Tuesday 27 November 2012

Info on movements of Steppe Eagles through Sudan

A recent blog on Rob Tovey's excellent site 'Birding for a Lark' has some information on the movement of Steppe Eagles through Sudan. He has reproduced some information from a recent publication in British Birds showing how birds tracked using satellites were found to cross from Arabia over the straits of Hormuz in the Autumn, then head back to the Red Sea coast and then north to cross back via the Sinai in the spring.
Back in February 2011 Mark Mallalieu posted his sightings of Steppe Eagles moving northwards near Juba in South Sudan, which seems to fit this pattern, as they were heading northwest towards the Red Sea coast (Steppe Eagles on the Move).


Friday 16 November 2012

Quieter this week at the Sunt Forest

I visited the Sunt Forest again this week, with Terry and Chris Wood. There were still plenty of birds about, but certainly fewer that last week. This was particularly the case on the shallow pools beside the road near where you enter, where numbers were much less. One explanation might be that as the White Nile falls it exposes more mud, providing more suitable habitat for waders to feed, though there may be other explanations. The only bird of note on the pools was a Common Redshank; an uncommon species inland in Sudan and not seen the previous week. Other species were similar to last week, though generally in smaller numbers, though 28 Senegal Thick-knees was probably slightly more than on our last visit.

Black-tailed Godwits, Spotted Redshanks, Gargany, Spur-winged Lapwings and 
Yellow Wagtail, Sunt Forest

The forest was drier, allowing us to approach the birds on the flooded fields on the far side more easily. The water now reached up to the edge of the forest allowing us to approach quite closely while still partly concealed. We had seen a few Spotted Redshanks here last week, but this time there was a group of about 30 birds feeding together in a close flock. There were also about 150 Black-tailed Godwits, a few other wader species, and about 50 ducks, including Eurasian Wigeon, Gargany, Common Teal, Northern Pintail, and Northern Shoveler.  Once again, there was little on offer in the forest, though we did have our first sighting here of a couple of African Grey Hornbills. Another notable sighting was of a couple of African Skimmers that flew past along the edge of the river.

Sunday 11 November 2012

First visit of the season to the Sunt Forest

The Sunt Forest is flooded throughout the wet season, so when Terry and I visited on Friday morning we did not know what to expect. As soon as we arrived it was apparent that the water had receded sufficiently for us to do some birding. The water still covered the edges of the forest and it was very muddy in places, but it was possible to enter and walk through much of it, and over the next week or two it will become easier. However, the forest itself is not really the main attraction, but rather the flooded scrapes you pass as you approach the forest. These are very good for a variety of waders, herons and ducks, but they will eventually dry out completely as the Nile falls further. We recorded 16 wader species, with the most interesting being a Broad-billed Sandpiper, which is the first I have seen in Sudan, and a species described as Rare by Nikolaus. There were three Spotted Redshanks, which is another species that is not seen so commonly here. There were also quite a few snipe that we spent a lot of time checking thoroughly, though they all appeared to be Common Snipe.

Broad-billed Sandpiper, Sunt Forest 9th November 2012

Common Snipe, Sunt Forest 9th November 2012

Little Stint, Sunt Forest 9th November 2012

Marsh Sandpiper, Sunt Forest 9th November 2012

This is one of the few sites I know where it is possible to get decent views of ducks. There were several species present, including Eurasian Wigeon, Common Teal, Northern Pintail, Gargany, and Northern Shoveler, but nothing unexpected.

Common Teal, Sunt Forest 9th November 2012

As always, birds called constantly from the trees within the forest, but were hard to locate, and, as always, once located they were mostly Eastern Olivaceous Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats. I know that many interesting species have been recorded in the forest, but I have yet to see much there myself.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Red Sea trip report - by Chris Wood

Red Sea Trip Report
Chris Wood

Over the Eid holiday we went scuba diving on a boat out of Port Sudan. We drove down and back rather than fly and this gave some interesting bird observations but did not allow for any protracted birding.

