Birding Trip Report for Tunisia - 19th-26th December 2004.

Ken Tucker, Dorset, UK.

ken.tucker@btinternet.com

 

The holiday was booked fairly last minute with Thomas Cook for £219 per person half board at the Hotel Jinene, Sousse (good but basic). Car hire for the week was expensive at around £250 (Hertz).

 

Driving

Although we had been advised that driving here was difficult, it was much less stressful than expected and even driving at night (often strongly advised against) was not too problematic. Other road users were quite amazing (especially overtaking skills, use of lights/horn, distance from bumper), but we drove defensively and had no problems. I felt happier driving here than I did in Italy!

 

People

Very friendly, helpful and welcoming everywhere. Can hassle you to buy things, but in a very relaxed way and left well alone after a couple No thank you’s in French. On one occasion boys hassling me did interfere with my birding (see 23.12.04) but on no occasion did I feel unsafe or threatened. Helps a lot if you speak a little French (or better still, Arabic).

 

Birding

I used the range of trip reports easily available on the net. The sites I visited are generally well know and referred to in these other reports so have not given detailed directions unless something has changed.

Birding was easy, although I did miss a couple of species which I thought were almost definite (marbled duck and red-rumped wheatear). Views were generally good to excellent but I often spent a little less time with each species than I would have liked as there was often somewhere else to move on to. I was on holiday with a non-birding partner and there were other things we both wanted to see. Distances are relatively large and I think we could have done with an extra couple of days in the desert areas of the south (perhaps staying at Matmata for two nights and exploring the area around there). This might have made for a more relaxing holiday with more ambling and less dashing. I am not, however, disappointed with the experience. It was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had… even without considering the birds which were superb in themselves.

 

Other practicalities

The weather was far from warm, despite forecasts of 19oC before we left England. It was quite hot in the sun but there was always a cold wind and in the shade and at night it could get very cold. Go prepared for this during winter. Our hotel in Sousse was warmish and had adequate bedding. However, in other areas we visited (always the budget option) the hotel beds were provided only with a sheet and a thin blanket, or just the blanket. I would recommend taking a sleeping bag which we found made it much more comfortable than it would have been otherwise. I would imagine the more expensive hotels would be better equipped in this respect.

Take a toilet roll wherever you go! Toilets were generally the sit down, rather than squat variety but were generally disgusting and often without paper or a flush that worked.

Food was generally good and very cheap. We avoided the salads and drank only bottled water and managed to avoid any serious stomach upsets.

 

Itinery

19.12.04 Flew Gatwick to Monastir arriving after dark.

20.12.04 Drove south to El Jem and then on to Matmata.

21.12.04 Matmata to Zaafrane then into the Sahara by camel

22.12.04 Journey back to Zaafrane by camel before driving on to Nefta.

23.12.04 Nefta to Sousse via Gorges de Seldja.

24.12.04 Time spent at Sebkhet Halk el Menzel and hotel.

25.12.04 Drove to Cap Bon and back

26.12.04 Shopping in Sousse and Monastir, flew home.

 

20.12.04

Around the Hotel

I got up early and took a walk to the sea and back. Birds seen in and around the hotel included;

Collared dove

Laughing dove

Sparrows (no pure house sparrows and only one or two which might pass as Spanish… most were somewhere in between)

Sardinian warbler

Serin

Southern grey shrike

Spotless starling

Many gulls passing north included a few slender-billed as well as one sandwich tern.

 

El Jem

We left the hotel around 11am and drove off to El Jem. This took a little over two hours as we needed to get water and food and find our way out of Sousse. Few birds on the drive south (lots of s-g shrikes). Birds around El Jem coliseum and town included;

Black redstart

Serin

Laughing dove

Fan-tailed warbler - one behind the museum.

 

Thyna (south of Sfax) and on to Matmata

Because of our rather late start, there was no time to stop but a lot of waders and several flamingoes as we drove by. Arrived in Matmatta after dark and stayed at the Hotel Sidi Driss. This is one of the locations where Star Wars was filmed (the first one which is now episode 4) and much of the set is still in place. It is an underground troglodyte hotel, was relatively clean (not for the fastidious) and cheap. Dinner (3 course), bed and breakfast (bread and coffee) was 17TD each (about £8.50). It was a real experience staying here and highly recommended.

