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.

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