Tunisia: 6th-7th and 12th-16th May 2019   Leave a comment

Our trip to Algeria (see previous post) was ‘fleshed out’ before and after with time spent birding in Tunisia. This proved to be well worthwhile as I saw another ‘life bird’, a wide range of North African birds, some of which I haven’t seen since 1990, plus several ‘insurances against future splitting’ and some excellent mammals.


We arrived at Tunis airport in the late afternoon so it was already dark when we arrived at Cap Bon, a peninsula sticking north-east into the Mediterranean.


This is the (evening) view from our hotel towards the island of Zembra, a breeding site for two species of shearwater.


The weather the following morning was cool and grey with a strong northerly wind, not what you would expect from North Africa in May.


Although you might think that May is quite late for migrant passerines this far south, there were quite a few about including this Woodchat Shrike …


… along with more familiar birds such as Pied Flycatcher …


… and Spotted Flycatcher.


There were a number of resident specialities too like Moussier’s Redstart, endemic to the Maghreb region.


Later we moved further along the peninsula in search of migrant raptors but as you can see the conditions weren’t optimal.


We did see a number of raptor species such as this Short-toed Snake-eagle …


… and a few migrating Black Storks.


Most of the raptors seemed to be travelling along this valley and disappearing from sight …


… we had noticed that a groups of five Egyptian Vultures had appeared from the east and passed up the valley on two occasions, when this happened for the third time we concluded that the same flock must be flying up the west side of the peninsular to the northernmost tip and finding the weather unsuitable for a sea crossing, returning down the east side and going round again and again.


Later on we moved inland where the conditions were better. We headed for a couple of lakes, Abdel Menaami and Sod Melaabi.


Our main target was the rare White-headed Duck, of which we saw a dozen or so, but they were hidden by reeds and quite distant.


The following morning after some initial land birding at Cap Bon we headed off in a small boat to look for seabirds.


The initial plan had been to head for the breeding island of Zembra but the recent wind had resulted in a large swell. So instead we travelled up the east (leeward) side of the peninsula, where as you can see, conditions were excellent.


After a bit of chumming we were soon surrounded by our target birds, Scopoli’s Shearwater (foreground and upper left) and the smaller Yelkouan Shearwater (the remaining five). These species have been split from Cory’s and Manx Shearwater respectively and are both confined to the Mediterranean as breeding birds (a tiny number of Scopoli’s breed in Portugal). I’ve seen both species before but never had views as good as this.


Scopoli’s is slightly smaller than the Atlantic breeding Cory’s but the crucial ID feature which can only be assessed at close range is the white edging to the underwing primaries forming white wedges extending into the otherwise dark primary tips. Cory’s lack this so the white in the ‘hand’ has a more rounded appearance. The two species sound different and according to chromatography studies, smell different too. These two latter features are far more important to a species that identifies its mate in the dark by sound and smell than minor differences in plumage.


The species Manx Shearwater once encompassed all of the Mediterranean taxa, but in recent years Balearic Shearwater (breeding as the name suggests in the Balearic Islands) and Yelkouan (or Levantine) Shearwater have been given specific status. The breeding range of Yelkouan extends eastwards across the Mediterranean from Menorca, where it is marginally sympatric (or possibly hybridises) with Balearic. It is closer in appearance to Manx than Balearic making identification outside of the Med difficult, but has browner undertail coverts and lacks the white curved line behind the ear coverts characteristic of Manx.


Before returning we came in close to the cliffs to see a pair of breeding Peregrines. The most unusual species we saw from the boat was a group of three Pomarine Skuas heading west. It seems unlikely that they wintered in the Med or migrated here via Gibraltar. It was suggested that perhaps they entered the Niger River drainage from wintering grounds in the south Atlantic, crossed the Sahara to the Med and were now heading for the Rhone valley, the Rhine valley, the Baltic and then overland via Lake Lagoda to the White Sea and their arctic breeding grounds!


After the boat trip (I hesitate to call a trip a half mile offshore a ‘pelagic’) we set off for the far north-west of Tunisia where we would stay overnight before crossing into Algeria the next day. The dreadful and tragic terrorist attacks in Tunisia in recent years have, as far as the terrorists are concerned, had the desired effect. Empty and half built hotel and apartments such as this one opposite our hotel are seen all along the coast. Such a loss for the Tunisian economy.


Four days later we were back in Tunisia and all but one of the party were starting the optional extension to the south of the country. After leaving Hammamet near Tunis, our first point of call was these saltpans at Sfax which held a multitude of Greater Flamingos and other birds.


Terns were quite numerous including Little Terns …


… and what I usually refer to as ‘Gullible’ Terns (Gull-billed).


