Friday, March 30, 2007

I am moving to a new location!

There was recently a call for a few volunteers to leave the platoon and be attached to other companies. Of course, I always volunteer for this kind of change of pace so I am one of the lucky few. All we know so far is that we’ll be going to different parts of the country, and we don’t yet know for sure what our jobs are going to be. I am hoping that I will get lucky and get something interesting. Some of the drawbacks are that I might get a very boring mission, and that I will have to give up the creature comforts of Camp Buehring (easy access to internet, a comfortable trailer with just three people per room, an easy environment in which to do physical fitness training, etc…). I will send my new APO address out to everyone who might need it after I find out which company I will become part of and where I will be based out of.

Today we did a successful “quick reaction force” exercise that involved flying out into the desert on Blackhawk helicopters. Although the flights were short, flying is always fun and a welcome respite from the regular humvee-based patrols and exercises. I took a few pictures, since I will be leaving soon and I wanted to have souvenirs from the fire team and squad I was in for such a short period of time. Also, a lot of people enjoy getting pictures of themselves for their relatives. This one is of private first class (PFC) Bates, who is on the other fire team in my squad. The green smoke grenade is one of the signals that we can use to communicate with helicopters when we are out in the desert. We use grenades of several different colors, which do a great job of signalling in the daytime.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

touristing around Kuwait City

A few of us managed to go sightseeing around Kuwait City Monday. I started off in an irritable mood because many people were late or disorganized and I was tired from working the entire night before, but the day went well in the end. Our first stop was the Grand Mosque, which was the perfect place to relax.

First we waited a short while for a tour guide in an area styled as a Bedouin Diwaniyah tent. It was furnished with Sadu textiles, tea and biscuits, and Asian servers instead of slaves. Right in front of it was a very peaceful courtyard with a fountain, trees, etc. Sergeant Phelps and I spent a long time just smelling flowers and enjoying the peaceful feeling of being in a warm, humid, vegetated place. Our tour guide turned out to be a Muslim expatriate of Scottish origin, who was quite helpful. The tour had a slight proselyting twist to it, but nothing too bad considering that it was done under the aegis of the “Western Perception of Islam Centre” – the Kuwaiti Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs’ propaganda tool.

Stepping into the Grand Mosque’s main prayer hall on a regular day is like walking into a giant seashell. The structure is beautiful, vast, ornate, regular and smooth, but its emptiness and complete lack of life makes it hard to visualize its purpose. The Grand Mosque’s main prayer hall is in fact only used on Fridays and a few special holidays, and the rest of the time it is an empty receptacle for cool air. We did not see anyone there who had a purpose other than visiting or cleaning.

Whereas the main prayer hall has enough room for 10.000 men, the women’s prayer hall (located on the first floor behind a wooden latticework screen) has room for 950 women. Qur’anic writing is carved into the walls, the ceiling, the teak doors, and everything seems to be adorned with exquisite taste and the very best imported materials. The ceilings have carved Moroccan gypsum decoration; the glasswork is from France, the stone from India, etc… Just for scale: in this photo of the middle section of the main prayer hall’s southwestern wall, there are two women standing in the Mihrab (alcove which gives the Qibla, or direction to Mecca). The women, by the way, are a visitor and a tour guide – not worshippers or clerics. In the same photo, we can see the only thing I saw in the entire mosque that I thought was not harmonious: clocks! Why would anyone think to install two giant clocks in the direction of prayer?

The Amir (who is also the prime minister) has his personal room in the Grand Mosque, which is also very beautiful if diminutive in comparison to the main prayer hall. We were told that that room is only visited by the Amir during the holidays of Eid al Adha and Eid al Fitr. This photo of a part of the ceiling does its best to show the Moroccan carved gypsum decoration. The central chandelier weighs half a ton!

Yes, this all seems like a wasteful way to spend a lot of money, but Kuwait is a rich state and in fact the building’s price (about 50 million US dollars) is relatively low thanks to construction workers willing to work for almost nothing. Although the Grand Mosque is little used most of the year it is heavily used during the most important parts of the year for Muslims. Also, it is always open to everyone whether rich or poor, which cannot be said of most construction projects.