We stopped for lunch at a dry wadi with culvert under road (lat:17.759930o Long:34.327850o) about 40 km west of Atbara. There were a few scattered thorn bushes on the banks of the wadi and some drying, but still green, short grass. Found Two White Wagtails and a Southern Grey Shrike with a very pale bill, taken to be L.m palldirostris. Interestingly there were a number of dead birds lying about, possibly as many as 10. Most were relatively whole but with missing heads. There was also one intact, but dead, Red-backed Shrike. These birds may have made it to this spot exhausted after crossing the desert, attracted by the bushes and the grassy patch, but found there was both insufficient food or water and simply died there. I suspect that the missing heads may have been caused by rats or other rodents scavenging on the dead birds.

At Haiya we saw the usual Fan-tailed Ravens, Black Kites and a Pied Crow. Also saw 2 Egyptian vultures there on the drive down; on the drive back we saw 4 Egyptian Vultures, including one juvenile. These numbers were down from last year when we saw 14 of these vultures in the vicinity of Haiya.

West of Sinkat the road splits (lat:18.892514o long:36.863329o)into two one-way roads through the mountains. The road runs through a steep-sided rocky gorge most of the way with little in the way of vegetation.  Driving through late in the afternoon we recorded two 4-banded Sandgrouse and 3 White-crowned (Black) Wheatear.

The next day we joined the boat and set off for 4 days at sea. Throughout the trip we had various northern migrants landing on the boat often looking to be in a state of exhaustion and presumably many of these would not have made it to land. One Barn Swallow that landed on the boat at dusk died during the night. On several occasions I saw barn swallows drinking from the sea – it was very calm for most of the voyage.

Common Redstart, Red Sea October 2012

One sighting of especial interest was an owl! I had just come back from a dive when we all saw an owl circling the boat as we were setting off to the next dive site. I did not have a camera on deck but had a good sight of the owl as it circled the boat and then followed in our wake about 50 metres back from us. This was about 3.00pm. The crew said they regularly see owls at sea where they (the owls) catch fish. They said that the owls “live on the lighthouses”. It was difficult to be certain of an ID without a photograph, but the size, colour suggested that it was a Pel’s  Fishing Owl.  Nikolaus does record the Pel’s as “rare, possibly overlooked. It has also been recorded elsewhere in mangrove swamps.  It has been suggested to me that this could have been a Short-eared Owl, but, although this makes more sense, they have been recorded crossing the Red Sea and settling on ships in the Red Sea, the colour and size seemed wrong. But possibly this was an artifact of the bright afternoon light reflected back off the sea. Any other suggestions from readers would be welcome.

On the return drive back we stopped overnight at the hotel at Erkowit. With all the watering in the garden it was a little green oasis that attracted a small number of birds. We recorded  Crested Larks, Blackcaps, White wagtails and Red-throated Pipits.  In the lookout point at the end of the dirt road we recorded 2 more White-crowned Wheatears.

Bird List for the trip.

Fan-tailed raven
Black Kite
Egyptian Vulture
Pied crow
Southern Grey Shrike
Red-backed Shrike (dead)
White Wagtails – both on shore and at sea on the boat
4-banded Sandgrouse
White-crowned (Black) Wheatear
Northern Wheatear
Crested Lark
Red-throated Pipit
Gull-billed Tern (just outside Khartoum)
Cattle Egret

On the boat:

Barn swallow
Namaqua Dove
Caspian Tern
Bridled tern
Swift Tern
White-cheeked Tern
White-eyed Gull
Willow Warbler
Lesser Whitethroat
Sedge Warbler
European Marsh Warbler
Common Redstart
Striated Heron (in port)
Owl unidentified – possibly Short-eared, possibly Pel’s

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Desert pools on road between Haya and Atbara

