First flock of White Storks spotted today over Old Sharm on its way to south migration to central Africa.
Storks in Ras Mohamed National Park
The White Storks are currently on their voyage across the Sinai Peninsular. Sharm is on the migratory path of storks coming from Eastern Europe. Approximately 500,000 storks are supposedly about to fly across the region, many of them resting for a night at Ras Mohamed. Very few research projects have been undertaken, but the storks are definitely something that Sharmers should be aware of.
The majority of storks that breed in Europe spend the winter months in sub-Saharan Africa, migrating north in early spring, and returning to the south come late summer.
White Storks seldom use flapping flight, which means that they cannot cross the wide range of the Mediterranean and must travel around instead. The heavy storks conserve energy by gliding instead of actively flying all day. Flying at approximately 20 to 30 miles per hour, gliding is also faster than flying. Two routes dominate the migration, the Western route across the Straits of Gibraltar and the Eastern route over the Jordan Valley, crossing the mountain range during part of the day and continuing southward along the Dead Sea towards the Sinai.
Nowadays we mainly spot them in the proximity of the mangroves of Ras Mohamed. Another sighting some years ago was at Tower, but due to mass construction sites this resting point is unfortunately gone for ever. Usually the storks seen in the Sinai are in a relatively tired state, after their long flights. The summer migration back to Europe will begin in early February.
The following article is a description of the problems that migrating storks encounter. Although the article is a bit old, the problems have not changed. The author is responsible for the content of the article.
Article : CROSSING SOUTH SINAI WHITE STORKS STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE*
Text by: Mr. Omar Attum (15/9/2000)
Thousands of White Storks stand on the beach, the mid day sun beating down on them. To the west across the sea are the dark silhouettes of the mountains, the next leg of their journey. Behind them lies the parched desert they just traversed. A flock of storks takes off and circles overhead. One by one small groups of storks follow forming a huge spiraling cloud of black and white birds. The swirling mass castes dark shallows on the ground below like a strobe light. The flock moves towards the water, then turns back. Suspended in air the birds soar back and forth in indecision. Eventually, the swarm breaks up and the birds return to the beach until conditions improve to make the treacherous crossing.
This is the annual spectacle of White Stork migration at Ras Mohammed National Park in South Sinai, one of nature’s wonders. Every autumn from late July to the end of September White Storks congregate at this desolate headland at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai is a major migration corridor for soaring birds given that it is the only land bridge between Africa and Asia.
Storks their numbers swollen with recently fledged young depart breeding grounds in Europe and West Asia on the long and perilous journey to winter quarters in Africa. After passing through Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, the birds travel over the Sinai reaching the Gulf of Suez, their first major obstacle. Storks are soaring birds and use thermals for locomotion avoiding as much as possible travelling over large bodies of water where thermals do not form. During crossing of the sea, birds have to flap and brave the high wind speeds of the Gulf of Suez. Upon reaching the other side, the birds travel over the rugged mountains of the Eastern Desert toward the fresh water and fertile lands of the Nile Valley.
Most surprising, stork migration through South Sinai is still a mystery. Satellite tracking by organizations in Europe and the Middle East, has provided some valuable clues, but there are still significant gaps in our knowledge about the routes and the logistics of migration through the area. There has been only one systematic survey of bird migration in South Sinai, conducted in 1998 by the Nature Conservation Sector (NCS) of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) as part of the European Union (EU) support program to the Gulf of Aqaba Protectorates. A Latvian ornithologist, Agris Celmins in cooperation with park rangers surveyed soaring bird migration through southern Sinai for the duration of the autumn season.
Celmins counted a total of 275.743 White Storks at Ras Mohammed between August 14 and October 14 with 168.050 counted during a four-day period the last week of August. Based upon these figures, he extrapolated that potentially over 400.000 birds pass through the area during autumn migration, the majority of the world population. Storks were observed landing throughout the day to rest along the coasts of Ras Mohammed, most roosting over night in the area. Early morning the storks took to flight, sometimes in immense flocks totalling over 10.000 birds.
Most interesting was Agris Celmins finding that only a fraction of the storks actually crossed at Ras Mohammed. Over two-thirds of the birds observed flew north, presumably to other crossing points along the southern Sinai coast. Other migration surveys on the other side of the Gulf of Suez support his findings. Large numbers of storks were seen arriving at Gabel El Zeit on the Eastern Desert coast indicating these birds departed the Sinai somewhere in the vicinity of El Tor. Smaller numbers of storks, presumably Ras Mohammed birds were seen arriving at Hurghada and as far south as Safaga. The crossing points seem to vary depending upon weather conditions and wind direction. No storks are recorded at Suez in the autumn, so it can be concluded that the whole eastern population of White Stork passes through southern Sinai.
