Saturday, March 21, 2015

Mogadishu

Among the most minor of the innumerable and often vast tragedies that the Somali civil war has inflicted upon that country is the fact that this place could fabulous for birding, if only you weren't so likely to be killed doing it.

Mogadishu itself is perhaps not the best of the potential birding locations - those would lie on the banks of the two main rivers, the Shebelle and the Jubba - but in the right circumstances it would certainly not be bad. "Mog", as it is universally known to English-speakers ("Moga" to Italian- and French-speakers) is built into a coastal dune system immediately next to the shores of the Indian Ocean. But the surrounding city is surprisingly green, with quite a lot of shrub and low tree cover. Looking at the indispensible Redman, Stevenson and Fanshawe's Birds of the Horn of Africa you could perhaps rack-up a reasonable tally of species here if there was any freedom to travel and explore.


The Indian Ocean from Mog
Somalia has legions of endemic or near-endemic birds, particularly larks; the Obbia Lark (Spizocorys obbiensis), for instance, is restricted entirely to Somalia, and is named after the town of Hobyo, 500 or so kilometres North-East of Mog. The town is now best-known as the central base of the pirate groups who casued such havoc a few years ago. But this and other species like it are very unlikely to be seen in the restricted circumstances that anyone visiting Mog endures. Basically, you're limited to what you can see out of moving cars, whose windows cannot be opened, or from the inside of secured compounds.

But it turns out that's quite a lot. I've had a LIFER here before; a Northern Carmine Bee-eater (Merops nubicus) which perched in all its incongruous glory on the wire of the airport perimeter a year or so ago. And on this occasion, even before our plane had finished taxi-ing, I'd already seen five species; Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), Pied Crow (Corvus albus), Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), Namaqua Dove (Oena capensis) and Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis). Nothing I hadn't seen already this year, though.

But as we tooled around during the course of the day the list began to creep up - a Speckled Pigeon (Columba guinea) here, a flock of the indicus race of House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) there. Then, in quick succession, three Rollers sitting out on the barbed wire. The first was an inter-African migrant, the lovely Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus), but the second two hold a fonder place in my heart. They were palearctic migrants - European Rollers (Coracias garrulus), which have bred near our house in Montenegro and in the countryside surrounding Belgrade, where we used to live. Could these be on their way there? If ever there's a place that makes you think - really think - about the perils of migration and the vast and increasing odds that these glorious birds have to face in getting to and from their breeding sites, that place is Mogadishu.

But Mog wasn't done with me yet, in terms of birds. At the end of the day, as I chatted with colleagues outside one of the countless CORIMEC containers that make up our accommodation and offices here, an insistent bird kwikiwikiwi'd at me from a nearby derrick. I could see that it was a small bird of prey, but I could hardly wander away from my conversation to check, much as I would have loved to. Thankfully the bird did if for me, lifting off into the wind and circling a few metres over my head so I could see it's pale barred underparts and grey-black wingtips. A Shikra (Accipiter badius) - and another LIFER for me in Mog.

The bird I've hoped for here, though, eluded me again. Forbes-Watson's Swift (Apus berliozi) breeds in caves along the coast. Like many Swifts, it is in principle devilishly hard to distinguish from other, similar species. But here's the thing. The similar species don't occur in the same area. So if you see a dark Swift, in numbers, on the Somali coast, the chances are that it's Forbes-Watson's. Not this time, though, and not any time on previous visits either. Maybe it just doesn't come to Mog.

At the end of this post I should perhaps put in a caveat and qualify my first paragraph. What I'm writing about here is what we commonly refer to as "South-Central" Somalia plus Puntland, thoughout which security is desperately bad and all travel requires very special preparation. The security situation in Somaliland is quite different, and the birding there also includes several species found nowhere else. A couple of intrepid companies run birding trips into Somaliland, including the wise precaution of armed guards for visitors, but aside from that recognising that tourism of a sort, including ecotourism, is possible there in a way it is not elsewhere in Somalia. But going on your own is certainly not recommended anywhere.

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