Thursday, December 29, 2005

Pond at Tallil Airbase (Ali Base) December 2004. The Ziggurat of Ur is in the distance. I watched a pair of Pied Kingfishers, a Kentish (Snowy) Plover, a Grey Heron and a fine Male Black Redstart here. The city of Ur was the traditional home of the prophet Abraham.

Though this blog is focused on Iraqi wildlife I will make a little detour on this entry.

A reader soon to deploy to Afghanistan asked a few questions that I'll try to answer here.

The first is: what resources are there on Afghan birds? I've only found a few references since Afghanistan has been somewhat neglected since the 1979 Russian invasion. A few old British texts describe the wildlife of the region. Birdlife international has a review of the birdlife of Afghanistan which has a mix of palearctic and oriental species and 460 recorded species. There is one Afghan endemic, Afghan Snowfinch (Montifringila theresae). Happily we have one recent trip report of 82 species made by Anssi Kullberg combining the observation of 4 trips through Afghanistan in 2002. Some spectacular birds are to be seen. A birder from Iraq would recognise many of the familiar favorites: Magpies, Hoopoes, Crested Larks, Pied Kingfishers, Indian and European Roller plus many others. They would also be treated to birds of Indian origin like Brahminy Starling, Black Drongo and House Crow. Some truly exotic birds like the Himalayan Monal, a colorful and rare pheasant, are also on the Afghan list. A somewhat pricey two volume guide has been published this year by Lynx in Spain. The Birds of South Asia is the first guide to fully cover the birds of Afghanistan and at slightly less than $100 US is a good investment for someone spending a long time in Afghanistan.

Another question involved digiscoping and blogging from a forward deployed area. Others may want to add their 2 cents here. I did not have a great camera for birds, nor a scope. If I had to do it again I would try to bring both. I missed a lot of birds because they were out of binocular range.

I found that blogging anonymously is the way to go. It simplifies things considerably and makes the command much more comfortable with your blogging in general. My self imposed rules were very strict because of my role in battalion intelligence. I never revealed my name, my unit or my location in the country. We had many incidents that I never wrote about on my other blog because a relatively smart person could identify my location from the incident and perhaps use it for battle damage assessment. When it came to my wildlife watching, any and all my writing was seen as universally innocuous and not an operational security issue.

I've started posting again on HomeRange, my general natural history blog. It started out as my nature observations but I let it slide in back in May. I recently changed the focus to whatever I feel like writing about, from my observations to interesting news items.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Michael Yon, one of my favorite bloggers in Iraq, has a contemplative post with lots of bird pictures he's taken in the last year. These include White-cheeked Bulbuls, Mesopotamian Crow and Spur-winged and White-tailed Plovers. I'm always pleased when I find someone, especially a soldier or former soldier in Michael's case, is interested in birds. It is an indicator to me of a person who can get outside of their immediate personal concerns. I guess it reminds me of the archetypal gentleman soldiers, renaissance men like the some of the British soldiers in the Mesopotamian campaign who compiled their observations of birds, mammals, plants and archeology into reports published by the Bombay Natural History Society. Or General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General staff, enjoying a short walk watching goldfinch and stonechats on the eve of the Normandy invasion. I'm not sure if its coincidence or not but many of these multidimensional characters that I've met have been Marines. I'm not sure if there is something about the Marines that draws the soldier-scholar. Several I have met have been incredible students of history and culture and impressive intellectuals.

On another note I bought a copy of A Systematic List of the Vertebrates of Iraq by Mahdi and Georg (1969). There are 385 species of birds listed. Its a start to a comprehensive Iraq list. Avibase lists 416 species. It will probably be a few years before there is an Iraq Rare Records Committee and an official Iraq list.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Tigris Salmon or Pike Barb (Barbus esocinus) - Iraq's largest freshwater fish. Reputed to grow up to 6.5 feet long and weigh a few hundred pounds. This picture was taken at Camp Slayer near Baghdad International Airport. Note the palace in the background - Saddam called it Victory over America Palace. When I was at Slayer I saw some huge fish splashing around. I also saw announcements for a fishing contest. I think this would have won it at around 75 pounds.

The weather in Iraq has cooled down considerably. Many of the winter resident birds have returned to Iraq. The huge flocks of rooks, the most social of the crows, have come back as well as the ducks and shorebirds. The nightly spectacle of thousands upon thousands of rooks returning to their roosts after a day of foraging in the surrounding farmland will treat both the residents of the surrounding villages and towns and some of the new troops at LSA Anaconda. Sometimes the rooks would gather in large groups and form a tight spinning column as they rode a thermal.

Last year around this time I gave an interview on NPR about my birding in Iraq.

Mudhafar Salim, an Iraqi ornithologist with the Iraq Nature Conservation Society who has been working with Birdlife International on their surveys of the southern marshes has posted a series of great photographs from some of his fieldwork earlier this year. He has photos of 17 species including the endangered Basrah Reed Warbler, Little Crake, Marbled Teal, Slender-billed Gulls and European Scops Owl.

Included in Mudhafar's other marsh pictures is a shot of 4 fish caught in one of the marshes. I haven't been able to identify the catfish (Possibly an introduced Asian Stinging Catfish), but the other three fish are Mesopotamian Spiny Eels ( Mastacembelus mastacembelus). Other members of this interesting group of fish are kept as aquarium fish, some growing over 3 feet long. Captive fish have a habit of burrowing in the gravel to either hide or look for food. Wild fish most likely do the same hunting for food or hiding from predators.

Brian Coad, a Canadian scientist working with the Canada-Iraq wetlands Initiative is working on a document on the freshwater fish of Iraq. So far he has a checklist and bibliography up. It seems like he has done a lot of work separating out the valid records from records from erroneous reports. Its good to see someone working on a biodiversity project like this. This should be a great resource when completed. Iraq has a number of interesting species including blind cave fish and a large and diverse cyprinid (carp and minnow family) fauna. An added bonus is this document should be a boon to the many coalition troops who enjoy fishing on their off time and catch unusual fish that they can't ID. Perhaps one day there will be fishing outfitters on the Tigris and Euphrates ready to cater to tourists who are after that giant Tigris Salmon. Here's some pictures from a Navy guy in camp victory who brought his flyrod. He also caught a good sized Tigris Salmon as well as some large elongated cyprinids that almost look like a cross between a mullet and a carp. Other species that are being regularly caught is the Asp (Aspius sp.), big-head carp and a large catfish related to the giant wels of Europe and Asia. Some more pictures can be seen at this website. Just scroll down and look for the guys in desert camoflage.