Ras Mohammed, Egypt’s first national park was establish to preserve the coral reefs fringing the coasts considered some of the most spectacular in the world. Fortunately, they park also affords protection to a major stop over and staging area for migrating White Storks. Given its global importance as a migration bottleneck, Ras Mohammed National Park was listed by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Area (IBA). Many other species migrate through Ras Mohammed in the autumn, including Black Stork and birds of prey, such as harriers, Levant Sparrowhawk, Honey Buzzard and small numbers of eagles. The larger raptors, like the storks, do not seem to cross at this vicinity and travel north to more favourable sites, some travelling as far as Suez.
While Ras Mohammed is a pristine natural environment offering birds a safe haven, the situation is very different 15 km to the west at Sharm El Sheikh. Formerly only a few hotels, Sharm today it is bustling tourist resort extending more than 30 km along the southern Sinai coast. Wall to wall resorts line the beaches. Bikini clad holidaymakers mostly from Europe shop, eat, drink and lounge on the beaches oblivious to the impacts which tourism is wreaking on the environment.
In the desert to the north hundreds of storks gather around the garbage generated by the hotels and Sharm’s growing population. Hundreds of tired and hungry birds wait like vultures along the edge of the pit into which Sharm’s garbage is poured. Storks forage through the heaps of rubbish looking for food amidst plastic bags, broken glass and rotting carcasses of camels. Fights often irrupt between birds squabbling over tiny morsels of organic waste. Several birds stand on top of a pile of smoldering rubbish, their feet burnt and plumage blackened. Limp, lifeless corpses of storks are scattered about the surrounding desert.
Even greater numbers of storks gather around the wastewater treatment plant at the base of the mountains just north of the city. While a new facility, it is rather primitive consisting of a series of settling lagoons. Birds stand around the edges of the ponds and the pool of sewage seeping into the desert. The majority look exhausted, thirsty and hot, ,many have beaks open panting. Some try to drink, others stand dazed in the sweltering heat. A few birds walk into the water to cool down, the bodies of drowned storks floating a few meters away. The track between the ponds is nicknamed “Death Alley”, here there are tens of dead and dying storks. One bird’s wing is nearly torn from its shoulder, probably a result of colliding with the maze of powerlines overhead, another hazard to the birds.
A flock of storks circle in the sky above a waste recycling plant west of the sewage plant. This centre collects garbage to make fertilizer. Here too dirty, sick, injured, tired and hungry storks scavenge through piles of rubbish. Some enterprising birds take shelter from the sun inside a building. A few birds drink from a trough of water that the workers have put out for them.
Unlike in previously years, there were no storks at the old sewage treatment works, located adjacent to a farm, which was formerly the most extensive green area in Sharm irrigated by the rich sewage waters. Construction is going up around the farm and it is no longer maintained; many of the trees that use to provide shade to the storks have been cut down. The old sewage ponds remain, but a large quantity of oil had been dumped into one of the ponds posing a serious hazard to storks and other birds.
How many birds die every year at Sharm El Sheikh, no one knows? Storks begin arriving in Sharm at the end of July. The numbers increase as the migration season progresses fluctuating on a daily basis as birds move in and out of the area. As much as 5,000 birds have been reported at Sharm at any one time. By the end of the season, hundreds of storks remain moving between the garbage dumps, sewage farms and green areas, their numbers gradually dwindling over the months as they die from natural and man-made causes. Possibly larger numbers of birds die later in route from their disabilities sustained in South Sinai.
This phenomenon of large numbers of storks dying at Sharm is not new and has been noted since the Israeli occupation of the Sinai. In the late 80’s an American women, named April Adams in cooperation with a local businessman, Adly Mustiqawi started a project to rescue the storks. The project came to the attention of the German government, which financed the “Save the Storks” environmental education campaign and supported the visit of a German expert to investigate the problem. This consultant concluded that Sharm El Sheikh was outside the White Stork’s normal migration route and attracted small numbers of sick, injured, old and young birds too weak to migrate and would die in any case of natural mortality.