The drive back from the Red Sea Hills to Khartoum is long and boring, taking about 10 hours. The dullest stretch is the flat featureless desert that has to be crossed between Haya in the east and Atbara, which is on the Nile. However, 150km before Atbara (at N18 degrees 07.36 - E035 degrees 16.01) I saw three vultures circling and got out to identify them. I then spotted some others sitting nearby and went over to see if there was a carcass they were feeding on. I could not see a carcass, but found a couple of pools of water that are not visible from the road. It looks as though they have been dug deliberately, though it was hard to tell if they would hold water all year, as some others were dry. There were quite a lot of Lappet-faced Vultures here, plus some Ruppell's Vultures and a couple of Eurasian Griffon Vultures. There was also a Steppe Eagle and some passerines. There was not time to check the passerines properly, but they included Red-throated Pipit, Ortolan Bunting, Chiffchaff and Short-toed Lark. This might be a site worth checking on future crossings, especially as there is precious little else to look at round there.

Lappet-faced Vulture, pools between Atbara and Haya 1st November 2012

Ruppell's Vulture, pools between Atbara and Haya 1st November 2012

Eurasian Griffon Vulture, pools between Atbara and Haya 1st November 2012

Ruppell's and Lappet-faced Vultures, pools between Atbara and Haya 1st November 2012

Steppe Eagle, pools between Atbara and Haya 1st November 2012

Ortolan Bunting, pools between Atbara and Haya 1st November 2012

A return visit to Erkowit

On our way back from Port Sudan we stopped off for one night in Erkowit (or Arkowit) in the Red Sea Hills. When I visited 16 months ago with my brother we had to stay in an old and very basic hotel with no food and unwashed sheets. I am pleased to say that since then they have completed the Jebel Alsit Resort jabelalsitresort.com, which was under construction when I last visited. The hotel offers good quality rooms and food at a reasonable price, making this a much easier place to visit than it was before. Rooms start at 150 SDG, with several other options available. The 4 of us stayed in a very nice suite with two bedrooms and a large living room with cable TV for 400 SDG. They have also improved the road to Erkowit from the main highway, and it is now paved all the way. The turn off to Erkowit is the small village of Summit (or Samad) which lies a few km south of Sinkat. It is the only major paved turn-off, so it is hard to miss. It takes about 40 minutes to reach Erkowit and the Jebel Alsit is difficult to miss as you enter the 'town'.

I only had a short time in the field for birding and could't travel far from the hotel. For both of my brief trips I headed west to one of the valleys that heads down from the main plateau on which the town is located. As in my last visit, there were plenty of Abyssinian White-eyes around, though none posed for the camera. Best bird here was either a Persian or Kurdish Wheatear, which I hope to be able to identify properly from photos. I have seen a couple before near Sabaloka and have had similar problems in pinning them down to species. The bird had no white in the tail, suggesting Persian, but young Kurdish Wheatears do not have this either. The large amounts of rufous on the vent suggest it might be a Kurdish. I would welcome suggestions from anyone familiar with these species.

Kurdish or Persian Wheater, Erkowit 1st November 2012

Kurdish or Persian Wheater, Erkowit 1st November 2012

Kurdish or Persian Wheater, Erkowit 1st November 2012

Kurdish or Persian Wheater, Erkowit 1st November 2012

Otherwise it was surprisingly quiet in the valley, which holds a lot more vegetation and rocky cover than the open plateau. There were lots of Blackcaps, some Chiffchaffs and a Lesser Whitethroat, plus a couple of Red-backed Shrikes and an Isabelline Shrike.

Isabelline Shrike, Erkowit 1st November 2012

There were more birds in the open areas in the village and in the garden of the hotel, with some Tawny, Red-throated and Tree Pipits, some Short-toed Larks, some Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, some Spotted Flycatchers, a Desert Wheatear and a Southern Grey Shrike. There were also the typical resident species such as Fan-tailed Raven, Rock Martin, Crested Lark, and Blackstart.

