There are many lovely birds in East Africa, but the Indian House Crow is not one of them. Small, but noisy and aggressive, these brutes are everywhere on the Red Sea coast. Thankfully, there is a plethora of other, rather more pleasing birds and an interesting array of other wildlife.
Assab, unfortunately, is overrun by crows, a fate shared by the other large town on the coast, Massawa. The birds are not even big, roughly the size of a jackdaw, but they are everywhere and they are not nice. Even worse, they are not a native species. Somebody, possibly with a long-standing grudge against the entire eastern coastline of Africa, imported them and they have proliferated to the point where they are a genuine pest. These really are birds that could start a fight in the proverbial empty room.
Hilariously, these psychotic birds glory in the Latin name of Corvus splendens, which at least proves that the scientific community is possessed of a well-developed sense of irony. Personally, I would have opted for Corvus absurdis.
The only other bird that exists in large numbers on Eritrea’s coast is the Sooty Gull. These are also quite small for their species, but in contrast to the rancorous crows, are virtually silent. In this, they are not a typical gull. They lead a rather peaceful life and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they used to be more like most other gulls, but once the crows had arrived, gave up any vocal activity as a lost cause.
Unsurprisingly, given the heat and humidity, Assab is not teeming with birds, being especially barren during the intensely hot months of June, July and August. However, a bit of time and patience can be very rewarding and spending enough time there will reveal a few treasures. It’s not the sort of place for a birder to compile a long list in a short space of time – Asmara is a much better bet for that kind of thing – but a couple of years in the area guarantees an impressive collection.
The local stars were ospreys. It was common to see two pairs of these raptors fishing in the Red Sea near Assab. The pairs were in surprisingly close proximity, but presumably the fishing was so good that there were no territorial disputes. Having come to the conclusion that afternoon siestas were not for me, I would often wander down to the coast for a swim and in hope of spotting the ospreys. More often than not, I was rewarded.
Watching them hunt, you realised that catching a fish takes a lot of work, even for these skilled birds. There is a lot of hovering and quite a lot of backing out of dives. The feet-first plunges often produce no result, but when the strike happens, it is spectacular and one of the great sights of nature, as the bird struggles to get airborne with a large fish in its talons. Once the fish is hooked, it is rarely dropped.
It’s much easier to tick off species in the highland areas. Even a day or two in Asmara should provide a sizeable list. Asmara has some pleasant residential areas with lots of gardens and brightly coloured flowers, and these attract plenty of small and often equally brightly coloured birds. Clearly, the numbers depend on the amount of interest of the observer and anyone with an enthusiasm for birds, even quite experienced birders, will find it easier with a book. I was rarely without my Birds of East Africa guide.
The guide book is invaluable, but it’s still hard at times to be certain of something you’ve spotted. A lot of weaver birds, for example, are very similar in appearance and it can be very difficult to be certain of a particular species, even when you’ve been staring at it through binoculars for some time. When even an internationally respected ornithologist advises that it’s difficult to tell the difference between certain species, there isn’t much chance for the rest of us.
Happily, there are lots of birds that can’t be mistaken for anything else. In Asmara, a common sight is that of a smallish brown bird with a long tail and stumpy wings flitting into a palm tree. This is the Speckled Mousebird, an engaging character that scurries around trees searching for fruit and berries. The punky crest on top of the head adds to its endearing appearance, which is indeed rather mouse-like when it is bustling around in the trees.
Another bird that it is impossible to mistake for anything else is the extraordinary Hammerkop. These moderately large waders are found around lakes and have the appearance of a brown heron that has been hit over the head with a blunt instrument. They also possess an unrivalled enthusiasm for building nests, even constructing them when they are not breeding. Hammerkop nests are huge, built of sticks and often covered in any shiny objects they happen to come across.
There are lots of different doves and pigeons throughout all of East Africa. Even in Assab, there is a variety of species, including two at either end of the size range. In the heavyweight corner is the Speckled Pigeon, a bulky bird with a very distinctive red patch around the eyes. It is also – forgive the element of surprise – speckled. In the flyweight corner is the tiny Namaqua Dove, which is the size of a sparrow and stands out because of its remarkably long tail, which serves to make it look rather bigger than it really is. Namaquas often feed on the ground and the first sighting of one can take the observer by surprise. They look like pigeons, move like pigeons and, of course, are pigeons, but they look too small to be real, appearing to have been imported from some miniature Swiftian world.