However, since this study, the city has grown along with the attractions and the threats. Increasing numbers of storks seem to be landing at Sharm El Sheikh lured by the garbage, water and green areas created by the expanding city. While a proportion of these birds are in poor condition and might die naturally, they are joined by many healthy birds, which once in the area, are exposed to a variety of hazards that can cause their untimely death. The fact that injures are sustained in the area is obvious to any person who spends extended time observing the birds. Last year numerous leg injures were seen, which were thought to be incurred as birds walked through the piles of broken glass, wire and other sharp debris in the garbage dumps. In addition to the threats mentioned previously, storks are caught and eaten by itinerate workers, hit by cars and preyed upon by packs of feral dogs.
The Sinai Wildlife Project (SWP) took over the stork rescue efforts started by April Adams. Its founder Jim Dinsmoore and his wife, Susan, both from America established the organization in the early 90’s with the aim to mount annual stork rescue efforts. While initially the project had considerable local support and generated a lot of public awareness, over the years the activities of the organization lost focus and deteriorated becoming a little more than putting a band aid on the problem. Nothing of substance has been done to address the root causes and information has not been collected in a systemic fashion. The poor manner in which the project has been run and the low level of local involvement, resulted this summer in a scathing article in the Egyptian press and the SWP being asked to vacate its facilities.
While a wildlife rehabilitation efforts are desperately needed to treat sick and injured birds, more urgent is the need to make Sharm El Sheikh a more “Stork Friendly” place. Egypt as signatory to the Convention of Migratory Species (CMS) has global obligations to adopt measures to conserve White Storks and other migrating birds. The Ministry for Environmental Affairs and the National Park’s Department has a critical role to play, but meaningful and lasting changes can only be accomplished with the lead and support of the Governor of South Sinai. The hotels and other local businesses can take part by insuring that their businesses operate in an environmentally sound manner, while tourists and NGOs can act as watchdogs. Donors too can contribute, only, a fraction of the aid money given to Egypt is spent on nature conservation, and even then, bird conservation is often neglected.
Of utmost priority are actions to improve waste management in Sharm El Sheikh. Garbage is collected from hotels, then disposed at dump sites in the desert where it is sorted, buried and burned by bedouins and most recently by garbage collectors from the Nile Valley. The man managing the dump near Sharm complains that while the hotels pay money to the city for the garbage to be transported, they receive no money for its disposal. The little revenue they earn is through collecting plastic, glass and other materials that are later sold for recycling. Last year’s dump site near the city was closed and a new dump opened at the mouth of a scenic wadi inside the boundaries of the St. Katherine Protectorate. The park has been discussing with local officials establishing a sanitary landfill at another locality, but the dump has remained opened due to lack of consensus about the location and operating procedures.
The problem of burning garbage has been brought to the attention of the authorities and is prohibited. However, the garbage continues to ignite. Observations from the past two years indicated that many birds had their plumaged soiled from silt, believed to impair the bird’s ability to migrate. Storks are also known to become entangled and maimed in the barbed wire fences surrounding the dumps.
Waste water treatment plants also need to be more environmentally friendly. The water quality at the new treatment plant should be tested. There was no plant or insect life around the pools. Blue green algae was observed in the water, reported to be potentially toxic to wildlife. A local expert commented that the water is saline as some facilities are discharging their brine illegally into the domestic waste water system. The sludge must be regularly dredged, as birds are known to drown in it or become coated by grime. Consideration should likewise be given to reducing the risk of collisions with powerlines by making the wires more visible or burying them in sensitive areas, such as near the sewage plant where large numbers of birds congregate.
A long-term monitoring program based on field observations and autopsies needs to be developed with information collected on a regular basis in a systematic manner. Egypt has fewer than ten qualified individuals able to conduct ornithological surveys so efforts are needed to build national capacities in this field. International conservation bodies and volunteers can assist local organizations to organize and conduct the surveys and train Egyptians.
Birding tourism can also be developed to support conservation efforts! Little has been done to promote South Sinai as a birding destination. White Stork migration through South Sinai could potentially attract thousands of birders. Many of the tourists visiting Sharm would undoubtedly be interested in witnessing this annual spectacle of nature. One idea proposed is to hold a White Stork Festival in Sharm El Sheikh every autumn to celebrate the arrival of these beautiful birds, highlighting Egypt’s importance and the need for their conservation!
*Remark : the author Omar Attum is responsible for the content of this article. The number of storks on the eastern flyway is estimated to be close to 650.000 individuals. Early in the 20th century the routes of migrating storks were described for parts of the Egyptian mainland and Sinai. Also in that period were the storks passing near El Tor.