We then went to the Kuwaiti Towers, which were not terribly exciting. The most entertaining parts of being in a tourist trap 120 meters above ground are:
1 - getting used to the fact that the outside platform rotates while the inside and the windows don’t.
2 - Looking at a little girl completely covered in a black Abbayah dress and niqab face veil who is looking at pink coloring books in the gift shop (isn’t there an Islamic injunction against depicting anything that has a soul?).
3 - Wishing we could be window cleaners for one day, just to get to rappel over the outside of the towers.

The best part of the day was when we went to the Al Kut mall. The weather was great, with violent tropical lightning storms alternating with beautiful, warm and humid weather. At the mall, I bought some teas, nuts and dates, and relaxed in the coffee-shops. When it became obvious that my fellow soldiers were going to spend several hours shopping, I went over to the adjoining fishermen’s harbor. There are two main kinds of fishing boats at the harbor: wooden or brown-painted Arab-style Dhow boats with projecting bows and transoms, and open fiberglass skiffs about eighteen feet long with outboards clipped onto the stern.

Almost all of the fishermen I saw were Egyptians, like the ones in this picture. They were really friendly, especially when I told them that I was a fisherman in Alaska. I didn’t manage to explain that in fact I only used to be a fisherman, so I left it at that. When they asked me why I am here, I just lied and said I was a tourist, and they loved me all the more. I couldn’t identify any of the fish they were showing me, except for cuttlefish. Those cuttlefish they caught were the most beautiful brown-striped cuttlefish (that’s not a species name that I know of) that I have ever seen. I also ran into a really friendly juice seller who had been in Kuwait for fifteen years even though he has a wife, four sons and four daughters back in Egypt.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

My first marathon, a fast 5K run, and a few birds to boot!

The last few days were pretty eventful. I found two bird species I had never seen before, and achieved two personal goals in physical fitness training.

I finally managed to run a five kilometer race in less than 18 minutes (17 minutes, 46 seconds), and three days later I ran the Camp Buehring Annual Marathon – 26.2 miles! It is the farthest I have ever run in my life, and it turned out to be much more of a challenge than I had expected. The fastest runner here is a US Navy pilot. Those guys aren’t normal people; it must come from doing to many handstands… Since he runs a five kilometer race about thirty seconds faster than I do, I thought I’d try to keep up with him as long as I could during the marathon, but my strategy backfired. He let me pass him about one mile into the race, and ran right behind me for the first eighteen miles or so. Then he passed me and flew to a first place win in almost exactly three hours. Right around the twentieth mile I slowed down drastically. I felt like my legs were going to fall right off, and I limped into second place in three hours, fifteen minutes and ten seconds. It turned out that the Navy pilot had been using me as a pacer. He had a GPS watch on and realized that I was running a 6:40 minute per mile pace. When he realized that I had started to slow down, he just moved out and passed relay runners to stay motivated. He had run marathons before, and knew about strategy, training and so on. As for me, I didn’t realize until about halfway through that it was okay to make time for a drink of water, or that I couldn’t sustain my pace for very long.

I had expected a run of over three hours to be very boring, but it wasn’t so bad. All the runners were courteous in spite of their obvious physical distress; we would systematically encourage each other, exchange a few words, and thank the support people who tried to hand us bottles of water and Gatorade.

There were also interesting birds along the way. I saw lots of wheatears, a common whitethroat, a few swallows, a woodchat shrike (I took this picture two days ago), a few isabelline shrikes, some squacco herons, a saker falcon trying to kill a crested lark, and some stonechats. At the finish line I looked up and said to sergeant Metcalfe who was there to take pictures “look sergeant; there’s a heron.” Then I thought: “wait! It might be a purple heron, but it looks weird.” The bird got closer, and closer, and turned out to be a bittern! For those of you non-birdwatchers, a bittern is a very cool, cryptic and rather scarce heron with short legs. Bitterns usually stay inside reed beds, and many people who hear their booming calls on a regular basis have never seen one.

