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Egypt Tour Report 11 - 26 September 2009

Egypt has it all; good birding, ancient antiquities, plenty of sunshine and first rate accommodation. In short, it is a splendid destination. The tour had been specifically timed to coincide with the peak of the autumn migration, when literally thousands of Northern Palearctic birds were making their way through Egypt, to wintering grounds further to the south in Africa. We were not to be disappointed; as it often appeared to us that there were migrant birds literally in every bush! Around Lake Quarun, in the El Fayoum Oasis, highlights included Common Ringed Plover, Spotted and Common Redshanks, Marsh and Curlew Sandpipers and White-throated Kingfisher. In the deserts of Sinai highlights included Desert Lark, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Thrush Nightingale, Blackstart, White-crowned, Mourning, Desert and Isabelline Wheatears, Streaked Scrub-Warbler, Palestine Sunbird, Woodchat Shrike, Tristram's Starling, Sinai Rosefinch and Cretzschmar's Bunting. In areas around the Red Sea highlights included Western Reef-Heron, Black Stork, Levant Sparrowhawk, Sooty Falcon, Greater Sandplover, Common Snipe, Ruddy Turnstone, Heuglin's and White-eyed Gulls, Sandwich, Common, White-cheeked and Bridled Terns, European Nightjar, Common Kingfisher, Black-eared Wheatear, Common Whitethroat, House Crow and Striolated Bunting. In Upper Egypt we enjoyed birding close to the ancient monuments, where highlights included Great Egret, Eurasian Spoonbill, Egyptian Goose, Northern Shoveler, Ferruginous Pochard, Short-toed Eagle, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Eurasian and Long-legged Buzzards, Red-footed Falcon, African Purple Swamphen, Senegal Thick-knee, Little Ringed Plover, Bluethroat, Clamorous Reed-Warbler, Olivaceous and Garden Warblers, Lesser Grey Shrike and two afro-tropical species, Namaqua Dove and African Pied Wagtail. It was not hard to pick out the mammal highlight of the tour, no, it was not the House Mouse or the Brown Rat, it was a splendid adult female Nubian Ibex, with a youngster. We were extremely fortunate to see this very uncommon species of mammal at all, but to see it so well, was indeed a very special moment of the tour.

We began our tour in Cairo, the most populous city in the world, with a daytime population of 22 million but only 18 million by night. From Cairo we drove southwest through the Western Desert to lake Quarun, in the El Fayoum Oasis. While driving through the sprawling suburbs of Cairo we found typical Egyptian birds, which included Cattle Egret, Eurasian Kestrel, Feral Pigeon, Laughing Dove, Rock Martin, Hooded Crow and House Sparrow.

From Cairo we drove to Lake Quarun in the El Fayoum Oasis where we enjoyed birding the afternoon and the morning of the following day. The birding was very good here and we had a great time birding along the edge of the lake and amongst its many fish ponds. We saw Grey and Squacco Herons, Little Egret, Black-shouldered Kite, Common Moorhen, Black-winged Stilt, Spurwinged Lapwing, Common Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Black-tailed Godwit, Spotted and Common Redshanks, Marsh, Green, Wood, Common and Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stint, Dunlin, literally hundreds of Slender-billed Gulls, Little, Whiskered and White-winged Terns, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Pied Kingfisher, Little Green Bee-eater, stunning Eurasian Hoopoes, Crested Lark, Sand Martin, Barn Swallow, Yellow Wagtail, Whinchat, Spotted Flycatcher, Zitting Cisticola, Graceful Prinia, Sedge Warbler and Southern Grey Shrike.

We were also very pleased to find two splendid Little Bitterns who flew above the reedbed showing the pink in their wings very well before dropping into another section of the same reedbed. Another highlight here was a couple of White-throated Kingfishers who showed particularly well, as they sat on nearby telegraph wires, this is the only place in Africa, where this Asian species occurs. Just on dusk, an immature Black-crowned Night-heron flew over.

We then headed back into the busy streets of Cairo where we wandered around the great pyramids and the Great Sphinx, where we saw our first mammal of the tour; we had a very tame House Mouse at our feet. In the garden of our hotel in Cairo, we saw our first Common Bulbul of the tour.

