Egypt - Nile Valley, Luxor, Abu Simbel
April 15th-22nd 2002
After a day trip to the pyramids in 2001 (from Cyprus) when we were impressed by the good birding to be had from the coach as it sped from Port Said to Cairo (despite the dense fog in the Nile delta), we decided that we wanted to see more of Egypt.
This was a standard tourist Nile Cruise, booked from Teletext, aboard the M/S Viking II. There are many similar tours available and most stick to similar itineraries. We would have preferred to have travelled in March, when migration is probably in full swing, but were unable to do so.
As this is a package tour, most things are done for you, so it?s a case of getting on and off coaches, or sitting on the boat watching the Nile pass by. The trip to Abu Simbel is an optional extra, which was about ?65pp by coach and ?90 by air. It?s a 4 a.m. start for the coach, but travelling this way lets you have an extra hour at Abu Simbel and involves a long trek into the desert - save the money and enjoy the sunset.
There is little free time available, especially if you take the Abu Simbel option, but the last afternoon and morning in Luxor were both available and we used it to see the wildlife highlight of the trip - more later - and we had a few hours in Aswan after getting back from Abu Simbel.
The weather was surprisingly temperate, even at Abu Simbel, only 25 miles from Sudan. This is presumably because of the river, which is wide and sluggish. Only the Luxor West Bank sites were uncomfortably hot. Shorts and T-shirts are ideal during the day time.
If you spend any time away from organised tours, you are very likely to be asked for money. Children will often ask for pens (they need the for school and have to buy their own) or ?bon bons?. It might be worth bringing a few working pens with you.
Luxor - 4 p.m. arrival - a few birds noted from the coach between the airport and the river, highlight being Common Bulbul, which was a new bird for both of us. Many herons of several species seen from the boat as the light faded.
Luxor West Bank (Valley of the Kings etc.) in the morning. Long river cruise to Esna in afternoon
The main sites on the West Bank are in the desert, the habitable strip on the Nile banks being rather narrow. An early start was made because it gets very hot here as the day passes. The magnificent, albeit heavily restored Temple of Queen Hatshepsut was our first destination. As we left the boat, new birds were coming thick and fast. A brief glimpse of a male Nile Valley Sunbird was obtained, just before the Nile Bridge. At the car park for the temple (behind you, as you look at the temple) a small excavation held a nesting pair of Little Green Bee-eaters (more were seen as the coach passed Howard Carter?s house later that morning) and a few African Rock Martins were easily seen around the temple itself.
There were no birds at all in the Valley of the Kings (no lizards, no insects, no plants either).
The Valley of the Queens was better. Near the entrance to the valley are a few small buildings and one of these has a leaky water tank. It took a while to find them, but we eventually got good views of a dozen or so Trumpeter Finches here. Less expected was a Crag Martin, a species with which we are both familiar, which gave good close up views for several minutes. It appeared to be the only representative of this species here, although there were several Rock Martins present.
The road back to the river runs alongside the El Fedila Canal where we were able to identify a Purple Gallinule and a White-breasted Kingfisher. A couple of Black-shouldered Kites were easy to identify over farmland.
The boat sails slowly upriver, following deeper channels and switching from east to west bank frequently. It passes small islands, reed beds, flooded pastures, farmland, villages and towns. Find a shady seat near the front, set up your scope, order a cold beer and enjoy. We saw a second White-breasted Kingfisher near the Nile Bridge (it could have been the same one we saw earlier, they were only a couple of miles apart and we saw no more during the rest of the week). The only other ?new? bird we saw was Striated Heron (we'd seen a few at dusk the previous day but had decided to get a good look before ?ticking? them)., but there were plenty of exciting birds to keep us entertained, some in abundance. Seven heron/egret species, Lesser Pied Kingfishers, Gallinules, Black Kites, Whiskered and Gull-Billed Terns, Marsh Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt, Common Bee-eater and Glossy Ibis all put in appearances in varying numbers.
Esna to Aswan via Edfu
There's a fair amount of stuff floating down the river and most of it isn?t birds, but a pre-breakfast session on the sundeck produced an adult White Pelican which drifted downstream as we headed south, coming close enough to the boat to be spotted and enjoyed by any of our non-birding fellow passengers. This was a new bird for JD. Good numbers of White-winged Black Terns were noted with more Whiskered Terns
A day touring sites around Aswan enabled us to get good views of Graceful Prinia (Aswan) and Brown-necked Raven and White-crowned Black Wheatear (Philae). An alleged sandstorm (it looked like fog) meant that visibility on the High Dam was very limited.