What impressed me the most about the marathon (my first race over five kilometer) was the very small number of people who attempted the race (about forty including relay teams), versus the sheer number of people who could have run it but didn’t. I had gotten sick of hearing the old cliché “everyone who finishes is a winner,” but now I think that even the people who tried and gave up deserve just as much respect as the Navy pilot who completed the run and won.

As for the two species of birds I saw for the first time, I was unfortunately unable to take pictures of them. I saw a male rock thrush while on patrol, and some red-throated pipits. I had thought that finding red-throated pipits would be a challenge - in fact, the challenge was finding my first red-throated pipit. It turns out that the red-throated pipit has a very distinctive, loud "tseet" call. Once I saw and heard my first one, I was hearing and seeing them every few hours. Also, the red throat is obvious and unmistakable in this time of the year.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Chow hall workers

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the chow hall (also known as “the dining facility” to civilians, and “the galley” to marines and sailors). Some of us have been having to do extra duties such as counting people as they enter, or securing the area. Any duty at the chow hall is extremely boring, but the people who work there are interesting. As most support operations here, the chow halls are run by private contractors and staffed by people from South Asia.

The contractor that operates the chow hall here is Kuwait Pearls, which belongs to the Tamimi group from the United Arab Emirates. Every once in awhile we see a Kuwaiti manager, but almost all the staff is from southern India. Probably the only reason there are Kuwaiti managers is that by Kuwaiti law, local companies must hire a certain percentage of Kuwaiti nationals (a policy known as “Kuwaitization”).

The staff at the chow hall is divided between cooks, servers (or “waiters,” as they are misleadingly designated by Tamimi) and cleaners. They are almost invariably in a good mood even though they work thirteen hours a day, seven days a week. They only get a two-month vacation every three years, and their contracts vary from three to ten years. Most of the cooks have been through a two-year school in India and get paid $350 a month. The servers make $200 a month, and the cleaners $190 a month. The ones I talked to had to pay a non-refundable $2.000 to an Indian “agent” who provided them with a plane ticket, a Kuwaiti sponsor for the visa, and some paperwork. For the cleaners and servers, that means that they have to work for a year just to pay off their agent, and then they are still not making much moneyeven by Indian standards. Many of them hadn’t been told that the job would involve near complete isolation in a dusty desert camp, far from any kind of city. Most of them are from the tropical state of Kerala, and some are from adjoining states such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. I suspect that the reason why they are recruited mostly from Kerala is the state’s high standards of education. Kerala is, interestingly, a democratic communist state where the standard of living is rather high in spite of an unimpressive economy.

The servers are the ones we have the most contact with: they dish out the hot food, and they keep a “parallel count” at the entrance so as to avoid conflicts of interest. They all speak English, but they speak Hindi and a Keralite dialect called Malayalam to each other. Many of them have learned a few American catch phrases from soldiers, and a couple of Spanish greetings from our Puerto-Rican helicopter pilots.

On the bird-watching front, I found a desert warbler (Sylvia nana), two common whitethroats, two woodchat shrikes, an isabelline shrike, an Acrocephalus sp., six squacco herons, a harrier sp., a common redstart, European bee-eaters, Blue-cheeked bee-eaters, various wheatears, and a common snipe.

I just received my flora of Kuwait, so the next few blog posts are probably going to be heavy on plants.

Friday, March 16, 2007


I saw a lot of interesting birds in the past couple of days: common quails, Egyptian nightjars, blue-cheeked bee-eaters, European bee-eaters, the usual smattering of passerine migrants (such as this pretty isabelline shrike I managed to photograph) and even an unidentified sandgrouse (probably a spotted sandgrouse Pterocles senegallus). But I had the most fun watching a relatively common bird: a hoopoe foraging for beetles.