The fourth rotation of US troops is well under way and there are more birders among them. LTC Bob at Camp Victory may be back stateside already. He recently had two more posts. One on the Indian Roller and another on Purple and Grey Herons. Out in Al-Anbar province one of the Marines, Michael Fay has been watching the birds in his spare moments, he also happens to be their artist in residence and has just returned from covering the heavy fighting near the Syrian border. A possible successor to LTC Bob in the Camp Victory Area is Joe H. who is about 1 month into his tour. He posted some of his sighting at

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Sunset over Laundry Pond - LSA Anaconda, September 2004

This several acre pond surrounded by reeds is a focus of bird activity on base.

I found that another birder has made it to Anaconda. His main interest is reptiles but he's looking out for the other critters too. His work area is near the other large pond on post. He's got a few photos on his blog of black-winged stilts. I'm looking forward to hearing about his observations.

Birdlife International has put Google Maps links on their IBA (Important Bird Area) pages. I was thinking of doing this myself, but I'm happy for someone else to do the work. What's needed now is all the IBA locations on one interactive map.

I've looked through some satellite photos of IBAs in Iraq using Google Map by typing in the coordinates. This new function on the IBA pages makes it much easier to explore.

Here's a few interesting ones to check out. To view the map click on the map link on the IBA page and then click on satellite View and zoom in.

Bahr al Milh - A large artificial lake created in the late 1970's as a flood control basin for the Euphrates. It has become an important area for waterbirds. In 1979 over 100,000 coot were reported to be wintering on the lake along with tens of thousands of ducks including Smew, Gadwall, Shovelers, and Marbled Teal. Large concentrations of grebes were reported including 600 Great Crested Grebes and over a thousand black-necked grebes. Also present in the area are Dalmatian Pelicans and Greater Flamingos.

Samarra Dam
- The Tigris River is dammed at Sammara creating a large wetland next to the city. Almost 150 species have been recorded here. Many raptors migrate through this area in the fall. In the marsh such species as Goliath Heron, Great Bittern, Common Pochard have been seen. Gray Hypocolius, See-See Partridge and Dead Sea Sparrow are breeders. In 1992 a pair of Sociable Plovers was reported from here.

Ser Amadiya
- This is a mountain ridge that reaches elevations of up to 2000 meters near the Turkish border in Iraqi Kurdistan. The birdlife of the oak and juniper forests is unlike that of the rest of the country. Eurasian Nightjar, Syrian Woodpecker, Eastern and Western Rock Nuthatch, Ortolan Bunting and the unusual corvids the chough and the alpine chough. 3 Species of vulture are resident in the higher elevations (Lammergier, Egyptian and Griffon). In early spring flocks of snow finch sometimes visit the snowfields.

Khawr al Zubair
- A huge tidal mudflat area near the Persian Gulf, apparently never surveyed for birds but likely an important area for wintering waterbirds.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Mesopotamian Crow Calling - LSA Anaconda, January 2005

LTC Bob near Baghdad has only a couple more months until he redeploys back home. He has a few more posts up on Silflay Hraka with some great pictures.

The picture of the male black francolin may actually be one of the 2 individuals I saw at Camp Victory last year. He also has some pictures of francolin chicks and a post on Spur-winged Plover with pictures of plover chicks and a black-winged stilt chick. His latest post is on the Collared Pratincole and an Indian Roller post is forthcoming. Last month LTC Bob wrote about the Golden Jackal.

In other birding news, The Field Guide to the Birds of the Middle East, the guide I used in Iraq is being published in Arabic in February of 2006. This is a very significant event in my opinion. Just as the Peterson Field Guides spawned a generation of birders in the US, I hope that this book will do the same in the Middle East. It would be a great thing if each school in Iraq could have a copy to inspire young naturalists.

On another subject, I've been reading the very interesting journal of Andrew Cote, a guy from Connecticut who just came back from a trip to Iraq in August. He was in Iraq to train farmers in modern techniques of beekeeping. Here's a story about him in a local paper.

Reading through the entries I learned that some of the beekeepers in the Kurdish north have problems with European Bee-eaters for a few weeks during migration when the birds gorge themselves on Honeybees. In one village one of the beekeepers even produced the carcass of a bee-eater. The picture is on the website in his gallery (I can't seem to link to it). There are also interesting pictures of the traditional beehives which are made of straw and mud. In the fall these hives are cracked open like a giant nut to get the honey out.

The whole site is fascinating. I learned that, as in the US, the dreaded Varroa Mite has decimated the honeybee population, decreasing it perhaps 90%. Other problems are the Oriental Hornets, gigantic orange and yellow beasts that can tear up a hive. I dispatched quite a few of them when I was in Iraq. Having an insect net came in handy when it was bug killing time. I just read a story this week about how honeybees sometimes kill one of this hornet's even larger relatives, the Asian Giant Hornet, by cooking it to death. The bees swarm over a hornet and form a ball around the insect. They beat their wings furiously creating enough heat to kill the hornet. They actually come only a few degrees from cooking themselves. Both Oriental and Giant Hornets can destroy a large hive. They crush the honeybees in their mandibles one after another until the bees are all dead. They then take away the juicy larvae in the combs.

After reading through all the entries and thinking about my Father's hive he had while we were growing up I felt like beekeeping might be something I might like to try when I have a little more free time.

Doing a bit of research I found that the clay and straw hives made excellent weapons in the past. A kind of ready-made bee grenade that could be dropped on the enemy. Here's an entry from a book called Robbing Bees: A biography of honey by Holley Bishop published earlier this year describing such a use in the battle of Hatra in Iraq.

Before sophisticated box hives were invented, bees kept in twig, straw or clay vessels of various sizes were adapted as weapons. Bee grenades could be hurled through the air or dropped on enemies. By the time they reached their target, the projected bees were
outraged, ready to explode in a fury of stings. In book III of his History
Herodian describes the second century seige of Hatra, in modern-day Iraq, and
the use of bees as weapons.

Every kind of seige engine was used against the walls (of the city) and no technique of seige operation was left untried. But the people of Hatra rigorously defended themselves by firing down missles and stones onto the army of Severus below and causing them a good deal of damage. They made clay containers filled with little flying insects that had poisonous
stings, which were then fired off. When the missiles fell onto Severus’ army, the insects crawled into the eyes and exposed parts of the skin of the soldiers and stung them causing severe injuries.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Owls in Iraq

A few days ago I wrote an entry that was promptly launched into Blogger oblivion. This time I'll back it up.