 

21.12.04

Mamata

I woke to a strange nasal-sparrow type call and went out into the central courtyard to discover a couple of house buntings as well as ‘Italian’ and Spanish sparrows. At breakfast we decided to join a party consisting of two Australians and four Canadians who had paid a guide to take them to Douz for a camel ride, doing some sight-seeing on the way. The others wanted just a couple of hours on a camel but we were particularly interested in spending the night in the desert and we negotiated a price of 50TD each (£25), leaving in the afternoon and back by the following lunch time. As it turned out, our guide just took us to the ‘camel point’ in Zaafrane and handed us over to the guides there which is what we had intended to do anyway… so you might be able to get a similar experience more cheaply by doing this.

 

A stroll around Matmata before we left produced excellent views of some key species just around the buildings. The Galerida were not especially difficult to separate here, but after Matmata, I tended not to bother trying too hard;

Moussier’s Redstart 1 male.

Thekla lark - common around the edges of town.

Crested lark - one in the ‘town square’.

House bunting - common

Black wheatear - common

 

As we left Matmata in the car, I spotted an over-flying raven which was almost certainly brown-necked, but we were unable to stop.

 

Drive from Matmata to Tamezret

Black wheatear - several

 

Tamezret

This Berber village was very interesting and I would recommend a visit to the Berber museum here. The custodian gave us a very interesting talk. Birds around the village included;

Black wheatear - several

Moussier’s redstart - 1 male, 1 female

House bunting - common

Mourning wheatear - several pristine males

 

Douz

We stopped here for something to eat. House bunting was common about the town.

 

Zaafrane

We drove on to Zaafrane through the huge date palm oasis. Laughing dove was common here. We stopped at the Syndicat d’Initiative ‘camel point’ just beyond the town. The noise of so many camels was an experience in itself! Here we waited for our camels to be arranged.

Birds here;

Laughing dove

Crested lark

S-g shrike

Sparrows

Desert wheatear

 

We should have left by 3pm but did not actually get underway until almost 4pm. This was really too late (as our camel guide agreed) but didn’t really detract from the experience - we just had to do some of the travelling in the dark. It was just the two of us and our Bedouin guide and we trekked for 2.5-3 hours into the desert to a small oasis with tents where I would imagine a lot of people would stay at high season (about 12km south of Zaafrane). As it was, it was just the three of us. We arrived in the dark, collected firewood, were cooked for beneath the bright full moon (a simple vegetable stew) and our guide made a flat bread in the hot sand and ashes. Very ‘touristy’, I’m sure… but another high point of the trip. We chatted (in French) with our guide while we cooked and ate before sleeping on camp beds in a standard tent. A traditional Bedouin tent was available, but needed setting up! If we had arrived earlier (when it was still light) we might have tried for this option. Sleeping bags were essential here as the night was very cold indeed.

Birding from the back of a moving camel isn’t really possible, using binoculars. However, I did manage good views of;

Fulvous babbler - a (noisy) party of 6 or 8 around some little vegetable patches just south of Zaafrane. I was able to watch these while our guide dug up some food for dinner!

Tristram’s warbler - 1 male scolded us from bushes as we trekked by. Many other probables were seen (but could also have been spectacled or desert or…?).

Desert wheatear - common, mostly female types.

 

22.12.04

Oasis in the Sahara, south of Zaafrane

An early morning walk as the sun rose over the apparently endless dunes revealed;

Moussier’s redstart - 3 males, 1 female

Fulvous babbler - 2

S-g shrike - 2. The birds around this area were variable, perhaps a little paler than those in the north, definitely some with more white in the wing, but essentially pretty similar to ‘algeriensis’ and probably intermediates between that form and ‘elegans’.

Spanish sparrow - several most like this species.

Tristram’s warbler - 1

Sardinian warbler - 2 (and other ‘Sylvias’ which were not identified due to skulking. 1 appeared to be spectacled and a couple of others were probably further Tristram’s)

 

Camel ride back to Zaafrane

This was very peaceful and very special. It also almost yielded a most unexpected species. Birds seen included;

Stonechat - common

Fulvous babbler - a few birds heard only

Hoopoe lark - 3. One seen extremely well trotting and flying around the camels. This bird was only 2 or three hundred yards south of the Syndicat.

