Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Ornithologists Dream at Lake Bardawil

Lake Bardawil ( بحيرة البردويلBuhayrat al Bardawil or سبخة البردويل Sabkhat al Bardawil) is a large, very saline lake in Egypt on the north coast of the Sinai Peninsula. The lagoon is shallow (reaching a depth of about 3 metres) and is separated from the Mediterranean Sea by a narrow sandbar.

Lake Bardawil is about 90 kilometers (56 mi) long, and 22 kilometers (14 mi) wide (at its widest).[1] It covers an area of about 700 km2 (270 m2).

Bardawil is the Arabic version of Baldwin, the name of five Crusader Kings of Jerusalem. The lake lies in an area which, in the Crusader period, was disputed territory between the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and Egypt, and as early as Herodotus was considered to mark the boundary between Syria and Egypt. Its marshy edges were Herodotus's Serbonian Bog.

The Zaranik Experience at Lake Bardawil.


Autumn sea-watching in the eastern Mediterranean may not be considered exciting compared to north-west European headlands, but small numbers of Cory's Calonectris diomedea and Mediterranean Shearwaters Puffinus (puffinus) yelkouan are regular whilst three species of skua are often present, indicating overland migration from the breeding grounds in northern Russia. Up to 25 Arctic Skuas Stercorarius parasiticus, double figures for Pomarine Stercorarius pomarinus and a few Long-tailed Skuas Stercorarius longicaudus can be expected but it is the huge passages of herons, ducks, waders and terns which make this a unique sea-watching site.

Westerly migration at Zaranik seems to be independent of the weather and is apparent on a daily basis. Birds either pass out to sea, close inshore, along the beach, high overhead or inland behind the viewing point, the proverbial eyes in the back of the head are very useful. In early September day totals over 22,000 Garganey, Anas querquedula more than 2,000 each of Night Nycticorax nycticorax and Purple Herons Ardea purpurea, in excess of 700 Squacco Herons Ardeola ralloides and out at sea movements of Little Bitterns Ixobrychus minutus which can exceptionally exceed 1,000 in a day, have been recorded. It can prove challenging keeping up with 600 White-winged Black Chlidonias leucopterus and 300 or more Whiskered Terns Chlidonias hybridus in addition to the 44 species of waders that have been observed flying past. To newcomers the first Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus battling against a headwing under a hot sun comes as a surprise but up to 150 in a day is not unusual. In October, day peaks of over 1,000 White Pelicans Pelecannus onocrotalus and 32 Great White Egrets Egretta alba in a day have been noted but the overall volume of passage is much reduced, although, as yet, little known about these later movements.

Some scarcer species have been observed, such as Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus and Sabine's Gull Larus sabini, both of the two Egyptian records of the latter species have been at Zaranik. Recent observations indicate that Audouins Gull Larus audouinii is regular with up to 5 present in autumn 1995.

The real value of the sea-watching lies in the annual species totals which may show long term trends. In the early 1980s over 220,000 Garganey passed Zaranik but in recent years fewer have been counted. Whilst heron numbers have increased waders numbers have decreased, Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta numbers in particular are lower, former totals of 2,700 in a season are no longer matched.


Many of the birds counted whilst sea-watching also pause to rest and feed on and around the Zaranik coastal lagoon and the salt company lagoons further inland which can be counted by walking along the track past the pumping station. Substantial numbers of herons, gulls and terns are usually present and among the commoner waders a few scarcer species can be detected such as White-tailed Plover Chettusia leucura, Terek Xenus cinereus and Broad-billed Sandpipers Limicola falcinellus and Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva. Zaranik is perhaps the most regular Egyptian site for Black-winged Pratincole Glareola nordmanni and Grey Phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius. Cream-coloured Courser Cursorius cursor, another casual visitor, is most often recorded near the Observatory.

In the winter up to 10,000 Greater Flamingos Phoenicopterus ruber are present along with small numbers of Black-necked Grebes Podiceps nigricollis. Important gatherings of wintering gulls include up to 1,000 Slender-billed Larus genei and 300 Armenian Gulls Larus armenicus and the occasional Egyptian rarity, such as Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator. To check the site in the winter, use the track by the artificial lagoons south of the pumping station and fishing village.


Radar studies indicate that at the height of the autumn migration, up to 20 percent of the millions of birds arriving from southern Europe/Russia make landfall along the coast each day. At Zaranik, the bushes growing in the dunes near the Observatory hold most birds in the spring but in the autumn, most migrants are concentrated in areas nearer the shore. The bushes closer to the beach and around the pumping station should be checked for migrants as well as the fishing village and low vegetation behind the sea-watch point. Further west, along the track around the artificial lagoons there is El Fusiyat island is another very productive area for migrants.

The autumn migration starts early when Lesser Whitethroats Sylvia curruca and Willow Warblers Phylloscopus trochilus are the most numerous passerine night migrants in the region.