The hoopoe is one of the few absolutely unmistakable birds. It looks like a black-and-white butterfly in flight, its crest can be deployed at will, and its call is a distinctive, loud "hoop-hoop-hoop-hoop" (or "hood-hood," as the Arabic name transcribes it). This hoopoe was busy hunting for small, smooth brown beetles that tend to spend the day in burrows. The hoopoe would get them by hammering away at burrows with its beak until the beetles were exposed. Sometimes, the burrow was straight enough that the hoopoe would look down it, insert its beak and extract a hapless beetle. When opening burrows, the hoopoe used its beak just like a pickaxe - an impression that was reinforced by the pickaxe shape of the beak, head and crest. While I watched the hoopoe, it ate at least six of those little brown beetles. The little gray moths are largely gone now, but even if they were still around they probably wouldn't provide nearly as much energy as a few of these plump-looking beetles.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A break in the migration

This morning as I returned to our main border position, I was surprised to find the same birds I had seen two days ago in roughly the same places. The blue rock thrushes have adopted a stack of building supplies, the ruff seems to feel at home under the main antenna, the meadow pipits have only moved a few meters down the barbed wire fence, and the Menetrie's warbler was about one hundred meters from where I had first found it. I think this might be due to an overcast sky, and to the manna of little gray moths.

The only three new arrivals were an isabelline shrike, a black kite, and a few house martins. I managed to take a few interesting bird pictures, and I worked some more on those wheatears (I just revised the wheatear blog entry because of new problems I've been having in identifying the black-throated form of the black-eared wheatear).

I went looking for scorpions for an hour or so at night, but only found beetles and moths, and wheatears that were sleeping in sheltered spots. The most exciting discovery was an Anthia duodecimguttata beetle that was trying to kill a healthy beetle about half its size. Anthia duodecimguttata beetles are very common here. I see them running around both at night and in the daytime, although they seem to be most active at night. They look like the kind of agressive beetle I wouldn't want to handle without a stury pair of gloves. Given that they moved very fast and I was using artificial light, I had a really hard time taking a good picture. After about five minutes of watching the fight, neither beetle appeared to be significantly wounded so I moved on.

Monday, March 12, 2007

More birds!

I have been taking too many pictures to post all the interesting bird pictures, so I am limiting myself to the ones I really like. The gray moths were still out in large numbers this morning, which might explain why a few birds appear to have stayed on the border over the last couple of days. Those moths are about a half inch to an inch long, and they remain motionless on every kind of surface with their wings folded so that they look like debris. They will not move even when caught. A couple of them landed on me, and I had to flick them off to get rid of them. Almost all the birds I saw today were feeding on those moths.

I saw the following unusual birds: two blue rock thrushes, five blue-cheeked bee-eaters, my first-ever Menetrie’s warbler (Sylvia mystacea), and a ruff. I also caught a very strong and quick dung beetle that looked like the Egyptian sacred dung beetle.

This blog is getting invaded by bird pictures, so I am only posting a photo of the ruff with a moth wing stuck to its beak, one of a stonechat, and one of a black-eared wheatear that I am adding to the “wheatear special” I posted two days ago. I am getting better at wheatears, but still not good enough to identify them without a guidebook.

In other news, I competed in a “leg press” competition that consisted in pushing 150% of one’s own weight one hundred times as fast as possible up a 45 degree incline with the legs alone. It is much harder than it looks, and I only placed within my weight class. All the overall winners were big guys with short, stout legs who made us skinny people look quite feeble indeed. Some of them got their one hundred repetitions in less than half the time I took.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Trying to sort out the wheatears…

Non-birders: this will be boring to you.

I got a new camera on sale – I just couldn’t resist the bargain, and I don’t regret it because it is a great toy. Taking bird pictures with this camera is unbelievably easy. This morning, I took pictures of five out of the six species of wheatears I was able to find. Since wheatears are so beautiful, interesting, and difficult for me to identify, I thought I would make this blog entry a “wheatear special.” All the pictures were taken this morning on the Iraq/Kuwait border. I am trying to improve my wheatear identification skills, and if I get better pictures later I'll just switch them out with these.


Both the male and female isabelline wheatears look just like the female northern wheatear, with some key differences:
The isabelline stands more upright, on longer legs.
Its tail is slightly shorter, with less extensive white on the outer tail feathers.
Its wing feathers are more uniformly sandy, which makes the dark alula (the tiny feather on the edge of the wing’s “wrist”) stand out more.
This is mainly a southwest Asian species.


