Dinosaur of the week: Red-billed Firefinch

In mid-December 2018, I saw a flock of Lagonosticta senegala in Tamanrasset in the garden of the hotel where my husband and I were staying (http://bois-petrifie.org/en/). The firefinches seemed to be very much at home a big tree and there were about three or four pairs of them. They also seemed to get on well with their neighbours in the tree, the African Silverbills (see last week’s post).

The firefinches were introduced in this region in the middle of last century. For more information I highly recommend http://www.magornitho.org/2017/04/red-billed-firefinch-algeria/.

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Algeria – Afilal and Assekrem (Tamanrasset 4/4)

On the third day of our trip to Tamanrasset we went to Assekrem. For foreign tourists, this is the only spot in the area where one can stay overnight outside of Tam because there’s an outpost of the gendarmerie. A permit has to be organized in advance and ours was sorted by the travel agency and our marvellous guide.

The track to Assekrem is marked and leads through a varied landscape. Quite often it appeared moon-like.

We didn’t go to Assekrem immediately but had a stopover with picnic at one of Algeria’s Ramsar wetlands. It’s a pretty odd feeling to have been through parched valleys and hills and then suddenly there’s a river and ponds and plastic bottles and bags.

If you look at the sign you can marvel at its linguistic complexity. Arabic, French, and English are easily recognizable. The signs that look a bit like runes are Tifinagh, the writing system of the Amazigh (Berber) languages. It’s one of the oldest writing systems still in use and because the Amazigh are matriarchal the women are responsible for teaching it (or so I read in my guide book).

With the area being full of water, there was of course lots of wildlife. We saw kestrels and martins, plenty of dragonflies and brilliant grasshoppers with red wings underneath their grey ones. There was a lot of humming in the air.

We arrived in Assekrem in the afternoon. There was ample time to climb from the refuge to the mountain top, from about 2600m to 2800m – and I certainly felt the height and had to stop every few steps to catch my breath. Well, it gave us time to admire the house bunting.

Once we had made it to the top, we were welcomed by the local Catholic priest … yes, you read that correctly. Assekrem is famous because at the beginning of the 20th century a French astronomer, Foucauld, built his hermitage on the mountain to observe the weather and the stars and to possibly do some spying for the French military. He also erected a tiny church which can be visited these days. The priest also told us that we were really lucky because it was a very fine day with great visibility and almost no wind. Really balmy.

We had almost two hours of daylight left and made good use of it. If you’d like more photos, especially the stars of a desert sky, head here: http://chinese-poems.com/blog/?p=1812

We made it down just in time for darkness to cover land and plastic and had dinner followed by some of the coldest hours I’ve ever experienced (I spent a winter on Iceland). And there wasn’t even any wind blowing! I went to sleep dressed with my woolly hat on and crawled under three thick blankets.

In the morning, the whole sky was covered in an orange glow, seeing which was well worth the freezing night, but I didn’t climb up the mountain. We went back to Tam and admired some camels on the way. We also had our last picnic of the trip. The flights to and from Tam are always in the middle of the night so we tried to nap once back in our hotel. It was an amazing experience and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the Sahara.

Dinosaur of the week: African Silverbill

Having observed Euodice cantans in Tamanrasset in mid-December caused quite a bit of a stir in the world of birding (http://www.magornitho.org/2019/01/african-silverbill-south-algeria/). I had been totally oblivious to the fact that this is a much sought-after species and also that this has been the first record of the species in southern Algeria in about a decade. According to the IUCN the species is least concern but more research is needed (https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22719761/131997328).

Here some facts for birders: I saw the flock of about half a dozen birds in the garden of our hotel in Tam (http://bois-petrifie.org/hotel.php). They seemed to be fairly settled in one of the big trees, moving to the neighbouring garden every now and then, but returning regularly. The hotel has a cafĂ© and I’m pretty sure if customers ask nicely they can enjoy the garden and its inhabitants.

Algeria – Boulders and Birds (Tamanrasset 3/4)

On our second day in Tamanrasset, our fab guide (and the three vehicles of the gendarmerie) took us north-east of the town, passing through fields of plastic rubbish into an area that is best described as boulder country. I don’t know the geological processes which shaped the rock formations to make them look like they do, but it was an awesome place to see.