Leaving Cairo behind we traveled east into the Eastern Desert, at one of the gorges along the route we drove very slowly, looking for birds as we did so. This proved very rewarding, as we enjoyed good looks at a few Desert Larks, a couple of stunning White-crowned Wheatears, a couple of equally stunning Mourning Wheatears, a very attractive adult male Desert Wheatear, in full breeding plumage and a few Brown-necked Ravens. On arrival at the town of Suez, at the southern end of the famous Suez Canal, we were greeted by dozens of House Crows. While having lunch on the top floor of the Red Sea Hotel, we could watch the ships passing through the Suez Canal. Following lunch we went birding at three different areas of mudflats on the outskirts of town. This also proved very rewarding; as we found large flocks of Grey Plovers, many of which were still in full breeding plumage, we also found a solitary Greater Sandplover, a few flocks of Eurasian Curlews, a couple of Ruddy Turnstones, still sporting their very attractive breeding plumage, we found a single Ruff and a few Caspian Gulls, a recent split from Yellow-legged Gull. We also saw a single Lesser Black-backed Gull, an adult Heuglin's Gull together with an immature; this bird is a recent split from Lesser Black-backed Gull. There were also large numbers of Gull-billed Terns, large numbers of Caspian Terns, a single Lesser-crested Tern, a couple of Sandwich Terns, a fairly large flock of Common Terns and a solitary White-cheeked Tern, in full breeding plumage. We had done very well indeed along the mudflats at Suez; we then drove to nearby Ain Sukhna, where we spent the night at a very comfortable hotel.

The following day while our suitcases were being loaded onto the bus at our hotel in Ain Sukhna we added European Bee-eaters, which were flying overhead, a solitary Isabelline Wheatear and a few Lesser Whitethroats. We then drove to the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel which passes under the Suez Canal and comes out at the Sinai Peninsula, in Asia. A quick stop at the Springs of Moses, produced a couple of new birds for the tour, which included Tawny Pipit and Red-backed Shrike. We had lunch at a small cafe at Ras Abu Rudeis. This was close to a small very scruffy looking roundabout which had a few sorry looking dead and dying trees in the middle. To our surprise, they held no less than three different species of shrikes! We found Red-backed, Woodchat and Masked Shrikes; this was a real treat for us all. We also enjoyed splendid looks at a very confiding Eurasian Reed-Warbler, with no water for miles around. We saw a very beautiful Eurasian Golden Oriole and best of all there was a Thrush Nightingale skulking in dense cover. In the afternoon we visited the palm-lined gardens of Wadi Feiran, a Bedouin settlement nestled in the pink granite mountains of southern Sinai. Here we found our two main target birds; Yellow-vented Bulbul and the very attractive Blackstart. Other new birds included a pair of obliging Greater Short-toed Larks and an immature Northern Wheatear. In the grounds of our hotel at St. Catherine's Monastery, we found a couple of Palestine Sunbirds.     

We spent the first part of the following morning birding around the ancient monastery of Saint Catherine, in the shadow of Mount Sinai at 1,450 metres. The birding was very good here and we quickly found most of our target birds. We found a flock of Sinai Rosefinches in the carpark, but unfortunately, all the birds were females or immature males. Shortly after leaving the carpark we were able to watch a small group of Streaked Scrub-Warblers scuttling from bush to bush on the stony desert floor. The gardens of the monastery act as a migrant trap and here we found a couple of Common Chiffchaffs, a large flock of the endemic Tristram's Starlings and three first winter Cretzschmar's Buntings. We then enjoyed a guided tour around the monastery itself and were able to view many of the religious icons that are kept in the museum. Following lunch we drove down towards the tip of the Sinai Peninsula to overnight at Sharm El Sheikh. We had a quick stop at the local sewage farm where we enjoyed our first Western Reef-Heron, an immature bird molting into adult plumage; we saw a solitary Glossy Ibis and a single Common Snipe. There were also hundreds of White Storks pausing on their way south. We also enjoyed a large flock of migrating European Bee-Eaters.