This is the classic circumpolar wheatear. It can even be found in northwestern Alaska in the summertime. Interestingly, all the northern wheatears in the world winter in Africa. So the Alaskan wheatears have to fly all the way across Asia to get to their wintering grounds, even though it would make more sense for them to fly straight down to Mexico like everyone else. The reason is probably that while their breeding range expanded, they did not “learn” to find new wintering ranges. It is impressive and a little depressing to think that some of these northern wheatears are going to fly all the way to Alaska and back before I can go home.


On this photo of a pied wheatear, we can see a black back, which leaves only the pied and mourning wheatear as possibilities. The mourning wheatear (which I have also seen here) is eliminated because it has very white underparts, as opposed to this bird which has buff spots just under the throat and wing angle. More importantly, but I don’t have a photo, the pied wheatear’s wings do not have white panels. Almost all the pied wheatears I have seen so far had a marked grey cap like this one does. Apparently, this is a way to distinguish the pied wheatear from the Easern pied wheatear Oenanthe picata.


A very pretty species that I see on a regular basis. The tail is almost entirely black. The parts that are white-buff on the black-eared wheatear are almost all buff on the desert wheatear. Finally, the throat patch is tenuously connected to the black wing “wrist.” In fact, today I saw that when the desert wheatears straightened their necks to swallow the little gray moths that invaded us today, the throat patch separated from the “wrist,” which made them look like black-eared wheatears.


(white-throated form)

All right, I cheated: I took this picture two days after the others, but I just like the idea of having all the wheatears together. In fact, if I manage to take a picture of a mourning wheatear I'll probably go back and put it up here as well.
The male black-eared wheatear has a light back with a buff wash, an eye patch which does not reach the wing "wrist," and black scapulars which restrict the pale area of the back to a small triangle compared to the desert wheatear. Compared to the Finsch's wheatear, notice how the black-eared wheatear's eye patch points up and back (this is especially useful when considering the black-throated form of the black-eared wheatear).


(black-throated form)

This is another beautiful, yet maddeningly variable wheatear (and I haven't even gotten into females yet...). This one is clearly not a Finsch's wheatear in spite of the throat patch that rounds back like the Finsch's is supposed to, but I have seen several birds that I simply cannot identify. In fact, I removed the Finsch's wheatear photo I had posted earlier because it fit within the range of variation of black-eared wheatears I have been seeing lately. The white gap between the throat patch and wing "wrist" is a key criterion, as are the black scapular.

Significant birds seen this morning were: three steppe eagles, and my first “feldegg” subspecies yellow wagtail.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The birds are passing through!

As soon as I landed in Kuwait I was whisked away and put on duty on the border, and sent through a second iteration of a three day mounted exercise I had done before. I was impressed by the flowers in bloom, so I got on the internet and ordered a book on “Kuwaiti dicotyledoneae” (now I know there is a book on everything under the sun). I hope to get a chance to look for flowers on one or another of our upcoming missions.

As soon as the exercise was over, interesting birds started showing up. Corporal Goff found the first good migratory bird by almost stepping on an Egyptian nightjar as we were walking through the camp. The Egyptian nightjar looks more like a raptor than the other nightjars do, because it lacks any conspicuous wing or tail patches.

Today, on the border, I got to see three blue rock thrushes, one marsh harrier, eight hoopoes, one saker falcon, one orphean warbler, one great grey shrike, ten desert wheatears, one white wagtail, fourteen Phylloscopus warblers (mostly dark-legged subspecies of the willow warbler, I think), one pied wheatear, four stonechats, one northern wheatear, two or three isabelline wheatears and one redstart sp. (some eastern subspecies of the black redstart look disturbingly like the common redstart).

I was especially glad for the hoopoes, which I had never seen in flocks, and the orphean warbler since I had never seen one before.

Other recent events:

I finished Hija de la Fortuna by Isabel Allende in Spanish. I enjoyed it, and got around to finishing Cuentos de Eva Luna. Cuentos de Eva Luna had been a more difficult read because it is a collection of short stories. In short stories, the context is less firmly established and the vocabulary doesn't repeat itself often enough for me to learn it as I read.

I beat my 5 kilometer race record during a “fun run,” with eighteen minutes flat. Hooray me!