Tawny Pipit, Erkowit 31st October 2012

Tree Pipit, Erkowit 31st October 2012

Fan-tailed Raven, Erkowit 1st November 2012

Spotted Flycatcher, Erkowit 31st October 2012

Tuesday 6 November 2012

A visit to the Red Sea Resort

Just after the Eid festival I drove up to Port Sudan with my family. We spent 4 nights at the Red Sea Resort, which lies about 30km north of Port Sudan www.sudanredsearesort.com/. Apparently this place has been open for several years, but I had not heard of it previously. It is in a nice location on the beach and beside a shallow lagoon. There is also some acacia scrub than can be birded within walking distance.

The Red Sea Resort viewed from across the lagoon.

The resort is well run by a local family that have spent much of their time in Europe and are familiar with what western tourists want. They are expanding rapidly and undoubtedly this will become a major location for visitors to the region. However, they still have a number of problems to deal with, the biggest being the water supply, which currently is little more than a dribble in one shower in the shared shower block. The food was generally quite good, though there were long waits for orders. Admittedly, this was probably due to the large numbers of day visitors during the holiday following Eid. Apparently, it had been absolutely packed during Eid itself and the staff had been overwhelmed. One of our main reasons to visit was the snorkelling, which was excellent. They hire equipment for snorkelling and diving and have a boat that takes people out, though we found the reef easy to reach by wading out, even for my 5-year-old son. I would certainly recommend this as a place for both birders and non-birders visiting the region. It was very good value at 250 SDG (about $50US) per night including breakfast and evening meal for my wife, my son and I. Our friend Lucy paid 150 SDG per night for a chalet of her own. They are in the process of building some new chalets that will have private bathrooms, but they will need to sort out their water supply before they open these for visitors.

Shorebirds were the main attraction and there were plenty available in the shallow waters around the site. There were lots of Greater Sand Plovers and plenty of Kentish Plovers. Redshank, Greenshank, Terek Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones were also common, plus there were a few Marsh Sandpipers and Eurasian Curlews. Given the habitat, I was surprised not to see a single Calidris Sandpiper.

Greater Sand Plovers, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

Kentish Plover, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

Common Greenshank, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

Common Redshank, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

Terek Sandpiper, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

There were several gull and tern species present, though never in large numbers with occasional individuals or small groups moving through from time to time. Most common were the Caspian Terns, plus there were several sightings of Saunders Terns, Lesser Crested Terns, Slender-billed Gulls and Sooty Gulls.

Caspian Tern, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

Lesser-crested Tern, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

Slender-billed Gull, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

A couple of Greater Flamingoes were regular visitors to the lagoon, plus there were regular herons present, mainly Western Reef Herons, Little Egrets, Cattle Egrets, Grey Herons and Striated Herons. A group of Black-crowned Night-Herons was seen flying around on several occasions.

Black-crowned Night-Herons, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

Pale Western Reef Heron, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

Typical dark phase Western Reef Heron, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

There were migrants still moving along the coast and many were stopping off briefly at the resort or on the nearby beach. A Common Quail landed in the car park before taking off again and heading south. Other migrants around the grounds included Red-throated pipits, a Tree Pipit, White Wagtails and Red-backed Shrikes. On the beach nearby there were a number of Stonechats, Common Redstarts and a European Nightjar. A short walk inland to the acacia scrub produced more migrants and some interesting local birds. Another nightjar seen here was an Egyptian Nightjar flushed from under a bush. It was hard to get good views of any of the small passerines, but there were several Menetries Warblers, Blackcaps and Willow Warblers. The best bird for me was my first ever sighting of Rosy-patched Bush-Shrikes.

European Nightjar, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

Egyptian Nightjar, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

Red-backed Shrike, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

Rosy-patched Bush-Shrike, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

There were some Brown-necked Ravens around plus a few raptors. Several Ospreys were regularly fishing in the lagoon and a Pallid Harrier was seen feeding over the beach. A compact-looking raptor that made several visits to the resort appeared to have a brown nape patch, suggesting a possible Barbary Falcon. Nikolaus does not include any records for the Red Sea area, but it seems quite possible here. Unfortunately, I was unable to get any photos or prolonged views to confirm it.

