Tuesday 23 February 2010

Dusky warbler at Walthamstow - 20 Feb 2010

I'd seen the dusky warbler at Walthamstow once already, in the rain and poor light of dusk (sorry) but I decided to go back on Saturday 20 Feb when the sun was shining. Almost immediately I was able to get relatively close views from across the canal. Fired off lots of photos of the bird which was very mobile indeed and seemed to be flycatching. Happy that I'd got some good shots in the bag I went in search of the white-fronted geese at Ingrebourne Valley, late afternoon.

Only then did I realise that I'd taken all the dusky photos at 3200 ISO!! Aaaaggghhh!! That'll teach me to check the settings before using the camera. Anyway, here are a couple of what I suppose will have to be record shots now!!

Monday 15 February 2010

Nile Cruise - 1 - 9 February 2010 finalised

Monday 1 February 2010. (click photos to enlarge them)

This article is about our trip to Egypt. It has a distinctly ‘birdy’ slant but I make no apologies as this is my Birdmad blog!

I was apprehensive about going to Egypt, what with the massacre of 57 tourists in Valley of the Kings in 1997, but I needn’t have worried. A perfect touchdown in Luxor by the Monarch plane (very cramped) and a short bus ride to the boat and the holiday had begun. It was a lovely warm evening and dinner was served as we set sail for Edfu. The service was attentive. 
Here's our boat, the SS Misr. SS means Steam Ship and 'Misr' means Kingdom of Egypt.

 The SS Misr. Don't ask me to pronounce it!!

The main stairs. Has something of the Titanic about it, doesn't it?

The dining room. Lovely.

Tuesday 2 February 2010.

After breakfast we met our guides, Anwar and Mohamed, at the welcome meeting. Mohamed was also a keen birdwatcher it turned out. We were assigned to Anwar, a charming and obliging person.

Our guides. Anwar, left. Mohamed, right.

There were to be some optional excursions. We’d already paid for Abu Simbel but we took the offer of a ride in a pony and trap around the back streets of Luxor. There was also, we learned, a birdwatching trip in Aswan with a local Nubian ornithologist. You can understand that it took me a few nanoseconds to decide to sign up!

After lunch we had a look at the temple of Horus in Edfu. I learned that a number of the temples in Egypt are Greco-Roman rather than ancient Egyptian and, with instruction from our helpful and friendly guide, Anwar, we learned how to tell the difference. Edfu temple was largely intact so we got to know the standard layout of all temples. . If you’re intersted it’s two towers at the entrance, then an inner courtyard, then a columned hall and finally the inner sanctuary where the priest sat doing his knitting and putting the fear of god into the population!


Temple of Horus at Edfu. This is the two towers part.

Lynne and me at temple of Horus, Edfu. The person who took this photo (who shall remain nameless, she knows who she is!!) cut off the head of the statue!!

Gill and Paul on deck.

After lunch we sailed slowly up the Nile against the current towards Kom Ombo. It was at a fairly leisurely pace. While Lynne and my sister, Gill, lay in the sun, my brother-in-law, Paul, and I watched the Nile go by. For Paul and me it was like cruising in some enormous nature reserve. There were literally hundreds of birds all along the banks and on the sandbanks and mudflats. Grey herons, little egrets, coots and moorhens were familiar to us. Cattle egrets, great white egrets, purple herons, squacco herons, glossy ibises and black winged stilts were much more exciting. Some of the sights were positively biblical, like this man on a donkey.

Man on donkey with his crop.

Our cabin was like something out of ‘Death on the Nile’. The furniture was mock 1930s art deco but it was all right. The bed was firm, water was hot and life was good, aahh…. What a pity Lynne had quite a bad cold that she’d brought with her from England. How long before I got it, I wondered?

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Breakfast at 06.00 and an early visit to the temple of Kom Ombo, another Greco-Roman temple in a less well-preserved state than Edfu. Still interesting though. Many carvings still intact owing to the lower parts being covered in sand at the time the temples were being defaced. As we went back to the boat I got close to a palm dove (also known as a laughing dove).

A well at Kom Ombo, followed by one of the wall tablets which actually shows the faces of the ancient Egyptian gods.

At Edfu, all the faces of the Gods/kings had been defaced by the Greeks or Romans!!

Laughing dove (palm dove).

On rejoining the boat we set sail for Aswan. That’s as far as you can go without changing boats. Another morning watching the river banks go by and enjoying the birds, even though I hadn’t had the opportunity to get close to many of them yet.

The Nile is generally calm and the ride very smooth, so we never had any feeling of rolling as you get on a ship at sea. Mooring space is at a premium so cruise ships moor next to each other. One boat docks, another pulls alongside, and others tie up alongside the second, etc. Going ashore involves going through the other boats until you eventually come to the gangplank to the quay. The most I saw was seven ships next to each other!! It must take considerable organisation so that each boat can get away easily.

After lunch we went on a visit to the botanical gardens on an island in the middle of the Nile. We went on one of the local boats called a felucca. This was quite an experience. We boarded the felucca astern some of the larger cruise ships, which were belching out acrid diesel fumes! It was OK once we got going and the trip was short to the gardens. We got close to several cattle egrets here and I was surprised at how small they are; smaller than I imagined.

