Monday, March 22, 2004

Flashback Feb 23, 2004

On February 23rd at 3:00 in the Iraq. By the time it was light we were far into the country. In the southern part of the country, the landscape was like Kuwait, flat desert with a cast of green from the winter rains. There were a few camels and traditional black Bedouin tents here and there with large flocks of sheep and goats nearby.

As we moved north the desert became scrub. We got off the highway and onto a dirt road to avoid the populated areas. I was surprised to see pools of water all along side of the road.

We drove through the southern marshes which were absolutely decimated by Saddam's draining program. He did this to destroy the traditional home of the Marsh Arabs. All along the road were ditches and dug up ground. For miles and miles the land looked like a giant disorganized construction zone.

Since everything was new I was having a great time my first day in Iraq. What looked like miles from any dwellings little kids stood by the side of the road waving to us.

The birding was fantastic. In fact I haven't had so many life birds in a day since being in Indonesia in 1990. There were birds everywhere, waterbirds and shorebirds in the pools, landbirds flying by or sitting on fences.

The number of birds was in stark contrast to the dearth of birds in Kuwait.

The pools had so many shorebirds, that I could only identify the large and distinctive ones as we whizzed by. There were lots of black-winged stilts, avocets, Red-wattled plover and black-headed gulls. Lots of hooded crows and rooks.

Here's the list for the day:
1.Little Grebe
2.Little Egret
5.Black-winged stilt
6.Spur-winged Plover
7.Red-wattled Plover
8.Black-tailed Godwit
10.Common Sandpiper
11.Black-headed Gulls
12.Slender-billed Gull
13.Armenian Gull
14.Rock Dove
15.Wood Pigeon
16.Collared Dove
17.Pied Kingfisher
18.Crested Lark
19.Barn Swallow
20.White(pied) Wagtail
21.White-cheeked Bulbul
22.Great Grey Shrike
23.Isabelline Shrike
25.Hooded Crow
26.House Sparrow

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Well since I'm currently stuck on base and my superiors are very risk averse and won't let me go on any trips, I'll be posting a few of my experiences in the last month and a half I've been in Theater.

I landed in Kuwait in the middle of the night in the first week of February after spending two months training in an ungodly cold Army base in the States. We were out on a field exercise in January when the ambient temperature was minus 27 degrees fahrenheit. The windchill was down to -50 F. It was a splendid way to train for the desert. I told some of the younger troops that the purpose was to learn how to suffer. I was only half kidding.

Birding in Kuwait was limited due to my location in the middle of nowhere surrounded by thousands of coalition troops either coming or going to Iraq.

During my two week say, I'm sorry to say that I saw 5 species of birds (House sparrow, Barn Swallow, Rock Dove, Desert Wheatear, and Crested Lark)

Driving down the highway near Kuwait City there were many places that looked very good for birds but alas, I was driving in a convoy. Maybe next time.

The crested larks have turned out to be one of the most common birds both in Kuwait and Iraq. They are a bit bigger and plumper than a horned lark and they have a funny little crest on their head that always seems to be sticking straight up. They run a few feet then stop and look around then repeat this all day long. I think they probably eat a wide variety of things but I saw one doing an imitation of a house sparrow trying to eat a french fry.

On our convoy up from Kuwait we had to stop because one of the humvees had a flat. We all piled out of the vehicles and set up a defensive perimeter with our weapons pointing out. It was a bit of a surreal scene because as I'm laying on the ground with my eye on some guy racing around in a pickup truck wondering if he's going to take a potshot at us (which would have been suicidal), A pair of crested larks were not even 10 feet from me with the male displaying and dancing around.

Desert Wheatear
Crested Lark

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

The visit to the dump today was interesting. Big piles of burning trash which you back your truck up to and let the local guys toss it into the inferno. The usual suspect birds were hanging out at the dump. Lots of rooks, a few hooded crows, and about 50 Black-headed Gulls. Another 100 or so were in a field across the street.


Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Yesterday I had a little time in the morning and took a three hour walk around the base. A few migrants are moving through the area. In the last few weeks I've seen black redstart, some unidentified Phylloscopus warbler, White Wagtail, Barn Swallows, European Goldfinches, and Chaffinches. At a lagoon on the other side of the base I saw 25 Shovelers (ducks) and a couple of Redshanks.

My walk yesterday was quite productive. Slowly I'm getting to know the better birding areas on the base. I found that by going behind one of the buildings I got a great view of a little lagoon surrounded by phragmites. About 50 wood pigeons were sitting in dead trees around the lagoon. These birds winter in the area in large numbers and I expect them to be leaving north soon. In the lagoon I saw a couple of coots, three moorhens chasing eachother around in the grass, a magpie flying over the marsh, and a spectacular purple gallinule (not the same species as the one in North America). Swallows were wheeling around over the water catching insects. Mostly they were Barn Swallows, but I think there were some other species but they were too far away to see.

I saw some behavior I had never seen before. High in the air probably 1000 feet up I saw a small group of rooks riding a thermal just like they were a kettle of broad-wing hawks. They moved up the thermal's rising air effortlessly wheeling around, then at the top they glided away at a fast clip. Many of the rooks will, like the wood pigeons, be moving north. The rooks are everywhere in the farmland surrounding my base, looking for food in the freshly plowed soil.

On my way back to my building I came across a trash pit where lots of corvids had gathered. There were about 50 Rooks along with 15 or so Hooded Crows and 5 jackdaws. A few starlings were also hanging around looking for food. Tomorrow I get to go on a trash run to the burn pit. We throw all our garbage into a trailer and then haul it off to a giant pile of burning trash. Even though its over a mile away every day we see a giant plume of smoke. Some days the wind blows the smoke in our direction and a trash smoke haze decends on our living area. Sometime little pieces of burnt paper rain down from the sky. I'm looking forward to going, even though I'll have to probably change my uniform and take a shower afterwards. The dump is a big draw to gulls and crows and I'm sure I'll see something good in the gull department. I've seen several of my first gulls in dumps and of course I had to go to the Brownsville dump to see a Mexican crow.

Today I had to drive some people over to get a helicopter ride so I took my binos and bird book. On the way to the helicopters I saw a nice lesser kestrel fly right infront of my humvee. I went around the back side of the base and near the dump again. In an open field across the street from the burn pit I counted approximately 575 black-headed gulls in various stages of moult. About half had their summer plumage. I tried but every single one of the gulls appeared to be black-headed.

While I was watching, a c-130 flying low overhead deployed flares and did an evasive maneuver. I didn't see any smoke trail of an anti-aircraft missile (looks like a tight corkscrew) so it may have been a false alarm on its automatic system.

I was watching the fences and saw a male Chaffinch and a Common Babbler. The latter bird was a lifer and it was very cooperative while I watched it from a short distance.

Birding on base doesn't usually elicit any undo attention from the MPs. I think everyone thinks I'm doing security work when I'm looking into the distance with binoculars. I'm not sure what they think when I'm looking up in a tree.


Common Babbler
I'm a soldier in Iraq. I've been mobilized for up to 18 months which includes a definite 12 months in Iraq and Kuwait. I've been birding since I was twelve which makes it 24 years now. I'm in a New England medical unit. I plan to write about my nature observations during my time here, both birds and other critters.

I've got to get back to work now.