It’s been awhile since I’ve featured a bird on the blog, so today let’s meet the Blackstart (Oenanthe melanura), called bal’alaby the Jebeliya Bedouin.
Blackstarts are common resident birds in South Sinai and are relatively unafraid of humans so there’s a good chance you’ll come across one in your wanders and maybe even get a chance to spend some time in their company. You might be serenaded by their song:
These birds have bluish-grey to grey-brown plumage with darker colored wings. They are named (Oenanthe melanura) for their black tails, which they tend to have fanned out. In classical Greek, mela means black and oura, tail. Their bodies can be up to 14 cm long.
Blackstarts live in rocky wadis, deserts, and mountain slopes, where they can often be seen hopping around on the ground, feeding on insects.
Blackstarts are monogamous and pairs remain together in their breeding territory throughout the year. The female builds the nest, a shallow cup made of grass and leaves, in rock crevices and lines it with hair and fine plant material. She will lay 3 – 4 eggs, which are blue with reddish brown speckles. The eggs, if they aren’t preyed upon by a Golden Spiny Mouse, hatch after about 13 days. Both parents feed the chicks, which fledge, or grow flight feathers and are ready to learn to fly, after 14 days.
If you follow the Wandering through Wadis Facebook page, you might recall the photographs of orchids that I shared a few weeks ago. I had no idea that there were orchids growing in the desert, but after my friend sent me photos of the blooms she had seen, I obviously had no choice but to go see them for myself.
I had identified the orchids in my friend’s photos as Scarce (or Eastern) Marsh Helliborine (Epipactis veratrifolia) but, admittedly, I knew nothing about orchids. So I’ve been reading up on them. And I’ve learned a lot of fascinating things about orchids in general, but also about these rare beauties that are native to Sinai. (They are not found in mainland Egypt.)
Most orchids (more than 99% of all species) are epiphytic and use their roots to attach themselves to and grow on trees. The Scarce Marsh Helleborine, however, is a terrestrial, or ground, orchid and grows its roots firmly in soil.
This helleborine is a perennial herb and grows, from a fleshy rhizome, to be between 25 – 150 cm tall. The leaves are ovate (egg-shaped) and pointed at both ends. They grow along the stem and can be 8 – 25 cm long. The inflorescence, or cluster of flowers, grows atop an erect stem. The flowers are fairly open and are green to yellowish-green in color with purplish or reddish radial stripes. The lip, or bottom middle petal, is tipped in white. The upper part of the stems, bracts, ovaries, and sepals are covered in short, fine hairs. In Dahab, the orchids were found growing among native grasses in a wet area.
Like all orchids, this helleborine is dependent on a mycorrhizal symbiosis, a mutually beneficial relationship between a plant and a fungus, to complete its life cycle. The plant’s fruit capsule is full of microscopic seeds (in some species, over a million), but these seeds all lack endosperm. Endosperm is the tissue usually found inside seeds that provides nutrition to the plant as it sprouts. Because an orchid’s seeds don’t have this inborn nutrition, they rely on fungi to provide them with the nutrients they need to germinate. The chance of germination is so small that only a minute fraction of the released seeds grow into adult plants.
But before a plant can even produce any of these seeds, it must first be pollinated. And to help ensure that, the Scarce Marsh Helleborine employs a trick, a special mimicry, to lure pollinating hoverflies to its flowers. The flowers emit three chemical substances that are usually released as alarm pheromones among aphids. Aphids are the preferred diet of hoverfly larvae. So female hoverflies smell these chemicals, interpret this to mean that aphids are nearby, and proceed to lay their eggs near the source of the scent – the flowers. The hoverflies are rewarded with a small sip of nectar, but their larvae are doomed to starve because, when they hatch, there will be no aphids around to consume. (This is a strange contradiction from an evolutionary perspective because since the larvae die, the number of potential pollinators decreases.) The orchids are mimicking the aphids, taking advantage of the female hoverflies and deceiving them into pollinating the flowers.
As you can see, these rare orchid blooms are not only beautiful but also full of amazing natural wonder!
