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Birding Babylon

Deep in Iraq with a Humvee, a flak jacket, and a passion

text and photograph by Jonathan Trouern-Trend

Published in the March/April 2005 issue of Orion magazine



Photograph courtesy of the author, used with permission

After arriving in Iraq in early 2004, a U.S. National Guardsman and inveterate birder began anonymously posting his birdwatching observations on a blog. Here are excerpts from his online journal:

February 23, 2004

In the southern part of Iraq the landscape is like Kuwait, flat desert with a cast of green from the winter rains. There are a few camels and traditional black Bedouin tents here and there, with large flocks of sheep and goats nearby.

We drove through the southern marshes that were absolutely decimated by Saddam’s draining program. He did this to destroy the traditional home of the Marsh Arabs. All along the road were ditches and dug-up ground. For miles and miles the land looked like a giant disorganized construction zone.

The birding is fantastic. I haven’t had so many life birds in one day since being in Indonesia in 1990. There are birds everywhere—water birds and shorebirds in the pools, land birds flying by or sitting on fences. I can only identify the large and distinctive ones as we whiz by—lots of black-winged stilts, avocets, red-wattled plover, and black-headed gulls. Here’s the list for the day: little grebe; little egret; coot; avocet; black-winged stilt; spur-winged plover; red-wattled plover; black-tailed godwit; redshank; common sandpiper; black-headed gulls; slender-billed gull; Armenian gull; rock pigeon; wood pigeon; collared dove; pied kingfisher; crested lark; barn swallow; white (pied) wagtail; white-cheeked bulbul; great gray shrike; isabelline shrike; rook; hooded crow; house sparrow.

March 16, 2004

Slowly, I’m getting to know the better birding areas on base. Behind one of the buildings is a great view of a little lagoon surrounded by phragmites. While there I saw a couple of coots, three moorhens chasing each other around in the grass, a magpie flying over the marsh, and a spectacular purple gallinule (not the same species as the one in North America).

Birding on base doesn’t usually elicit any undo attention from the MPs. I think that everyone thinks I’m doing security work when I’m looking into the distance with binoculars. I’m not sure what they think when I’m looking up into a tree.

March 18, 2004

Crested larks are one of the most common birds in Kuwait and Iraq. They are a bit bigger and plumper than a horned lark and they have a funny little crest on their head that always seems to be sticking straight up. They run a few feet and then stop and look around, repeating this all day long.

On our convoy up from Kuwait we had to stop because one of the Humvees had a flat. We all piled out of the vehicles and set up a defensive perimeter with our weapons pointing out. It was a bit of a surreal scene, because as I’m lying on the ground with my eye on some guy racing around in a pickup truck, wondering if he’s going to take a potshot at us (which would have been suicidal), a pair of crested larks was not even ten feet from me, the male displaying and dancing around.

April 1, 2004

Today I had an absolutely fantastic day, finally getting outside the wire into the surrounding farmland while on a civil affairs mission delivering school supplies to children. Keeping my eyes out for new birds, I was trying not to drive the Humvee into an irrigation canal. I did see a few egrets in the fields (maybe cattle egrets) and a group of blue-cheeked bee-eaters hawking for insects and perching on power lines. I wish I had a chance to study the bee-eaters, but I’ll probably get to when I go out again.

April 13, 2004

We’ve had a lot of rocket and mortar attacks in the last few days. One day we had eight or nine hit inside the wire. As a result we need to go everywhere in body armor and helmet. So Saturday was a day for birding in full battle rattle—weapon included, of course.

I found a new approach to the junkyard pond, which I drove up to in my Humvee. There was a lot of commotion in the reeds—five or six Dead Sea sparrows darting in and out. They are pretty little birds with a chestnut wing patch and a face marked with black, white, and yellow.

While I was watching the sparrows, a large brown warbler hopped up on one of the reeds. It was my second lifer of the day, a great reed warbler. On the far shore, two spur-winged plovers flew back and forth. Most of the rooks have left and the numbers of black-headed gulls at the dump have dropped dramatically.

April 25, 2004

Along one of the side streets near the airstrip I found a pair of old-world warblers hopping around in some large trees. One of them was an icterine warbler. The other was some other nondescript type of Hippolais species, possibly an olivaceous warbler.

While I was thumbing through my field guide, a lady came up to me and introduced herself as a fellow birder. She’s working here on base as a DoD civilian, I think. She said a white-cheeked bulbul sings outside her window every morning.