The almost was Houbara bustard. I believe this species is very rare indeed in Tunisia, if still breeding at all. From the camel we saw fresh tracks which could only have been this species. They were large (10-14cm across) with just three fat toes and a large, broad sole. They reminded me of small ostrich tracks and I immediately looked around knowing that the bird might be crouching nearby. I saw nothing at first but then noticed a large, long-necked bird flying in the distance and eventually settling and disappearing among the dunes. I could see no detail of is plumage. I’ve not included it in my list as the evidence is not water-tight. But in my mind I have no doubt that this was houbara bustard.

 

Syndicat d’Initiative, Zaafrane

Kentish plover - 3 running around the camels!

 

Marshes just north of Zaafrane

We stopped here in the car to gather ourselves together and flex our legs as we could barely walk after our camel rides! There was little open water visible.

Marsh harrier - 1

Fan-tailed warbler - 1

 

Pools north of Blidette (also sp. Blidet)

We decided not to try to find the marshes (and potential marbled duck) in the immediate area of Douz and instead went north as we wanted to get to Nefta before it got dark and there was quite a lot of suitable habitat along the way. We stopped wherever possible to look across the various marshes we passed but never did find marbled duck. The only water which held any birds of note was the large lake north of Blidette;

Little stint - several

Wood sandpiper - 1

Kentish plover - common

Grey heron - 6

Shelduck - 9

Black-winged stilt - 12

Ruff - 2

 

Chott el Jerid

We continued north west towards Tozeur, crossing the great salt lake (Chott) - another fantastic experience. Few birds seen except on pools immediately beside the road just before coming out onto the Chott;

Ruddy shelduck - 1 pair

Black-winged stilt - 4

On the chott itself were;

Little stints - a handful

Kentish plover - a handful

Green sandpiper - 1

 

Nefta

A walk around the town and oasis in the hour or so leading up to dark;

House buntings - common

Laughing dove - common

Chiffchaffs - common

Some very pale, sandy-coloured bats.

We stayed overnight in the Hotel Habib. The cheapest hotel in town… and you could tell! The proprietor was so incredibly friendly and helpful and there was a shower in the room, which we welcomed. However, there was no bar (contrary to as mentioned in The Rough Guide) and it was rather noisy at night. The flushes on 2 of the 3 toilets did not work, but it hadn’t stopped people using them (don’t think about this for too long). Our stay here was yet another memorable experience and more interesting than horrifying… but one night was enough.

 

23.12.04

Nefta to Metaloui

North of Tozeur;

White-crowned black wheatear - 2 or 3 seen from the car

Mourning wheatear - a few seen from the car

 

Gorges de Seldja

While my partner took the tourist train through the Gorges de Seldja (The toilets at the station in Metaloui were immaculate! This may not seem important to you now, but at the time…), I was dropped  off to explore the desert here for larks and other specialities.

Coming from Tozeur, the road to the gorge is on the left immediately before entering Metaloui. A short way down this track, and before the gorge, it forks with the right-hand fork sign posted to Seldja. I was dropped at this fork and almost immediately connected with desert lark off toward the right within a fenced area.

After about ten minutes two boys (about 14 years old) appeared and hassled me for some time; wanting to show me the mountain and gorge and wanting to know what I was doing. I explained I was looking for birds and at first they thought I wanted to eat them (understandably, really). They followed me around trying to get gifts/cigarettes/money from me and generally frightening away the birds. Unfortunately, I had left almost everything in the car and had nothing with which to pay them off. After about 30 minutes they could see they weren’t going to get anything and wandered off towards the gorge. I managed about another 30-40 minutes of birding before they returned with four friends and did not leave me for the next 2 hours during which time I saw almost no birds. If I were to return here I would;

·Certainly take sweets, money, pens or pencils (or other gifts) and give them to get the boys to leave me alone (perhaps only giving them once they had sat away on the side of the road for an hour or so!). The problem with this is that they would come to expect these things from birders and the problem could become worse.

·Alternatively, as the boys had demonstrated that they used little spring-traps to catch songbirds, they might well know the best areas for particular species and could be paid for showing them to you (especially if you can show them in a field guide). In this way they might find you species like thick-billed lark which occurs here but which I failed to see. This could certainly prove beneficial to both parties (and perhaps even the birds if they were given some monetary rather than culinary value!).