Along with my bird guide, I had taken a pair of binoculars and also packed a snorkel and pair of goggles. I did without the flippers, as I wasn’t the strongest swimmer and wasn’t planning to go that deep, but there was enough underwater life near the coastline to keep me interested. The life around the coral reefs is especially diverse and often very colourful.
Unfortunately, a combination of short-sightedness and a complete lack of knowledge regarding marine life rather curtails any in-depth analysis. I can safely say that there were lots of gaudy butterfly fish and a fair collection of crustaceans. One day, I came face to pincer with a substantial lobster. I backed off. I had further uses for my nose.
If the lobster looked as though it could dish out a bit of pain, the sharks that appeared around the reefs from time to time were certainly worth avoiding on that score. These, I learned from the people at the Ministry of Marine Resources, were Black-tipped Reef Sharks. They weren’t, it must be admitted, exactly the stuff of scary movies, being around four feet long, but they were nevertheless sharks and sharks have teeth. Very sharp teeth. They are, however, just as nervous of people as people are of them and making a bit of noise and stamping your feet on the sand was enough to send them scuttling into deeper water.
While I managed to avoid injury by lobster claw or shark tooth, I wasn’t so lucky with the coral. Corals are, of course, living creatures, marine invertebrates and, as such, animals. It’s probably safe to say that there was no intention on the part of the corals to cause me damage, but cause it they did.
It can often be quite windy on the Red Sea Coast and the sea can become a bit choppy at times. I never used to venture out too far, but even within my limited orbit, it could throw you around a bit. So it was one afternoon when I took a swim. Finding myself being churned around in increasingly vigorous waves, I decided to get back to the beach and struck out with a vigorous breast stroke.
What I struck was a very sharp coral. I’d avoided drowning, which was a distinct positive, but now I had a big gash in the palm of my right hand. I washed it and surveyed the damage. It was bleeding quite a lot, but didn’t seem to be life threatening. I was quite near the group of houses where the UN volunteers lived, so I wound my tee-shirt around my hand and set off for the house of an Australian UN volunteer called Michael. He was bound to have a first-aid box or something similar.
Michael and his wife cleaned and patched me up. I’d live to fight another coral. We had a couple of bottles of beer, which helped to numb the pain a bit. Restored to some sort of functionality, I proffered my thanks and wandered off towards home. When I’d got about a mile down the road, I suddenly realised that I had another, albeit more minor, problem, this one more socio-cultural than physical.
It’s all very well wandering about on the beach without a shirt on, but it’s not really polite to do it in other areas. I would need to walk past the Port Club, the church and quite a few houses before I got home. Of course, what I should have done was to borrow a shirt, but I wasn’t going to walk all the way back to Michael’s house again. I had a shirt, but it was covered in blood. I pondered the dilemma.
It was a simple enough choice. Either I went topless and offended social norms or I put on my blood-drenched shirt. I decided to wear the shirt. It was still daylight and I wasn’t going to hang around in hiding until it was dark enough to sneak home unnoticed. Besides which, more people came out after dark when it was cooler, so that wasn’t going to work, anyway. Thankfully, I didn’t encounter too many people and even better, didn’t bump into anyone I knew. The few people who did spot me, I noticed, kept a considerable distance. I clearly had that authentic street fighting man look.
In my two years in Eritrea, I did not see one snake. They certainly existed, a fact which one unfortunate Norwegian visiting Assab would have testified to readily. He was bitten by one, thankfully without any form of lasting damage. This, however, was the single occasion on which I heard anything about snakes.
I did, after a fashion, see a scorpion. More accurately, I saw the shattered remnants of the creature after it had been battered to death at the teachers’ house. Steve had an even closer encounter with it. Waking up one morning, he distractedly reached out to remove what he thought was a leaf from the top of his mosquito net. What he actually picked up was a small scorpion. Luckily for Steve, the arachnid had evidently been somewhat knocked out by the chemicals sprayed onto the net and was not in any shape to retaliate. I usually wore sandals, but I got into the habit of checking my shoes or walking boots before I put them on.
One common arachnid was the little black and white jumping spider that seemed to be everywhere. As the name suggests, they do not spin webs, but capture their prey by the simple, but evidently highly effective, expedient of leaping on it. They seemed to be able to jump in any direction and with considerable accuracy. Along with the ubiquitous geckos, these spiders were quite welcome in my house. Anything that disposed of insects was a friend of mine, unless it was a crow.
