Butterflies! I love them. I am enthralled by their process of metamorphosis. Over the years, I have raised dozens of them indoors and watched them grow and change from tiny caterpillars to delicate chrysalises to beautiful butterflies. Often I share this experience with my students, who are as fascinated as I am, learning along with them.
I am able to identify most of the butterflies I spot thanks to the book Butterflies of Egypt: Atlas, Red Data listing & Conservation by Francis Gilbert and Samy Zalat. You can download the book for free here. Many thanks to the authors for sharing this amazing resource!
In the photo collection above, you can see:
Large Salmon Arab (Colotis fausta) Grass Jewel (Chilades trochylus) Small White (Pieris rapae) African Babul Blue (Azanus jesous) Saharan Swallowtail (Papilio saharae) Dark Grass Blue (Zizeeria karsandra) Desert White (Pontia glauconome) African Caper White (Belenois aurota) African Monarch (Danaus chrysippus) Pomegranate Playboy (Deudorix livia) Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) Long-tailed Blue (Lampides boeticus) Scarce Green-striped White (Euchloe falloui) Mediterranean Tiger Blue (Tarucus rosaceus)
It wasn’t until I turned my camera lens from the desert blooms to the creepy crawlies that I got over my fear of spiders. Mostly. Big, hairy ones still freak me out. But the little ones I find around the local wadis and my own desert garden have grown on me and I think they are quite stunning! Luckily, none of these commonly seen spiders are venomous, but there are dangerous spiders in Sinai, like the rare White Widow Spider. Camel Spiders are not spiders nor scorpions, but rather in their own order of Arachnids.
Flies can be pesky for sure, but when you take a closer look, many of them are quite beautiful! Flies are in the order Diptera, which includes not only those pesky house flies but horse-flies, crane flies, fruit flies, hoverflies, midges, and mosquitoes.
In this sampling of flies in Sinai, you see:
Top Left: Band-eyed Hoverfly (Eristalinus taeniops)
Bottom Left: Common Green Bottle Fly (Lucilia sericata)
Top Right: Hoverfly (Eupeodes corollae)
The other two images are unidentified fruit flies (Drosophilidae family).
A couple of months ago, my external hard drive malfunctioned and I lost thousands of my photos – mostly my pics of Sinai wildlife. Fortunately, my talented husband was able to recover a good chunk of the images. Recently, instead of wandering through wadis shooting new photos, I’ve been sorting and renaming all the recovered images. It’s a bit tedious and overwhelming, so I took breaks to put together different collections, like this one – Dragonflies in Sinai. I’ll be sharing some more of these over the next few weeks so stay tuned. 🙂
Top Left and Bottom Right: Violet Dropwing (Trithemis annulata)
Middle Left: Desert Skimmer (Orthetrum ransonneti)
Bottom Left: Slim Scarlet-Darter (Crocothemis sanguinolenta)
Top Right: Unknown
These little lizards have been showing their faces around my house and garden lately, so I’d thought we’d take a break from the buzzers and introduce the Egyptian Fan-toed Gecko!
Also known as the Common Fan-footed Gecko, Ptyodactylus hasselquistii is reported to be “the most abundant of all lizards inhabiting the lowland wadis of South Sinai.” You’ve probably seen them around. They are easily recognized by their flared or fan-shaped toes.
The gecko pictured above was hanging out on my ceiling several weeks ago. Fan-toed Geckos are excellent climbers and can run easily across boulders, vertical rock walls, and cave roofs, as well as under ledges and overhangs. The geckos are able to do this thanks to thousands of microscopic toe scales – hooked, hair-like projections that allow the lizards to grip almost any surface.
Called burs abu kaf in Arabic, these medium-sized geckos have flat, narrow heads, short and slender limbs, and long tails. Their color varies greatly depending on their surroundings, but they typically have dark bands across their back and tails. Fan-toed Geckos are generally nocturnal, coming out at night to forage on insects and arachnids, but they can also be active during the day, especially when the weather is colder and they can be found sunning themselves in a sheltered and safe location.
