AUC’s Department of Rhetoric and Composition. He has published extensively about Egypt’s wildlife and fauna.