I’ve had many requests over the last couple of years for print copies of the guidebook. I decided that if I was going to print more, the book should be the best, most up-to-date version possible. So that’s what I’ve been working on, updating the book. It’s been four years since the printing of the second edition, and eight years since the first. I continue to discover and learn about the desert plants and so, to this third edition of the book, I have added 13 new plants (for a total of 155) and 90 new or additional photographs for the plants previously included.
And now I finally have a limited number of print copies available of the third edition of Wandering through Wadis: A nature-lover’s guide to the flora of South Sinai!!
You can download a sample of the book as a PDF file for free here . This requires an email address. If you’d rather not enter an address, click the ‘Preview’ button on the top of this page to view the file online.
Print copies cost LE 400, including free delivery in Dahab. Shipping is possible within Egypt. Send me a message to arrange purchase and delivery of your copy.
The eBook version has also been updated and can be purchased online for $8 here. Contact me if you would like to arrange alternative payment and delivery options. Enter code WADIBLOG for a 10% discount.
Many people are surprised to learn that lavender grows in the desert wadis of South Sinai.
Stagshorn Lavender (Lavandula coronopifolia) is one of 47 lavender species in the Lavandula genus and one of two that are native to Sinai. While not as fragrant as its cousins, the leaves of Stagshorn Lavender do have a pleasant scent and are edible, grazed by the local herds of goats, sheep, and camels.
And I can attest to their tastiness! When I had a plant growing in my desert garden, we often added the leaves to our salads.
It is in fact their distinctively branched stems that gave this species its common name – stagshorn. In Arabic, this plant is known as zeiti, diktae, or netash.
Stagshorn Lavender is a small shrub in the mint family and can grow up to one meter in height. Lavandula coronopifolia grows in open rocky habitats, desert plains, and foothills and is the most widespread species of lavender across northern Africa.
The flowers are sky blue to lilac in color and bloom between January and April.
Which means you can seem them in bloom right now! When I was wandering through wadis last weekend, the lavender plants were one of the few plants with flowers. There would be more if the area had received more rain this season, so my fingers are crossed that the small chance of rain forecast for tomorrow comes through!
The Dead Sea Apple Tree (Calotropis procera) is one you are more likely to see growing in the coastal plains of South Sinai rather than the mountain wadis. They are easy to spot along the main roads and even in the main cities of Dahab and Nuweiba.
Called ‘ushaar ( العشار ) in Arabic, this is a small tree in the dogbane family. It can grow up to four meters in height and the bark is light brown and cracked.
The leaves are large and grayish-green in color and are a popular meal for the larvae, or caterpillars, of the African Monarch Butterfly (Danaus chrysippus).
The small flowers, which grow in clusters, are some of my favorite – small and white with purple tips. They bloom from May to November and are pollinated by Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa sp).
The fruits are large, bright green and inflated like a balloon.
The fruits were traditionally used by the Bedouin of South Sinai as floats for fishing nets and the fibers used to make skull caps as well as stuffing for cushions.
When they are fully ripe, the fruit bursts open, releasing hundreds of seeds with fine, long, white hairs. It is common to see the seeds floating through the air in springtime.
So common in fact, they starred in one my children’s books, The Flying Seed, which you can read and download for free at my Books by Habiba blog where you can find a few other nature-related titles.
Although beautiful, this plant leaks a milky acrid sap when broken that can cause possible irritation to the skin and, I’ve heard, vision impairment.
Calotropis procera is also known as Sodom Apple, Sodom’s Milkweed, Rooster Tree, and Rubber Bush and is one of many plants mentioned in the Bible and Quran.
While you’re more likely to come across an Egyptian Flower Mantis in the wadis of South Sinai, Giant African Mantises are more often spotted in cultivated gardens.
Also called African Mantis or Bush Mantis, this species (Sphodromantis viridis) is a popular pet around the world. They are native to West Africa, south of the Sahara, so are an introduced species here in Sinai.
I am always so excited to find them in my desert garden. And while I don’t keep them as pets, I have been known to hand-feed them flies that I have swatted inside my house.