Laura Erikson at has been getting some more photos of Iraqi birds from people stationed there. She has 15 species in her gallery and all are worth looking at. She has a picture of a Scops Owl (possibly a Pallid Scops) taken in northern Iraq by Jim Lewis. I'm very jealous. I saw both Barn Owls and Little Owls at LSA Anaconda. Both seemed to be residents there, but no Scops Owls. Of all the birders in Iraq I've heard about in the last year Jim is the only one who has seen a Scops owl. Avibase lists 10 species of owls from Iraq of which 3 are familiar to North American birders (Barn, Long-eared and Short-eared). Since some of them are woodland species I suspect a few are only found in the mountain forests along the Turkish border. Here's the list with links to pictures and info.

Barn Owl (Picture, Info)
Pallid Scops-Owl (Picture, Info)
European Scops-Owl (Picture, Info)
Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Picture, Info)
Pharaoh Eagle-Owl (Picture, Info)
Brown Fish-Owl (Picture, Info)
Tawny Owl (Picture, Info)
Little Owl (Picture, Info)
Long-eared Owl (Picture, Info)
Short-eared Owl (Picture, Info)

For those stationed currently in Iraq here's a few links for nest box designs that could be erected either on your FOB or in a village to encourage nesting. I'm not sure about all species of owls, but some local farmers around LSA Anaconda considered Little owls or Booma bad luck. Apparently its a widely held superstition in the Arab world that to see an owl is bad luck to hear one is worse. Maybe they can be convinced that killing rodents around the village or farm is a good thing.

Boxes for Little Owls
Boxes for Barn Owls

These plans may have to be adapted for the high temperature in Iraq. Both species nested and roosted inside the large concrete bunkers at Anaconda, probably because they were cool during the summer.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

I'm back from a fantastic week in Wyoming and Montana. I saw one life bird, Trumpeter Swan and many, such as Clark's Nutcracker, that I've only seen once or twice before. We didn't see any Grizzlies at Yellowstone, apparently this has been a good year for pine nuts and they are busy up in the mountains fattening up on nuts and Army Cutworm caterpillars (Spodoptera sp.).

On the birding front in Iraq I found a piece written by Major Ed Lowsma to a local Audubon Society in Florida describing some of his birding experiences.

I've been making my way through the wonderful Emirates Natural History Group website. This very active club from the UAE takes frequent trips around the Emirates and Oman. Special interest groups cover all manner of creatures to archeology and local history. It would be fantastic to have a similar group devoted to the natural history of Iraq.

As in the US, the shorebird migration is underway again in Iraq. Sandpipers and plovers of many species will pass through or decide to stay in the ponds and wetlands that dot central and southern Iraq. Because jumping out of a heavily armed convoy to check out the shorebirds at the roadside ponds was not an option, I was frustrated, especially with the smaller sandpipers I saw running around in the mudflats, but couldn't get an ID on them. I was lucky that my base and a few that I visited had ponds where I could spend a bit more time. In the winter there are literally dozens of ponds by the side of the highway, most with at least a few birds all the way from just over the Kuwaiti border to Baghdad. A birder could probably spend a week slowly making his or her way up from Kuwait, stopping by the road, scanning the ponds. A spotting scope is definitely needed. I would even recommend one for the larger on base ponds. It would have been great for both shorebirds and waterfowl.

Even with my limited mobility I managed to see a good selection of shorebirds. For any readers in Iraq this is a good starting list of what to look for.

Pied Avocet
Black-winged Stilt
Ringed Plover
Kentish Plover
Spur-winged Plover
Red-wattled Plover
Sociable Plover **
White-tailed Plover
Common Snipe
Great Snipe
Black-tailed Godwit
Spotted Redshank
Common Redshank
Green Sandpiper
Wood Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper

** Just a note on Sociable Plover - I saw a flock of about 20 birds I identified as this species in an agricultural area bordering the desert north of Balad in October of last year. Since this is a globally threatened species whose numbers have dropped dramatically it would be a significant sighting. I was traveling in a Blackhawk helicopter at high speed at the time so I didn't have time to study them. I think the chances are good that it was this species as I felt they were different from the numerous spur-winged and red-wattled plovers I saw on the same flight, however, given their rarity and my less than favorable view all I can say is I may have seen this species. Definitely something for others to look for.

Finally, I found a few pictures and maps of telemetry tagged vultures that passed through Iraq on their migration. The Georgian Center for the Conservation of Wildlife has tagged vultures as part of an ongoing study. One was a Griffon Vulture (picture of bird, map of migration route) that was captured in the Republic of Georgia and migrated to Saudi Arabia and back to Georgia passing first down the Zagros mountains of Iran then cutting across the southern desert of Iraq on its way south. On its northward journey it cut across Iraq south of Baghdad and followed the mountains north into Iraqi Kurdistan. The second tagged vulture was a Cinereous Vulture (picture of bird, map of migration route) that follows a very similar pathway south, cutting across the Iran/Iraq border in the same general area. Perhaps a good location to watch raptors.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Hello to all my Finnish readers. For some reason I had over 300 hits from Finland today!

I didn't make it up to Montreal a few weeks ago for the ESA meeting. I was disappointed that the media covering the symposium only rewrote the press release. I'll make an effort in the next couple weeks to see if I can get some of the presentations. They deserve a wide audience. I'm especially interested to hear about what Mudhafar Salim from the Iraq Nature Conservation Society has been seeing in the bird surveys of the southern marshes.

I've been very, very busy lately. I have been studying for the the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test). The test is on Saturday, so it is an understatement to say I'll have a little more time after that.

This coming Sunday I'll be going out to Yellowstone National Park with my three oldest children and one of my good friends who helped us out a lot when I was deployed. Another one of my friends owns a cabin just outside the park.

After I get back I have a good bit of work to do on this blog. First I have been negligent in keeping up with my emails. Many people have emailed me and I've been too swamped to reply. I also need to re-establish some contacts in Iraq which I have also let slip. The site also needs to cosmetic changes. Blogger messed with the code months ago and I haven't bothered to try and fix it.

Just a few new sites I've found recently. A soldier near Baghdad found an orphaned kestrel and fed the young bird lizards and mice until it was fledged. The story and a picture are here.

I found another Danish site with Iraqi wildlife. This time its snakes. Apparently Søe Pedersen and his wife Karin are reptile breeders. One or both of them spent time in northern Iraq and collected snakes. Their site has nice pictures of Large Whipsnake (Coluber jugularis) from Irbil, Dahl's Whipsnake (Coluber najadum), Caucasian Ratsnake (Zamenis hohenackeri) and Bulgarian Ratsnake (Elaphe sauromates). I especially liked his description of a Montpellier Snake (Malpolon monspessulanus) that he found when a large ratsnake barfed it up. He thought it was dead and brought it home to examine. The next morning he found the snake revived and hissing in his waste basket. Some of the species descriptions have pictures of the snake habitat in Iraq where they were caught.

