Shuffle your feathers for birds aplenty up the Nile
What birds would one see on a 5-day trip on the Nile? Maybe the odd heron and a few egrets among reeds or on a distant sandbank, I thought before we left South Africa.
How wrong I was!
The 5-day trip from Esna upstream to Aswan surpassed all expectations. Apart from the excellent viewing platform that our 2-mast Egyptian dahabiya offered, the barge often pulled over to either shore, thus allowing ample opportunity for birdwatching amongst the ubiquitous palm trees, mango trees or on communal farm land divided in rectangular patches to ease flood irrigation.
The first surprise was the similarity between the birds on this northern-most part of the continent and those we are accustomed to in our country 7 000km further south: house sparrows, laughing doves, cattle egrets, grey herons, moorhens, pied kingfishers. Hordes of various species of cisticolas, prinias, warblers and terns exist, close to ours, but not quite, if one goes by names only. Cetti’s Warbler, or Savi’s Warbler, for instance – apart from a canny resemblance to each other in Egypt – may just as well have been any of our handful of reed warblers, had the handbooks not told us it’s impossible.
In the end the amateur is left with a rather long list of either-ors, maybes and even a few has-beens that flew out of the viewfinder and therefore remain unknown to science.
But luckily some birds gave up flying to make room for easy identification, like the Common Ostrich. You really have to be a bird-brain to get this one wrong. Although I am still not sure if the individual we saw near the south-eastern border of Sudan wasn’t a vagrant Somali Ostrich, almost a mirror image of the regular one you get all over the continent, except in Libya where it has become extinct, like many other forms of life there.
People in South Africa recently had to fly or drive thousands of kilometres to tick off a yellow wagtail and white wagtail – some of the rarest birds yet to visit our shores. But these folks could have saved their money for a trip to Egypt. There are hundreds of both of them, if not thousands – not in one place, of course, but neatly scattered all over the Nile valley. To boot there is also the Grey Wagtail, although in certain light conditions, and depending on the moulting season, not even a PhD wagtail professor would be able to tell the difference between a white and a grey. And as for the yellow version– in Egypt there are at least ten different races or subspecies, so it is not quite as easy to identify what type of yellow you have seen as it is to merely see a solitary “Yellow Wagtail” once in a blue moon in South Africa.
Two birds stand out for me on the trip. One is the Spur-winged Lapwing, with its magnificent thick black stripe over the white chest; the explosion of black and white patterns as it alights is something to behold – starker in contrast than our Blacksmith.
The other is the Eurasian Hoopoe, similar to ours, but again, in flight something else: there are more white stripes on the wings, also a broad white tail-band– causing an indelible impression as it darts and flits against the dark background of the woods it favours.
As for Egyptian Geese, I only just saw one, although it was less than two metres away, and furthermore had to be pointed out to me by our guide, as it waddled half hidden between lines of hieroglyphics in the Luxor Temple.
Yes, you may pack your bags. But remember, typically Africa, the mosquitoes will be after your blood en masse.
Grey Heron and water monitor, north of Kom Umbu
Squacco Heron, south of Edfu
Pied kingfisher, near Edfu
Purple Heron, Edfu
Ferruginous Ducks, Esna
House Sparrows raiding wheatfield, near Beit Sabee
Ringed Graceful Prinia, at Eskaleh, Abu Simbel
Green Bee-eater, Lake Nasser
Spur-winged Lapwing, north of Kom Umbu
Male Nile Valley Sunbird, Kom Umbu
Southern Nile Valley Crested Lark, Kom Umbu
Yellow Wagtail, race faldegg, south of Edfu
Yellow Wagtail, race flava, south of Edfu
Grey Wagtail, Edfu
Up yours mate, says the (probable) Great Reed Wabler