Like all mantises, they have a triangular head and forward facing eyes that give them binocular vision, a great advantage in catching prey. Their color can range from bright green to dull brown and are often cryptically-colored to match the background of their habitat. Females can grow up to 10 cm in length and males are always smaller. As adults, both have distinctive white spots on their wings, which you can see in the photo below if you look closely.
Males will frequently become victims of sexual cannibalism, being eaten by the females prior to, during, or after copulation. A few days after mating, the female will produce one – or several – ootheca, or egg mass.
The eggs are laid on a twig in a frothy, foam-like substance that then hardens. After three to six months, up to 300 nymphs can hatch from a single ootheca.
Mantises develop by gradual metamorphosis, molting six to nine times or more. Each time they molt, their hard exoskeleton splits and a soft-skinned mantis pushes itself out. This allow for a larger exoskeleton to grow. As they wait for their new skin to harden, they hang upside down and are quite vulnerable to predators, particularly birds. The time range between molts is usually nine to fifteen days and the mantises will eventually become adults and develop wings.
Besides lacking wings, the abdomens of nymphs are folded, but they are still skillful ambush predators, waiting quietly for prey to approach.
They are general predators, eating all types of arthropods – mosquitoes and gnats when the mantises are small and moving on to larger critters like bees, moths, grasshoppers, and crickets as they grow. They will even eat other mantises.
They have grasping front legs to catch and hold their prey and extremely strong mouth parts.
An interesting side note: praying mantises may have had religious significance in Ancient Egypt. It might have been believed that the mantises served as guides to the deceased on their journey to the afterlife. And in one excavation in Luxor, a small clay coffin was found that held the remains of a praying mantis wrapped in linen.
A common critter to come across in the wadis, the Sinai Agama (Pseudotrapelus sinaitus) is known in Arabic as qadi sina’, or the “judge of Sinai”, due to a stance they take – raising themselves high up on their limbs and tilting their head.
Males take this stance when they sit in prominent look-out locations, defending their territory. Sinai Agamas also raise themselves up to avoid the extreme heat of the rocks. Notice that the toes are also not in full contact with the hot ground.
Sinai Agamas have triangular-shaped heads with large ear openings in line with the mouth. They are slender lizards, their body up to 10 cm in length, with long, thin limbs. Characteristic of this species, their third hind toe is longer than the fourth.
Their color varies greatly between the sexes and depending on the breeding season, during which time the head, throat, and neck of the males become a bright blue and females display several red-brick bands on their backs.
Sinai Agamas live in dry, rocky mountainous and hilly areas. They are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, and active in the hottest part of the day. You can often find them basking in the sun atop boulders, cliffs, and piles of stones. If you’re quiet and don’t make any sudden movements, I’ve found the agamas will stay put and let you admire them for a few minutes (which is one reason I have so many photos of these adorable lizards).
Maybe it’s because I spot them in cooler weather, when their metabolism is lower. Typically, apparently, when alarmed, the Sinai Agama will quickly run off. Unless the outside temperature is lower and they are incapable of sudden bursts of speed. Then their instinct it to stand their ground and attack their aggressors.
I came across a Sinai Agama in Wadi Beida once. He was a couple of meters ahead of me when I spotted him and stopped to take a photograph. He had noticed my presence and as I photographed him, his head turned more and more blue. He then turned and ran full speed at my feet, as if he was going to attack me. I didn’t move. Neither did he. After a moment or so, he turned around, headed back to the boulder he had come from, and went back to munching on ants as I continued to photograph him. It seemed he had accepted I was no threat to him and could carry on as usual.
Sinai Agamas feed on insects, mainly ants, and other arthropods, as well as plants. They are “sit-and-wait foragers” and agile climbers, darting off quickly to chase after insects when they spot them nearby.
Sinai Agamas are one of my favorite critters to encounter while wandering through wadis! What are yours?
Aly, D. & Khalil, R. (2011). Wildlife in South Sinai. Cairo.Funded by the E.U. in cooperation with G.O.S.S.
Baha El-Din, Sherif. (2006). A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.
