Sunday, May 20, 2007 dollars for education in the Middle East!

The stultifyingly boring mission for which our group of motivated volunteers was pulled back out of Iraq has one upside: more time for reading. In this photo, my friend Jad is reading a book on WWII. He has been devouring magazines, and prowling my shelves for books that aren't in French or Spanish, or about birds. In just a few days I finished Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, read half of a book on prehistory which turned out to be of little interest to me, and I am working on Mario Vargas Llosa's La Ciudad y los Perros, which is a very difficult read for me because it is filled with Peruvian slang. All the while, I have been reading the newspaper every day, The Economist every week, and various online newspapers and blogs. I haven't read that much since I worked for a polling company on suburban buses in France almost ten years ago.

I came across an interesting article on the BBC's Spanish news website ( Apparently, the Sheikh of Dubai announced at the World Economic Forum that he is giving 10 billion dollars for education in the Middle East. I was expecting to find this news on the New York Times' website, but even after searching UAE news within the Middle East section all I got was a depressing scoreboard of suicide bombings and deaths in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. The deed was not even mentioned in an article on the World Economic Forum in the Kuwait Times!
Apparently, only 40% of Arab women can read and write, Turkey publishes more books than the entire Arab world combined (thanks to Ataturk), and fewer patents and research papers come out of all Arab universities each year than out of a single company like Hewlett-Packard for example. As for the books that are published in this part of the world, the majority of them are mostly religious books that extoll stasis over progress. In my admittedly limited experience in the Middle East, I have come across many things that are simply wrong - pervasive racism, religious intolerance, illegitimate leaders, etc... Most of them are better addressed by schoolteachers and books than paratroopers and bombs. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al Makhtoum of the Emirate of Dubai is doing the right thing here, and he should be praised far and wide for it. At the very least, he should get more press coverage than suicide bombers.
I made only one really good bird observation lately: a very tame flock of black-crowned finch larks Eremopterix nigriceps landed right next to me when my camera was packed away for the move. I think they are fairly unusual around here.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Camel spiders, warblers, and a return to my old location

Camel spiders (Solifugids) are probably the most infamous animal around here. I have been told that they become huge, pursue and jump on people and camels, eat the flesh of sleeping soldiers, and so on… In fact, we see them very rarely and I don’t know anyone who was ever harmed by one. Like scorpions, they are arachnids but not spiders. This brown camel spider is one of the two species that Ian, a friend from Juneau, caught on the border. It was badly wounded when it was caught, so I was able to hold it in my hand without being harmed (its legs span about the width of my hand and two thirds of its length), and photograph it without having it always try to run underneath my camera.

This small whitish camel spider is much less stereotypical. It is a fascinatingly tough and primitive little creature with the solifugids’ typical huge chelicerae. In this photo, it is tearing apart a poor scarab that we threw at it. Its behavior seems rather easy to predict:
If we throw it an insect, it will attack.
If we put it near shade, it will run to the shade.
If we place a rock next to it, it will burrow itself under the rock by digging sand out with its legs, and periodically turning around to push the sand out like with its jaws acting like the blade of a snowplow.

As for birds, I have been seeing many problematic warblers, including this Upcher’s warbler Hippolais languida that spent hours in the shade underneath our truck in Iraq. The Upcher's warbler was completely unafraid of humans, and I had to photograph it in macro mode as if it were an insect. Other difficult warblers were: bushels of Phylloscopus warblers that I don’t even try to identify anymore, and the gray warbler below. At first I thought it was a Hippolais warbler, then a white-eye, but a thorough review of the field guide suggests that it is in fact a young barred warbler Sylvia nisoria. Just when I thought there was at least one warbler I could easily identify…

As the mission changes, so do our assignments. The latest change within the battalion means that our little group of volunteer for task force Denali has to go back to the same camp which we were assigned to before. So my address will revert to what it was a month and a half ago, and I will be back to working on the border. I will really miss the mission even though it meant we had to spend days at a time out in the desert heat, eating MREs and drinking warm water, away from everything. The greatest treat was getting to sleep out in the desert, under the stars, in almost complete darkness, knowing that scorpions, foxes, camel spiders, huge lizards and other strange creatures were all around us.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

More desert animals

Just one day after I had found my first great reed warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus, I found one in a rather unexpected birdwatching hotspot: inside the shower trailer! We have trailers here that contain about twenty showers and a dozen sinks, and they have nothing in common with the great reed warbler’s natural habitat (you guessed it: reeds!). At first I had misgivings about the wisdom grabbing a camera and starting to snap pictures in a trailer full of guys in varying states of undress, but the birding passion took over. In the end, I got a few good pictures like the one that opens this paragraphs thanks to two of the other soldiers who helped me by getting the bird close to me, and then chasing it out of the showers when I turned the light off to draw it outside. It was nighttime, and I usually get trapped birds out of our buildings simply by turning the lights off and catching them.

