Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Bird Count - JBB, Iraq

I've been here in Iraq since the beginning of October. I am currently at Joint Base Balad, formerly LSA Anaconda along the Tigris River north of Baghdad. I usually have been able to go birding for a few hours most Sundays early in the morning with a Sergeant from another unit. Together we are the only current members of the JB3 or Joint Base Balad Birders.Much has changed since I was here 5 years ago. One good change is there are more ponds and lakes to look for birds in. Another benefit is that the mortar and rocket attacks are much more infrequent.

The Laundry Pond where I saw so many birds in my previous still is the most productive area for birds on base. The first time we went there in October there were so many waterbirds, it reminded me of the Everglades. The comical Purple Swamphens clambered over the reeds, while dozens of Little Egrets fed in the shallows. The little grebes dive and pop up everywhere, while the coots and moorhens exercise their full vocal range from the reeds. Among the large rafts of coot and Northern Shovelers, we have found smaller numbers of Common Teal and up to three White-headed Ducks, threatened relatives of the Ruddy Duck of North America. These distinctive small ducks were a surprise for me and my first lifer for this trip to Iraq. Another duck that we see frequently are the spectacular chestnut colored Ferruginous Ducks, which seem to prefer the edges of the pond, near the reeds. When they fly they show large white patches on the wings and are very striking. One morning we saw some Common Pochards, another new species for me. The Common Pochard looks very much like a Redhead or Canvasback from back in the US.

When I went down to Baghdad, I saw a brilliant Common Kingfisher. This bird has iconic status for me, being such a striking species and one that I heard my father describe from his boyhood in southern England, hunting along shallow streams. When I was in England I had hoped to see it, despite scoping out some of the very same streams as my father, I never saw one. My first Kingfisher appeared to me, like a flashing blue diamond, cutting through the brown surrounding the pond I was checking out as it flew past me. I think its known as Bass Pond at Victory Base. I was amazed at the kingfisher's speed, how small it was and its otherworldly colors. Various shades of electric blues with a chestnut breast. The Kingfisher landed on a cement block next to the pond, which already had a Pygmy cormorant and a Little Egret. For ten minutes I watched this little blue sprite preen itself, then dive into the water to retrieve a fish, consume it then go back to flitting around.

Right now, I'm planning a Christmas Bird Count here at JBB. The Hartford CBC is always something I look forward to and I plan to be back to next year. I have found our local Rook roost, so perhaps we'll start there counting the thousands of playful, mischievous bare-faced rooks, mixed with hundreds of jackdaws and some Hooded Crows.