Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Egypt - Red Sea Coast

Feb 23rd – March 2nd 2009

Report by Julian Sykes

This is a fairly condensed trip report highlighting the incredible potential for this destination. The south of the country is particularly under-watched but site information is continually being updated as more and more travelling birdwatchers visit the area. Since this trip a very good site guide has been produced to Wadi Gimal and the surrounding areas detailing some excellent site information. This and previous holidays to the Red Sea Coast have been constrained by vehicle hire, this has now been remedied with the possibility of 4 x 4’s opening up even more areas to visit.

February 23rd :- I met Scot’s couple Keith & Lynn Youngs at Gatwick Airport and after the usual check-in times we were on our way to Hurghada. We landed late afternoon and sadly by the time we had collected our luggage, organised visas and our hire car it was dark outside so we would have to wait until the next morning to start our bird list. So we drove the 30Km’s north to the resort of El Gouna and eventually found our very nice hotel in the north of the complex. The evening meal was taken overlooking the marina, which held some fantastic yachts indicative of this affluent area, and we then retired to bed in anticipation of the following day.

February 24th :- We had arranged to meet at 7am and go for a short walk around the marina before an al fresco breakfast in the morning sun – this produced the commoner species of Great Cormorants, Osprey (at a nest), Barn Swallows headed north, the ubiquitous Laughing Doves, Chiffchaffs, Sardinian Warblers and a Lesser Whitethroats. After breakfast we drove round to the complex’s golf course where we enjoyed a very good walk around the creeks, gardens and fairways, which brought us a Common Quail, 2 Great Sandplovers, Spur winged Plovers, Curlews, Common Redshanks, Common & Pied Kingfishers, Tawny & Red throated Pipits, Isabelline Wheatears, Stonechats and a Bluethroat. One surprise was finding 3 gorgeous male Nile Valley Sunbirds a very recent coloniser to the northern Red Sea from the River Nile. We then went for a walk along a nearby beach that I knew was good for gulls and terns – we weren’t disappointed. We found our first real Red Sea specialities here with superb views of 8 White eyed Gulls and a few Great Crested Terns, also here were another pair of Ospreys, Whimbrel, Slender billed Gulls and Caspian Terns. Lunch was taken on the beach before returning to the hotel for a short siesta to re-charge our batteries. Late afternoon we reconvened and took a drive out of the complex to a local commercial orchard and rubbish dump (why are these always good for birds?) surrounded by sandstone cliffs. We searched the area until dusk finding Cattle Egrets, Sparrowhawk, Collared Doves, Rock & House Martins, Sedge Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Lesser Whitethroats, 2 male Desert Wheatears, Brown necked Ravens and Hooded Crows. As dusk fell we searched the rock faces and listened for Pharaoh Eagle Owl and our perseverance paid off with a pair copulating in full few – brilliant. Sadly we had to leave as I was returning to Hurghada to collect our third member of the party, Eric Alblas, a serious Western Palearctic lister from Holland. As we drove along the dusty track a bird flew up in front of us which we followed in the headlights revealing an Egyptian Nightjar. It had been an excellent start to the holiday and hopefully this would continue for the rest of the week. Later that night I collected Eric from the airport without any problems and returned to the hotel for a well earned beer before heading off to bed.

 February 25th :- This morning we had jointly decided to re-visit the golf course but before breakfast to try and escape the playing members and hopefully find the birds before they are disturbed. However this didn’t really produce much more than the previous day apart from a Short toed Lark, lots more Tawny & Red throated Pipits, Isabelline Wheatears and different Nile Valley Sunbirds including a couple of females, which maybe indicates breeding birds?. After breakfast we set off south to the Hurghada Sewage Farm and a short walk around the settling tanks, reed beds & orchards produced Black necked Grebes, Grey Heron, Eurasian Teal, Marsh Harrier, a Lesser Spotted Eagle drifted over, Common Quail, lots of Coot, Greenshank, Little Stint, 10+ Short toed Larks, White Wagtails, Rock & House Martins, Black headed Wagtails, Sedge & Reed Warblers, Stonechat and Brown necked Ravens. We returned to El Gouna for lunch again on the beach as Eric was very keen to see some of the seabirds on offer. We checked the beach and off-shore islands seeing Great Cormorants, 2 Western Reef Herons, a Striated Heron was a nice find, Osprey, Kentish Plover, 2 Greater Sandplovers, Curlew, 20+ White eyed Gulls, Yellow legged & Slender billed Gulls, 8 Great Crested & Caspian Terns, Bluethroat and a few Spanish Sparrows. Instead of going for a siesta we took a drive north of El Gouna looking for a few desert species but we only managed to find a couple of Bar tailed Larks. We again finished our day at the rubbish dump and orchard area having a marvellous time as we found a gorgeous male Red tailed Wheatear amongst the Isabelline & Desert Wheatears. This was particularly pleasing for Eric as he had banked on just two new species for the week (Goliath Heron & Lappet faced Vulture) but this was an unexpected bonus saving a long trip to Eastern Turkey. During this visit to this bird-rich site before leaving we managed to see 40+ Cattle Egrets, Rock Martins, Barn & 2 Red rumped Swallows.