We started off the following day by birding in the grounds of our hotel at Sharm El Sheikh; there had obviously been a large movement of hirundineus during the night and as well as the usual Barn Swallows and Sand Martins, we enjoyed watching several House Martins and a solitary Red-rumped Swallow. We then spent the rest of the morning birding in the Ras Mohammed National Park, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. In the mangroves here we found a few Striated Herons, this is the only place in the Western Palearctic where this species occurs and we also added another resident species here, when we had a quick look at a solitary Striolated Bunting. We also found our first Common Kingfishers here, which are winter visitors to Egypt. We also found that there had been a large fall of Northern Wheatears overnight and it seemed as though they were perched on every rock in the park! However, there had also been a fall of much rarer birds during the night and we were very pleased and excited to watch the following uncommon migrants from Europe. An adult male Pallid Harrier was a real treat, as was an immature Levant Sparrowhawk which flew close by us. We also saw a couple of Willow Warblers, which were flitting around just a few metres away from us. Amongst the many Northern Wheatears we found a stunning adult male Black-eared Wheatear, which we all enjoyed a great deal. Later in the morning as we were driving along in our bus when Michael suddenly shouted nightjar, the bus emptied in a mille-second and we were able to watch a European Nightjar fly past us and land on the ground some metres away. We were able to walk towards the nightjar, where we enjoyed splendid scope views of this gem amongst birds. As we were returning to our hotel in Sharm El Sheikh for lunch we came to a screeching halt when we found an immature European Roller perched on the wire fence of a basketball court. A quick look at the Sharm El Sheikh sewage farm, produced several hundred White Storks and a new bird for the tour, a pair of immature Black Kites. Following lunch we drove to the port of Sharm El Sheikh, where we would take the ferry across the Red Sea to Hurghada and back to Africa. As we were lining up to embark on the ferry an adult White-eyed Gull flew overhead. As we were sailing out of the harbour an Osprey was perched on a light beacon on the cliffside.

Early morning birding in the gardens of our very comfortable hotel yielded various migrants drawn to this island of green, on the desert coast. There were large flocks of European Bee-eaters, Yellow Wagtails and Greater Short-toed Larks but the only new bird for the tour was a European Honey-buzzard which came in off the sea and flew over our heads. Much of the day was then taken up by a boat cruise where we visited a few offshore islands at the entrance to the Gulf of Suez. Amongst the many hundreds of White-eyed Gulls, Lesser-crested and White-cheeked Terns, we managed to pick out a solitary Black Stork, a solitary Western Marsh-Harrier, a solitary Greater-crested Tern and a couple of Bridled Terns. We stopped at one of the islands were some of the group enjoyed a little some snorkeling, some of us went for a walk on the island were we found many migrant birds sitting on fence posts and rocks. They were mainly Northern Wheatears, Spotted Flycatchers and Red-backed Shrikes, however, we also enjoyed watching a European Turtle-Dove, walking around just in front of us and we also saw a very nice looking immature Isabelline Shrike. It was proving to be a great day; however, the best was yet to come. As we were walking on the island we enjoyed our second sighting of the day, of the extremely range restricted Sooty Falcon, who was zooming around the island, attempting to catch one of the many migrant birds, who were resting up, on the island.

As usual, we started the following day off with a walk around the grounds of our hotel, in Hurghada. Overnight there had been a large fall of Yellow Wagtails, Greater Short-toed Larks, Willow Warblers and Red-backed Shrikes. We did find one new species of bird for the tour, a solitary Common Whitethroat, who unfortunately, was very furtive and did not show particularly well at all. Following breakfast, we visited El Gouna Farm, which is also a great migrant trap. Amongst the dozens of migrants on show here, new birds included a stunning Rufous Bush-Robin who showed particularly well, we also glimpsed a Common Stonechat in this area. We then drove through the barren but dramatic Red Sea Coastal Range, where our vehicle came to a screeching halt as our local guide Abdullah, pointed out two very rarely seen Nubian Ibex, a mother with her youngster. We had super looks as they effortlessly climbed up a nearby shear cliff face. This was a real treat for us. We continued through the bleak Eastern Desert beyond the coastal range, where we saw three very close Western Marsh-Harriers. On our arrival at Luxor, we drove to our hotel on Crocodile Island, an Island in the Nile River. In the late afternoon a walk around the island produced the following new birds; a beautiful Purple Heron, a female Eurasian Teal, a couple of Yellow-billed Kites, a pair of range restricted Senegal Thick-knees, a solitary Pallid Swift and the flowering trees in the garden were host to a pair of extremely range restricted Nile Valley Sunbirds.

