Birding trip to Egypt 17.-23.01.2010

Trip report: Egypt 17.-23.1.2010
(Sharm El Sheikh and St.Katherine’s monastery, includes maps)

PHOTOS

U. Paal

This was typical wintertime beach resort holiday combined with morning and evening birding. Our team consisted of 2 birders. Accompanying non-birding families were mostly busy with normal tourist activities. We used taxis and taxi buses (much cheaper!) to get around. Hotel Amwaj Oyoun had really good service. Food was excellent, rooms clean and all things ran smoothly. Triplist was 83 species, including 3 sandgrouse, Sinai Rosefinch, Barbary Falcon, Bonelli’s Eagle and Eastern Imperial Eagle.

MAPS

Sharm Pools  (Sharm Sewage  Treatment Plant) Sharm Pools (Sharm Sewage Treatment Plant) Small Pools Small Pools St.Catherine St. Katherine’s  monastery and  surroundings St.Catherine St. Katherine’s monastery and surroundings


17.1
Arrived to Sharm in lunchtime. First dramatic event is when one of our group members luggage is lost and can’t be located during the holiday. Soon another incident follows when one of the Rene’s kids manages to injure his head badly. Not a good beginning for a holiday.

I and Rene cover the beach during the last daylight hours to see what’s around. We manage to get some decent shots of Curlew and Reef Egrets which are patrolling the beach. The resort gardens hold some passerines, but photographers are not welcomed here. While trying to shoot a Stonechat, a hotel staff member approaches, and tells me that photographing is not allowed here. After a short polite discussion i can continue.

Beach near Hotel Amwaj 28° 2’7.91“N 34°26’21.87“E
Western Reef Egret 3
Eurasian Curlew 1
Osprey 1
Slender-billed Gull 2

18.1
While watching news about Haiti earthquake from CNN, the hardest rain of last 16 years hits Egypt including Sharm El Sheikh. The hairy hand of God has reached us. Roofs of the reception building are seriously damaged and pathways are under water. The surrounding desert has turned into a large mudflat and streets are partly unaccessible by car. There are serious problems with mobile connection and electricity. Welcome to Charming Sharm! The only thing that actually worries us birders, is that are the sandgrouse coming to drink at their regular sites when there’s so much water available in deserts?

We try to get a taxi in early morning, but the only taxi we find wants to charge an astronomic sum. We manage to hitchhike for some kilometres (Rene gets ride on a pickups platform) and almost reach the Small Pools when huge rainstorm approaches and we have to get a taxi to escape back to hotel. We get pretty soaked. Since the traffic is bit paralyzed, weather unpredictable and we don’t know which areas are accessible, we resort birding the hotel surroundings in the morning. The results are below average as was expected.

Weather improves during the day and i decide to rent a bike to explore the coastline. The bike rent costs 5 USD/1 h and that’s ridiculously expensive for the rusty bikes which have flat tires and move only when pushed downhill. Anyway i make a short trip towards north and find some waders to photograph.

In the evening we want to reach the superhyper famous Sharm Pools. The official name of this place is Sharm Sewage Treatment Plant and explaining it to the taxi drivers is not the easiest task (keywords: „dirty“ „water“ „birds“ are helpful, learn them in Arabic). Our taxi driver Hassan robs 120 EGP from us (obviously too much) and gets us to the pools. The floods have washed away some parts of the dams and there are some people repairing the damages (probably scaring some birds away as well). There are hundreds of quad bikes passing the pools constantly even in nighttime, so hearing the birdcalls on the northern part is not easy (and that’s important for finding Lich Sandgrouse).

The place looks good with lots of bird activity. As we have read from other trip reports, there are dozens of dead White Storks laying around. Is this a ecological trap where birds get poisoned by the sewage water? How does it affect endangered Imperial Eagles and other raptors which are often here feeding on the carcasses? Same applies to Sharm gardens and lawns which are constantly poisoned for insect control. Migrants and wintering birds are probably getting their share of insect repellents as well.

Another thing which is really disturbing is the amount of plastic garbage found in the deserts. The air is filled with plastic bags and some mountain valleys are covered in them. There are probably thousands of tons of plastic waste in deserts surrounding Sharm El Sheik.

We target Lichenstein’s Sandgrouse in dusk but dip. But good selection of other birds makes it up.

Beach near Hotel Amwaj
Caspian Tern 1
Kentish Plover 1
Sooty Gull 2

Sharm Pools (Sharm Sewage Treatment Plant) 27°56’25.33“N 34°18’6.64“E
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater 1
Spur-winged Lapwing 25
Common Greenshank 1
Common Redshank 25
Green Sandpiper 3
Common Sandpiper 3
Little Stint 20
Common Ringed Plover 1
Common Crane 1
Eurasian Wigeon 1 male
Tufted Duck 1
Coot 26
Great Cormorant 1
Water Pipit 20
White Wagtail 20
Bluethroat 1
Desert Wheatear 1 ad male

19.1
The morning is spent by the construction site and beach near hotel Shams Suites (north from Zouara beach). We see quite a few waders and Plovers are very approachable. Finding Palestine Sunbird is bit of a surprise. I didn’t knew that they reach so far south.