Finally on the domestic animal side I found a site by Sir Terence Clark who lived in Iraq from 1985 to 1990. His article describes some of his investigations into the origins of the Saluki, a hunting dog related to the Afghan Hound. There is an amazing photo from the Royal Harthiya Hunt in 1946 Baghdad. The men are on horses in traditional English Foxhunting gear and are surrounded by a pack of Dorset Foxhounds.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

I put a donation button on the website today. I can spend a bit more time doing this if I have some money coming in. Ideally, I would like to spend 8 or so hours a week working on this and related projects. A short term project, which perhaps some people would consider financing is getting to the ESA meeting in Montreal next week to hear and hopefully meet some of the Iraqi biologists who have been doing research in the southern marshes. I've heard that the bird surveys in the Marshes yielded some amazing birds. I'll wait till the researchers themselves publicly release the info, but the news is very heartening.

Anyway, here's the expense breakdown for the ESA meeting. I promise to be the paragon of frugality. I'll even publish my expense report!

My plan is to leave Connecticut and drive (about 6 1/2 hours) to Montreal the night before the meeting (Tuesday). After the meeting I'll hop in the car, drink a few Red Bulls and drive back to Connecticut.

Gasoline (710 mile round trip) - $80
1 day registration for meeting - $230 !
1 night at hotel - $80
Misc. (food, parking, etc.) - $120

I plan to write in depth about the research going on in Iraq when I return.

I've come across a few more soldiers accounts of wildlife sightings recently. I'm trying to track down some British Soldiers who have been birding in Iraq. Both the British Army and the RAF have ornithological societies composed of current and retired members of the services. The Army Ornithological Society takes trips all over Europe and sometimes further afield (like Malaysia). I know at least one of their members has just returned from Iraq.

I'm working (very slowly) on my systematic list. When I wrote all the birds down I had 116 species from Iraq plus two additional from Kuwait (Desert Warbler and Brown-necked Raven).

I found an email from BBC correspondent Frank Gardner on the OSME yahoo group (MEBirdNet) who reported what was probably the first westerner's report of Iraqi bird sightings in a decade from Basra in May 2003. Tragically in June 2004 Frank, the BBC security correspondent in the Middle East, was shot multiple times and partially paralyzed in Saudi Arabia in a terrorist associated attack that killed a BBC cameraman. Frank is back in England and gave an interview in June.

Date: Fri, 09 May 2003 19:11:03 +0100
From: Frank Gardner
Subject: FW: Salaams from Basra

Greetings from HQ 7th Armoured Brigade with just happens to be in a fabulous former palace of Saddam's. Moats, orchards and scrub, its a paradise for birds. The air is filled with a flock of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters that have been here a week now. The European variety are still around in small numbers. First to wake up in the morning are the Red-Wattled Lapwings which are making a fearful racket. But there's also a pair of White-tailed Plovers here, beautiful birds with long, trailing yellow legs. Outside the cookhouse there's a Red-backed Shrike sharing the same tree as a Lesser-Grey Shrike and just behind the ammo dump there's a pair of Common Babblers (yes, black eye, not yellow!) hiding. A flock of Yellow-throated Sparrows is on the ground, mingling with the odd Whitethroat and I've seen a solitary Sedge Warbler. Fishing from the moat are 3 Pied Kingfishers and just across the Shatt Al-Arab Ive seen Squacco Heron and White-throated Kingfisher in the date palms. One surprise for me is to see Wood Pigeon here (they wake us up in London at weekends!) but the highlight has been a stunning male Red-necked Phalarope swimming round in circles on a lake out near the oil refinery. hope yr both well all the best
Frank G

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The desert monitor is a lizard I wanted to see. Getting over 4 feet long they are the largest of Iraq's lizards. They make quite an entrance when they happen to fall into your foxhole in the middle of the night as happened to several soldiers in both the Gulf War and the current war.

I recently found a nice picture from Tallil Airbase in the southern part of the country. I never came across one myself. The only monitor I've ever seen in the wild was a water monitor in Indonesia. Some of the desert monitor's relatives are giants. The Komodo Dragon from Indonesia is the largest living relative weighing several hundred pounds. An extinct Australian species (Megalania prisca) was even bigger at almost 20 feet long.

A juvenile Desert Monitor from Tallil Airbase near Ad Nasiriyah, Iraq.
The ruins of the ancient city of Ur, one of the world's first cities and the birthplace of the prophet Abraham are next to the base. Perhaps this lizard's ancestors were getting caught by the ancient Sumerians or a young Abraham.

The Rare and Elusive Iraqi Pineapple/Watermelon Crocodile as seen at DFAC 2, LSA Anaconda - Thanksgiving 2004.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The World Wildlife Fund defines 8 distinct terrestrial ecoregions in Iraq ranging from the Eastern Mediterranean Conifer/Broadleaf forest in the north near Turkey to the Persian Gulf Desert in the South. Take a look at the Map on the National Geographic site.

Here's the 8 Regions and Links to their respective pages which contain lots of good information on the wildlife and vegetation of each area.

PA(Palearctic)0446 - Zagros Mountains Forest Steppe
PA0812 - Middle East Steppe
PA0906 - Tigris-Euphrates Alluvial Salt Marsh
PA1207 - Eastern Mediterranean Conifer/Sclerophyllous Broadleaf Forest
PA1303 - Arabian Desert and East Sahero-Arabian Xeric Shrubland
PA1320 - Mesopotamian Shrub Desert
PA1323 - Persian Gulf Desert and Semi-Desert
PA1328 - South Iran Nubo-Sindian Desert and Semi-Desert

I found a few more bird pictures from soldiers. These pictures are of a White-winged Black Tern on the Tigris River in Baghdad. These birds are a common sight on both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers during the summer. They nest in marshes and wetlands along the river as do Whiskered Terns which were also common where I was near Balad.

Also here's a story about Barn Owls living at LSA Anaconda in one of the bunkers. I saw a pair of barn owls on Anaconda a number of times and I heard of reports from other bases. They seemed to be fairly common. The subspecies in the region is Tyto alba erlangeri. On Anaconda a little owl was also using a concrete bunker for a roosting site.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The first migrating shorebirds start moving through Iraq this month making their way back from Siberia, Northern Russia and Northern Europe. Some will winter in the Iraqi wetlands, while others continue on to Africa.

Marsh Sandpiper - Qurnah, Iraq. Henrik Mikkelsen has graciously given me permission to use some of his photos of Iraqi birds.