Most lizards are usually mute, but not these geckos! They will make a chirping or clicking sound – tek, tek, tek – to communicate with other geckos. (In fact, during my afternoon nap today, I’m pretty sure I heard the one that my cat chased into the kitchen a few days ago. Poor thing is probably stressed and wanting to get back outside.)
Another fun fact: Geckos do not have eyelids. Instead their eyes are covered with a membrane that they must lick to clean and keep moist.
Note: There is another species of Fan-toed Gecko in South Sinai – the Spotted Fan-toed Gecko (P. guttatus), which the guidebook says is the species found above 800 meters. There may also be several subspecies of Ptyodactylus hasselquistii, but this is still debated by scientists.
Baha El-Din, Sherif. (2006). A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.
Common fan-footed gecko (Ptyodactylus hasselquistii) on ARKive.org.
If you follow the blog on Facebook, you might recall that a couple of weeks ago I announced the arrival of the bee-eaters, my all-time favorite birds who migrate through Egypt and Sinai in the spring and autumn. After that post, someone asked me what exactly the bee-eaters ate here in Sinai and was surprised to learn about the variety of bees around. I promised I would dedicate my next blog post to one of our local buzzers. So today I am pleased to introduce you to the Large Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa sp.).
I have a Parkinsonia tree in my garden and it is currently bursting with blooms, which these large buzzers just love! They are usually difficult to catch an image of, but the one pictured above sat on my front door absolutely still for quite some time. Not sure why, but I was happy for the opportunity to get some photos.
According to the authors of Gardens of a Sacred Landscape, “Sinai is one of the very few places in the world (and it may be unique) where no social bees of any kind occur naturally, only solitary bees.” Solitary bees, like the Carpenter Bees, do not build hives and do not produce honey, but they are important pollinators.
Carpenter Bees are named for their nesting behavior; they burrow into dead wood or other hard plant material, like the old bamboo chair in my garden.
Large Carpenter Bees are – surprise, surprise – large. They are usually 2 cm or longer, whereas Small Carpenter Bees (Ceratina sp.) are often less than .80 cm. Although there is variation between species – and I can find no definitive list on the specific ones found in Sinai – most Carpenter Bees are primarily black, some with white or yellow fuzz. The ones spotted in my garden are quite yellow, but others I’ve seen in the wadis have paler fuzz.
Their wings produce a loud buzzing sound when they fly and these bees are often confused with bumblebees. To tell the difference, look at the abdomen. Carpenter Bees always have a shiny abdomen while a bumblebee’s will be covered in hair.
Carpenter Bees are indeed part of a bee-eater’s diet. Shrikes will also feed on these large bees. Both birds have ways to deal with the female bee’s stinger. (Males do not have stingers.) Luckily for us humans, the bees are quite docile and rarely sting unless they are directly provoked.
I’ll feature some of Sinai’s other buzzers over the next couple of weeks, as I continue with my attempt (in vain?) to catch some photos of the fabulous bee-eaters. I can hear them calling right now!
Ladybird Beetles, or Ladybugs as I grew up calling them in North America, are quite well-known beetles, but some people may be surprised to learn that you’ll find these colorful beetles in the deserts of Sinai.
Ladybirds are red, yellow, or orange colored beetles with small black spots on their wing covers. They have small dome-shaped bodies and six short legs. Contrary to popular belief, the number of spots do not indicate age but rather a specific species. Both of the beetles pictured above are Seven-spotted Ladybird Beetles (Coccinella septempunctata), one of the most common.
I have also seen Eleven-Spotted Ladybirds (Coccinella undecimpunctata), pictured below, on caper plants in the wadis around Dahab.
Both the larvae and adults feed on aphids, small insects that suck the sap from plants. Ladybirds are therefore quite useful in helping to fight these pests in gardens, especially the ones in the mountains around St. Katherine’s, but also in my own desert garden. 🙂
When threatened, adult ladybirds release a yellow substance from a joint on their leg that is distasteful to predators and convinces them to find their next meal somewhere else.