Up in Iraq, our truck’s shade lured all kinds of interesting birds, such as a flock of Spanish sparrows Passer hispaniolensis. Spanish sparrows are much more distinctive than I had expected them to be. I had been scrupulously scanning flocks of domestic sparrows, searching for slightly more striated ones, but the striation on the male is in fact so boldly marked that I identified them in flight. The other “new” bird I saw this past week is the desert lark Ammomanes deserti, which was a rather un-excitingly plain bird even compared to the great reed warbler. At least the great reed warbler stands out by its sheer size. The desert lark looks like a cross between the world’s most boring pipit and a non-descript finch.

The most endearing bird in the Iraqi desert so far is the hoopoe lark. Around sunrise, they start to sing a few simple melodies, which are performed during what I would call a “leap-flight.” The hoopoe larks – which have big, black and white wings and sand-colored bodies – leap and fly about two or three meters above the ground and let themselves glide right back down. The amazing thing is that they can do this leap-flight almost perfectly vertically. The effect is great at five in the morning, like dozens of tiny singing geyser spurts that gradually stop as the weather becomes unbearably hot. The shade of our trucks is also used by such birds as: feldegg and thunbergi yellow wagtails, masked shrikes, red-backed shrikes, a spotted flycatcher, rufous bush robins like the one in this picture (taken near my barracks back in Kuwait), and some redstarts.

I had a lot of fun turning over rocks and chunks of Gulf War vehicles to look for animals like this large emperor scorpion that is trying to bury itself to get away from me. I was surprised to find out that they have organs under their abdomens that look exactly like the gills on the underside of crabs. Other interesting desert animals are desert foxes, praying mantises that have a wide abdomen (and are dark, as opposed to the almost white ones in Kuwait), spiny-tailed lizards, desert monitors, hordes of migrating dragonflies, etc… We even saw a black-and-white dog, which seemed uninterested in us even though it was located a good twenty kilometers away from the nearest Bedouin camp and the temperature was already above a hundred degrees with no water or shade. One desert fox got overly interested in me while I was sleeping (I just slept in the sand), and had to be chased away by a watchful gunner who saw it and threw a water bottle at it.

Finally, there has been some controversy lately regarding soldier’s rights to post information on blogs while deployed to a war zone. The policy has not changed, and I have applied myself to abide by it. What I do is not “combat blogging,” as it is sometimes called even by the army. I try to be as vague as possible when it comes to operations, and as accurate as possible when it comes to birds and flowers. There should be no issue.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Watching the news and the birds

Over the last few days, I spent a lot of time reading the news. We have surprisingly easy access to the media here. The army provides us with a free newspaper called “Stars and Stripes” is a surprisingly objective and well-edited newspaper, which even runs most of my favorite comic strips. I also get the daily Sitka Sentinel in the mail. As for weeklies, I have a subscription to “The Economist,” and we’ll get the Army Times most weeks. The only drawback here is that I don’t have quite as easy access to the internet, which means I haven’t been reading the news in Spanish. And finally, there are televisions in the chow halls that are set to CNN and Fox News. I have been very disappointed by both channels, since they have very little news coverage. A few days ago, Fox News distinguished itself by cutting off mid-sentence a presidential speech about Iraq, to interview the editor of a tabloid about Anna Nicole Smith’s baby! A less obvious Fox News strategy to avoid covering the real news is to instead run long specials on how the New York Times and rival TV channel pundits are biased, unreliable and incompetent. They also have long “news” specials about the show “American Idol,” which is of course produced by Fox. As for CNN, the European version we get here is very much a “rich white businessman’s channel,” with long analyses of golf competitions, interviews of fashion world personalities, advertisements for investment funds and expensive vacations, etc… If I sit for lunch in front of the CNN television, my odds of getting to watch the news are pretty low, but my odds of being told about mergers and advertised luxury products are pretty high.

As for my little ongoing adventure in Kuwait, I ran my first 5 kilometer race in over a month (in 18:01, which is good for me running on gravel), and I saw two birds that I hadn’t ever seen before: a barred warbler Sylvia nisoria (it is the grey bird at the beginning of the paragraph, with grey underside striation much like on a sparrowhawk), and a great reed warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus. The great reed warbler was so large that when I first saw it I didn’t recognize it as a warbler. It landed next to the male rock thrush in the photograph at the end of this paragraph, and I thought: “weird, I didn’t know that the female rock thrush was plain brown.” Then I realized it was in fact a gigantic reed warbler and I snapped a picture of it. Had I not taken the picture, I wouldn’t have been able to eliminate the possibility of a clamorous reed warbler. I guess the main field identification difference between the two species is the length of the projection of the primary flight feathers, which is fortunately just barely visible enough on my photograph.