Cattle egret. That's a hose in the background, not a snake.

We also saw several hoopoes, a bird I had never seen before. It has a crest, which it can raise and lower and it pokes in the ground for insects and grubs.

Hoopoe searching for grubs.

After the gardens we took the felucca again and sailed in and out of the rocks in the Nile where we got very close to several species of bird, including squacco heron, purple gallinule and pied kingfisher.

Squacco heron.

Purple gallinule. Something like a coot but more cootzilla!

African pied kingfisher. Large, noisy, numerous and magnificent.

Night fell as we got back to the boat for another lovely dinner.

Thursday 4 February 2010

After another fairly early breakfast, 06.45, we headed off by coach to the Aswan High dam. This was about 15km to the north. There are two major dams in the area. The low dam was built by the British, starting in 1899. It was adequate for many years, but in the 50s the plan to build an even bigger dam was well advanced and it was eventually built with Russian assistance and completed in 1970. All statistics about the dam are staggeringly high. Surprisingly little of it is actually visible but there’s no denying the impressive lake behind it which stretches for 500km, 200km of them in Sudan.

Paul, Gill and Lynne on the High Dam, looking downstream.

Near the dam is an impressive monument symbolising Egyptian-Russian friendship.

The Monument to Russo-Egyptian friendship at the High Dam.

On the way back we called in at a perfume factory. The spiel was long, confident and monotonous, that comes with having repeated the same speech several times a day for years. Apparently his factory supplies all the major perfume houses – Chanel, Dior, Calvin Klein, etc. with the very essence of all their perfumes! Afterwards, we returned to the boat for lunch.

In the afternoon it was finally time for the birdwatching trip, led by a local Nubian expert guide, Mohamed Arabi, the ‘birdman of Alcatraz’… oahh I mean ‘Aswan’. He proved to know his stuff. He took us to see birds I had never seen before; little bittern, ferruginous duck, marsh warbler and Senegal thick-knee (yes it’s really called that)! We also got really close to pied kingfisher, squacco heron, purple gallinule, purple heron, marsh sandpiper, black-winged stilt, striated heron, night heron and osprey. He was unsuccessful in locating any bee-eaters but I wasn’t too disappointed in view of all the others we had seen. I took a lot of photos and came back to the boat extremely happy.

Little bittern. A lifer. This is Lynne's shot. Much better than mine. I couldn't even see it initially!!

Ferruginous ducks. Another lifer.

 Senegal thick-knee, a very special bird. Looks very similar to a stone curlew, which is a summer visitor to a few parts of the UK.

 Purple heron, so close. A lovely adult.

Striated heron, another secretive bird and another lifer.

Osprey. We do get these in summer.

Night heron, juvenile, and.......

  ......night heron, male.

Friday 5 February 2010 – Abu Simbel.

Our wake-up call was at 04.30!! We had a cup of tea and the bus left at 05.10. Some people slept on the bus but I couldn’t. I watched as we passed the low dam, then the high dam and then into the desert. The main roads in Egypt are very good. The desert goes on for miles and miles but it’s not as featureless as you might think. After nearly four hours we arrived at Abu Simbel.

The temple of Abu Simbel and the nearby temple of Hathor were originally on an island that was to be submerged by the rising waters of Lake Nasser after the building of the high dam in the sixties. The UN (UNESCO) paid for them to be cut into huge blocks and moved to a location a few hundred metres away and c.65 metres higher. I remember reading an article about it in the National Geographic magazine when I was a boy at school. I thought they had only moved the fa├žade. In fact they cut up and physically moved the inside of the temples as well! Amazing!

Temple of Abu Simbel.

After the visit I noticed some small birds in the grounds which turned out to be a chiff-chaff and a lesser whitethroat. I had earlier seen a white-rumped wheatear.

Chiff-chaff and (below) lesser whitethroat. Chiff-chaff is a resident UK bird and lesser whitethroat is a summer visitor.

While walking back to the bus we were accosted by two of the armed guards who insisted we take our photo with them. One of them also insisted I hold his gun! I should have guessed we were being set up for a demand for money! I gave them a small note.

One of the 'tourist and antiquities police' with me and Lynne.

Another four hours on the bus and we were back on the boat and immediately set sail for Edfu again. More time to watch the Nile go by; a little quicker this time as we were sailing with the flow of the river. This evening was to be the ‘staff show’ but it was more the staff playing their drums and encouraging us guests to perform the conga!

Lynne and me, looking like a cross between Tommy Cooper and Yasser Arafat!

Each evening we came back to our room to find our towels had been formed, origami style, into various objects and animals. Here’s one for us as lovers. Shame it wasn’t Valentine’s day!

The cleaning boys were creative with our towels.

Saturday 6 February 2010

Woke up near Esna Lock, one of the locks in another Nile dam. There was a fault with the lock, though, as we were held up. When we did go through it was very interesting. The lock was large, allowing two cruise ships to go through at the same time.