Philae island was an excellent spot. The boat to the island allowed good close up views of Whiskered, White-winged Black and a few Black Terns, as well as egrets, Black Kites and Brown-necked Ravens. On the island itself, we had an hour at leisure after touring the temples (one of which had good numbers of a large day-flying bats).
The island is tiny and as we were being guided round the temples, we had noticed a small group of lakeside trees. We made straight for these as soon as we got the chance. We really wanted to see Nile Valley Sunbirds and this looked a good spot. We weren't disappointed. We could hear Olivaceous Warblers as we approached, along with a much more melodious song, which we quickly discovered was a Common Bulbul. A kitten-like mewing sound turned out to be the call of Sunbirds, which gave excellent views.
Then a small, round headed warbler hopped into view, about 12 feet from us. CC commented that it looked like a brownish Chiffchaff but the fact that it had very pale legs had us reaching for the field guide. The bird was definitely not Olivaceous Warbler as it had a Chiffchaff-like head with a strong supercilium. In fact the closest match we could get was Booted Warbler. Nothing about its appearance ruled out this species (sadly it remained silent throughout the time we observed it) but our subsequent research suggests that this might be a first for Egypt and one of a very few records for Africa. We?re not confident enough in our ID skills to claim this, so it remains, for us, 'probable Hippolais species'.
Later in the day we visited Kitchener?s Island, famous for its palm trees. This area gives loads of opportunities to get close to egrets (there is a large heronry on the east side of the island), hoopoes (very common) and Palm Doves. A normal zoom or telephoto lens will let you get some decent photos. At the caf?n the southern end of the island, a tripod and medium telephoto (say 200mm) should give you a chance of getting a snap or two of Lesser Pied Kingfishers, which fish in the bay.
Morning - Abu Simbel, Afternoon - Aswan
A three hour drive across the desert produced very few birds at all. A couple of Brown-necked Ravens and a large dark raptor (not a buzzard or kite) were about all.
Abu Simbel temple was magnificent and we spent some time inside after admiring the exterior, but we wanted to make the most of being so far south, so we first wandered down to the shore of Lake Nasser, where we spent too long watching a pair of Golden Eagles, which came to within about 30 yards. The only Egyptian Geese of the trip flew past here as well. We then followed the perimeter of the site (it?s quite small) and found numerous Turtle Doves in the trees along the fence. A dove on the ground turned out to be Pink-headed Dove, which is apparently regular here (it was the only one we saw) and there were several White-crowned Black Wheatears, including juveniles.
We left the site and wandered back down the road to try and get some better views of the Lake and its surroundings. We only had an hour and didn?t add any new birds to the week?s list, although we failed to identify a medium sized wader near the lake shore, which disappeared around a corner before we could get a look at it. There looked to be lots of potential for good birds here, but you?d need to stay over. There were several hotels.
We returned to Aswan and had the afternoon to ourselves, so we walked north along the Nile. The trees and gardens had lots of Sunbirds, Graceful Prinias and Bulbuls. Where the main road leaves the river (near an irrigation/drainage canal) we continued along the riverside on a track. This overlooks an area of damp meadows which had an abundance of birds. We got good views of Hoopoes, Isabelline Wheatear, Spur-winged Plover, Masked Shrike, European Bee-eater and Lesser-Pied Kingfisher, along with plenty of more familiar birds. There were several ?feldegg? type Yellow Wagtails and a dramatic African Pied Wagtail was a real bonus. This area is probably like thousands of spots on the river, but it?s within walking distance of the area where the boats dock, so is worth a look.
A visit to Kom Ombo temple was followed by a long sail down river. Only two new birds were added to the trip list - Great Cormorant and Lesser Black-back (fuscus, probably).
The morning was spent around the impressive Luxor and Karnak Temples, but after lunch we took a taxi to the famous Crocodile Island, home of the Movenpick Hotel.
