|A dusty day in Khartoum|
Khartoum is built on the confluence of two of the world's great rivers, the Blue Nile, rising in Ethiopia, and the White Nile, flowing down from Lake Victoria. Their merger preduces the Nile, sensu strictu, and you'd think that a city built in such propitious geographical circumstances would open its heart to this miraculous surge of water passing through the parched land. But not a bit of it. In fact, travelling around the city between meetings, my only glimpses of water were as we crossed the Blue Nile over high bridges. Those roads that do follow the River do so at some distance, so you can barely catch sight of the glint of reflected light as you zoom (or crawl, depending on the time of day) from place to place. Charmingly, though, the land between these roads and the river is often, for now, given over to agriculture, even close to the city centre, and I'm sure these areas would be well worth exploring on a future visit. In fact I know they would be from reading Tom's blog.
I'd planned to come to Khartoum fully a month before I actually managed to do so, and as a consequence I arrived after the heat had already returned. The days were baking - high 30s and even low 40s Celsius - though it's a dry heat which is a good deal more manageable than the sauna of Mogadishu I experienced afterwards. Nights were cooler and pleasant. Dust blew in on my second day in town, hanging in the air like a mist, and was followed by a steady wind for the last couple of days.
|Just in case you couldn't see it first time. It was quite dusty.|
Since I was deprived of the river and its banks, the birds I saw in the city were restricted to roadside verges, the small hotel garden, and the sky overhead, and they certainly had an arid flavour to them. The sky brought me Black Kites (Milvus migrans aegyptius), of course, including my first migrant nominate birds of the year (M.m. migrans), plus African Palm Swifts (Cypsiurus parvus), Laughing Doves (Spilopelia senegalensis) and Namaqua Doves (Oena capensis). Roadside verges added Spur-Winged Lapwings (Vanellus spinosus). The hotel garden was honestly a bit of a disappointment; huge numbers of House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), making a din like a forest-load of cicadas in the morning, a Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis) or two, some African Mourning Doves (Streptopelia decipiens), a pair of Spur-Winged Lapwings and a few Common Bulbuls (Pycnonotus barbatus). The only real surprise was a goodly number of Blue-naped Mousebirds (Urocolius macrourus) whistling away from the top of a bamboo hedge like a gang of slightly drunken Eurasian Scops-Owls (Otus scops).
|A Spur-winged Plover (Vanellus spinosus) and a male House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) hanging out on the hotel terrace.|
This is scrubby desert, with occasional stretches of stony ground bereft of plant life, but without large expanses of sand. There are numerous small trees and bushes and good expanses of dried grass and other low herbiage, but very few large trees, and, needless to say, almost no open water (except for a single waterhole that we saw beset on all sides by vast flocks of goats). I've had a limited experience of desert birding, and knew that I couldn't expect a cornucopia. Like all life in such marginal habitats, birds are relatively few and far between. Still, even I was shocked by the almost complete lack of any birds at all on the long drive through the scrub after we left the tarmac. I began to think I'd brought my binoculars for nothing but to get the lenses covered in sand.
|The desert. More Sahel than Sahara and a bit of a lurid picture.|
While camp was set up, I took a walk around as the heat faded. I'd already picked-up three LIFERS, and soon added two more; a pair of strutting Greater Hoopoe-Larks (Alaemon alaudipes) and a few skulking Cricket Warblers (Spiloptila clamans), some of which responded to pishing.
|Setting up camp. The first, and most essential stage - brewing-up.|
The morning of the last day dawned surprisingly slowly, and surprisingly coolly, giving me time for a bit more wandering before the heat set in. Aside from the species of the day before, there were two more to be found; a pair of Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse (Pterocles lichtensteinii) flushed from a tiny depression in the ground, and, my last LIFER for Sudan, two softly-spoken Brown-necked Ravens, (Corvus ruficollis).
|Sunset in the desert. Waiting for the Nightjars and Owls that never came.|
Still, from a birding perspective, and despite my six LIFERS, it was, frankly, a rather disappointing trip. I saw only 21 species in my time in Sudan, including the time in Khartoum. I was surprised at the lack of Nightjars, or of Owls, or of any bird of prey, in the desert. We were there for more than 24 hours, so I can't put this absence down to a want of searching. And at least as far as Owls are concerned there was no shortage of prey in the Jerboas. Have they been hunted out, or is this just such a marginal habitat that they're merely very thinly-spread?
I thought that this might be my first and last trip to Sudan, but it seems I will probably be back fairly soon, and next time I would dearly love to spend more time next to, or even just near, the river. And I'll certainly make more of an effort to ensure that when I go I can meet up with Tom Jenner, if he's free and keen. This is not a country in which you can wander around with binoculars hoping for the best. That lesson has definitely been learned.