Esna lock with two ships sinking in it.

 Our turn in the lock.

After breakfast we went on a tour of the ship’s kitchen and engine room. The kitchen tour was preceded by a long, hard-to-understand monologue by the catering manager who didn’t use one sentence if ten would do! The engine-room was interesting. The original steam engines were still in use and were about 100 years old. There was even a lad with an oil can constantly lubricating the piston rods, but I’m not sure how much of that was for our benefit.

Much was made in the marketing of how this steam ship was once a royal steamer. However, when you read carefully the fact sheet….what’s this? The ship started out 40m long, 8m wide and a single level. It ended up 63m long, 13m wide and four levels high. You realise then that probably only the original engines were used and all the rest is new! Ah, well, that’s marketing for you!

During the morning cruise I noticed a pale raptor-like bird hovering like a kestrel. I took some pictures and followed it as it quartered the river bank, quite a way off. Imagine my joy at discovering it was a black-winged kite (aka black-shouldered kite), a very rare bird indeed; and I’d found it myself!!

A rare black-winged kite, hovering like a kestrel.

After lunch we visited Hapshetsut's temple on the West bank, preceded by the colossi of Memnon (i.e. very large statues). After taking a few photos of the colossi, heavily scaffolded, I wandered off to see what I could see in the nearby fields.

I was very soon approached by a friendly brown rat, which was not at all troubled by my presence. I wasn’t afraid of it but it came very close and kept coming. I thought it might have something nasty so I hissed and it went away!

A friendly rat came to say hello!

Then, along hopped a bluethroat, a lifer for me. It was quite tame allowing close views and photos.

Bluethroat. They very occasionally turn up in Britain.

The temple of Hapshetsut breaks with tradition in that it doesn’t follow the normal temple pattern. Instead it looks rather modern, even though it’s about 3,500 years old.

The temple of Hapshetsut, looking quite modern.

On the way back we visit a papyrus factory. Mercifully the presentation was very short this time. One or two of the original Egyptian themed prints were quite nice (albeit expensive) but the rest were the sort of awful prints Woolworths used to sell – e.g. half-naked gypsy woman in the light of a campfire, etc.

Sunday 7 February 2010

The week is drawing to a close. After breakfast we visit the West Bank tombs. Strangely, at this site not only were you not allowed to take photos anywhere, you had to leave your camera in the coach! The reason given was that the focussing beams were slowly damaging the tombs!! It’s true! Well, inside the tombs, fair enough. Outside, why not? Anyway, now you know why there isn't a photo here.

The tombs were very fine but I was gutted that the one time I didn’t have my camera, I enjoyed close views of mating lesser kestrels!! There were also trumpeter finches only on this site. While I waited for the others, sitting on a wall in the sun, I saw a finch on the rocks. I took out my mobile and tried to take a picture only to be pounced on by two officials who stopped me! How ridiculous is that?

After the meeting about the departure details, I went into the private garden of the steamship company onshore. It was pleasantly warm and I walked on the well-tended lawn. It was very thick and springy, like walking on very thick green scourer stuff that you use to clean the pans in the kitchen!

In the hour I spent there I finally saw a green bee-eater as well as a lovely yellow wagtail, the first lizard I’d seen in Egypt and two more rats!

Green bee-eater at last.

A lizard. Don't ask me which one.

Yellow wagtail, a summer visitor to the UK.

In the late afternoon we went for a ride in a pony and carriage. This was very interesting as it took us through the back streets of Luxor where the locals lived, worked and did their shopping. Unfortunately the batteries on Lynne’s camera ran out and Lynne forbade me from taking out my camera!! Anyway, here's a sunset.

In the evening we were treated to a special cocktail event at Luxor temple. The temple was reserved to a select few parties. The temple was tastefully illuminated and we enjoyed cocktails served by handsome attendants while having the freedom of the whole site.

The Temple of Luxor by night.

The music was from Verdi’s Aida but they had a loop of the same triumphal march and by the end of the evening we’d had enough!

Paul noticed some rather large bats that were flying around. They were impressive and I estimate they had a huge wingspan! At one point it carried my sister off but she looked pleased with the ride! I managed a quick shot of her kidnap:

Monday 8 February 2010

It’s all over! People leave in groups depending where they’re going next. The largest group is going back to Gatwick with us.

At the airport I discover I’ve lost the small tear-off portion of my flight confirmation, which is actually my ticket! Fortunately, they let me through without a fuss.

While in the departure lounge I went to the loo. A seasoned traveller assured me it was free, but seemed sure there would be someone there ready to turn the tap on, etc and expect a tip. Sure enough there was someone. I avoided eye contact and headed for a urinal. He appraoched me with “Lovely-jubbly. You English?” and hovered so I couldn’t wee and had to go into a cubicle! When I came out he was still there. I washed my hands and he then rushed over to the paper towel dispenser, opened it, took them all out and offered me one. I walked out in disgust with wet hands. This was after going through security to the departure side. How do they get through??

The landing was good and we stepped out to temperatures of 0 degrees, and the holiday already seemed far away.....