·A third option would be to find the area around the gorge so that you can identify the habitat, and then drive a few miles back in the direction of Tozeur where there was plenty of similar habitat away from human habitation (especially if you can find another watercourse as this probably is what attracts some of the species to this area).

 

I would like to stress that at no time were the boys threatening and I did not feel unsafe. We even had a bit of a laugh at times… but after almost 3 hours of it (and seeing my available time slipping away) it became very frustrating. If anybody visits this site and tries any of the above, I would be very interested to hear their success.

When the boys were not present, birds were seen;

Desert Lark - about 30 in total on the flat desert, the hilly bits to the right of the gorge between the road and train track and on the out-wash from the gorge itself.

Crested lark - several

Mourning wheatear - about 7. Mostly males. Scattered but mostly close to entrance to gorge and small hills and gullies to the right.

White-crowned black wheatear - about 8 but only 2 with white crowns. Others were definitely this species and not black wheatear (which I did not see here). Scattered but mostly close to entrance to gorge and small hills and gullies to the right.

Lesser short-toed lark - 3 associating loosely with desert larks.

Trumpeter finch - 1 very drab bird on the out-wash.

Crag Martin - several patrolling the hillside/gorge.

Moussier’s redstart - 1 male, 1 female

Kestrel - about 4 which all appeared to be common kestrel.

Blue rock thrush - 1

 

Metaloui to Sousse

I ran out of time at Seldja and we began the long drive back to Sousse. Birds seen on this journey;

Fulvous babbler - 2 seen fling between bushes just north of Gafsa

Brown-necked raven - 2 flying and perched beside the road just north of Gafsa. I expected to see more of this species and almost didn’t connect with them. If this is a species you would particularly like to see it might be wise to try the dump in Douz (which I didn’t but it is somewhere north of the zoo, I believe) and not just rely on bumping into them.

Hoopoe - 2 near Kairouan

 

23.12.04

Hotel Jinene, Sousse

Common crane - 109 coming in off the sea and heading inland at about 9.30 am.

Other common species were seen as on the first morning.

Decided to take it easy today after all the driving of previous days. We visited the salt lake just north of El Kantaoui and south of Hergla (Sebkhet Halk el Menzel). Stopped at three points around the edge:

1. Where the road north from El Kantaoui meets the lake;

Black-necked grebes

Great crested grebes

Flamingos

Mediterranean gull

Slender-billed gull

Sandwich tern

Whiskered tern

Avocet

Kentish plover

Dunlin

Little stint

Ruff

Spotted redshank

Fan-tailed warbler

Marsh harrier - 1

Northern raven - 1

S-g shrike

Little egret

Grey heron

 

2. Inland from this point along the south side of the lake to the raised area sign-posted ‘Sky Fun’. Much of the same here plus;

Skylark

Crested lark

Spoonbill

3. Continue along this road to a town called Sidi Bou Ali. Here follow the A road (not the motorway) north and shortly after the town, before a bridge over a stream it is possible to park on industrial land between this bridge and the motorway bridge. On the stream between the two bridges I saw;

Great white egret - 4

Marsh sandpiper - 5

Greenshank

Redshank

Spotted redshank

Common sandpiper

Little egret

 

Other reports recommend walking down beside this stream to the edge of the salt lake. I did this (over an hour’s walk) and saw little new and although there were good close views of some species, they were only as good as at point 1. Species added here;

Wood sandpiper

Curlew

Golden plover

Slender-billed gull - not new, but large numbers seen well

 

On the other side of the ‘A’ bridge, things looked more promising (reed-fringed pools) and I saw some good birds although not the marbled duck I was hoping for;

Marsh harrier - 1

Duck sp. - 3 flew out of the reed and quickly disappeared. They were not marbled duck but I was not quick enough to see what they were.

Avocet - 1

Black-winged stilt - 20

Snipe - c60

Fan-tailed warbler

Coot

Moorhen

Kingfisher

 

Drive back round the north of the salt lake to Hergla

On this drive there were quite a few distant flocks of cranes and some flying overhead;

Common crane - c300

 

Hotel Jinene - beach and around

The hour or so leading up to dusk produced;

Caspian tern - 1 north

Black redstart

Little owl - 1 on the old buildings between Hotel Jinene and Dreams Beach Hotel. This was not a sandy-coloured bird but did seem a little paler than birds back home - larger white spots and edges, perhaps?