There’s lots of construction work going on everywhere and waders can often be found in such areas. As we have heard the real estate developments already threaten Ras Mohammed NP.

During midday we try to get to Ras Mohammed NP, but we are not allowed in, since the floods have damaged the roads severely. Even the Hooded Wheatear and Brown-necked Raven we see on the way don’t consolate us much. We have to opt going to Sharm Old Market, which is basically a worst tourist trap you can get in.

After family duties the Sharm Sewage Treatment Plant is a destination again. We both want to see the Lichenstein’s Sandgrouse desperately and don’t give up before we’ve seen them. The next taxi driver knows few words in English and seems rather sensible chap (and well-trained swindler of course). When getting to the police checkpoint in front of the sewage plant there seems some kind of problem. The taxi driver Mezen solves it with 10 EGP commenting „Mafia money!“. That’s how the things work here. The next bribe goes to the guys working on the pools. They charge 2USD from us, otherwise threatening not let us in. We have never heard that this has happened to previous visitors. Anyway, a Danish birder we met here later, told us not to give any money to these cheaters. If you mention word „tourist police“ then they leave you alone. Easy.

Birding is good as in earlier visit and we set in to wait for the sandgrouse in dusk. A Barbary Falcon dashes through and sits on one of the mountain tops visible from here. As some people have mentioned, that the most northerly pool at the lower level is good for the sandgrouse, we wait and pray here. The calls of the Lichenstein’s Sandgrouse are audible for a short distance only, so it’s easy to miss them. At 17:30 we hear the calls of the birds (despite the hordes of quad bikes) for few times and i manage to find them walking on the opposite shore of the pool right away. Although it’s almost pitch dark already, the birds are visible surprisingly good. Even the breaststripes of one male are visible. We didn’t see them flying in and we don’t see them flying away either, but the birds disappear mystically after few minutes. A great experience indeed. There’s also a high bat activity and there are probably hundreds feeding here.

Coast and construction site near Zouara beach
28° 3’44.98“N 34°26’15.01“E
Greater Sand Plover 20
Common Ringed Plover 40
Kentish Plover 10
Sooty Gull 2
Caspian Tern 2
Dunlin 5
Grey Heron 1
Great Cormorant 6
Grey Plover 1
Common Redshank 2
Common Greenshank 3
Western Reef Egret 4
Slender-billed Gull 2

Gardens around Hotel Amwaj
Palestine Sunbird 1 female
Common Stonechat 5
Sardinian Warbler 10

Sharm Pools
Lichenstein’s Sandgrouse 9 (including at least 2 males) arriving 17:30
Barbary Falcon 1 ad
Bats 30+

20.1
We head to Sharm Pools first thing in the morning. Lots of Storks around and the reedbeds below the pools hold many Chiffchaffs. Also Eastern Imperial Eagle and Lesser Spotted Eagle are circling here. The sandgrouse don’t appear and we decide to hava quick look on the Small Pools on the way back. This seems to be nice site as well with some wildfowl and waders present. We decide to come back here later.

During snorkeling Rene finds a juvenile Striated Heron on one of the beach platforms. The bird is ridiculously tame.

Sharm Pools
Imperial Eagle 1 juv
Lesser Spotted Eagle 1 ad?
White Stork 190
Lapwing 1
Common Greenshank 11
Common Redshank 20
Barbary Falcon 1 ad
Red-throated Pipit 1
Citrine Wagtail 1
Meadow Pipit 1
Pallid Swift 5
Spur-winged Lapwing 20
White Wagtail 30
Desert Wheatear 1 ad male
Bluethroat 5
Chiffchaff 60
Water Pipit 20

Small Pools 28° 0’38.65“N 34°24’30.19“E

Northern Pintail 3
Common Pochard 1
Common Snipe 1
Coot 15
Eurasian Teal 40

Beach near Amwaj hotel
Striated Heron 1 juv
Osprey 1

21.1
We hop on a taxi bus and head to the Small Pools in the morning. This place is easily approachable with a much cheaper taxi bus (one way 3 EGP) and has good variety of birds around. The area is circled with a fence. Since there was nobody to be seen, we trespassed the fence (there are many holes). The narrow strip of bushes strating from the northern side and following the underground aqueduct (?) in surrounding desert was good for passerines.