The Lesser White-fronted Goose, that spent the winter visiting the marshes of central and southern Iraq has now returned to northern Russia less than 2 km from where it was fitted with a satellite transponder last year. Here's a satellite photo of the large marsh area where it was initially found about 85 km east of Baghdad called Haur Al Shubaicha. If you zoom out on the google map you can see that the wetland is fairly isolated in a dry area. This should translate into at least an important stopover point for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, probably also good for wintering birds.

I've been reading several reports that have been generated out of the Canada-Iraq Marshlands Initiative. This collaboration between Waterloo University in Canada and various organizations and ministries operating in Iraq is working to restore the Mesopotamian marshes and to increase the Iraqi capacity to monitor the health of the marshes. Biodiversity surveys of key sites are a major objective. Here's a presentation about the aims of the program. Other reports worth reading are the proceedings of the workshop held in Jordan last year:

For four days June 19-22 of 2004, a team of Canadian, Iraqi and international
participants met together to discuss the future needs of marshlands management in
Iraq. In particular the group focused on the restoration of the southern marshlands of
Iraq, the area historically called Lower Mesopotamia and today referred to as the Al-
Ahwar region.
The participants in this meeting met at the invitation of the University of Waterloo, a
Canadian University leading a project sponsored by the Canadian International
Development Agency. Many interests are actively developing proposals for work in
cooperation with the Government of Iraq on the restoration of ecological and cultural
values of wetlands in Iraq, particularly the southern Mesopotamian marshlands of the
nation. Field programs or preliminary evaluations on wetland restoration, reflooding,
water monitoring and fisheries resources for example have already been implemented.
These are being done with the assistance of scientists from the many nations and in
cooperation with groups such as the Iraq Foundation and Iraq government ministries.

The program has sponsored two workshops in conjunction with Birdlife International for Iraqi biologists who will be carrying out the survey work. One was conducted in Jordan, the other in Syria.

Many of the participants will be attending a special session of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) meeting in Montreal next month. I'm thinking about going if I can swing it. It would be fantastic to meet some of the people involved, especially the Iraqi biologists who will be there.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Two weeks ago, I came across a blog that proves its a small world. The soldier 1. Works for the American Red Cross Blood Services 2. Graduated from the same University as I 3. Is working on his MPH 4. Is blogging from Iraq 5. Notices the critters. He's not my doppelganger, but we do share a few things.

On his blog I noticed a few pictures of the local wildlife. He has a Uromastyx picture, posing like a prehistoric dinosaur. From what I've heard, they sometimes live in loose colonies and can be fairly abundant in some camps.

Also on his page are pictures of a large tenebrionid beetle and a camel spider.

His last picture is the first I've seen of a Fringe-toed lizard from Iraq (Acanthodactylus scutellatus). There are several species in this family found in the region. The toes have little projecting scales that help the lizard get traction while running on soft sand. There is actually an unrelated group of lizards in the US and Mexico (Uma sp.) that share the same common name and look superficially similar. The North American Fringe-toed Lizards are quite good at sand swimming and using their shovel nose and specialized toes to move beneath the sand like they are swimming in the water. Since the Iraq lizards have similar adaptations they probably exhibit similar behaviors.

One of the favorite escape techniques of some dune loving lizards is to dive under the sand just after cresting a dune. The predator sees the lizard run up to the top of the dune and gives chase. When the predator gets to the other side, the lizard is gone.

The king of the sand swimmers in Iraq has to be the Sandfish (Scincus scincus). Its really a lizard in the Skink family. The sandfish spends most of its time underground living in soft sand. It feels vibrations from insects and other invertebrates walking around on the surface. It ambushes the prey from below and pulls them under. It reminds me a little of the Sand Worms in the Dune Novels.

Monday, June 06, 2005

This week I participated in a large Bioblitz in East Hartford, CT. In all over 1700 species of organisms were identified. The birders found around 90 species, botanists cataloged hundreds of vascular plants plus many lichen, fungi and algaes, mercury vapor and UV lights were run to catch insects with hundreds of species of moths and beetles and smaller numbers of other insect orders. The DEP ran their electroshock boat and found several dozen species of fish. The parasitologists also found interesting things like one frog with six species of parasites. The purpose of this exercise was to provide a quick snapshot of the local flora and fauna and to educate the public about biodiversity. Both these could be easily translated to Iraq.

I propose a string of bioblitzes in Iraq covering the major Biomes from North to South, including the Tigris and Euphrates valleys and the remanents of the Southern marshes. Using a small team, the results would be beamed live via satellite and through the internet to a wide audience, both Iraqi and International. The internet could also be used to involve experts from around the world, taxonomists, ecologists, etc who could provide commentary and background on the species of plants and animals being found. The Iraqi Bioblitz could serve several purposes. First, a biological inventory of key areas has important scientific value. Second it could contribute to efforts of groups like Eden Again, Nature-Iraq and Birdlife International who are pursuing conservation efforts in Iraq. Third specimens could be deposited in Iraqi Museums to replace reference collections that have been looted or destroyed. Fourth, participation by Iraqi Biologists would give them international visibility and encourage collaboration with collegues outside Iraq. I think the education potential for Iraqi schools is also very important, as it was in Connecticut - perhaps setting a few children on the path of Iraq's next generation of biologists and conservationists.

The security situation may seem a hinderance, but there are many areas of Iraq that I would gladly go today if given the opportunity. When I was in Iraq, 85% of all the violence occured within a 100 km radius of Baghdad. Even in the Baghdad area, violence is focal. I'm sure with proper coordination with the government, appropriate locations could be identified. I'm betting it wouldn't be hard to get sponsors. The first thing to do is write up a technical proposal for the project, which I'll give myself a month to start. Once I have a decent outline, I'll post the document on the web and anyone who wants to help collectively construct it can have a go, a la Wikipedia. We'll see where things go from there. My binoculars and bug net are ready.

For those who haven't been regular visitors to Bigwig at Silflay Hraka, go and check out LTC Bob's recent sightings at Camp Victory. He's up over 50 species now. Recent entries include the Rufous Bush Robin, a spry little bird that I used to see along the Tigris and jumping around in Mulberry bushes near the LSA Anaconda Medical Clinic. The Bush Robin's behavior always reminded me of a Carolina Wren, very active and inquisitive.

I'm a big fan of Bigwigs commentary that goes with the pictures. For example he informs us that the Blue-cheeked bee-eater actually eats more dragonflies and damselflies than anything else. That's a fact that I can confirm. Anaconda's resident bee-eaters spent all spring and summer hanging out at either the laundry pond or off base along the many canals that crisscrossed our area. Good dragonfly territory.