February 26th :- The previous day we had seen an interesting body of water on El Gouna so we decided to visit it before going for breakfast. It was very successful as we found a Little Egret with several Western Reef Herons, Ospreys, we nearly drove over a Common Quail!, Coot, Grey, Ringed & Kentish Plovers, Curlews, Common Redshanks, Greenshanks, Little Stints, Dunlin, Sand & House Martins, Water Pipit and 10+ Short toed Larks. After breakfast we again made a brief visit to the rubbish dump finding again the male Red tailed Wheatear plus Isabelline Wheatears, a skulking Savi’s Warbler, Reed Warblers, Lesser Whitethroats, Bluethroat, Rock Martins and Brown necked Ravens. We took an early lunch and then headed 50km’s south of Hurghada to the excellent Safaga Mangroves. The journey was punctuated with a few stops for a migrating Black Kite, Black eared Wheatear and a Hoopoe eventually getting to the coastal site where we took a short walk. The sea and mangroves held quite a few species including Great Cormorants, Grey Herons, Western Reef Herons, Oystercatchers, Greater Sandplovers, White eyed Gulls, Common Kingfisher, Greater Short toed Larks, Tawny Pipit, Chiffchaffs and Lesser Whitethroats. A text message from another birdwatcher staying at El Gouna made us return to the complex in the hope of finding a possible Caspian Plover. We quickly made the trip back north and found the creek where the bird had been seen, but unfortunately it turned out to be an incredibly bright summer plumage Greater Sandplover. Still it was a very nice bird. We remained there until sun-down checking the waders and seabirds where we found an Spoonbill (archare – Red Sea race), lots more Greater Sandplovers, Curlews, Grey Plovers, Slender billed Gulls, Caspian Terns and a Pied Kingfisher, bring to a close another excellent day.

February 27th :- Today we were leaving El Gouna but we decided to check a couple of areas before the long journey south. This short interlude produced the usual Great Cormorants, Osprey, Ringed Plovers, Greenshank, Little Stints, Dunlin, Pied Kingfisher, swallows & martins, Chiffchaffs and House Sparrows. We made very good time heading south along the coast and made our first stop just north of Al Quesair, an area that can be good for sandgrouse (a particular favourite of Lynn’s). We were in luck as we found a good flock of 15 Crowned Sandgrouse not far from the roadside, which showed well before flying off. Our journey continued but was unfortunately punctuated (no pun intended) with a flat tyre, which lost us a little time as we needed to have it repaired near Marsa Alam airport. Just beyond Marsa Alam we made a stop for refreshments and a little birding near one of the main hotel gardens to be found along the coast. This proved quite productive as we saw a Common Swift, 4 Black headed Wagtails, Lesser Whitethroat, Sardinian Warbler, Common Stonechat, 2 Isabelline Wheatears, Spanish Sparrows, Linnets and 3 Hoopoes. We travelled on and just south of Wadi Gimal, a very sharp-eyed Lynn saw a large mammal at the roadside so I made a quick u-turn and a little way back found a gorgeous Dorcas Gazelle – my first ever for this trip. It was now mid afternoon and we were getting close to our destination of Wadi Lahami but first we stopped off at the nearby Hamata Beach where we got great views of 20+ Sooty Gulls always a species easier in the southern half of the country. Finally we arrived at the superb Red Sea Diving Centre at Wadi Lahami, which is run by the lovely Virginie and the larger than life Aussie Russ, both of which add the experience of staying there. We were given our keys to the chalets, which are incredibly comfortable and in a great position overlooking the now famous mangroves. Eric was very keen to get out and spend the last hour of light looking for one of his target species but unfortunately there was no sign of the heron, however we did manage to see Grey Herons, Western Reef Herons, Ospreys on the nest, Grey & Kentish Plovers, Greater Sandplovers, Whimbrels, Curlews, Common Redshank, Slender billed Gulls, Caspian Terns, Tawny Pipit, Sedge Warbler and Common Chiffchaffs. The evening meal was taken under the stars, which were an incredible sight as the light pollution is minimal in this location.