The taxi cost a few pounds and dropped us at the bridge, where there is a checkpoint. We were not challenged and were able to wander around most of the east, west and north sides of the island. We couldn't see an obvious way to the south end, but have decided that if we come back to this part of Egypt, we will definitely stay at the Movenpick, which is an excellent site for passive birding. The area around the boat jetty was full of herons, including Little Bittern, Night, Squacco and Striated Herons at close quarters. Near the bridge we were finally able to confirm that the call we had heard several times over the preceding days was indeed Clamorous Reed Warbler (Great Reed Warbler was present, too). We also flushed a plump mammal, like a large, sandy coloured vole. The only creatures which fits the size and description of this, that we have been able to find, are the hyraxes, although the field guides suggests that none are found in this part of Egypt.
Luxor West Bank
A public ferry crosses the Nile for a few pence, opposite the entrance to the Luxor Temple. Maps of the area show a lake near the West Bank end of this crossing, so we decided to go and look for it. You will be besieged when you get off the boat. Unless you really want to visit a local farm or buy a mini-sarcophagus, you're best bet is to say no politely and firmly and keep walking.
As we left the village, we were joined by two small boys. We tried to get rid of the but they weren?t responding to polite discouragement, so we had company all morning. On reflection we should have asked them to show us were the lake was - they would have known. We headed west out of the village alongside the road. There were a few Prinias, Bulbuls and Black-shouldered Kites about with occasional Bee-eaters overhead and a pair of White Storks over the river.
We stopped at a junction of two ditches to look for snakes, terrapins etc. ad the boys decided that we were looking for ?alligators?. Being clever and clued up, we didn't like to tell them that we knew there were no longer crocodiles north of the High Dam, but it's always satisfying to know more about the area than the locals.
After a while, we reached the El Fedila Canal, where we turned north, having decided that we would not find the lake after all. A short distance along the canal CC saw what he though was a very large dog swimming along the opposite bank. It looked a little odd and with the aid of binoculars we could see that it was an enormous reptile. We got rather excited, especially as it clambered over vegetation that had fallen into the water. We estimated that it was between 5 and six feet long. 'Yes,' said one of the boys, nonchalantly, 'Alligator. Medium.' Egypt 1 'Educated' Westerners 0.
Subsequent research has shown that this was a Nile Monitor Lizard. At 5-6 feet it was pretty much fully grown, so maybe a bit more than medium but certainly worth the walk, and the tip that we gave the boys when we parted company.
In the following list, the birds English and scientific names are used. The numbers in brackets indicate the order in which the birds were seen, and, where the bird is likely to be of interest to British birders, the number of days on which it was recorded. Thus, White Pelican - Pelicanus onocratorus(41,1) was the 41st bird seen and was seen on only one day.
LITTLE GREBE - Tachybaptus ruficollis (71) - a few seen from the boat.
WHITE PELICAN - Pelicanus onocratorus (46,1) - a single, between Esna and Edfu, 17th April.
GREAT CORMORANT - Phalacracorax carbo - (69) - two groups, one of three and one of two seen from the boat between Aswan and Edfu, 20th April.
LITTLE BITTERN - Ixobrychus minutus (49,3) - several seen from boat. Also seen from Felucca to Kitchener?s Island, and at close quarters on Crocodile Island.
SQUACCO HERON - Ardeola ralloides (15,5) - very common. Seen daily.
STRIATED HERON - Butorides striatus (10,6) - numerous. Often seen in deeper water than most herons, with legs fully immersed.
NIGHT HERON - Nycticorax nycticorax (11,3) - less common than most other herons, but quite easy to see. Best views obtained from Crocodile Island.
CATTLE EGRET - Bulbulcus ibis - (9) - very common. Seen daily.
GREAT WHITE EGRET - Egretta alba (50,1) 1 only seen, near large island north of Kom Ombo.
LITTLE EGRET - Egretta garzetta (8) - Very common. Seen daily.
GREY HERON - Ardea cinerea (28) - fairly common.
PURPLE HERON - Ardea purpurea (29,1) - according to notes, only seen on one day. This is possibly an error, because several seen. Not common.
GLOSSY IBIS - Plegadis falcinellus (43,2) - about 20 seen just south of Esna and several flocks in flight around Kitchener?s Island.
WHITE STORK - Ciconia ciconia (79,2) - one seen over West Bank from Kitchener?s Island and two over West Bank from Luxor on final morning.
EGYPTIAN GOOSE - Alopochen aegyptiacus (65,1) - a pair, Lake Nasser, Abu Simbel.
