Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 October 2009
Issue No. 966
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Grab the binoculars

In reality, a chunk of Egypt's tourism depends on nature: diving in the Red Sea, relaxing on pristine beaches, desert safaris and, more recently, bird watching. Mohamed El-Hebeishy zooms in on the country's two-legged attractions

An Osprey resting on a Mangrove; a grey Heron by the River Nile

Bird watching in Egypt is still in its infancy. And without a doubt, conservation is essential if we are to preserve our unique ecologies and nurture the bird watching tourism market.

The observation of birds for scientific purposes started in the late 1700s, as was evidenced in the work of renowned British ornithologists Thomas Bewick and Gilbert White. However, it is hard to pinpoint when bird watching for recreational reasons began. What we know for certain is that Britain's -- and most probably the world's -- first birding tour company Ornitholidays was established by Lawrence Holloway in 1965. Three years later, the first bird watching publication was issued, a five- page newsletter that sowed the seeds for the entire bird watching branch of literature.

Today, bird watching is fully established with reputable organisations like the American Birding Association and conservation-active Birdlife International. Periodic competitions also take place, like "Big Day" where teams have a 24-hour window to identify as many species as possible. Avid bird watchers turn into field leaders and guide bird watching tours all over the world. Relevant equipment have also witnessed an evolution, including enhanced camera components, binoculars and spotting scopes being designed and manufactured specifically for bird watching purposes. An entire industry is on the rise.

Egypt makes for an ideal bird watching destination since it is an important stop on the Europe-Africa migratory route. Thousands upon thousands of birds make the perilous trip twice every year; they winter in Africa and spend the summer in Europe. Bird stops within Egypt are numerous, but some host the largest concentrations and diversity.

Lake Nasser is a vast man-made water reservoir that was created as a result of the Aswan High Dam. Since the resettlement of Nubians, the area is scarcely populated, making it ideal for wildlife to thrive. In addition to gigantic Nile perch and monster-size Nile crocodiles, the maze-like Lake Nasser is awash with birds.

Taking centre stage, the elegant pink flamingo stands tall on its long slim legs. Flamingos amass around lake shores in the hundreds, giving the landscape a vibrancy and beauty -- a picturesque view you don't want to miss. Egyptian goose is another Lake Nasser specialty, quacking in multi-colours and often seen in pairs on the lake. During the off breading season, and especially during wing moults, the Egyptian goose becomes gregarious and can often be seen in flocks.

The large, long-necked, grey common crane winters in Egypt, and is another common site at Lake Nasser. But more exotic- looking birds are aplenty within the lake's vicinity. During my latest trip, I was mesmerised by the sight of white pelicans basking in the morning sun. Passing through Egypt on their migration route, they are often seen around large water bodies and wetlands. A bird with a mythical aura surrounding it -- the ancients believed that pelicans would lacerate themselves to feed their young ones in time of famine. Though no supporting evidence was ever found, it gave birth to a sacred analogy. In Christianity, the sacrificing bird became an icon for the Passion of Jesus. In mediaeval bestiaries, a pelican in her piety was often portrayed as a symbol for self-sacrifice.

Not far from Egypt's last wildlife frontier, Lake Nasser, is the sleepy town of Aswan. A perfect choice if you are looking for the best winter sunshine and some history while keeping a languid pace. Aswan also offers some unique bird watching opportunities. The Nile islands of Saloga and Ghazal were declared natural protectorates in 1986. In addition to the various plant species recorded on the islands, they both host a community of resident and migratory birds. Among those sighted are the large grey heron, the colourful waterfowl moorhen, and the graceful cormorant.

Not so far south, the long Red Sea coast is dotted with luxurious resorts and five-star hotels as well as birds. White-eyed gull is a Red Sea endemic species, with Egypt holding its second largest population, estimated at 2,500 pairs. Characterised by yellow legs, a dark red bill and a white eye ring, it is a beauty to behold. Colonially breeding on offshore islands of the Red Sea, seeing a whole island swept with white-eyed gull nests is enthralling, to say the least.

The offshore Red Sea islands are not only home to white-eyed gulls, but also host a number of other species including the less colourful sooty gull, the excellent hunter at dusk sooty falcon and the chubby brown booby. Mangrove thickets scattered along the Red Sea coast offer another important habitat for crustaceans, fish, as well as birds. These include the western reef heron, which comes in two plumage colours white and black, and the spoonbill, which often wades through the thickets foraging for food with its spoon-like bill.

One of my Red Sea favourites is the osprey, the agile hunter which feeds exclusively on fish. Naturally equipped with closable nostrils, and reversible outer toes, the large bird of prey is truly built for the kill. Ospreys have also a romantic side to their vigorous nature -- they mate for life.

Heading north, several lakes make up Egypt's bird-rich wetlands; from Qaroun and Manzala to Borollos and Bardawil. Lake Qaroun in Fayoum is better known for duck hunting, but it is also host to a plethora of bird species including grebe and coot. Lake Borollos, on the other hand, offers a congregation of whiskered tern, spur-winged plover and exotic looking squacco Heron.

Birdlife at Lake Manzala is fighting land reclamation for agricultural use, and although bird watching opportunities have slimmed there, they are still possible. Among the recorded species are shoveler, ruddy shelduck and avocet. Lastly, Lake Bardawil on Sinai's northern coast, is one of the least trundled areas although it is one of the most rewarding ones. The visitors' log of recorded birds includes garganey, sanderling, dunlin and little stints. Flamingos, as well, make frequent appearances at Lake Bardawil.

If you have the persistence and the stamina, rarer species can also be spotted at different localities in Egypt. Head for the far south town of Shalateen for a more African taste of birds, where the scavenging Egyptian vulture and lappet-faced vulture can be spotted. The remote area of Wadi Al-Allaqi, an offshoot valley from Lake Nasser, hosts the remnants of African ibis and black stork flocks.

Unfortunately, other bird species were not as lucky and are now locally extinct in Egypt. Topping this list is the world's largest bird, the ostrich. Previously inhabiting the far south of the country in the area between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea coast, today, and as a result of hunting and poaching, ostrich wild population has been wiped out. Based on oral accounts, it was last seen near Gabal Elba in the 1980s and 1990s. Nowadays in Egypt, you can only see them at the zoo or on ostrich farms where they are bred for their meat and eggs.

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