Samwa (Cleome droserifolia) is one of the most popular medicinal herbs in Egypt and a common one to come across in the wadis of South Sinai, including around Dahab. It also has one of the most beautiful blooms.
Samwa is an aromatic shrub covered in glandular hairs that give off a distinct scent, one that can sometimes greet you several meters from the plant. I find its sharp fragrance quite pleasant, but not everyone agrees with me.
Samwa grows in rocky, gravelly, and sandy desert wadis and plains. Older bushes are round and can grow quite large, up to 60 cm high.
Bedouin of South Sinai use samwa medicinally to treat a variety of ailments in both people and animals, including bee stings, internal and external infections, and diabetes.
When you stop to have a closer look at samwa bushes, you’re likely to encounter Green Lynx Spiders.
You can learn about samwa and more than one hundred other plants growing in South Sinai in my book Wandering through Wadis. Check it out.
Crab spiders are abundant in my desert garden at home and can also be spotted out in the wadis. Belonging to the Thomisidae family of spiders, they earned their common name from the way they extend their front pairs of legs in a crab-like fashion.
Flower crab spiders belong to the genus Thomisus and there are about 150 species worldwide. They earned their name from the fact that they are ambush predators, sitting and waiting motionlessly in or nearby flowers for prey to approach. Today, I will introduce you to the Flower Crab Spider Thomisus citrinellus.
Like all crab spiders, the males are much smaller and differently-colored than the females. Female spiders can vary in color – I’ve seen both yellow and white – and the color may depend or change according to the surrounding vegetation. They range from 5 – 7.3 mm in size, whereas males grow from 2.1 – 2.6 mm long. Females usually have dark spots on the points of their abdomens. The first two pairs of legs are longer and thicker and have spines. On the first pair of legs, there are four distinctive dark bristles, often seen as dots in the field. These dark bristles distinguish this from other similar Thomisus species.
Flower Crab Spiders prey on a variety of insects – flies, hoverflies, bees, and sometimes other spiders.
Flower Crab Spiders do not build webs, but they will spin silk thread to use as a drop line or to fold leaves into a tent-like structure where they can hide in ambush. Eggs are also laid in a silk dish covered with a lid.
In all my time in the deserts and wadis of South Sinai, I have encountered scorpions only twice. And that’s okay with me. They kind of creep me out, just like their arachnid cousins, spiders, used to. But I’ve learned to love spiders and so maybe one day I’ll feel differently about scorpions too. Indeed, I was simultaneously freaked out and fascinated when we encountered this Common Black Scorpion (Nebo hierichonticus) in a wadi last spring.
Common Black Scorpions can grow up to 11 cm in length, not including the tail. Their color ranges from light or reddish brown to dark brown with their legs and large pincers being slightly lighter in color.
I was relieved, once I was able to identify this scorpion, to learn that while their venom is quite toxic, causing hemorrhage and necrosis to small prey, their stings are generally harmless to humans, being compared to the sting of a honeybee. The scorpions prey mainly on big insects and spiders and sometimes on small vertebrates like geckos.
Common Black Scorpions live in and under big stones and rocks or in cracks and burrows in deserts and arid mountainous regions.
Sinai is home to a variety of scorpion species, including two of the most dangerous in the world – the Arabian Fat-tailed Scorpion (Androctonus crassicauda) and the Death Stalker (Leiurus quinquestriatus). You can also find Egyptian Pillar-tailed Scorpions, Egyptian Sand Scorpions, and Large-clawed Scorpions in Sinai, although this list is not exhaustive.
The Bedouin of South Sinai “have devised their own version of a primitive vaccine that is believed to provide their children with immunity against venomous stings of scorpions and wasps.” The process of immunization differs among tribes, but for the Jebaliya tribe, it involves collecting, roasting, and grinding a spider wasp and a young Death Stalker scorpion along with a bit of sugar. To this powder, spit from someone believed capable of passing on their immunity is added. This mixture is then given to a child sometime before they eat their first solid food.*
*Aly, D. & Khalil, R. (2011). Wildlife in South Sinai. Cairo.Funded by the E.U. in cooperation with G.O.S.S.