 

24.12.04

Enfidha - The little swift stake-out (also called Enfidaville)

The church-museum was easy to find but as most other winter visitors have discovered, the birds were not. We did not see them and I wonder whether they leave the country during winter (contrary to the literature) or at least head up into the hills.

 

Immediately north of Enfida on the A1

Over fields just north of the town I stopped the car to watch a large raptor;

Long-legged buzzard - 1

House martin - 12. A surprise find as I was scoping the buzzard. Having just left Enfidha immediate thoughts were of little swift, but alas, no.

 

A1 north of Enfida between posts for Tunis 76km and 75km

Another stop for a large raptor wasn’t a raptor at all;

Night heron - 2 adults roosting in small grove of Eucalyptus trees.

 

Pools on Cap Bon peninsula between Nabeul and Menzel Termime

We had decided to visit Cap Bon on Christmas day. The drive was a very long one as the road along the south of the peninsula is extremely slow from the A1 through Hammamet to the other side of Nabeul. Unless you particularly wish to see these pools, it was much quicker coming back along the north coast to the A1 through Soliman and Grombalia. I would recommend this route for going to and from the Cap. We seemed to spend most of the day driving and little actually seeing or doing things. Next time I would spend a night in a hotel in the area.

The pools - these looked good, but we only stopped to look at a few;

Flamingos

Black-winged stilts

Shelduck

Green sandpiper

Kentish plover

Little stint

 

Caves and surrounds at Cap Bon (El Haouaria)

Chaffinch - 1 male 1 female ‘African’ type.

Goldfinch

Greenfinch

Little Owl

Robin

Moussier’s redstart - pair

Stonechat

Black redstart

Blue rock thrush - 1

 

Northern peninsula road from El Haouaria to Aissa

Black-shouldered kite - 5 seen easily and well from the car.

 

Viewpoint above Korbous

We drove from a village called Brij along the road to Korbous looking for habitat which might have been suitable for Tchagra and bulbul. Just before the road drops down to the sea and Korbous there are pull-ins near a small, square, white tower on the right. We stopped here and took a walk through the scrub for about 40 minutes. I would be surprised if our target birds were not here… but we did not see them;

Dartford warbler - a few

Sardinian warbler - a few

Blackcap - c10

Song thrush - c30

 

26.12.04

Our final day - mostly shopping around Sousse and Monastir

Common swift - 1 over the medina in Sousse and one over Monastir.

Caspian tern - 1 flew south past the Monastir peninsular as we wrote postcards along with Med gull and sandwich terns.

Audouin’s Gull - 1 as for Caspian tern

 

Summary

 

A superb holiday in a truly wonderful country. The scenery was stunning, there were so many quirky and memorable experiences and the people in particular were so friendly and helpful. I would recommend a trip to anyone who is just that little bit more adventurous than your average package holiday punter. However, compared to the adventures of many birders, it’s a walk in the park. I saw 95 species in total (see below), 14 of which were new, but don’t just go for the birds!


 

 

English Name

Scientific Name

No of days on which it was observed (max=7)