MALLARD - Anas platyrhynchos (33) - not common, but seen in several locations along the river.
GARGANEY - Anas querquedula (51,1) - one pair only, between Edfu and Kom Ombo.
PINTAIL - Anas acuta (31) - several groups seen along river.
SHOVELER - Anas clypeata (30) - more numerous and more frequently seen than Pintail.
TUFTED DUCK - Athytha fuligula (55) - a large flock was present near the old dam at Aswan.
OSPREY - Pandion haliaetus (56,1) - single bird, Aswan old dam.
BLACK KITE - Milvus migrans (12) - common around settlements. Seen daily.
BLACK-WINGED KITE - Elaneus caeruleus (18,4) - several seen around Luxor West Bank and Kitchener?s Island. One just south of Kom Ombo temple.
MARSH HARRIER - Circus aeruginosus (72,1) - only positively identified at Aswan.
LONG-LEGGED BUZZARD Buteo rufinus - (73,1) - as above.
GOLDEN EAGLE - Aquila chrysaetos (63,2) - a pair observed for 20 minutes at close quarters near Abu Simbel and a single bird over the desert, from the boat.
LANNER - Falco biarmicus (47,1) - a single bird flew close to the boat in the late afternoon, from desert on the west bank, across to the east bank.
KESTREL - Falco tinnunculus (25) - several seen.
MOORHEN - Gallinula chloropus (22) - common along the river.
PURPLE GALLINULE - Porphyrio porphyrio (19,5) - seen most days. Not numerous, but easy to find.
BLACK-WINGED STILT - Himantopus himantopus (39,1) - quite large numbers seen on various islands during the first day?s sailing, but not seen subsequently.
SPUR-WINGED PLOVER - Hoplopterus spinosus (21,6) - common and widespread.
MARSH SANDPIPER - Tringa stagnatilis (37,1) - a single bird seen from the boat on the first day?s sailing.
COMMON SANDPIPER - Actitis hypoleucos (38) - one of the few smaller waders that was identified. A number of small waders were seen on most days (stints, sandpiper spp etc.) but could not be identified. Vibration from the boat?s engine made identification of many smaller birds difficult with the ?scope.
WOOD SANDPIPER - Tringa glareola (74,1) - a few seen on return trip from Aswan.
BLACK-HEADED GULL - Larus ridibundus (54) - only noted around Aswan.
YELLOW-LEGGED GULL - Larus c. cachinnans (61) - a single bird on the lake near Philae.
LESSER BLACK-BACK - Larus fuscus (70) - one dark-mantled bird between Aswan and Kom Ombo.
GULL-BILLED TERN - Sterna nilotica (36,4) - seen on all days when long periods spent on the river, in small groups.
BLACK TERN - Chlidonias niger (59,2) - seen around Aswan and Philae - least common of the four tern species seen.
WHITE-WINGED BLACK TERN - Chlidonias leucopterus (45,3) - not seen around Luxor, but plentiful further south.
WHISKERED TERN - Chlidonias hybridus (35,4) - probably the commonest tern.
PINK-HEADED DOVE - ?? (64,1) - single bird seen in trees at rear of Abu Simbel site.
TURTLE DOVE - Streptopelia turtur (62) - common at Abu Simbel. Present in most areas.
PALM DOVE - Streptopelia senegalensis (3,7) - very common and widespread. Delightful call.
COMMON SWIFT - Apus apus (7) - common around Luxor.
PALLID SWIFT - Apus pallidus (14,1) - several around Queen Hatshepsut?s Temple.
WHITE-BREASTED KINGFISHER - Halcyon smyrnensis (20,1) - 2 seen on first full day, Luxor West Bank and River Nile.
LESSER-PIED KINGFISHER - Ceryle rudis (16,7) - one of the commonest birds along the river, often seen in groups.
HOOPOE - Upupa epops (4,4) - seen in Luxor on both trips from and to the airport. Very common on Kitchener?s Island, where easily photographed.
EUROPEAN BEE-EATER - Merops apiaster (42,3) - seen on several occasions. The birds seen just north of Aswan appeared to be resident, although nest sites were not seen. They were present for the all of the time we were there.
BLUE-CHEEKED BEE-EATER - Merops superciliosus (44,1) - two birds seen south of Luxor were the only examples of this species.