Waders were present in good numbers including Common Ringed Plovers and Little Stints.


From here we headed southwards and inland for three very enjoyable days birding in the desert.


Soon we reached Bou-Hedma National Park.


Our targets were both mammalian and avian. This is the widespread Dorcas Gazelle which occurs all across the Sahara and into Sinai and Israel …


… but far rarer is the Addax. This beautiful creature was hunted to extinction in the wild in Tunisia but has now been reintroduced. A few wild individuals exist in Chad, Niger and Mauritania.


Even rarer is the Scimitar-horned Oryx. In this case there are no truly wild individuals left but the species has been reintroduced into Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal and recently Chad. The ones we saw were too far away for decent photos, so this was taken from www.naturetrek.com who also run tours to Tunisia.


Our main avian target was the little known desertorum race of Red-necked Nightjar. Smaller than the nominate race found in Morocco and Iberia, it has been touted as a potential split but apparently the vocalisations are identical.


We stayed at nice hotels in Mahres and Matmata.


Outside of Matmata we stopped in a traditional Berber village.


Views of the surrounding countryside and the local mosque.


It certainly seemed a part of the world where little happens in a hurry.


The scenery became much starker as we journeyed south.


Associated with fens and wetlands in the UK, who would have expected a Swallowtail butterfly in this harsh environment.


A widespread bird that I seldom see is the lovely Rufous-tailed Bush Robin (a bird that has had more name changes than Italy has had changes in government) but here they seemed quite common with at least eight seen in the area.


Normally shy and skulky, we were able to get some great views.


We saw a nice range of larks including this Bar-tailed Lark …


… and most notably a flock of Thick-billed Larks, a species I haven’t seen since I visited Morocco in 1990.


We also saw a total of six species of Wheatear, all of which I photographed with varying degrees of success. Black Wheatear was easily the commonest …


… giving good views throughout the region.


Just a pair of White-crowned Wheatears were seen knocking around this old building.


The western race of Black-eared Wheatear has been identified as a potential split. Apparently the eastern race is more closely related to Pied and Cyprus Wheatear than it is to the western race. So either eastern BE Wheatear should be lumped in with both Cyprus and Pied giving two species overall or all four forms should be given specific rank.


Surprisingly we only saw one Desert Wheatear as in some desert areas its by far the commonest wheatear species.


Another bird I haven’t seen since 1990 is Red-rumped Wheatear, unfortunately hiding its red rump in this shot.


And finally Maghreb Wheatear, a distinctive form of Mourning Wheatear. This form deserves specific status as the primaries are grey, rather than black with white inner webs, and it is sexually dimorphic unlike the nominate race. The scientific name halophila means ‘salt lover’, so presumably it prefers salt flats.


There were plenty of Spanish Sparrows around …


… but took a bit of searching to find the very localised (African) Desert Sparrow.


Other goodies included this juvenile Lanner …


… and a rather surprised Little Owl.


But the best bird of south Tunisia for me was this African Desert Warbler as we missed in in Morocco 19 years ago.


There were some great desert mammals too, the endearing little Gundi …


… and its predator, African Golden Wolf. Recently it has been shown that the Golden Jackals of eastern Europe and Asia are not closely related to the ones in Africa which are in fact related to wolves, so the African populations have been renamed African Golden Wolf.


In due course we left the wild scenery of the south and headed back to Hammamet and an overnight stay before our flights home …


… but on route we took a cultural diversion to El Djem to see one of the best preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world.


From Wikipedia: The amphitheatre was built around 238 AD in Thysdrus, located in the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis in present-day El Djem, Tunisia. It is one of the best preserved Roman stone ruins in the world, and is unique in Africa. As other amphitheatres in the Roman Empire, it was built for spectator events, and it is one of the biggest amphitheatres in the world. The estimated capacity is 35,000, and the sizes of the big and the small axes are respectively 148 metres (486 ft) and 122 metres (400 ft). The amphitheatre is built of stone blocks, located on a flat ground, and is exceptionally well conserved. The amphitheatre of El Jem is the third amphitheatre built on the same place. The belief is that it was constructed by the local proconsul Gordian, who became the emperor as Gordian III. In the Middle Ages, it served as a fortress, and the population sought shelter here during the attacks of Vandals in 430 and Arabs in 647.


The trip to Tunisia along with Algeria had been an excellent short trip with three life birds, a number of potential ticks and some great mammals all set in great scenery.

In spite of uploading photos at a much lower resolution than I would prefer I have now completely run out of available space on this blog. I now have the choice of paying a lot more for additional space, of deleting old posts or reloading old posts with low-res photos. Please bear with me whilst I decide what to do!

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