Monday, December 06, 2010

eBird now available for Iraq sightings

I have a lot of observations written in my notebooks from my last deployment to Iraq (October 2009 to July 2010). Now I have an outlet where I can put them all. My lists on this blog are not too useful since they are static and the data cannot be manipulated.

eBird is a project of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology that was launched in 2001 to automate the collection of bird observation data. It includes maps, checklists and statistics. The aggregate data is available on the web.

In June of 2010 global eBird was launched which allows entry of observations from around the world. The interface worked very well with my Iraqi observations. If a species is rare or numbers are large the interface asks you to confirm the data before submitting. I was asked to confirm for Barn Swallows in February and for an observation of 150 Wood Pigeons, both routine occurances, so its not perfect.

There was almost no data for Iraq, so I'll be entering mine. I encourage everyone with Iraq bird observations to enter the data in this system, it will be very valuable for those studying Iraqi Avifauna since the system can do such things as generate maps and create checklists and frequency data.

eBird Website

Monday, November 22, 2010

Nature Documentary featuring Iraq

A couple of weeks ago the PBS program Nature featured the work of Azzam Alwash and the staff of Nature Iraq. I made a point of watching it with my kids. Like Azzam, I am optimistic that one day ecotourism will flourish in Iraq. Save the violence, which decreased exponetially between my 1st tour in 2004 and my second in 2009/2010, the country has the right combination for successful ecotourism. I can imagine visiting the ruins of Ur and Babylon then birding Marshlands National Park looking for Sacred Ibis and African Darter to add to my life list. Perhaps my third trip to Iraq will be the one where I can leave my weapons behind.

Again I cannot give enough accolades to Azzam and his staff at Nature Iraq for their tireless and critical work protecting and understanding Iraq's Natural treasures. A special hello goes to my friend Mudhafar Salim, a tireless ornithologist who I saw in action with Azzam in the documentary.

Full Episode - Braving Iraq

Thursday, June 24, 2010

In March when we still had a significant amount of green around our building, with lots of small orange flowers we had a lot of butterflies visiting including two types of Blues (the one pictured and a tiny species with a wingspan perhaps half an inch across). Also we had a good number of Cabbage Whites and Painted Ladies. In April, as the Eucalyptus trees flowered, we had massive numbers of Painted Ladies on base. I counted over 300 in a short walk to the gym and back. For a week or so they were everywhere, including getting in the buildings. I had the same experience with a sudden explosion of painted lady numbers at the same time as the Eucalyptus flowering. Recently I have been seeing some more blues and this butterfly (some type of Nymphalid) with dark wings and orange spots.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Today we are having a nice dust storm. The White-cheeked Bulbuls around the building were very active today dispite the dismal weather. This one was singing its heart out in our mulberry tree and chasing house sparrows around.

In the past week or so I have been hearing extremly loud clicking sounds coming out of the trees around base. I thought they were either katydids or cicadas. It has been incredibly hot, hitting around 117 degrees F for several days in a row. The critters making the sounds didn't seem to mind the scorching temperatures.
Several days ago I was walking back to my trailer at about 2 AM, the temperature was still in the nineties. In one Eucalyptus tree next to a portable construction light had what sounded like dozens of the clicking critters. After a second of searching I found the culprit, small green cicadas with blue eyes! The color was incredible and contrasted dramatically with the dust covered leaves. I caught a few and went back to my building to get my camera. The cicadas buzzed angrily like little toy noisemakers in my hands. Two soldiers smoking outside didn't know what to make of the noise when I walked up.

When I went back to the tree there were cicadas buzzing around the construction light and bats circling catching insects. I have not seen or heard any large aggregation of cicadas since. I'm wondering if there was simply a large emergence and then dispersion.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


One of our soldiers found this tree frog in a portolet and brought it to me. I let it go in the reeds of the north retention pond. I think it is Hyla savignyi

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

JBB Laundry Pond
In May my birding partner and I drove up to the laundry pond and found a small group of little terns resting in the road. Its a little hard to believe but I've seen 4 species of tern here on base since last fall. Two are marsh terns and seem to be fairly common during the summer here, the white-winged and whiskered terns. I saw the fourth species just two days ago at the north retention pond with a Common Tern joining in with the Stilts that were mobbing me as I walked along the shore.
Here's the lists for 2 days in May. I was surprised to see a female white-headed duck staying around so late in the season. Up to 9 White-headed ducks have been present on JBB since October. The several acre laundry pond seemed to be to their liking, though I also saw them at the smaller north retention pond. Here's a picture from earlier in the season.

19 May 2010
0530-0645 Laundry Pond
Little Grebe – 20
Ferruginous Duck – 10
Kestrel -1
Coot – 1
Moorhen – 2
Purple Swamphen – 1
Collared Pratincole – 4
Spur-winged Plover - 3
Little Tern – 10
Crested Lark – 2
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater - 6

23 May 2010 -
0530 – 0830 South Laundry Pond and North Retention Pond, JBB Iraq
Observed small fish in Laundry pond – singles and small schools 2 inches or less
Little Grebe – 20
Pygmy Cormorant – 1
White-headed Duck – 1 female
Ferruginous Duck – 10
Marbled Teal - 2
Kestrel -1
Coot – 2
Moorhen – 6
Purple Swamphen – 1
Little Bittern – 2
Black-crowned Night Heron - 3
Collared Pratincole – 1
Stilt - 10
Spur-winged Plover - 6
Little Tern – 3
Whiskered Tern - 1
Crested Lark – 10
Barn Swallow - 35
Wood Pigeon – 8
Rock Pigeon – 12
Collared Dove - 4
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater – 6
Grey Hypocolius – 1
Lesser Grey Shrike - 1
Graceful Prinia - 5
House Sparrow – 20
Hooded Crow - 4

