Monday, May 10, 2004

Birdwatching when the sandstorms don't blow

It’s typical Egypt that one really annoying season should occur with a really great one. May is the month of the main bird migrations from Africa to Europe with a major flight path down the Nile Valley. The European storks can be seen circling on thermals at the edge of the valley, probably having landed briefly for some rest and food along one of the quieter canals in the area. These immense birds barely move their wings, spiraling upwards towards their flight altitude of somewhere near 20 thousand feet, up there with the passenger planes. I saw an entire flock of European Rollers, feathered jewels that perform exquisite acrobatics in their chase after insects, flitting through the palm trees in the garden next door. Every so often some of them would rest on the power line, showing off the green, blue and gold of their plumage. And as I was riding along the main canal the other morning, there was a flock of about 30 white herons moving along the canal in pursuit of fish and frogs, adults and juveniles crowding the banks of the canal where the minnows were resting.

The Delta is a wonder during bird migrations, still, although modern agriculture and old attitudes about conservation are taking their tolls on the bird population. It’s really strange that we humans who have so much more possibility in our existence are so ungenerous in sharing our planet with other animals. Whenever I am riding or even just sitting in my garden watching the birds who gather there, encouraged by my parrots calls in the aviary, I think of a good friend of mine, Richard Hoath. Richard is a professor at the American University in Cairo, teaching English, and writing about his passion, wildlife and conservation. He just recently wrote a new book on Egypt’s admittedly vanishing wildlife, published by the AUC press. It’s worth getting a copy.

At the same time that there is so much to be seen in the air, we have the Khamaseen season, the yearly sandstorms that make life here miserable. For the last two days I’ve woken to find a strange stillness in the air, unlike the usual brisk breeze blowing down the Nile from the Mediterranean. By about 11 am, the wind is from the desert or from the South rather than the Northeast and it’s blowing like a manic convection oven. We might have a good Force 3 whipping through the palms and breaking branches off the casuarinas and eucalyptus growing along the canals, while we all cower in our houses with the windows shut and fans working overtime. You vacuum and dust your house every other day at least and any food left outside a container or the refrigerator has an oddly gritty texture. Hair….well, the less said the better. But on the clear days, the birds are wonderful.