Even the geckos and spiders might have steered clear of the large black wasps, one of which decided to build a nest on the door of my office. Architecturally and aesthetically, the nest was a wonderful domed structure, carefully put together from chewed wood, and really quite impressive. From a practical point of view, trying to bypass an angry wasp protective of its nest and young was not the most appealing prospect. The refinery’s maintenance men duly removed the nest, only for the wasp to start again in the same place. The maintenance men shifted it for a second time. Thankfully the wasp appeared to be aware of the WC Fields adage ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then give up. No use being a damned fool about it’ and duly vanished to rebuild in a quieter spot.
Insects were not in short supply. It would have taken millions more insectivores to keep the population down to even plague proportions. It was almost impossible to be outside for a few seconds without having flies buzzing around your head. I decided to watch the sun rise one morning when I was at the VSO annual meeting in Massawa. I got up at five o’clock and walked to the beach. Even at that hour, it was blisteringly hot and I seemed to have attracted more flies than a herd of cattle.
It’s impossible to forget one sight. We – the Assab volunteers – went to a small restaurant one day to have some lunch. From a distance, it seemed that the place had acquired a job lot of black tablecloths. It was only when you got closer and the waiters started waving tea towels around that you realised that the ‘tablecloths’ were, in fact, vast swarms of flies. Suddenly, everybody experienced a loss of appetite and we settled for a cold drink instead.
And then there were the mosquitoes. VSO must spend a fortune on anti-malarial pills. It’s just as well, because it’s impossible to avoid bites, however many precautions you take. You can cover yourself in all kinds of repellent sprays, creams, gels and liquids. You can sleep under netting. You can – if you can bear wearing extra clothing in such high temperatures – cover yourself up. One way or another, they will get you.
Sometimes, it’s in unexpected ways. On a visit to Asmara, I stayed in the same hotel as John, a UN volunteer who was in Assab as a fishing advisor. One morning, he appeared with a nasty gash above his left eyebrow that made him look as though he had taken up boxing and come through a 12-round bout against a particularly aggressive opponent. What had happened in reality was that he’d had a mosquito in his room. In his desperate attempts to swat the pest, he’d fallen out of bed and cracked his head on the bedside table. Directly or indirectly, they will always find a way to inflict damage.
Usually, though, it comes down to more traditional methods. After a long and thoroughly enjoyable Christmas Day party, which had inevitably involved a considerable amount of alcohol, I fell asleep on the large and comfortable sofa at the large house occupied by Michael. Being clad in only tee-shirt and shorts, I had no chance. A couple of days later, I looked like an overcooked pizza. Things were so drastic that people began to visit my office on the flimsiest of excuses just so they could survey the damage. In fact, they often didn’t have excuses. I took the only reasonable course of action. I locked the door.
One of the many beauties of the air conditioning in my house was that doors and windows could be kept shut, with the result that incursions by mosquitoes and flies were rare. It was easy enough to deal with isolated insurgents. I wasn’t spared irritation, though. Crickets seemed to find ways to get into any house and had a trick that seemed especially vindictive. They would wait until you’d put the lights out and then start chirping. It became a game. Put the lights on and the chirping stopped. Put them off and the racket resumed.
It was hard to know whether the crickets were more annoying than the cockroaches. It was a close run thing. Cockroaches are in no way lovable and Western culture, in particular, has demonised them into a Kafka nightmare. On the other hand, at least cockroaches don’t make an infernal din when you’re trying to get to sleep.
Cockroaches are rather cumbersome creatures and I got a bit of a shock one day when something cold, solid and unpleasant landed on me as I lay on my bed, reading. The cockroach must have been attempting a crossing of my ceiling and fallen off. It certainly made me jump and I flung the thing across the room, where it cannoned off the wall and onto the floor, where is spun around on its back. Seizing my advantage, I kicked it towards the front door and booted it into the street, whereupon it was seized by a crow. It was the first time I’d realised that the crows had any practical use. It may well have been the last time as well.
A more painful encounter involved a beetle, the make of which I have no idea. It was, presumably, some kind of stag beetle and it certainly had a powerful set of pincers. This I knew because they were embedded in my left arm as I sat at the table in my house, writing a letter. How the beetle arrived there, I cannot possibly guess. The point – or rather, two points – was that it had attached itself to me in a very determined manner.