Brown-necked Raven, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

Osprey, Red Sea Resort 28-31 October 2012

Sunday 4 November 2012

Sudan's first bird field guide - from 2000 years ago!

On a recent trip up to Port Sudan we stopped off at the Meroe pyramids, near Shendi. I was interested to see that one of the smaller pyramids had a number of carvings of birds, surely the first guide to Sudan's birds and pre-dating Cave and MacDonald by more than 2000 years. According to Wikipedia, Meroe was the capital of the kingdom of Kush and spanned the period from 800BC to 350AD. One set of carvings showed what were clearly some type of water bird. They are not easy to identify, but could be ducks or cormorants.

Waterbird carving, Meroe pyramid

Waterbird carving, Meroe pyramid

Several large land birds are also shown, but they are equally difficult to identify. One seems to look a bit like a chicken, which would have been present in the Nile Valley at this time. Perhaps one of the others might be a bustard, which would probably have been quite numerous back then and hunted quite commonly.

Landbird carving, Meroe pyramid

Possibly a carving of a chicken, Meroe pyramid

Landbird carving, Meroe pyramid

If anyone has any better ideas of the identification, of knowledge of carvings from other local sites, I would be interested in hearing about them.

A late report from Jebel Aulia in October

A late report from a trip to Jebel Aulia on October 12th with Stephen, Terry and Julie. I have been a bit busy lately to keep up with reports, and I am now even more behind after a trip to Port Sudan during Eid, plus I still have a number of reports to post from Peter Dare's time here in the 1950s and 60s. I had some troubles with my camera, so Julie is to thank for most of these photos. We visited a location a little further south than I have visited before, though Stephen and Julie were both familiar with the site. The birding was quite good and there were a number of interesting migrants around.  Bird of the day was probably a Great-spotted Cuckoo, but other migrants included Barred Warblers and Orphean Warblers that were difficult to see well, plus Golden Orioles, lots of Willow Warblers, some Lesser Whitethroats, some Yellow Wagtails, a Black-eared Wheatear and lots of Sand Martins.

Great Spotted Cuckoo, Jebel Aulia 12th October 2012

Willow Warbler, Jebel Aulia 12th October 2012

Young Yellow Wagtail, Jebel Aulia 12th October 2012

On our previous visit here we had seen visible southerly migration of European Turtle Doves flying overhead. This time, there were plenty hanging around in the trees. One looked particularly interesting as it was very similar to a Dusky Turtle Dove, a species found no closer than the southern parts of South Sudan and with no records in the new boundaries of Sudan. The photos below show the odd coloration and one shows it sitting near a typical European Turtle Dove. Although it looked quite good for a Dusky Turtle Dove, I was suspicious that it was with migrant European Turtle Doves, making me suspect it might be an aberrant bird. Dusky Turtle Doves generally show less rufous coloration on the coverts, but lots on the tertials. This bird showed fairly equal distribution of the rufous feather edgings, but some photos of Dusky Turtle Doves on the internet also showed this feature. Dusky Turtle Doves should show a dark neck patch, while this bird only showed a few faint dark streaks on a dark grey background. Again, this is not typical for Dusky, but some birds show it. After a discussion on Birdforum (www.birdforum.net/) it soon became clear that it was in fact a dark atypical European Turtle Dove. The two clinching features were the size comparison (Dusky is bigger than European) and the primary projection (Dusky, being a non-migrant has much shorter primaries). It was an interesting find, because if I had seen this bird on its own and a bit further south, or without the chance for photos, I could easily have claimed it as a Dusky.

Dark European Turtle Dove, Jebel Aulia 12th October 2012

Typical (left) and dark (right) European Turtle Doves,
Jebel Aulia 12th October 2012

There were surprisingly few waterbirds about, other than the usual herons and egrets. We saw no gulls or terns and the only waders were Spur-winged Lapwings and a couple of Common Sandpipers.

Cattle Egret with mantis, Jebel Aulia 12th October 2012

Cricket Warbler, Jebel Aulia 12th October 2012