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 - jtrend@earthlink.net

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.