Plate 1. Quail Coturnix coturnix, a very common migrant at Zaranik. (W. Salama)
Quail picture
August is the best time to catch up with east Mediterranean specialities such as Lesser Grey Shrike Lanius minor, Olive-tree Warbler Hippolais olivetorum and Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala. Up to 50 Thrush Nightingale Luscinia luscinia can be present in early September along with a sprinkling of warblers such as Rüppells Warbler Sylvia rueppellis, a few Wrynecks Jynx torquilla and once, a Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola on 3rd September 1993, the third record for Egypt. Early to mid September is a good time to compare the various plumages of Ortolan Emberiza hortulana and Cretzschmars Bunting Emberiza caesia; Red-backed Shrikes Lanius collurio peak from mid to late September when up 40 can be counted, whilst scarcer migrants include Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria with once an Icterine Warbler Hippolais icterina. In addition to grounded migrants, substantial visible movements of Short-toed Lark Calandrella rufescens and Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus are a feature. Up to 50 Black-eared Oenanthe hispanica along with smaller numbers of Isabelline Wheatears Oenanthe isabellina may also be present. In early October the first winter visitors such as Bluethroat Luscinia svecica and Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta arrive and further scarce migrants like Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva can be expected whilst both Pied Oenanthe pleschanka and Cyprus Pied Wheatear Oenanthe cypriaca have occurred in mid October. Few observations have been made any later than this but it is known that large numbers of Spanish Sparrows Passer hispaniolensis arrive and there has been a single record of Bimaculated Lark Melanocorypha bimaculata. In recent autumns intensive monitoring of Corncrake Crex crex numbers, a globally threatened species which occurs here on migration in greater numbers than anywhere else, has resulted in 50 birds being trapped in 1995, amply demonstrating the possibilities for future single species studies.

The massive waterbird migrations of the autumn are not repeated in the spring but substantial passerine migrations occur from late February when Lesser Whitethroats start to arrive from sub-Saharan Africa. From early March this migration increases with large visible passages of Short-toed Larks (up to several thousand daily) and then later in the month impressive numbers of summer plumaged Ortolan and Cretzschmars Buntings, with a wide range of warblers, Masked Shike Lanius nubicus and Wryneck. Late April and early May is also interesting with significant arrivals of Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla and small numbers of Barred Sylvia nisoria and Orphean Warblers Sylvia hortensis.


March and April is perhaps the best time to see occasional thermalling raptors such as Lesser Spotted Aquila pomarina, Steppe Aquila nipalensis and Short-toed Eagles Ciraetus gallicus, as well as White Storks Ciconia ciconia, which may arrive if strong southerly winds drift birds away from the Sinai mountains. In September up to 20 Honey Buzzards Pernis apivorus have been noted flying in off the sea. Both Montagu's Circus pygargus and Pallid Harriers Circus macrourus also occur at this time but require a keen eye for separation. The main falcon passage commences with perhaps an Eleonora's Falcon Falco elenorae or a party of Red-footed Falcon Falco vespertinus on roadside telegraph wires in late September. These are followed by Hobby Falco subbuteo in good numbers through October with occasional Lanner Falco biarmicus and then a few Long-legged Buzzards Buteo rufinus and Black Kites Milvus migrans later.

There have been few observations in summer but breeding birds include Avocet (the only breeding site in Egypt), Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus (1,900 pairs in the area, internationally important), Spur-winged Plover Hoplopterus spinosus, Little Tern Sterna albifrons (1,200 pairs, internationally important), Palm Dove Streptopelia senegalensis, Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor and Hoopoe Lark Alaemon alaudipes. Summering species include Greater Flamingo, Greater Sandplover Charadrius leschenaultii, Slender-billed Gull and Desert Wheatear Oenanthe deserti.


Zaranik is an important bottleneck for migrating birds and is to feature in the forthcoming Important Bird Areas of Egypt. It was established as a Protected Area by the Egyptian Government in 1983 and forms part of the Lake Bardawil RAMSAR site declared in 1988. It is also the site of Egypt's first bird observatory and a great opportunity exists for others to experience this magnificent migration spectacle. The Observatory can accommodate up to six people in three bedrooms and has electricity and water. Zaranik is located 35 kilometres west of El Arish on the main north Sinai road and can be reached by either bus and taxi services both of which regularly operate between Cairo and El Arish, although arrangements need to be made to stop at Zaranik. Intending day visitors are advised to contact the Manager, Waheed Salama in advance as visits to the area need to be properly cleared with the local authorities. Entry to the Protected Area is free but an accommodation charge of £3 Sterling per night is levied for staying at the Observatory and this must be pre-booked with Waheed Salama.

Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber, in 1990 over 13,000 were counted at Zaranik and lake Bardawil. (W. Salama)

Flamingo picture

Zaranik Protected Area, North Sinai, Egypt, showing sites mentioned in the text.

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