As we had read, sandgrouse sometimes come here to drink as well. At 8:00 we hear a flock of Crowned Sandgrouse and see them fying overhead towards airport. Luckily the birds land soon (without crossing the airfield fence) and we manage to chase them and approach to 50 m. Then a Kestrel scares the flock away even farther towards the airport. Several Hoopoe Larks are active in surrounding desert and I manage to see one Water Rail in a small patch of reeds in the middle of the pools. Seeing a Common Starling here is bit of a surprise. The bird had a beak defect which can be seen from the photos in the gallery.

The flood-damaged road to St. Katherine’s is now opened and we decide to go there in the evening. Our driver Mezen charges 400 + 400 EGP for the trip. The drive to St. Katherine’s takes about 2 hours despite that the road is damaged in some parts and there are 5 police checkpoints to get through. Speed reaches often 145 km/h. The deserts seems to be empty. Only raptors we see are 60 + Black Kites circling over Mahmeya village.

We haven’t made any previous hotel bookings and check in at the first hotel. The guys rob 70 EUR for a double room and a lunch (overpriced), but since we want to get to the wadis in the last light we don’t have time to haggle about the price. We spend about 2 hours in mountain tracks without hearing any birds. The noise coming from village doesn’t help either. Hume’s Owl have been heard here some years ago.

Small Pools
Eurasian Teal 60
Eurasian Wigeon 3
Northern Pintail 2
Common Pochard 1
Common Snipe 2
Imperial Eagle 3 juv
Black Kite 14
Bonelli’s Eagle 1 2cy
Coot 8
Water Rail 1
Grey Plover 2
Common Ringed Plover 3
Common Greenshank 2
Common Redshank 2
Spur-winged Lapwing 10
Crowned Sandgrouse 7 (4m/3f) arriving 8:00
Greater Hoopoe Lark 4
White Wagtail 50
Desert Wheatear 3
Isabelline Wheatear 2
Bluethroat 5
Chiffchaff 2
Water Pipit 20
Desert Warbler 1
Spanish Sparrow 60
Tawny Pipit 1
Crested Lark 1
Common Starling 1

Mahmeya
Black Kite 60
Brown-necked Raven 1

On the road
Desert Warbler 1

St. Katherine’s village
White-tailed Wheatear 3
Red Fox 3

22.1
The morning is spent at the village without any surprising moments. The hotel staff promised to get us a breakfast, but there’s nobody in the reception and kitchen so we head to the monastery. We warmly suggest to avoid Daniela Village.

The rosefinches are found in first 5 minutes including 2 nice males. Also other expected species are around – Tristam’s Starling, Scrub Warbler and Desert Lark. The monastery gardens are pretty devoid of birds. Although we scan the mountain ridges for long periods, the only raptors we see are 2 adult Bonelli’s Eagles circling near the village.

Taxi picks us up at 15:00 and we head back to Sharm with our hip-hop loving (no Akon and Barbiegirl please!) and smoking rally-driver. Nothing special seen in the desert, except good numbers of Black Kites at Mahmeya again.

St. Katherine’s village
White-tailed Wheatear 4
White-spectacled Bulbul 2
Black Redstart 1 pair ssp. semirufus
Bonelli’s Eagle 2 ad
Chiffchaff 20
Common Stonechat 2
Palestine Sunbird 1 male

St. Katherine’s monastery and surroundings
Sinai Rosefinch 10+
Tristam’s Starling 30+
Scrub Warbler 1
Black Redstart 2
Desert Lark 7
White-tailed Wheatear 5
White-spectacled Bulbul 2
Chiffchaff 2

Mahmeya
Black Kite 100+

23.1
We cover the Small Pools again in the morning and manage to add some new species to our triplist. Approximately at 8:00 we hear Spotted Sandgrouse and I manage to locate the bird just when it lands on one of the most distant pools. We try to chase it down, but bird manages to disappear mystically and can’t be located later.

The evening is spent at Möwenpick Golf Course. The guards let us in without any hassle and we bird the area until darkness. The best pools are the two pools at the south-western corner. Purple Heron is the best bird we manage to find.

Small Pools
Northern Pintail 4 (one of them injured)
Corn Bunting 2
Skylark 1 – rarity here?
Spotted Sandgrouse 1 arriving at about 8:00
Common Moorhen 18
Water Rail 2
Little Grebe 2
Little Stint + pretty much same as earlier days

Möwenpick Golf Course 27°56’23.36“N 34°22’4.53“E
Black-winged Stilt 1
Ruff 1
Purple Heron 1
Grey Heron 2
Hoopoe 2
Spur-winged Lapwing 55
Common Greenshank 6
Common Redshank 2
Common Sandpiper 1
Little Stint 3
Common Ringed Plover 10
Coot 14
White Wagtail 80