Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))

Ahram Weekly

A bird’s best friend

Rania Khallaf interviews Watter Al-Bahri, Egypt’s most famous bird-watcher

Al-Ahram Weekly

Interviewing Watter Al-Bahri after having dinner in the open-air area attached to the Fekra Centre was another interesting segment of the visit.

Al-Bahri, 30, is a graduate of the Faculty of Commerce at Port Said University. He was raised in Port Fouad in a natural environment and fell in love with birds when he was a child. “My first encounter with birds took place when I was 10 years old when a wild falcon and its three chicks landed on the roof of our house. It was then that I started to study them closely.”

“My father, a consultant cardiologist, had many books on birds and nature, and he helped me a lot to develop my knowledge.

We used to go for 45-day trips every year to the Sinai from September to mid-October, where we stayed with Bedouins to watch nature attentively,” he remembers. “I learned to trace the tracks of birds and animals and developed survival skills at a young age,” he added.

He later learned the principles of bird watching with Bird Life International, an international group. In 2011 he quit his job in the public relations department in Port Said to dedicate himself to bird-watching courses and activities and develop his skills as a professional wildlife photographer. The next year he became administrative officer of Nature Conservation Egypt NCE, a Bird Life partner in Egypt.

One of the founders of the Port Said Camera Club, an environmental researcher and wildlife photographer, Al-Bahri explained that bird watching doesn’t necessarily require travelling to a remote area. “Anyone can practice it, even in Al-Azhar Park in Cairo,” he noted, adding that bird watching started with the ancient Egyptians and was adopted by the Europeans in the 18th century.

“The ancient Egyptians were acquainted with different species of birds. For example, Thutmose III (reigned 1479-26 BCE) had a passion for birds. On the walls of temples built in his reign different birds are found. Known as a great warrior, he brought exotic birds and plants to Egypt from his military campaigns in Asia, and they were beautifully depicted on the walls of the Karnak Temple,” he explained.

“In Egypt, there are 475 species of birds, among which only 150 are residents. The rest are migrating birds. The season for birds like falcons, eagles, kites, and storks which migrate from Europe to Africa starts in the autumn from 15 August to 15 November. The journey back to their homeland takes place in the spring from mid-February to mid-May,” he added.  

“Aswan is the last destination for the migrating birds’ journey, as they fly first to Sinai, then to Ain Sokhna, and then to Aswan.

The positive thing about Aswan is that it has three different locations: the Nile River, the Philae Lake and the High Dam Lake, each of which has its own species. In Aswan alone you can see 350 species. The marvellously coloured Nile Valley sunbird is one of the most famous resident species. Together with vultures and the Egyptian goose, it was beautifully depicted on the walls of ancient temples.”

Asked how different species can live and coexist on a small island like that at Aswan, Al-Bahri explained that there were sleeping and feeding areas for each species. In the world of animals and birds, there are specific territories for sleeping and common feeding areas, he said.

“Different species usually share the same feeding area. It is not the same with birds of prey. For example, the territory of falcons extends for two square km. No other species dares cross it. While migrating in large groups, they land on a specific area, and each species marks it through smell.”

Asked if Egypt’s natural resources regarding wild birds are properly utilised, Al-Bahri said “definitely not. In 2012, I joined a research team with National Geographic Egypt and we issued a study on song birds on the North Coast of Egypt. The study revealed that millions of birds died that year because of illegal hunting and trade. Sadly this year there have also been many lost birds.”

“Birds have an economic value. From a biological point of view, if hunting were stopped, and the number of birds increased, then insects would decrease in numbers, and the money the government spends on pesticides would decrease. This would mean that cancer rates among people, resulting from the excessive use of pesticides on vegetable and fruit farms, would also dramatically decrease and the national income would increase,” Al-Bahri claimed.

“Tourism in Egypt should not be limited only to antiquities sites and winter resorts. Bird watching could be a strong attraction for tourists from different countries who would love to come and watch this unique migration of birds and the amazing mix of different wild and song birds and the migrating water birds that come all the way from Europe to Egypt twice a year.”

“Sadly, we still don’t have a culture of bird watching in Egypt. I am trying to build one, but the number of fans is still few.”  

In designing his bird-watching courses, Al-Bahri chooses not to give lectures on different species of birds. “This could cause a great deal of boredom. I want people to get into action with the birds, to see them and then to start to ask questions. People don’t have to be photographers to enjoy bird watching. Watching nature using binoculars is a joy in itself,” he added.

“This is my fourth bird-watching trip with Fekra. In December 2014 we organised the first wildlife trip to Nubia and it was free for professional and amateur photographers from Aswan.”

He laughed when I asked him why almost all the participants were women. “I wish I knew,” he answered, adding that “maybe girls want to rebel against the community which imposes certain lifestyles on them.”

So what does it take to make a good wildlife photographer? “Well, the number of specialist bird watchers in Egypt has increased to 23, and most of them are professional photographers. Generally, a specialist bird watcher should have an excellent education about the different species and their behaviour. He should also be patient as sometimes it takes 10 days just to watch a certain bird. He should have leadership skills and a knowledge of survival skills, which requires an understanding of the environment and the local residents.”

Al-Bahri’s biggest dream is to produce a documentary film on wild birds in Egypt.  

“When I started bird watching years ago, I was keen on educating myself about birds, and this led me to one culture after another and to one place after another, from Sinai, to Salloum to Aswan,” he said, his face beaming.

“Now I am proud to have friends welcome me in their homes in every single place I have visited. Egypt has become like a big home for me,” he concluded

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