Speaking of Bee-eaters, James Lewis, working in Kirkuk has taken some great photos, among them a European Bee-eater, which I looked for when I was up near Mosul, but never saw. According to my Birds of the Middle East, this species breeds in the northern part of Iraq. It looks quite different from the Blue-cheeked and yes this sort does count bees as a major food source. On the bee menu I recommend a nice 2005 large black carpenter bee...very juicy. James has emailed some of his pictures to Laura Erickson at where she's posted them with some info on the birds.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

I wasn't expecting Danish birders in Iraq, yet I've found the bird pictures of two of them (Henrick Mikkelsen and Flemming Ulrich), taken in 2003 and 2004 in Basrah and Qurnah in Southern Iraq. Qurnah is the headquarters of the Danish military forces in Iraq. I'm assuming both guys are Danish Soldiers. I found 30 pictures of 17 species of Iraqi birds on a Danish Birding Site called

Some of the species include Macqueen's (Houbara) Bustard, Indian Roller, Laughing Dove and Common Kingfisher.

Henrick also has some pictures from Kuwait and the UAE of regional species such as Crab Plover, Western Reef Heron, and Sacred Ibis.

Friday, May 20, 2005

I found a fantastic picture of a soldier with an Arabian Sand Boa from Camp Bucca in the southern desert area of Iraq near the Kuwaiti Border. The colors on the snake are incredible.

Apparently there are two species of sand boa (genus Eryx) found in Iraq. The Arabian Sand Boa (Eryx jayakari) and the Spotted Sand Boa (Eryx jaculus).

The eyes of the Arabian Sand Boa are positioned on the top of their head so they can stick them out from underneath the sand without exposing their head. The body is stout and flattened to help it burrow in the sand. They are nocturnal animals and I imagine they hunt lizards and small rodents. has an interesting series of Arabian Sand Boa pictures (text is in Arabic) including one killing a lizard.

On the birding front I was checking out the Ornithological Society of the Middle East website. Sadly, there were no reports for Iraq in the seasonal notes. Iran especially seems to have an active birding community and I was very envious reading a trip report from a birding tour of Iran.

With many recent sightings by westerners working in Iraq and Iraqi biologists themselves, this should be the last time that Iraq is a blank space on the map in Middle Eastern Ornithology. I encourage everyone to submit their sighting to the editor of "Around the Region" at OSME ( and lets start things out right. In a few years we should have the first of many Iraqi trip reports from a birding tour. When I was in Iraq and traveling around I always thought Iraq had great potential for both ecotourism and tourism to its archeological and historical sites.

I did start my North American Nature Blog. Hopefully I'll have a little time to devote to it.

Friday, May 13, 2005

I received a great picture from Mark, an Army contractor up in Mosul. The picture shows a water snake (probably Natrix tesselata) eating a fish in a small pond on his base. Also in the picture is a frog (I'd guess it is a Marsh Frog (Rana ridibunda) ) .

Another Marine serving in Iraq posted a picture of a small ratsnake (he thinks it is Coluber jugularis).

More interesting pictures of Iraqi herps can be found on the Armed Forces Pest Management Board Site .

One of the most interesting to me is the legless Zarudnyi's worm lizard (Diplometopon zarudnyi). These are fantastic purple and black looking beasts that burrow in the sand. This is one of a suborder of legless lizards called Amphisbaenia (one weird Mexican group (Genus Bipes) actually has two front legs).

I found an interesting account from an Air Force Sergeant near Um Qasr in southern Iraq.

The photos were taken May 28, 2004 around 11 pm in the vicinity of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq. Staff Sargent Fiddler described the behavior as follows:

"Last night I found two worm lizards while I was doing my rounds. I believe they were mating as you can see by the pictures. However I am not sure. ... When the larger of the two was done doing whatever it was it was doing, it released the smaller one. However they were facing each other 'head-to-toe' in the photos. Instead of them grasping each other by what I thought was there genitalia, the larger ones jaw was grasping the bottom portion of the smaller one. And on a few photos, you can see where the last few centimeters of the smaller lizard appeared to be sunken in a bit along the spine, almost like the larger one was sucking fluids from it." - here's a link to the series of pictures - you need to click on the ADDITIONAL IMAGES button to see the wrestling worm lizard pictures.

This particular species lives in several countries in the middle east including Iraq and burrows in the ground in areas including dunes and date palm groves.

Here's some other Iraqi critters found on the AFPMB site. (The links were too deep and weren't working so I copied them over. Larger images are available at the above site.

Spiny-tailed lizard (Uromastix microlepis) caught and released by MSgt Mike Hartsfield at an undisclosed location in support of Iraqi Freedom.

Spiny Tailed Lizard, photo taken in KuwaitPhotographer: Capt Mark Pomerinke

Pseudocerastes persicus persicus (Persian Sand Viper), This snake was caught in Freedom Air Force Base Kirkuk,Iraq. Identification was made by Dr. Chad McHugh entomologist (Brooks AFB). Picture taken by Lt. Col. Dwayne Knott.

Eirenus modestus (Dwarf Snake). This snake was caught in Freedom Air Force base Kirkuk,Iraq. Identification was made by Dr. Chad McHugh entomologist (Brooks AFB). Picture taken by Dr. (CAPT) Michael Hasler.

Vipera lebetina( blunt nose viper). This snake was caught in Freedom Air Force base Kirkuk,Iraq. Identification was made by Dr. Chad McHugh entomologist (Brooks AFB). Picture taken by Dr. (CAPT) Michael Hasler.

The snake is 3.5 feet long, weighs 3 lbs was found in Freedom AFB Kirkuk, Iraq by AF Security Forces. The snake was identified by Dr. Zuhair Amr as Macrovipera lebetina obtusa. The photographer was Dr. Michael Hasler.

Same snake (Macrovipera lebetina obtusa) as above.

Another image of same snake (Macrovipera lebetina obtusa).

Finally I came across a webpage of a British guy who has recorded some of his nature observations around Camp Victory. The most notable observation is a Goliath Heron he saw near the palace complex. These are gigantic birds (bigger than Great Blue or Grey Herons). I know that they used to be found in the southern marshes but perhaps this was a non-breeder or a post-breeding dispersal. You have to read through his letters home to find his observations, but I found the whole series of posts enjoyable. I especially liked the description of his finding a big fat (Green) Toad calling like a magpie (link to an audio of the male toad's advertisement call).

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Sorry to those who have emailed me lately and haven't received a response. We just had our 5th child and things are crazy. Most of my (other) work gets done after 9:30pm.

I promise I'll get back to the birds in my next post. Several folks have sent me their latest sightings and the general observation that many of the wintering birds have left and migrants continue to pass through. The summer residents are getting situated.

