Thursday, March 31, 2005

The ranks of military birders in Iraq are expanding. I know of 6 currently on duty. Major Ed with the US Marines has some nice photos over at Silfay Hraka. He reports spending 10 minutes studying a Little Crake in his area. The Little Crake is a relative of our Sora Rail, the diminutive marsh bird much more often heard than seen. I think Major Ed will be some healthy competion for LTC Bob at Camp Victory who continues to supply great photos. I expect some great springtime bird photos of European and Indian Rollers, Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and Hoopoes. Note to LTC Bob...the Black Francolins are in the scrubby area near the tunnel to Camp Slayer.

Another military blogger just up the road at Camp Liberty even posted his Iraqi birdlist. He's one of LTC Bob's very close neighbors.

Now for something completely different....truffles in Iraq! I think of truffles as the fungus that the Italians or French go to incredible lengths to gather using trained dogs or pigs and pay hundred to thousands of dollars a kilo. Apparently there are more humble desert truffles that are being harvested at this time of year in among other places, southern Iraq. This article from Saudi Aramco World magazine tells the story. The article talks about Kuwaitis sometimes boiling them in camel milk (recipe is included).

Thursday, March 24, 2005

I came across an interesting article (at least to me) on the molluscs (clams, snails, etc) of the lower Mesopotamian wetlands. This scientific paper was derived from unpublished material from a 1980 expedition just prior to the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War, when the area was in much better shape. There are quiet a few photos of various gastropods and bivalves as well as some very nice photos at the end of the paper of the houses of the Marsh Arabs.

On another note I've been reading about animals that once lived in Iraq but have now become extinct.

Until relatively recently the Ostrich roamed around southern Iraq and was hunted by the bedouin. In the ruins of Ur near Nasiriyah many Ostrich egg artifacts have been found. The Ostrich is one of a number of large animals that became extinct in Iraq in relatively recent times. Both the Lion and the Tiger were found in Iraq in ancient times. Images and statues of Lions are all over the archeological sites of Iraq. At Babylon there is a famous basalt statue of a man being mauled by a lion. The last Iraqi lion reported killed was in 1918 on the lower Tigris. In 1914 a Turkish governor killed two near Mosul. Also near Mosul at Caspian Tiger was killed in 1887. Another large animal, the Onager or Wild Ass was found in large herds in the southern desert. As with the Ostrich the advent of firearms probably led to their disappearance.

Friday, March 18, 2005

I think many people who visit Iraq have been alarmed by a particularly large and nasty looking wasp. They are reddish brown and yellow and have a habit of buzzing around you ominously. Our PAs called them "the meat eaters" because on several occasions they saw them making off with large chunks of hotdog or hamburger that was left outside. Since I had a bug net I caught quite a few of these critters during my time there.

These were Oriental Hornets (Vespa orientalis). Some of them were 2 inches long with 3 inch wingspans. Pretty formidable when its flying around your tent. I was never stung but they can pack a wallop.

In the other stinging critter arena I found a nice poster put out by the army on Arachnids of Iraq. The pictures of the scorpions, spiders and camel spiders are great.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

LTC Bob at Victory Base continues to produce some nice photos of local birds. His latest offerings at Silflay Hraka are great pictures of Babblers and of White-breasted Kingfishers. The Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters should be arriving in a month or so. I expect he'll have some great shots of them too.

I found a nice old picture from 1922 of a White Stork nest. The caption says that the local belief was that good luck would rest on the family on whose house the storks build their huge nests. I'm told that in the north of the country its more common to see nesting storks than in the area where I spent most of my time.

I've been reading some reports from the last comprehensive waterbird surveys conducted in Iraq. I'll highlight a few of the areas and what they found there over my next few posts.

The first area is near the town of Kut southeast of Baghdad. On the arid plains about 10 km north of the Tigris River is a large isolated lake called Haur Al Shuwaija. The site was surveyed 3 times between 1968 and 1979. Large numbers of birds both wintered and bred there. Its unknown what state the lake and its surrounding area is in now. From the numbers and varieties of waterbirds listed below, the place must have been spectacular, hopefully it still is. It is in this general area that a Lesser White-fronted Goose is being tracked via satellite.

Reported peak counts of selected species
Great White Pelican - 71
Dalmatian Pelican - 3
Gray Heron - 130
Greater Flamingo - 600
White-fronted Goose - 325
Lesser White-fronted Goose - 70
graylag Goose - 460
Ruddy Shelduck - 1280
Common Shelduck - 250
Eurasian Wigeon - 2700
Gadwall - 435
Common Teal - 3450
Mallard - 2630
Pintail - 2800
Northern Shoveler - 3000
Common Crane - 70
Eurasian Coot - 510
Pied Avocet - 373
Kentish (Snowy) Plover - 725
White-tailed Lapwing - 37
Little Stint - 130
Ruff - 2000
Black-headed Gull - 650
Yellow-legged Gull - 645
Gull-billed Tern - 6
Caspian Tern - 11
Whiskered Tern - 110

Friday, March 04, 2005

Amphibians in Iraq

Iraq has only 7 species of amphibian, of these I only saw 1, the Green Toad. In late March in Balad I started hearing the toads calling in the ditches, which at the time still had some water. About a month later I found one under a piece of cardboard in some wet mud. In April and again in May I found individual toads hopping around our building at night after it rained. The toads must aestivate during the summer, burrowing down into the soil to survive the heat.

My home state of Connecticut has 22 native species of amphibians. Iraq is relatively poor in species because of the arid nature of much of the country. All the frogs and toads are widespread species but two newt species, especially the Kurdistan Newt have very restricted ranges.

In addition to the Green Toad, Iraq is also home to 3 other species of frogs. One of the frogs is the very handsome looking Mediterranean Tree Frog (Hyla Savignyi), It looks a bit like our Pine Barrens Tree Frog. Two other standard type frogs are the Marsh Frog (Rana ridibunda) and the Edible Frog (Rana esculenta).

In the north of Iraq three species of Newts are found. Two in the Yellow-spotted Newt complex (Neurergus)The Azerbaijan Newt (N. crocatus) and the Kurdistan Newt (N. microspilotus). If you look at the link for the Kurdistan Newt, its amazing how similar the color is to our Spotted Salamander.

The last amphibian species listed for Iraq is the Banded Newt (Triturus vittatus). This last species may occur in N. Iraq near the Turkish border but I haven't found any definitive documentation. It is found in Syria, Turkey and Iran as well as further afield.

Frogs and Toads
Green Toad
Mediterranean Tree Frog
Marsh Frog
Edible Frog

Azerbaijan Newt
Kurdistan Newt
?Banded Newt

Green Toad captured April 2004, LSA Anaconda, near Balad, Iraq