I did an over-the-phone interview with KCAW – Sitka’s very own excellent volunteer radio station.

I am no longer a platoon RTO (that is: radio operator)! I went to a regular infantry team leader job, which should be good.

This photo I took of 1LT Carson with a saker falcon was sent out by the battalion public affairs NCOIC, and was published by the Anchorage Daily News, some National Guard magazine, and the prestigious Sitka Sentinel:

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Too much to tell...

I have come to realize the greatest downside of this new blog-writing business: the more interesting my life is, the less I feel like taking the time to write about it. I recently came back from two weeks of vacation in France. I spent the vast majority of those two weeks in Paris visiting family, except for a few days on the Côte d’Azur.

My talented family never ceases to amaze me – their daily lives revolve around such things as playing traditional Russian music, building musical instruments, making pottery, publishing art books and listening to classical music. It was a real pleasure getting to relax with them for a while.

I went for a couple of short walks in forested fragments of the Parisian region (called “Ile de France”), but the best nature walks were in the Côte d’Azur region. A cousin of ours who I hadn’t seen in years now lives in Cagnes, and I resolved to go down and see him. My brother Julien came with me, but he was sick and couldn’t enjoy the trip as much as I did.
Monaco was the highlight of the trip to the southern coast, closely followed by a morning hike near the Col de Vence. We also saw the Carnaval in Nice, looked for signs of an ancestor in Grasse, visited the old town of Cagnes, and relaxed on the seashore at Antibes.

I took advantage of airline problems and a delayed flight to leave a little early and spend a full day in Bahrain, which was not as rewarding as I had expected since I was not able to go out on a boat. Bahrain has the reputation of a “Las Vegas of the Middle East,” but I would rather call it “Saudi Arabia’s Tijuana.” My hotel room in Mana’ma was a near exact duplicate of a hotel room I had rented in Nuevo Laredo years before – down to the disco music thumping through the walls, the foreigner rates, and the tacky decoration that tries to hide a lack of maintenance. The only thing to remind me that I was in the Middle East was a prayer rug in the dresser, but no Qibla marker to point to Mecca. Within the hotel were entertainment facilities such as a restaurant, a pool, a massage parlor, a bar with Filipina prostitutes, a disco room, and a floor to which I didn’t have access but Saudi men seemed to enjoy. I was really tired, so I put in some earplugs and skipped on the Bahraini nightlife.

From the airplane over Saudi Arabia, near Mecca, I had just seen an amazing sunset that reminded me of the lava flows on the side of one of Hokusai's views of Mt Fuji. The dark clouds were torn by jagged openings through which glowed incredible glowing red trenches. It was so amazing that I had to point it out to strangers who had the misfortune of having gotten a seat away from the windows. They were also amazed.

The next day, I got to see Socotra cormorants, gray form Wester reef-herons, slender-billed gulls, one Caspian tern, lesser-crested terns (very common, their calls sound like they are trying to sneeze through a stirring straw), and lots of introduced species such as the ubiquitous mynahs.

Most of the waterfront was being extended and built-up in ways much more barbaric than Monaco. There are shore extensions being built hundreds of meters out from the already extended beach, and places where the map promises a nice beach walk but all that can be seen is giant backhoes, cement culverts and steel girders. I ended up visiting the interesting Bahrain National Museum, and drinking mango juice and tea while reading my book.

I found a quote in the “Bahrain Tribune” that throws an interesting light on tourism in Bahrain. According to the manager of a local hotel group: “Bahrain has nothing whatsoever to offer the world as a tourist attraction. No tourist is coming to see Bahrain’s touristic spots. If the dance floors and bars are closed then Bahrain tourism will close.” I would have loved to go see the “touristic spots,” but guided tours are in low demand and need to be arranged in advance.

On Ali Al Salem Air base, I found blue-cheeked bee-eaters, pied wheatears, stonechats, and a masked shrike. On Camp Buehring I found a dead Egyptian nightjar, but I was ordered not to touch any dead birds as there have recently been cases of avian influenza in the country. In fact, the platoon briefing had a special item in it just to tell me that I can’t touch dead birds.