The following day was spent sightseeing as we visited the very barren Valley of the Kings, visiting several tombs, before moving on to the impressive Temple of Queen Hapshepsut, the Colossi of Memnon, built in honour of Amunhotep, the builder of Luxor Temple, the Temple of Karnak and finally Luxor Temple. While at the Valley of the Kings there was a large movement of raptors on migration; the flock consisted mainly of Eurasian Buzzards, but in amongst them we managed to identify a couple of Long-legged Buzzards, a beautiful adult male Pallid Harrier and a magnificent European Honey-buzzard, which passed by just a few metres away from us. From the Valley of the Kings we could look across the Nile to Luxor on the West Bank and we began to appreciate why the Nile was Egypt and Egypt is the Nile; beyond the narrow strip of greenery, there is only the harshest desert.

We started the following day with a pre-breakfast birding walk around Crocodile Island, the island on which our hotel was situated, in the Nile River. It proved particularly rewarding; new birds for the tour included a migrating Eurasian Sparrowhawk, an African Purple Swamphen, a couple of Clamorous Reed-Warblers, a solitary Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and a superb adult male Red Avadavat, in full breeding plumage. We then continued our journey southwards, driving along the highway through the cultivated Nile Valley and on to Aswan. We broke the long drive with a quick stop at the Daraw Camel Market, where a small population of the Afro-tropical Namaqua Dove, had recently been discovered. We were very pleased to find two immature Namaqua Doves feeding on the ground in the camel market. In the afternoon we enjoyed a superb boat trip around the first cataract on the Nile River, at Aswan. We will long remember the trip for the huge numbers of Little Bitterns that we saw, almost 20. This was just one of eight species of herons we saw during the boat trip. We were also very pleased to find two new species of birds for the tour; we found a large flock of up to 60 Egyptian Geese, as well as a surprise find of a pair of Ferruginous Pochards, a very rare visitor this far south in Egypt.   

The following morning we drove to the world famous Aswan High Dam. This amazing piece of engineering created the world's largest man made lake, 350 kilometres long. In a small picnic ground on top of the dam wall a superb, adult male Ruppell's Warbler suddenly popped into view, unfortunately, it was not particularly co-operative and it soon disappeared amongst a grove of trees. We then had a pleasant visit to the Philae Temple, a greeko-roman temple, on a small island in the Nile River. Moving on, we were obliged to join a convoy of buses which was escorted by policemen across the Western Desert and on to Abu Simbel. We made one quick toilet stop during the 300 kilometre drive, at a rather basic building which had a few cacti growing outside. We found three migrant birds sitting in the shade of an old bed; one was a Common Chiffchaff, another a Willow Warbler and the third was an adult Bluethroat in breeding plumage. Unfortunately, it too was very skittish and we were herded back onto our bus by our machine-gun welding policeman, before we could have a good look at it. On our arrival at Abu Simbel we enjoyed a guided tour of the world famous temple, followed by a very enjoyable sound and light show.

We spent all of the next day birding along the shore of Lake Nasser, at Abu Simbel, home of the great temple of Rameses II and close to the border with Sudan. The heat was intense as we scoured the shoreline of Lake Nasser, where new birds included a solitary Great Egret, a small flock of Eurasian Spoonbills, a female Northern Shoveler, an adult Short-toed Eagle, an immature Red-footed Falcon, an immature Little Ringed Plover, a singing African Pied Wagtail, a solitary Garden Warbler and am immature Lesser Grey Shrike. Abu Simbel was a fitting climax to the tour; we saw more birds here than any other place in Egypt and none of us will be able to forget the magnificent temple, which was created by the generous of the ancients and then moved to higher ground by the marvel of modern engineering. Abu Simbel offered a good snapshot of the tour as a whole; a rich mosaic of great birds, combined together with enchanting antiquities.

Our last night of the tour was spent at a very fine hotel, close to the airport in Cairo. The following morning we managed to add one further bird to our tour list, thanks to Michael, who found an adult Common Redstart in breeding plumage, which we all managed to see very well indeed.

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