Bigwig has had a few posts about Geckos inspired by an email from LT Bill, who has also been birding. I thought it would be a good opportunity to review all the reptiles I saw in Iraq during the last year and give a bit of background on some of the common species.

The Dhub
Before I left for Iraq I researched as much of the wildlife as I could on the web. While looking into some of the lizards that I might come across I learned about a large lizard known to the Arabs as the Dhub or Dhub-Dhub. It is a member of the genus Uromastyx and some of the members collectively called Spiny-tailed lizards are commonly kept as pets. I've seen them many times in pet shops at home. I loved the name Dhub-Dhub and told my kids about this big fat desert lizard with a funny name. I told them the Bedouins sometimes catch and eat them and I also rashly told them I would catch one.

Fate was on my side and the Dhub-Dhub and I were destined to meet.

In Early February 2004 as part of our unit certification before we crossed the border we moved the battalion to a large range in the Kuwaiti Desert called Udari Range. It was flat and sandy with a few rocky rises, very desolate. On the CQM (Close Quarters Marksmanship) range we familiarized ourselves with shooting quickly at close range, firing while running, and generally walking around with a loaded weapon without shooting ourselves or others. We lined up to shoot at 25 meter targets in wooden frames. After our first set of shots we walked downrange to check our targets. I heard a commotion 2 targets down and saw people gathering around something. It turned out to be a huge fat Uromastyx. It reared up on its front legs, hissed and thrashed its spiky tail around looking very fearsome. No one got very close. I was very excited to see it, but we needed to get on with the shooting.

As we shot volley after volley, the Dhub-Dhub walked slowly around as bullets wizzed over its head. After a while I got concerned that some fool would shoot it. I put on my gloves walked over to it, pinned its head with my boot and picked up the big guy to everyones initial horror. Soon everyone started taking pictures and I was the hero of the moment. I let the lizard go at the edge of our range. Later when a sandstorm kicked up the lizard flattened out on the sand and let the blowing sand pile up around it. A few days later I called my kids and let them know that I had indeed caught a Dhub-Dhub and I'd only been in the desert 10 days.

The species I saw in Kuwait and others have seen in Southern Iraq is Uromastyx aegyptius microlepis .

Me and the Dhub, Udari Range, Kuwait

Geckos were everywhere. In my building, they usually would hang out around the lights hunting for insects, quite a few made it inside. I saw my first geckos in February, very small ones that I think were Mediterranean House Geckos (Hemidactylus turcicus), they ranged in size from about 2 inches to maybe 4 inches long. I think I only saw one species at LSA Anaconda. On a trip to the International (Green) Zone in October I chased a large gecko around the guesthouse I stayed in. It may have been a Yellow-bellied Gecko (Hemidactylus flaviviridis). It was significantly larger than the others at about 8 or 9 inches.

Mediterranean House Gecko?, LSA Anaconda - March 2004

Mediterranean House Gecko? - This guy was running around in our
Tactical Operation Center - I had to kill it - It saw too much :)

Yellow-bellied Gecko? - International Zone, Baghdad - October 2004

I only saw one species of skink. They would scuttle around in the fallen Eucalyptus leaves near our building and sometimes hide under our airconditioner. I managed to catch the one pictured below, but it promptly dropped its tail. I think it may be one of the subspecies of Mabuya vittata - the Bridled or Striped Skink - a species found throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East.

I only saw two species of snake in Iraq. One was the very interesting Thread Snake (Typhlops vermicularis) that people seemed to find when moving sandbags. These tiny burrowing snakes look like little earthworms. They apparently feed on ants, having the habit of breaking into a nest and eating the tasty larvae. The one picture was brought to me by one of our Sergeants wondering if it was poisonous.

The other snake I saw was a colubrid which I think was Coluber ventromaculatus. I've seen at least 3 common names - one is Gray's Desert Racer. The snake pictured was brought for identification by a soldier that had accidently squashed it with a sandbag. This one was only 7 inches long. I later saw a large adult that was around 2 1/2 feet long.

Please let me know if you can positively ID any of the above herps. I know other troops have seen some great herps. In a future post I'll link to as many of the pictures from Iraq as I can find.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Captain Kate, a Marine Pilot and Birder has written a nice synopsis of her birding experiences in Iraq (this is her third tour). She has had some great species that I haven't heard of anyone else seeing yet. These include Greater Flamingo and the regional endemic Grey Hypocolius. I've added a few links in her text to pictures.

Captain Kate:
The first time I was in Iraq for OIF I (Jan-Jul '03), we were stationed in the southern portion of the country. While there I noticed a number of different birds, but did not have access to a field guide of any sort with which to identify them. The only species I could positively identify was the flock of flamingos (presumably greater) that I flew over on a flight to Najaf (I'm a CH-53E pilot). For the rest of the deployment, I tried to capture as many other birds as I could on video. I saw a ton of these little yellow sparrow-sized birds, an odd pair of bright green birds that seemed to be nesting on or in a dirt mound, and this odd bird that had this distinctive call that would end in this dramatic crescendo where he would fly straight up in the air and fall back down as his call descended as well. Any ideas as to what those birds may have been would be extremely appreciated. I would have had a chance to identify them by video, but unfortunately my camera was subsequently destroyed in a helicopter crash. Following my return to the U. S., my parents bought me the (apparently) only book on the subject of Iraqi birds; Field Guide to Birds of the Middle East by R. F. Porter, S. Christensen, and P. Schiermacker-Hansen, first published in 1996 by T&AD Poyser Ltd. The origin of the book itself seems a little sketchy as a Princeton University Press sticker was pasted over the T&AD Poyser Ltd. stamp on the back. And now, it seems Princeton Field Guides has re-published the book as of 2004. Either way, it has proven to be invaluable, although I am sure that the information is in serious need of an update now that the country of Iraq is more accessible.

I'm currently on my third tour in Iraq and stationed at [A base in Al Anbar Province] (for the second time in a year). When I arrived here in February of 2004, I was armed with my new field guide and some binoculars, ready to identify as many birds as I could. At first I thought it was rather an unfortunate spot in which to be situated as the base has very little water in the immediate vicinity. It does have an oasis on base as well as a date palm grove and a seasonally marshy area. Other than that, however, it is bare earth with occasional pomegranate, olive, apricot and other trees found near the buildings. My first few trips walking around the base presented mostly rock doves, woodpigeons, collared doves and house sparrows. It seemed to be pretty banal stuff. However, as time went on (and as we headed through the mating season), I began to notice more and more species. Soon I was identifying a new species every few days.

