Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Birding the Real Babylon

My four day trip to some other bases was very productive for birding and other nature observations.

On the helicopter ride to Baghdad I saw dozens of cattle egrets flying over the fields and canals. There were also groups of Spur-winged and Red-wattled Plovers in the fields. We were flying below 100 feet most of the time so the sightseeing was fantastic.

I stayed the first day at a palace complex near Baghdad with a few large lakes. I stayed in a trailer, not in the palace.

Waking up on Friday morning I walked a three mile loop around the large lake. Unlike the salt ponds of my base these lakes were fresh and had fish in them. In the early morning fish were jumping out in the middle of the lake. In a small canal leading into the lake I watched a black and white Pied Kingfisher hover over the water, dive down and catch a small fish, then fly back to its perch over the water and flip the fish in its bill and down its throat. A couple white-cheeked bulbuls chased each other in the trees lining the lake.

My first new bird of my trip was a Pygmy Cormorant. I saw a few throughout the day flying back and forth over the lake.

On the far side of the lake there was an area of scrub with a canal running through it. I saw a moorhen walking near the water and a few Graceful Prinia hopping around in the bushes. A pair of Hooded Crows flew over me and landed on the perimeter fence making a croaking call.

A few large gulls flew over. They were probably Lesser Black-backed but I don't know for sure.

The same day we made the trek down to a base near the ruins of ancient Babylon. The trip down was frustrating from a birding perspective. I saw many shorebirds in the shallow ponds lining the highway, but none that I could ID. There were peeps, probably some types of stints, larger redshank sized birds and some Tringa species. The place I stayed was right next to the Euphrates river, which is significantly smaller than the Tigris. The camp was dotted with hundreds of date palms, each with huge bunches of ripening orange fruit. There were also Olive and Pomagranate Trees and thick reeds next to the river. In the garden I found Lantana flowering. We ate dinner on the river. The Polish soldiers threw pieces of bread into the river and big schools of fish, probably some type of cyprinid, made the water look like it was boiling as they all rushed to grab a piece.

As I ate, I watched Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters flying back and forth across the river, which was only about 50 meters wide. A few white-winged black terns picked food off the surface of the water as they flew up river.

After dinner I drove up to the top of an artificial hill where Saddam had built a large palace overlooking the ruins of Babylon. The sun was setting and I started noticing large bats pouring out of the upper floors. I made my way to the top floors and went into a large marble floored room. Out of a crack in the wall many of these large bats were scrurrying out, then taking flight inside the room. Eventually they would find a window and fly outside. Other bats were coming from a crack in the facade directly to the outside. I thought the bats looked like tomb bats. They may have been Naked-bellied Tomb Bats.

Because of the proximity to the river, the lights attracted more insects than at my base camp. I found tiny white caddisflies a few millimeters long and small white Mayflies the same color. Its been a long time since I found an insect that was an entirely new order for me. Among the lights at Babylon I found one. I small brown insect that I first thought might be some type of Plecoptera or Neuroptera quickly revealed itself to be a webspinner (Embioptera). Though some members of this order are found in the warmer parts of the US, I've never seen one. I brought it inside and made quite a fuss about it. The people left in the clinic thought I was crazy.

The next morning I birded in the ruins of Babylon proper. My first new bird at Babylon was an Iraq Babbler which sat obligingly on a fence for a few minutes before diving into the reeds. In the same area I saw a few young white-cheeked bulbuls that where just fledging. A pond near an amphitheater from Alexander the Great's time had a black-crowned night heron, a few little egrets, pied kingfishers and black-winged stilts.

Near the ruins I saw my first Laughing Dove walking around near the base of a date tree. I really enjoyed the combination of the lush surroundings, the birds and the history of Babylon, not to mention that the base is much safer than mine, almost never getting attacked.

I returned to the Baghdad area and took another walk to the scrubby area near the lake. I was treated to a great view of an immature Isabelline Shrike hunting insects along a dirt berm. I also saw two male Black Francolin, large chicken sized gamebirds, chasing each other around in the scrub. When I got too close to them they flew a short distance on their broad, short wings and scrurried away into the brush. The birds were spectacular with a black belly with large with spots on the side and a deep chestnut collar and a white cheekpatch.

Near one of the lakes I saw 8 pied kingfishers perched on the top of a date palm, it may have been the parent birds with their recently fledged young. In the same lake I saw a turtle, which I didn't see for long enough to identify and lots of large carp.

On the helicopter ride back to my base I passed over some fields I think may have been growing rice. I saw more cattle egrets and a not very satisfying view of a purple heron.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Soon I'll be going to a couple of new locations for me so I hope to see some new birds and other wildlife. One has a couple lakes and the other is on the Euphrates River so they should be productive.

My time outside in the last week has been limited but I've seen a few interesting things around. There are still large numbers of terns in the laundry pond, but I was speeding past in my truck so I couldn't spend anytime looking for other birds. On my drive around I also saw a dozen black-winged stilts and a magpie.

Back at our building the gecko eggs must have hatched recently. We have quite a few tiny little lizards hanging around the lights hunting for small insects.

At the lights I'm still seeing antlions and owlflies along with an assortment of small carabid beetles, tiny homoptera, crickets, grasshoppers and occasionally a large dragonfly spends the night.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

I'm back in Iraq. I got out for a little while on Saturday and visited the usual places. One of the ponds had over 100 white-winged black terns all either happily feeding over the water or roosting on some little islands in the middle. No migrant shorebirds were seen but I did see the resident black-winged stilts as well as half a dozen Little Egrets. At one of the other ponds I saw a Turtle Dove, the first one I've seen in Iraq. It should be a common breeder in Central Iraq but I have a feeling there are a few common birds that I'm missing because of my limited mobility.

The Syrian Mesquite plants that were just green feathery sprouts in March are now one to two foot bushes with fat orange pods all over the top of them. In the spring I saw some old blackened pods and thought they were insect galls. I found out this is an invasive species on the federal government's watch list.

At one of the ponds I startled a Golden Jackal that was drinking at pipe draining into the sulfur smelling water. I was only about 20 feet away when it saw me. It ran about 50 feet and stopped, turning to get a good look at me. It was the first Jackal I have seen in the middle of the day.

8/14/2004 1500-1700

Little Grebe - 2
Cattle Egret - 5
Little Egret - 6
Moorhen - 3
Black-winged Stilt - 4
Spur-winged Plover - 1
White-winged Black Tern - Approx 100
Rock Dove - 200
Wood Pigeon - 5
Collared Dove - 4
Turtle Dove - 1
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater - 3
Crested Lark - 1
Barn Swallow - 4
White-cheeked Bulbul - 1
Magpie - 1
Hooded Crow - 1
House Sparrow - 10