1

Great Crested Grebe

Podiceps cristatus

1

2

Black-necked Grebe

Podiceps nigricollis

1

3

Northern Gannet

Morus bassanus

1

4

Great Cormorant

Phalacrocorax carbo

4

5

Black-crowned Night Heron

Nycticorax nycticorax

1

6

Little Egret

Egretta garzetta

2

7

Great White Heron

Ardea alba

1

8

Grey Heron

Ardea cinerea

3

9

Eurasian Spoonbill

Platalea leucorodia

1

10

Greater Flamingo

Phoenicopterus ruber

3

11

Ruddy Shelduck

Tadorna ferruginea

1

12

Black-shouldered Kite

Elanus caeruleus

1

13

Marsh Harrier

Circus aeruginosus

2

14

Long-legged Buzzard

Buteo rufinus

1

15

Common Kestrel

Falco tinnunculus

3

16

Moorhen

Gallinula chloropus

1

17

Coot

Fulica atra

1

18

Common Crane

Grus grus

1

19

Black-winged Stilt

Himantopus himantopus

3

20

Avocet

Recurvirostra avosetta

1

21

Ringed Plover

Charadrius hiaticula

2

22

Kentish Plover

Charadrius alexandrinus

4

23

European Golden Plover

Pluvialis apricaria

1

24

Northern Lapwing

Vanellus vanellus

1

25

Little Stint

Calidris minuta

4

26

Dunlin

Calidris alpina

1

27

Ruff

Philomachus pugnax

2

28

Common Snipe

Gallinago gallinago

1

29

Black-tailed Godwit

Limosa limosa

1

30

Eurasian Curlew

Numenius arquata

1

31

Spotted Redshank

Tringa erythropus

1

32

Common Redshank

Tringa totanus

1

33

Marsh Sandpiper

Tringa stagnatilis

1

34

Greenshank

Tringa nebularia

1

35

Green Sandpiper

Tringa ochropus

2

36

Wood Sandpiper

Tringa glareola

1

37

Common Sandpiper

Tringa hypoleucos

1

38

Mediterranean Gull

Larus melanocephalus

4

39

Black-headed Gull

Larus ridibundus

4

40

Slender-billed Gull

Larus genei

2

41

Audouin's Gull

Larus audouinii

1

42

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Larus fuscus

2

43

Western Yellow-legged Gull

Larus michahellis

4

44

Caspian Tern

Sterna caspia

2

45

Sandwich Tern

Sterna sandvicensis

3

46

Whiskered Tern

Chlidonias hybridus

1

47

Rock Dove

Columba livia

7

48

Collared Dove

Streptopelia decaocto

3

49

Laughing Dove

Streptopelia senegalensis

7

50

Little Owl

Athene noctua

2

51

Common Swift

Apus apus

1

52

Common Kingfisher

Alcedo atthis

1

53

Hoopoe

Upupa epops

1

54

Desert Lark

Ammomanes deserti

1

55

Hoopoe Lark

Alaemon alaudipes

1

56

Lesser Short-toed Lark

Calandrella rufescens

1

57

Crested Lark

Galerida cristata

7?

58

Thekla Lark

Galerida theklae

3?

59

Skylark

Alauda arvensis

1

60

Crag Martin

Hirundo rupestris

2

61

House Martin

Delichon urbica

1

62

Meadow Pipit

Anthus pratensis

1

63

Pied Wagtail

Motacilla alba

7

64

European Robin

Erithacus rubecula

3

65

Black Redstart

Phoenicurus ochruros

5

66

Moussier's Redstart

Phoenicurus moussieri

4

67

Stonechat

Saxicola torquata

4

68

Desert Wheatear

Oenanthe deserti

2

69

Mourning Wheatear

Oenanthe lugens

3

70

White-crowned Black Wheatear

Oenanthe leucopyga

1

71

Black Wheatear

Oenanthe leucura

2

72

Blue Rock Thrush

Monticola solitarius

2

73

Blackbird

Turdus merula

7

74

Song Thrush

Turdus philomelos

1

75

Fan-tailed Warbler

Cisticola juncidis

3

76

Dartford Warbler

Sylvia undata

1

77

Tristram's Warbler

Sylvia deserticola

2

78

Spectacled Warbler

Sylvia conspicillata

1

79

Blackcap

Sylvia atricapilla

3

80

Chiffchaff

Phylloscopus collybita

4

81

Fulvous Babbler

Turdoides fulvus

3

82

Blue Tit

Parus caeruleus

1

83

Southern Grey Shrike

Lanius meridionalis

7

84

Brown-necked Raven

Corvus ruficollis

1

85

Common Raven

Corvus corax

1

86

Starling

Sturnus vulgaris

3

87

Spotless Starling

Sturnus unicolor

7

88

House Sparrow

Passer domesticus

7?

89

Spanish Sparrow

Passer hispaniolensis

7?

90

Chaffinch

Fringilla coelebs

1

91

European Serin

Serinus serinus

5

92

Greenfinch

Carduelis chloris

1

93

Goldfinch

Carduelis carduelis

1

94

Trumpeter Finch

Rhodopechys githaginea

1

95

House Bunting

Emberiza striolata

3