On the 30-minute walk from the barracks to the workspaces, I logged a number of birds which turned out to be quite common on the base; white-cheeked bulbuls, crested larks, spanish sparrows, black-billed magpies, common ravens, common babblers and hooded crows (mesopotamian??). Forays off the beaten path led me to a common stonechat, a white wagtail, a plain leaf warbler, and a number of species in the shrike family; great grey shrike (aucheri), masked shrike, and red-backed shrike. I also spotted a pair of grey hypocolius and was able to snag a couple of pictures of the pair in flight. The entomologist on base told me he had seen a kingfisher of some sort at the oasis, so we trekked on over to see if we could catch a glimpse. After numerous trips and hours of staring at the water and surrounding reeds, I still had not seen the kingfisher. However I did log a woodchat shrike, numerous barn and red-rumped swallows, a veritable swarm of common swifts, and a common buzzard. The oasis was my only source for waterfowl, and I spotted a little bittern, a moorhen and a pair of red-wattled plovers (lapwings) with their distinctive -- if not extremely annoying -- voice.

I continued to study my guidebook with hopes of identifying new species more easily. One species in particular kept jumping off the page at me -- the hoopoe. I thought it was just the most striking bird and hoped I would be lucky enough to spot one. I was rewarded in April of 2004 with a short glimpse as a gorgeous hoopoe flew right past me and into our courtyard. By the time I could grab my binoculars, he was gone, but there was no mistaking him for any other species. That was the only time I saw a hoopoe in 2004, but I had another sighting just a couple of weeks ago.

I hit a lull in April 2004, but toward the end was lucky enough to see a couple of flocks of blue-cheeked bee-eaters passing through the area. It was shortly after this that I spotted a little owl who had taken up residence in a junkyard on base. I also began to see (but mostly hear) the see-see partridges on a regular basis. Their call is unmistakable. I also noticed a red-tailed wheatear that had taken up residence near our workspaces. During one flight into western Iraq, I nearly ended the life of a common kestrel who thought it would take on my helicopter one-on-one.

Returning to [The base in Al-Anbar] in early March of this year, I had little hopes of logging any new species. I thought I had pretty much exhausted my resources. Luckily, I was wrong and caught a little egret flying toward the marsh as well as a graceful prinia flitting about in the brush near our barracks. I've also noticed a black-eared wheatear that seems to favor the grassy area in front of our barracks. My favorite so far, however, has to be the egyptian nightjar that scared the daylights out of me when I flushed it from about a foot in front of me as I was walking home from work the other day. It only flew a short distance and I was able to sneak close enough to identify it. Luckily it happened to be the only species of nightjar that doesn't have the customary white patch on the wings, so it was easily identified.

Hopefully, the next six months promise more species to add to my list, but I think I may have to get stationed on another base before I can add too many more. I'll keep updating my list as it grows, though.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

I'm very excited to hear about some new sighting in Iraq. Between the emails I've received and lists I've seen published I've heard of at least 20 birds that I didn't see while I was in country.

To facilitate more firsthand accounts, I've decided to make Birding Babylon a group blog. I'll open it up to other birders and wildlife watchers that are in Iraq now or have been previously and want to share some of their experiences. Those interested will be able to post directly to the blog. I'm hoping at least a few people will be regulars and keep up the momentum. If you are interested please send me an email -

Major Ed reports some fantastic birds.

"As I was walking past one of our bombed out palaces last night, a couple of screeching birds flew out and kept circling around me, coming within ten or so feet at times. One of those moments that you are not expecting but turns into an unexpected time of enjoyment. I can only imagine they were Barn Owls.."

I remember a similar experience when a pair of Barn Owls circled around our building screeching...while we were playing Bingo outside.

When I told some of our Iraqi workers about a sighting I had of a Little Owl...they call it Booma, they told me it was bad luck. It told them that it was good luck for me.

Major Ed also mentions that he has seen three species of Kingfisher on the Euphrates River. Myself and others have reported both the Pied Kingfisher and the White-breasted Kingfishers - both spectacular birds. Major Ed has added the diminutive and beautiful Common Kingfisher. I've heard it referred to as a tiny flying jewel with its blues and turquoise and cinnamon breast. A very good bird. I looked unsuccessfully for them in England. My Father remembers them well growing up as a boy in southern England being prone to wandering around the countryside.

Another bird I wish I'd seen that Major Ed reports is the Blue Rock Thrush.

Bigwig at Silflay Hraka has another Iraqi list from Captain Kate, another US Marine Corps officer. He also has been busy adding to the entries on his birds of Iraq series and the photo gallery featuring LTC Bob's and MAJ Ed's photos. Some recent entries are on the Rook, Pied Kingfisher, Collared Dove, Black-winged Stilt, White-breasted Kingfisher and Red-wattled Lapwing.

Among the interesting birds Captain Kate reports are See-See partridge a very handsome little gamebird, Little Bittern - a small heron that I missed and Egyptian Nightjar, a relative of the North American Whip-poor-will and Chuck-wills-Widow.

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

Thursday, February 24, 2005

I've been a bit slow starting my new North American blog. I'll have a link off this site when I do.
I'm still on leave and haven't returned to the American Red Cross yet. This week my kids have vacation so we've been out and about a bit.

Yesterday I went to Simsbury and visited my parents. My father, 5 kids and I took a walk around Nod Brook Wildlife Management Area, my old birding haunt.

Most of the ponds were iced up but in the open patches we saw a lone Mute Swan, a few mallards and some Canada Geese. We saw some American Robins perched in the trees and I saw three Red-winged Blackbirds, though none on their territories yet. At the Farmington River we found several trees that were gnawed on by the beavers. One large tree was well on its way to being girdled.

We saw quite a few signs of spring on our walk. The catkins are coming out on the birches and the alders, one large pussywillow was covered with downy gray buds, and on our way home we examined a Chinese Witch-Hazel that was in full flower. A few days before, the kids and I found the first Skunk Cabbages coming out of our local swamp.

On the Iraqi wildlife front, I again direct you to the adventures of LTC Bob at Camp Victory. He has sent Bigwig at Silflay Hraka a picture of a large Cyprinid (Minnow and Carp Family) that a soldier caught in one of the lakes around Camp Victory. Aspius Vorax is a good sized fish as this picture illustrates. Some of our soldiers had the opportunity to fish where they were stationed. I saw several pictures of large Aspius from our subordinate Companies. I observed fishing soldiers at Camp Liberty, Camp Victory, Camp Slayer and Tallil Airbase. At Tallil the pond is fed from a canal linked by some miles to the Euphrates. The soldiers said they caught several species of fish including carp amd a large catfish.

I also found this picture of a White Wagtail that landed on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman at the start of the war.