At the pond behind the laundry, five white-winged terns were cruising around the reeds. These birds breed in this area, so they might be here to stay. A spectacular white-breasted, or Smyrna, kingfisher perched on the reeds in front of me. It had a big red stork-like bill, a reddish brown head, and blue wings, back, and tail.

I think I walked around four or five miles. I had all of my gear on and was completely soaked with sweat when I got back.

May 3, 2004

I took the loop road around the perimeter down to the laundry pond, my main birding spot. A couple of the Philippino KBR guys came over and asked what I was looking at. I let them look at the purple swamp hen through my binoculars. They seemed amused that I wanted to look at the birds.

As I walked back along the road, I passed one of the many large cement bunkers here on base. On top of the bunker twenty feet from me was a little owl. It flew away when I got out of my truck, but I came back at dusk and it was sitting in the same place.

May 6, 2004

A few days ago, I got to go to the Tigris River to help take water samples. A small, spry bird emerged out of the reeds next to me and hopped around on a log. It was plain colored with a rufous tail that it held upright like a wren. This new bird for me turned out to be a rufous bush-robin.

May 13, 2004

Today we had a sandstorm. The trees were whipping around and clouds of sand were rolling through. I found a broken wood pigeon egg at the base of a tamarisk tree, the wind having thrown it out. The pigeon was still sitting on the nest, so there were probably more. Out back I watched two house sparrows and two white-cheeked bulbuls fruitlessly chasing a large white moth.

I need to get out again soon.

June 11, 2004

The summer heat has come. The high temperature is between 105 and 122 degrees during the day. The white-cheeked bulbuls don’t seem bothered in the least. They sing, chase each other around, and hop from branch to branch in the tamarisk trees.

Last weekend I had a mission in another location. I was hoping to see some new birds on my trip across the Tigris and out into the desert. Nothing new, but while in the desert, I watched a crested lark hovering one hundred feet off the ground, singing its heart out. The amazing thing is that it kept it up for almost ten minutes, slowly drifting in its hover. Finally it came flying down and rested on the ground near me.

June 23, 2004

I got out for four hours on Saturday, 1730-2130. I started near the north pond, where a couple black-winged stilts came flying out of the reeds. As I was watching some wood pigeons, a pair of F-16s came tearing down the runway with their afterburners going. The noise was incredible as they quickly disappeared into the sky. The birds were unfazed.

June 30, 2004

I was talking to one of our local guys and quizzing him on the Arabic names of various birds and animals. He said the white stork is called lak lak. They nest on the tops of several mosques in a nearby town. As in the West, the stork is associated with bringing babies. Some of the guys started singing me a local song about the stork, a mother, and a baby.

August 31, 2004

We made the trek down to a base near the ruins of ancient Babylon. I stayed right next to the Euphrates River, which is significantly smaller than the Tigris. The camp was dotted with hundreds of date palms, olive and pomegranate trees, and thick reeds next to the river.

The next morning I birded in the ruins of Babylon proper. An Iraq babbler sat obligingly on a fence for a few minutes before diving into the reeds. In the same area I saw a few young white-cheeked bulbuls that were just fledging. A pond near an amphitheater from Alexander the Great’s time had a black-crowned night heron, a few little egrets, pied kingfishers, and black-winged stilts.

Near the ruins I saw my first laughing dove. It was walking around near the base of a date tree. I really enjoyed the combination of the lush surroundings, the birds, and the history of Babylon, not to mention that this base is much safer than mine—it almost never gets attacked.

I returned to Baghdad and took another walk to the scrubby area near the lake. I was treated to a great view of an immature isabelline shrike hunting insects along a dirt berm. I also saw two male black francolins—large chicken-sized game birds—chasing each other around in the scrub. When I got too close to them they flew a short distance on their broad, short wings and scurried away into the brush. The birds were spectacular, with their black bellies, deep chestnut collars, and white cheek patches.

September 14, 2004

Recently I’ve had some fantastic views of hoopoe, certainly one of the most distinctive birds I’ve seen in the area. When they fly they almost look like a broad-winged woodpecker, with their striking black and white wings. Their body is a buff color and they have a crest that they can move up and down. One day, one landed next to the edge of the pond, about fifty feet from me. I spent ten minutes watching it hop around in the mud, catching insects, and every so often stopping, cocking its head to one side, and erecting its crest in full glory. Some of the local people believe that the hoopoe, or hudhud in Arabic, has magical powers. Its bones are used in potions and magical charms.

