I have had the privilege of not only deploying for periods above and beyond what is normally expected of an individual but also to birdwatch for a total of 19 months in a country on the crossroads of the Western, Eastern Palaearctics and the Oriental Region. The run up to all the tours included pre-deployment training in Cyprus, Kenya or Canada and I had the opportunity to add significantly to my life list. I have not been disappointed.
I have now completed two summer tours and one deployment over the winter. The Relief in Place (RiP) periods between Brigades always occur during the migration periods and thus I have had the opportunity to be in the middle of migration in an area where migrants abound. Camp Bastion has changed considerably since my first tour in 2007 – it is now the size of Reading and areas that were productive on Op HERRICKs 6 and 11 have now been built on and on this tour the expansion of the runway to the south has increased not only the military’s footprint on the ground but also the area I have been able to birdwatch. On my first and second tours I was able to run around the perimeter, during this tour had I done so I would have had to complete a marathon.
I arrived in Camp Bastion on 28th January 2012 along with 40 individuals of the Battlegroup Headquarters to take over from a Danish Battlegroup. This deployment was some two months before the remainder of the Battalion and we had to set up a Headquarters and Rear Joint Operations Centre in both Main Operating Base (MOB) Price and Joint Operating Base (JOB) Bastion. The area of operations we were to take over from the Danes was Combined Force Nar-e-Saraj (North) (CF NES(N)) and area in the north of Helmand in the Upper Gerheshk Valley.
Initially bird life was limited. If anyone has been to that part of the world you’ll be aware that winter is not the best time to see birds. Within the first weeks I had found the Omni-present Laughing Doves, Crested Larks, Tree Sparrow and the odd Common Myna. Occasionally, towards the end of the day flocks of Crowned Sandgrouse were seen to the south of Bastion. At the time I didn’t know where they were landing but by the end of the tour this species became an almost daily species on my list. It was evident straight away that places where I had visited on HERRICKs 6 and 11 had been built on and it was obvious that I had to drive around the newer areas of Bastion and even into Camp Leatherneck, the adjacent USMC Camp. As such I borrowed one of the unit Tata pick-up trucks and found two areas, one at the end of the runway which I named Runway’s End Marsh and a grey water Lagoon in Leatherneck which became colloquially known as the Poo Pond – I’ll leave your imagination as to why it was. In addition birds were often seen perched on razor wire around both camps and a-top rubble. Overflying birds often proved interesting with some passerines unidentified. That said, a flock of Rose-coloured Starling over Bastion One was unmistakable.
Both areas had some Phragmites and subsequently both passerines and waders were attracted. During the spring migration I found Caspian Reed, Blyth’s Reed, Clamorous Reed, Booted Warblers, the odd Sykes’s and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers in abundance along with smaller numbers of Siberian Chiffchaff and Hume’s Whitethroat. Red-throated Serin, and Rustic Bunting were added to my life list and the rocky areas held Pied Stonechat, Southern Grey, Daurian, Turkestan and Long-tailed Shrike and flocks of Trumpeter Finches were observed during the move north. Hoopoe, Roller, Variable and to a lesser extent, Hume’s Wheatear, used the Runway’s End Marsh as a stop-over and I added Blue-capped Redstart, Siberian Stonechat and Afghanistan’s first Oriental Magpie-Robin in this area. Greater Hoopoe-Lark held territories along the perimeter fences and were often seen singing and displaying, whilst I picked up single Asian Desert Warblers twice whilst out running. The Sandgrouse congregated around the grey water stream leading into the marsh and was a sight to behold. Raptors were a welcome relief to periods of boredom and during migration I picked up the odd Steppe Buzzard, many Pallid Harriers, a single male Montegu’s Harrier, Lesser Kestrel, Saker and initially a few Shikra. Waders were evident throughout with large numbers of Black-winged Stilt, White-tailed Plover, Lesser Sand Plover, occasional Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers, Little and Temminck’s Stints, Dunlin, Ruff, Common Snipe, Common, Green and Wood Sandpipers and Red-necked Phalarope. In addition I added Oriental Pratincole to my list with an overflying bird at the beginning of the tour. Other birds included White-winged Tern and Heuglin’s Gull, the former occurring mainly during reverse migration in Camp Leatherneck. Crowned, the odd Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse were often found at the end of the runway mostly at the end of the day but singletons were present throughout, particularly from July onwards. The species list, although not extensive, is not bad for a desert site and some species perhaps come as a surprise to readers not familiar with Central Asian avi-fauna.