LITTLE GREEN BEE-EATER - Merops orientalis (23,6) - the commonest Bee-eater, seen daily. Good views obtained on Crocodile Island, around gazebo-like structure, south of the road, on the east side of the island.
CRESTED LARK - Galerida cristata (32,2) - probably quite common in suitable habitat. Breeding in farmland on Crocodile Island.
SAND MARTIN - Riparia riparia (60) - present around Philae.
AFRICAN ROCK MARTIN (24,4) - quite common around temples (e.g. Hatshepsut, Abu Simbel, Unfinished Obelisk, Karnak)
CRAG MARTIN - Ptyonoprogne rupestris (26,1) - only seen in Valley of the Queens.
RED-RUMPED SWALLOW - Hirundo daurica (53,1) - Only seen around Aswan, where quite common.
BARN SWALLOW - Hirundo rustica (6) - both the nominate type and the beautiful savignii sub-species are common and widespread.
AFRICAN PIED WAGTAIL - ?? (66,1) - one seen in riverside pasture north of Aswan.
YELLOW WAGTAIL - Motacilla flava (40) - seen occasionally from the boat. Several in pastures where Pied Wagtail seen.
COMMON BULBUL - Pycnonotus barbatus (5,6) - common, widespread and easily seen. Abundant in inhabited areas, where it is as common as Blackbirds are in most of the UK.
RUFOUS BUSHCHAT - Cercotrichus galactotes (76,1) - a pair, apparently on breeding territory, by the road on Crocodile Island, just outside the hotel grounds.
ISABELLINE WHEATEAR - Oenanthe isabellina (67,1) - several in pastures where Pied Wagtail seen.
WHITE-CROWNED BLACK WHEATEAR - Oenanthe leucopyga (58,2) - a few around the pier for the boat to Philae. Abundant at Abu Simbel, where a pair where easily seen from the front of the main temple, on the rock walls of the smaller temple.
GREAT REED WARBLER - Acrocephalus arundinaceus (34,4) - heard from the boat on numerous occasions, but surprisingly hard to see. Seen in reeds on east side of Crocodile Island.
CLAMOROUS REED WARBLER - Acrocephalus stentoreus (76,4) - a number of calling birds along the river were assumed to be this species, which we had not encountered previously, but we did not see any until we visited Crocodile Island, where our assumptions were confirmed.
GRACEFUL PRINIA - Prinia gracilis (52,3) - quite common, although we did not see one of these birds until the 4th day, at Aswan. Easily found once the song is learned.
FAN-TAILED WARBLER - Cisticola juncidis (41,2) - a few heard along the river. Present on Crocodile Island.
OLIVACEOUS WARBLER - Hippolais pallidus (48,4) - probably quite common. Seen and heard in most areas.
NILE VALLEY SUNBIRD - Anthreptes platurus (17,5) - this was one species we really wanted to see and we were surprised at how common and widespread they are. After a frustratingly brief glimpse of a male near the Luxor bridge, from the coach, we had to wait two days for our first close up, at Philae. Having then learned the kitten-like call, we were able to find them just about everywhere.
WOODCHAT SHRIKE - Lanius senator (76,1) - one bird only, on Crocodile Island.
MASKED SHRIKE - Lanius nubicus (68,1) - one bird, at the same site as the Pied Wagtail.
HOODED CROW - Corvus corone cornix (2) - common and widespread.
BROWN-NECKED RAVEN - Corvus ruficollis (57,2) - several around the small rocky island opposite the landing stage at Philae. A few birds seen from the coach to Abu Simbel.
SPANISH SPARROW - Passer hispaniolensis (78,1) - only seen on Crocodile Island.
HOUSE SPARROW - Passer domesticus (1) - very common.
TRUMPETER FINCH - Bucanetes githagineus (27,1) - Valley of the Queens.
79 species doesn't seem many, but this was a package tour with lots of organised tours (most of which are well worthwhile). A month earlier would also certainly produce more species and there were a few that got away - quite a lot of small waders, a lark at Valley of the Queens, a probable Namaqa Dove and a couple of unidentified raptors. JD saw 22 new species and CC 16 so we were both quite pleased. There were a number of birds that we don't see at home which were very common (lots of herons, kingfishers, Kites, Sunbirds etc.) and required virtually no effort to find - and if you get bored with the kingfishers and kites, then just sit back and enjoy a cold drink whilst one of the world?s great rivers drifts by.