February 28th :- A pre breakfast visit to the mangroves provided much the same species as the evening before and Eric was getting a little twitchy about the ‘hoped for’ Goliath Heron. Although today was planned as our trip to the deep south and the border town of Bir Shalatein. Due to Egyptian policy you are not allowed to go any further south without a local guide and the correct paperwork, so we had enlisted the services of Colonel Salah, another larger than life character. He met us on time and we all set off south moving through the road blocks without any problems. Just north of Berenice we stopped as I saw a few birds sat next to the road that turned out to be several Lesser Spotted Eagles migrating north. Then I spied a huge bird coming towards us and shouted “vulture”, and as it came closer it revealed itself as our first Lappet faced Vulture and well north of its usual location. We were elated and continued on with Salah taking us on a detour to a well in the desert where we found a few Desert& Short toed Larks to add to the list. We now struck south and eventually reached the town of Bir Shalatein immediately driving round to the camel market were we got good views of 10+ Lappet faced Vultures with 30+ Egyptian Vultures, Kestrel, Cattle Egrets, Isabelline Wheatears, Red rumped Swallows, Rock Martin, Brown necked Ravens and a brief look at a Siberian Stonechat. Next we went for lunch at one of the local cafes known to Salah and we sat on their terrace in the warm sunshine watching the vultures fly back and forth. After our break we were taken to a area near the Red Sea coast which proved fruitful as we saw more Lappet faced & Egyptian Vultures plus a Black Kite, Hoopoe & Desert Larks and a Black headed Wagtail.  Mid afternoon we set off back on the 100Km journey back to the Red Sea Diving Centre but en-route we stopped off at the coastal site of El Hamira. We enjoyed a good hour here finding a Spoonbill, Striated Herons, Western Reef Herons, adult summer Pallas’s Gull, several Great Crested & Caspian Terns and a surprise Lesser Crested Tern.  Eventually we left and again south of Berenice we found more Lesser Spotted Eagles sat next to the road around an old carcass and we managed to get  very good views of these migrating raptors. Back at Wadi Lahami Eric and I again decided to search the mangroves before nightfall and during this time we found another Spoonbill, Ospreys, a Lanner flew through, Grey & Kentish Plovers, Greater Sandplovers, Whimbrel, Curlews, Common Redshanks, Greenshanks, Common Sandpiper, Slender billed Gull, Caspian Terns, Pied Kingfisher, Barn Swallows, Sand & House Martins, Tawny Pipit, Chiffchaffs, Lesser Whitethroats, Bluethroat and a pair of Desert Wheatears, but still no Goliath Heron.

March 1st :- Today was our final chance for finding our last main target and we were determined to cover as much of the mangrove as possible. This included Eric & I wading out to the seaward side after checking everything we could from the shore. However during this time we got some fantastic views of a Lanner Falcon, which had been roosting near this site. Unfortunately we couldn’t locate the Goliath Heron despite seeing a couple of Purple Herons, Squacco Heron, Grey Herons, Western Reef Herons, Striated Heron and 2 Spoonbills. Despondent Keith, Lynn & I went for our late breakfast leaving Eric searching the mangrove as the tide fell revealing more accessible areas. About half an hour later a beaming Eric returned to the centre saying he had found a Goliath Heron and after we had all finished a leisurely breakfast we all returned to the mangrove. We quickly located a Goliath Heron amongst the mangroves and got good views but then on the edge of the reef we found a second bird, which was fantastic. This constituted our ninth heron species of the week another great achievement. We spent the rest of the morning enjoying the wildlife around the mangrove, which included our first African Collared Dove, Greater Sandplovers, 2 Sooty Gulls, Red rumped Swallows, Tawny & Red throated Pipits, Reed & Sardinian Warblers with lots of Brittle Starfish and Soraton Ghost Crabs in the sea. After lunch we decided to have a drive along the coast to look at the beach near Hamata and enjoyed a couple of hours seeing Western Reef Herons, Ospreys, Kentish Plovers, 40+ Sooty Gulls, another adult summer Pallas’s Gull, Slender billed Gulls, Caspian Terns, Tawny Pipit and a Savi’s Warbler. We returned to the Diving Centre in good time for everyone to have a relax and even a swim in the gorgeous blue waters of the Red Sea.

March 2nd :- This was Keith, Lynn & I’s final day with our flight from Hurghada leaving that evening, which meant we would be able to stop in a few places en-route. After breakfast (seeing 2 Sooty Gulls) we loaded the vehicle and headed north stopping at the developing reserve of Wadi Gimal. As we exited the car I found a Southern Grey Shrike and a few warblers flitted out the palm grove. Then we found the highlight of the week with a 1st winter Grey Hypocolius, which was completely unexpected and a fourth WP tick for Eric. He later contacted me to say this constituted the fifth record for Egypt showing just how much of a rarity it was here. Elated with this find we continued north stopping at the Sharms Alam Hotel for a coffee and a quick search of the extensive gardens we saw a Northern & Isabelline Wheatears, Black headed Wagtail, Bluethroats, Lesser Whitethroats and Sardinian Warblers. The journey continued along the Red Sea coast and we arrived at our lunch stop of Al Quesair Harbour in very good time. Lunch was taken overlooking the harbour and beach area where we found a Striated Heron feeding on crabs on the beach, Ringed & Kentish Plovers, Greater Sandplovers, Curlew, Common Redshank, Greenshank, 10+ White eyed & Slender billed Gulls, Caspian Tern and a few Great Crested Terns. This was our last stop before the airport but as we passed Safaga we saw a few Indian House Crows from the car, which has started to colonise this area of Egypt. We returned the hire car to Hurghada and said our “goodbyes” to Eric who wasn’t leaving until the next day and was staying in El Gouna that night. He actually added on more species to the list the next day with an Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler around the hotel. Keith, Lynn & I caught the flight without problem and arrived back into the UK on time, completing a very good week.


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