Camp Leatherneck holds an outstanding PX (the US NAAFI) , a reasonable barber, a coffee shop but also the Poo Pond. The Pond obviously attracted large numbers of waders and it was here that I first saw Lesser Sand Plover and it was a delight to visit this area, some five minutes from my workplace, on a daily basis to see what had dropped in over the night. I had run-ins with the USMC Military Police on occasion who could not understand why I was looking at an effluent filled pond and deemed me a security risk. Sometimes they could not think out of the box; I was clearly British, in British Uniform and carrying a Service Pistol and ID Card. Still, it was all rather worth the hassle as I had on occasions seven or eight species of Wader in front of me and on was able to observe Red-necked Phalarope doing what they do best – spinning around in the margins in order to disturbed invertebrates.
Forays out of Bastion were this time limited but most months I travelled to the various Patrol Bases (PBs) or to MOB Price to conduct admin clinics and always took my bins with me. All movement was by Support Helicopter (SH) and so I was unable to pick up the desert birds I had hoped to see and had, indeed seen on previous tours whilst manning a GPMG as top-cover to a vehicle move. MOB Price had a large number of wintering Black Kites and in the PBs I added Steppe Eagle and Chestnut Shouldered Bush Sparrow to my list. Rupert King-Evans, a Company Commander in the Battalion and AOS member, was continuously on the ground and his sightings mirrored mine although he did add Black Stork to birds seen in the area. Other individuals reported birds over PBs which must have been Demoiselle Cranes, a species which migrates up and down the Upper Gerheshk Valley. The Trips out of Bastion were always interesting with long period stuck in PBs due to the lack of SH and all movement necessitated wearing the following kit:
Rifle (with 150 5.56mm rounds of ammo)
Sig Pistol (with 30 9mm rounds of ammo)
Mark 7 Combat Helmet (fully scrimmed) Osprey Body Armour (20kgs complete)
Day sack (with overnight kit and 48 hour rations) Hammock
Belt Kit (Webbing)
Old Bausch and Lomb 10x42 Binoculars
Birds of the Middle East (Helm)* Birds of Pakistan (Helm)* Notebook
*Both books soon to be superseded by Birds of Central Asia (Helm)
I published this kit list on both the AOS Webpage and Birdforum under ‘Essential Kit for a Helmand Twitch’ which produced numerous comments ranging from the funny to those of a more profound nature.
This tour was outstanding bird wise. I really didn’t expect to pick up new birds this time around and certainly was pleased to find Afghanistan’s first Oriental Magpie-Robin. Sightings were sent to OSME and were included on their e-forum and in their Journal . Birding is a useful diversion from work and I was certainly never bored. I was able to birdwatch outside my accommodation, whilst on a run and when commuting around Bastion. I did not just observe birds, there was numerous other species around and I was able to enjoy Globed Skimmer, Lesser Emperor, Asian Monarch, Bedstraw Hawkmoth, Leopard Gecko, Jackal, Jerboa, numerous Bat sp and I had reports of what appeared to be 2 Lynx in one of the PBs. Military Birders have added significantly to the knowledge of the avi-fauna of Afghanistan and I have had much discussion with OSME with regards to the Afghan list, not only adding Oriental Magpie-Robin but also Speckled Pigeon (from HERRICK 6) which appears to be a feral species at Kandahar Airfield. From what I can gather information has been received from a number of British Soldiers, two USMC Officers and a Finnish Diplomat in Kabul. I blogged sightings on the AOS website, tweeted sightings on Twitter and included what I saw on an Afghanistan thread on Birdforum. Photos were published on the AOS Website, on the Birdforum Gallery and on my Facebook Page.
I am now firmly back in the UK and looking forward to my next posting; a posting which will not include another operational tour. I am attempting to see all the birds I missed over a 7 month tour and in the two months have managed to see both Long and Short-billed Dowitchers, Pectoral Sandpiper, Rainham Baillon’s Crake, Hume's Leaf Warbler and the Pagham Hooded Merganser. I am loving the rain and cold.
I thought the last was my final missive on Afghanistan. I have just reviewed all my photos I took whilst deployed, some of which have been posted in my BF Gallery. Last week I noiticed that one I took during and influx of White-winged Black Terns into Camp Leatherneck was in fact a Whiskered Tern. I have added the photo and have been told that this is an extremely rare species in the region and is, in fact, only the third for the country.
This highlights that any birder in Afghanistan for a prolonged period is liable to find something of interest to OSME. During my deployments I have found:
Afghanistan's first Oriental Magpie Robin
Helmand's first Red Crossbills
Afghanistan's third only Whiskered Tern.
Fantastic reading the birding in Afghanistan. If anyone else is based out there currently I'd be very interested.
I am due to head out there in March, to work as an Ecologist with a local NGO in Bamiyan, as part of which I have allowance to undertake my own bird surveys of the area. I'd be extremely interested in absolutely anything relating to birds in Afghanistan and Bamiyan in particular - be it trip reports of any age, papers, book recommendations, anything at all, really!