At some point, our driver stopped near some boulders and we were told to venture in between them and eventually under one of the big stones. There, on the ‘ceiling’ above us, we saw some rock art which is a few thousand years old. I was very tempted to touch it but managed just about to behave myself. I couldn’t resist though feeling in the hole where the old ones must have mixed the paint.

While our guide prepared picnic and tea, we had a look around and admired the landscape and whatever wildlife we could find in it. I was amazed at a fairly vibrant insect life.

Back in the hotel in the afternoon, we spent some time in its garden where we saw more birds. An Egyptian vulture flew by and several silverbills and firefinches had made their home in the garden’s trees and were just lovely to observe. At this point, some thank yous – to the birders on birdforum.net for their help with bird IDs and to our colleague Narimene for making endless phonecalls!

Algeria – Visiting the desert around Tamanrasset 1/4

In the middle of December, husband and I visited the town and area of Tamanrasset, which is about 1600km south of Algiers right in the middle of the Sahara desert. From Tam to the south, Mali or Niger, it is about 500km and the next bigger Algerian settlements are Djanet, at a distance of roughly 700km east and In Salah, the same distance north.

Tam is on a volcanic plateau at an altitude of circa 1300m, which makes it mild in winter during the days and bearable during the summer months. The nights can get freezing. The views are amazing and much more varied then I had expected. The volcanic area is called Hoggar and it is a National Park.

If you’re Algerian, visiting this amazing place is expensive but not complicated. As foreign nationals, there were some bureaucratic hoops for us to jump through. This is unfortunately rooted in recent history. About a decade ago, several tourists were kidnapped in the area. The government eventually stopped the kidnaps and introduced a policy of escorting foreigners. I’d love to show you a photo of our dozen or so guards but it’s not allowed to photograph anything relating to police, gendarmerie or military so you’ve got to take my word for it. The escort was organized by our travel agency and our fabulous guide, Mouloud, did the daily communication – meeting in the morning, confirming places to go, making sure we got back to the hotel in the evening.

To be able to do so, we had to provide all our paperwork a fortnight or so in advance – in our case residency permits, work permits, passports, flight details and hotel reservation. If you’re planning to visit anywhere in the wilaya (district) of Tamanrasset, you have to do this. Your travel agency should tell you what paperwork needs to be done and you need to be good at doing things in advance and possibly chasing up. Algerians are lovely people; the red tape, however, is atrocious.

The basic rule is you go on a day trip and you’re escorted back for the night. We even had the guide taking us out for dinner and souvenir shopping. It was a wee bit like North Korea but having said that – I think it’s great that one’s being protected. The only place where one can go for an overnight stay is Assekrem (more about that in a future post) because there’s an outpost for the gendarmerie.

If you want to do anything special like birdwatching, be aware of a few things regarding optics. Don’t bring binoculars into the country. If you can afford it, buy a pair in Algiers or Oran – I don’t think you could get them easily anywhere else. I’ve been assured by a local judge that possessing binoculars isn’t an offence but I’m not a legal authority so exercise caution. Regarding lenses for the camera, my longest is 300mm and so far no one has complained. However, when it comes to anything bigger you might or might not get into trouble with the authorities and I’d go to great lengths to avoid that. The rules with the escort might also influence early morning hours – you need to be either a really skilled negotiator to get sunrise observation or accept that this is something you do in Djanet, Ghardaja or Bechar.

When it comes to food and drink of course you need to be aware that you’re still in a predominantly Muslim area although there’s a very different feel compared to the north of Algeria. There’s no alcohol available in restaurants. For vegetarians, Algeria can be slightly problematic: Aw, there’s just this little bit of minced meat on the egg, so it’s not really meat, surely not a problem? Thankfully, Mouloud the great guide was also really good at keeping us fed!

Another typical experience is Sahara tea which is green tea boiled and mixed with sugar. Health and safety warning: a lot of sugar. My estimate is 100ml of tea contain two or three heaped table spoons full of sugar. The tea is prepared on acacia wood which smells divine. If you’re feeling tired after a long day’s work or a few minutes’ stroll in the heat (the tourist experience), this is the best thing to revive your spirits.