October 24, 2004

Waiting at the starting line for the Army ten-miler race to begin, I looked up and saw a flock of six rooks slowly flying over—the first ones I’ve seen since spring.

October 28, 2004

The rooks have officially arrived in numbers. These very social crows will be spending the winter. At dawn for the past two mornings, great scraggly flocks of rooks mixed with a few jackdaws poured over our base, moving from their roosts to the freshly plowed fields. Around noon I saw a huge kettle of several hundred rooks circling upward in a thermal. For a few minutes it was a perfect cylinder of circling black birds fifty feet wide and a couple hundred feet high. A rook tornado.

November 05, 2004

A few days ago, I traveled to a forward operating base near Mosul. As we helicoptered north above the lush green agricultural lands bordering the Tigris, I watched hundreds of egrets and small flocks of rooks and hooded crows. Our low-altitude flight flushed a large flock of sociable plovers.

A houbara bustard flew up from the dry scrub, showing large white patches on its wings. These game birds are sometimes hunted by trained falcons in Arab countries. Its current breeding status in Iraq is unknown, according to my field guide, which just has a big question mark on the distribution map.

November 10, 2004

The rooks are much more playful than the crows and jackdaws, and much more acrobatic. One sat in our big eucalyptus tree and made a racket while we were trying to hold a formation.

One night this week, I drove around our perimeter. I saw lots of little rodents running around, a little owl flying across the road, and a golden jackal. The jackals and foxes are constantly tunneling under our fence, tormenting the security patrol, which doesn’t appreciate any holes.

January 27, 2005

Yesterday was my last day in Iraq for this deployment. The last few days I walked around base quite a bit. Seeing my familiar favorite birds that I’ll always remember when I think of Iraq.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to be here, doing a mission that I believe in. Because of my job and the places that I ended up I had, perhaps, more opportunity to see and appreciate Iraq’s natural world than some. One day I hope to return, with binoculars but without a weapon.

I took one last nostalgic walk during the long wait yesterday afternoon for our plane taking us to Kuwait.

A pair of Kestrels patrolled the dump, using the light poles as lookouts. Directly across from the dump there was a rain pool by the side of the road. Five black-winged stilts were wading around feeding on something. They are another beautiful bird, an elegant black and white with long red legs that I’ll remember well. I could find at least a few on any day of the year somewhere on our camp. In the summer they nested in one of the drainage ponds.

Night fell and I boarded the C-130 for a flight to Kuwait.

Today I’m in a camp in the Kuwaiti desert. I’ll try to add to my pathetic Kuwaiti list of 5 species. Today I’ve seen quite a few Barn Swallows plus some House Sparrows and Rock Doves.

February 01, 2005

This will be my last entry from the Middle East. We are about to leave and make our way back home via snowy Fort Drum, New York. My next entry may be about Wild Turkeys and White-tailed Deer, both plentiful in Fort Drum.

The last few days have been fairly good for wildlife watching. Today I spent about an hour watching Libyan jirds, a type of large gerbil that live in the dunes. Their body is about 6 inches long and their tail looks like another 6 or 7 inches more. For a couple days I’ve been looking in the large holes in the dunes hoping to see one. One of our sergeants took a picture of a hole, when he brought it up on the computer there was the face of a jird staring out at him. I made an abortive attempt to excavate a burrow today and catch one. After 45 minutes of digging a burrow 10 feet long I quit after my hole was 4 feet deep and in danger of collapsing on me. I decided that I’d go out about an hour before sunset and just sit in the dunes and wait for the gerbils to come out to feed. Within 5 minutes they were hopping around, eating seeds, running into one hole and coming out another 20 feet away. Their tails are incredibly long, reddish at the base and tipped with a black tuft. When they run they stick the tail straight up in the air. Very cool little beasts.

While I was watching the jirds a desert wheatear was flitting around and singing in the bushes near me.

As I walked over to the jird dunes I saw a pure white dove circle over the camp. I’ll take it as a good omen.

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This article has been abridged for the web.

Sergeant First Class Jonathan Trouern-Trend is a member of the 188th Area Support Medical Battalion of the Connecticut National Guard. He works for the American Red Cross Blood Services in their Epidemiology and Surveillance program. He lives in Marlborough, CT with his wife and their five children.

birdingbabylon.blogspot.com

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