Thursday, June 10, 2010

I was up at the north pond checking out the wildlife. The Black-winged Stilts were making a racket and flying around. A few days before I thought I had seen some chicks running into the reeds. I found this little fuzzball under a big rock by the water when I was looking for frogs (there was also a frog under the same rock). The stilt chick didn't move a muscle for a minute or so then ran down to the water and surprised me by swimming away, paddling along with its ridiculously long legs. The adults really went wild when the chick belted out its alarm call and started trying to crap on me and the other sergeant with me. Later in the day I saw 2 more chicks feeding out on the mudflats.
Making a getaway

Friday, January 29, 2010

For a month or more we have had butterflies visiting the small flowers
around the building. Sometimes I go outside in the middle of the day
and I'll see 20 or more butterflies flitting around and feeding on the
little orange and yellow flowers. I've only seen Cabbage Whites and
Painted Ladies. This past week I have started finding spiny painted
lady caterpillars in little silk shelters on the Mallow plants growing
in an open area near us. Since there are holes in the leaves
surrounding the shelter, I'm assuming that the caterpillars come out
at night to feed.

The Painted Lady is one of the most widespread butterflies in the
world. It is found on every continent except Antarctica and South
America. In 2004 I saw hundreds of these butterflies when our
Eucalyptus trees started flowering. Last week, our large Eucalyptus
had the first of its little puffball flowers open, so I may be seeing
a lot more butterflies soon.

Some other insects are visiting the flowers also including large
hoverflies that look like the Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax).

On the bird front I watched a group of White-cheeked Bulbuls feeding
on the ground with a few house sparrows. I've heard from others that
the Bulbuls will eat such things as cookies that people put out for
the birds.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Yesterday we went back out to the Laundry Pond. The sun rising behind us provided great lighting on the ducks and coots that were floating in loose groups out in the pond. The weather was fairly cool at about 45 degrees F. As we walked through the Phragmites, the coots were making crazy noises out on the pond. The White-headed Ducks moved out to the middle of the pond in a small group of 7 birds. They ride very low in the water, almost like they are in the process of sinking. We had some great views as they stretched and flapped their wings. The males white heads stood out among all the dark plumaged coots. About a dozen Mallards were swimming around and later flew back and forth from one side of the pond to the other. The Ferruginous Ducks seemed to be venturing more into the open water than usual. Mostly they stick to the shoreline and the reeds. The contrasting light and dark pattern of the Male Shovelers made them easy to pick out on the far side.

There is a section of the pond where the reeds have been cut back and a noisy water pump has been installed. The opening is a good vantage point to count the birds in the middle of the pond and to get a closer look at the reedy edges. There were more Common Teal than last week, probably 20 or more. In a muddy area near the reeds we found 4 Black-winged Stilts resting. Later they flew over the pond trailing their long, elegant red legs behind them.

There are large patches of greenery in areas around the pond that were bare a few months ago. The winter rains prompt furious growth of small herbaceous plants in the ditches and open fields around the base. Many are familiar roadside weeds such as dandelion and mustards. There are also quite a few small orange and yellow daisy-like composites and areas of grass. We stopped and found some ladybugs in a patch of low growing compositae. I also saw quite a few small striped hoverflies on the flowers. Other plants, such as the thistles, seem to be just getting going with small prickly rosettes appearing here and there. We can expect a few month more with occasional rain, so I expect at least some greenery to remain into April. After the heat gets going all these plants will be baked into oblivion, until the rains come again in late Autumn. It amazes me how hardy the seeds are, surviving ground temperatures that have to exceed 150 degrees Fahrenheit for month and months.

Since it was getting late we picked up the pace to get back to the truck. In the corner of the pond we found a White-throated Kingfisher hunched up, resting in the Phragmites. It's brilliant blue back and large, bright red bill contrasted with the dull brown reeds.

We found a small group of European Goldfinch in the same bushes as last week.

Out on the airfield, we saw hundreds of Wood Pigeons and Rooks. Large flocks of hundreds more Wood Pigeons were flying around the perimeter fence. A flock of about a hundred small brown birds wheeled around and landed near us. After a good bit of deliberation we decided that they were most likely Short-toed Larks.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

This past Sunday we got back out to the laundry pond again. As usual, the pond was loaded with waterbirds. I counted 525 Eurasian Coots swimming around in the middle of the pond and feeding in the reeds. The group of White-headed Ducks that have been present since October were still at the pond with 7 birds, both males and females. We watched a female from very close range coming out of the reeds on the east side of the pond. A good number of Shovelers were present in the pond when we arrived, then started flying around in small flocks when the F-16s roared off the runway behind us on afterburner.

A few other ducks species including Common Pochard, Gadwall, Common Teal and Ferruginous Ducks were present in smaller numbers along with a handful of Little Grebes.

We completely circled the pond for the first time. Usually, we park on one side and remain there. On our way back we saw some activity in a patch of vegetation near the entrance road. It turned out to be a flock of several dozen European Goldfinch. We got some great closeup looks at these beautiful birds as they appeared to be feeding on thistle seeds. As we were moving back to the truck we found a group of Spanish Sparrows with their bold chestnut, black and white plumage.

The highlight of our visit to the pond was watching two Jackals running back and forth on the edge of the pond, chasing and being chased by a Red-wattled Plover. The bird dive bombed them, while they charged around. After about five minutes, they noticed us and stopped to stare, then trotted off into the open area toward the west side of the base.

Around Sunset I returned to the area and I saw the pair of Jackals again yelping and chasing eachother around.

After the sun went down, I heard large numbers of Green Toads calling in the irrigation ditches near the west side of the base. It reminded me of the spring choruses of various frogs and toads in Connecticut. I guess Spring comes to Iraq in Mid-January.