With surprisingly cold and logical judgement, I assessed the situation. Instinct would have been to attempt to pull the thing off. Clearly, this would not be a good idea, as it would involve losing a portion of my skin. I was holding a pen and this provided the obvious solution. With great care, I prised the pincers apart and the insect, with some reluctance, released its grip. I scooped it into a cup and put it outside. My arm suffered a bit of damage and it was a long time before the scar disappeared.
The place had become something of an entomologist’s paradise, but even so, I was reluctant to use the various aerosols and sprays that were available in the local shops. While I wanted to get rid of the battalions of insects, I was worried that I might do some damage to the more welcome visitors like spiders and geckos.
I discovered that geckos had an interesting mechanism to deal with one type of threat. I had been doing some laundry in the shower room and had left some clothes to soak in a bucket. When I went to retrieve them, there was also a small lizard splashing about. It had evidently fallen in from somewhere and despite the renowned ability of lizards for clinging to pretty much anything, didn’t seem to be having any luck in getting out. It was perfectly undamaged, but clearly a bucket of water is not ideal lizard habitat.
Carefully removing the reptile, I was startled as it leapt from my hand and scurried away. I was even more shocked to find that most of its tail was still in the palm of my hand and wriggling around, apparently with a life of its own. As I stared at the writhing tail, somewhere in the recesses of my memory I recalled that lizards could shed their tails when trying to escape danger. I couldn’t have scared it too much, though, as I continued to see the by now tailless gecko scampering around my house and I was able to check its progress as the tail grew back.
Mammalian life was quite hard to find. In the semi desert areas around Assab, one of the few mammals to be found was a small ground squirrel. There are also mongooses, though my only encounter with them was a fleeting view from a car. In the highland areas, it’s not too difficult to come across the Hamadryas Baboon or Vervet Monkey. To find the charismatic, grass munching Gelada Baboon, however, one must cross into Ethiopia, as this species lives only in the Ethiopian mountains.
Something that it’s impossible to miss is the omnipresent camel, or dromedary to be precise. These haughty beasts are the symbol of Eritrea and appear on all sorts of official documents. The emblem of the country depicts a camel surrounded by a laurel wreath. Camels also appear in great numbers in real life. In the town of Keren, to the north of Asmara, a wood market is held on Saturdays. The visitor is treated to the remarkable sight of hundreds of camels, bearing enormous quantities of wood, arriving from the surrounding towns and villages.
The intrepid explorer, if very fortunate, can find exotic mammals. A few elephants survive in Eritrea, in areas to the west of Asmara. The same region throws up the occasional report of a lion, though there has been no concrete evidence recently. Leopards are certainly found in Eritrea, though they are largely nocturnal. There are, reportedly, several species of dolphin to be found off the Red Sea coast and the rare dugong is also an inhabitant of the area. Sadly, I had no joy in spotting any such creatures during my very occasional boat trips.
Nor did I have any luck in seeing a bird that I’d always wanted to see, a hornbill. It didn’t matter what sort of hornbill, any hornbill would do. I was thrilled, then, when I heard from Clare, a volunteer (and fellow birder and Scrabble fan) based in Mai Habar, a town to the east of Asmara. Hornbills were, she wrote, regularly found in the grounds of the technical college where she taught and lived.
I had some leave available and Clare invited me to come up for a few games of Scrabble and some birdwatching. This was a very appealing prospect and I duly arranged my flights to Asmara. I caught the bus to Mai Habar and after a bit of confusion, found my way to the college. It was too late for watching birds, but perfect time for dinner, followed by a few bottles of Melotti and a game of Scrabble.
It was, of course, entirely predictable that in the two days I spent in Mai Habar, not a single hornbill would make an appearance. It was a lovely place to wander around, with its abundant orange and lemon trees and we saw lots of birds, but not one of them a hornbill. A few months later, Clare sent me a photograph she’d taken of two hornbills in the grounds of the college (‘just to prove I wasn’t making it up’). It took me a long time and two more trips to sub-Saharan Africa before I saw one, the small black and white Von der Decken’s Hornbill near the town of Mekele in the north of Ethiopia.
