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


  1. Hi Chris. I was on a dive boat during Eid and while we were anchored at Sanganeab lighthouse I did see what I'm certain was an owl circling the boat in the early morning. I do remember it having very dark circles around its eyes so I'd guess it was a Short-eared owl from the pictures I've found on the internet. I just wish I had my camera with me!

  2. Pel's would seem to be a very strange bird to be seen at sea, at 3:00pm! I have seen many of them, always on large, slow-moving rivers (Luangwa, Kafue, Zambvezi, Kavango), and almost always at night (unless disturbed from a day-time roost). They are very distinctive plumage-wise, and surely not mistakable for a Short-eared. I would also be extremely surprised to see a Pel's roosting/ nesting in a lighthouse. Having said that, I have no idea what other Owl would feed at sea. A puzzler!