Among the birds we saw in Mai Habar were various types of sunbird, relatives of hummingbirds and often just as dazzling in terms of plumage. The highland areas were full of sunbirds and Asmara had its fair share. A trip to the VSO field office in the capital was a pleasant experience; you usually bumped into somebody you knew and you could spend an hour or so sitting in the front garden, having a chat and a cup of tea while watching the sunbirds flitting in and out as they fed on the nectar from the flowers.
We didn’t get too many dazzlingly bright birds in Assab, but one of the oddities of the place was that you could go for weeks without seeing anything interesting and then be completely taken aback. So it was one afternoon when, walking along the beach, I saw a pelican perching on a rock. A few weeks later, I saw another pelican. Even more strangely, they were different species. The first was a Pink-backed Pelican, the second the much larger White Pelican.
If I’d been surprised by the pelicans, the kingfisher astonished me. Walking into town to do some shopping one day, I saw a bird perching in a tree near the port. I didn’t have binoculars with me, but luckily it was very close and it was immediately obvious that it was a kingfisher. I stared at it and puzzled as to why a kingfisher would be here, in this searingly hot place on the edge of a desert. If there were any rivers or streams, I certainly wasn’t aware of them. Nor, as far as I knew, did kingfishers catch sea fish.
In fact, this particular kingfisher didn’t catch fish at all. My bird book was able to explain everything. It was a Grey-headed Kingfisher, a dry-country and completely non-aquatic bird. Hunting from tree perches, it fed on insects and small lizards and we were not short of either.
The only other time that I was completely stopped in my tracks was when I saw a bright flash of purple hurtling into a tree near the beach. The culprit was the glorious Violet-backed Starling, a riot of iridescent purple with white underparts. I’d seen plenty of flashy starlings in the highland areas, but this was the only one that I saw in Assab.
At least this one was easy to recognise. Some starlings can look completely different depending on the light. Two people standing in different spots can look at the same bird and see different things. Bird books can never do justice to the colours. Blue-eared Glossy Starlings, for example, can look bright blue from one angle, but deep green from another. Identification can be hard work and often comes down to a process of elimination. There is an element of the Sherlock Holmes method about it, whereby the impossible is eliminated and the truth is found somewhere among what remains.
It felt just as strange to see the odd bird that gave you a reminder of walking by the coast at home. Now and then, you would spot redshanks, oystercatchers, knots or other types of wader that are so familiar in Britain. It felt odd to see birds like this, as they appeared totally out of context. I was used to seeing them when the temperatures were around 30 to 40 degrees less than they were in Assab.
Something that I saw every day, albeit from a considerable distance, was a flock of Egyptian Geese. They evidently roosted on one of the small islands in the Red Sea, flying back on to the mainland early in the morning. Their arrival usually coincided with my arrival at the gates of the refinery at six o’clock in the morning. Doubtless they returned to their island when the sun went down in the afternoon.
It was crows, though, that dominated the scene in Assab. They were unavoidable in terms of both sight and sound. They weren’t perturbed by people very much, either, being quite happy to treat people with the same naked aggression that they showed towards everything else, including each other. Heather, a volunteer who had very blonde hair, seemed to suffer worse than most among the human inhabitants. Sensibly, she wore a hat much of the time, but even in the sea she was not immune from crow bombardment. There seemed to be something about her hair colour that appealed to the brutes. Nobody else suffered in this way. Even Ursula, another VSO colleague, whose hair was quite fair, had no such problem. Evidently, crows prefer blondes.
I suffered little physical harm from crows, the damage being mostly psychological. I didn’t escape completely, though. I’d wandered out of my office one morning to have a cigarette and I received a sharp clump on the back of my head. The offender, predictably enough, was a crow. My crime had been to walk underneath a nest and the crows, who seemed permanently enraged at the best of times, had taken exception. A pair of them continued to scream at me from the tree under which I’d sought shade and I made my way back to my office by sliding carefully along the wall of the building to make further attacks a trickier operation. I made sure that my future strolls took me in the opposite direction.
At the Port Club one Sunday afternoon, I was having a drink with John. Some people had recently left and their plates and glasses were still on a table near us. One of the glasses had some beer left in it. A crow landed on the table, and finding the plates empty, hopped up onto the rim of the glass. It duly stuck its beak into the glass and slurped up some beer. It did this a few times before being disturbed by another crow. The pair then engaged in a vigorous skirmish, thrashing around on the table, chairs and ground before flying away.
We had to laugh and we did. In fact, we laughed for quite a long time. Lager lout crows. It could only happen in Assab.