The Bedouin in Sinai call Ladybird Beetles ‘uwaynat umm sulayman, or “the eyes of Solomon’s mother”.
In traditional folklore in some cultures, Ladybird Beetles are thought to bring good luck. Have ladybirds brought you any luck in the Sinai?
Zalat, S., & Gilbert, F. (2008). Gardens of a Sacred Landscape: Bedouin Heritage and Natural History in the High Mountains of Sinai. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.
Seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata) on ARKive.org
Fringe-toed Lizards are Egypt’s most prominent reptiles and this species, the Bosc’s Fringe-toed Lizard (Acanthodactylus boskianus), is the most common diurnal reptile in Sinai. Diurnal means “active during the day” and these guys start to venture out of their burrows at mid-morning, on the lookout for insects like flies, beetles, and grasshoppers, or perhaps some spiders, to munch on.
There is a lot of variation when it comes to the number of scales, size, shape of head, pattern, and color of Bosc’s Fringe-toed Lizards. They can range in color from dark or olive grey to reddish brown and their scales are keeled, or ridged. There are five dark-colored stripes on their backs, but these fade with age. Males are generally larger than females and juveniles often have blue tails. During breeding season, the tails of females turn red.
These fringe-toed lizards inhabit deserts and semi-deserts. The lateral fringes on their toes are a special adaptation to help them move across loose sand. When wandering through wadis, you will often see these lizards scuttle ahead of you when they hear you coming, often darting beneath the nearest plant. If you look closely, you can also spot their tracks in the soft sand.
While on safari two years ago, I was packing up my tent one morning and was surprised to turn around and see mating fringe-toed lizards! I took dozens of photos of them and they did not seem to mind my presence. According to ARKive, “During courtship the male approaches the female with a bent neck, and then runs in semi-circles, whilst probing the female’s body with its tongue.” Probing? Looked more like biting to me, but I’m no lizard!
If the female is receptive to these advances, she will lift her tail, allowing the male to make contact.
Although the national bird of Jordan, this finch is named after Egypt’s Sinai and lives in our dry, rocky desert areas. The male Sinai Rosefinch (Carpodacus synoicus) is easily identified by its crimson-pink plumage. Females and juveniles are a greyish brown color.
Sinai Rosefinches eat seeds and are often seen in groups. I spotted this group on top of Jebel Musa.
These finches grow to about 14 – 16 cm and breed in a small area of Sinai, southern Israel, and southern Jordan.
This past weekend we decided to wander along one of our usual routes, and I was treated to an unusual spotting – a sand snake! As we were walking, we passed a large dark boulder where I often spot agama lizards. I was just about to mention this to my friend when I looked down at the rock I was about to step on, suddenly realized that is what not a branch laying across it, and quickly had to swing around to avoid stomping on a snake. Eeek! I’m not completely comfortable with snakes apparently. But he was beautiful! A gorgeous golden-brown color with dark brown patterns. I wish I could share a picture of him, but I guess he was just as scared as me because he slithered away and hid beneath a rock.
We have spotted these sand snakes before, maybe three or four other times, in wadis near Dahab. The first time we saw one, in 2010, it was my husband who almost stepped on the snake. That time though, the snake stayed still long enough for us to take a few photos. And we were able to identify it as a Schokari Sand Racer (Psammophis schokari).
These snakes are long and slender; they can grow to a length of about 1.5 meters. The patterns and colors of Schokari Sand Racers can vary a lot, ranging from a light sandy-gray with pale patterns to strong, dark contrasting colors.
Since my collection of snake photos is limited (and I’m okay with that!), I turned to Flickr for more images of this desert reptile.
Notice the dark stripe that runs from the snout, past the eyes, to the back of the head.
Schokari Sand Racers live in sandy and rocky deserts and prefer places with good vegetation. They are most common in coastal areas. During times of bird migration, these snakes might be found on nearby trees and bushes. Here they wait to feed on the small songbirds that are flying through.
Schokari Sand Racers are found throughout the Sinai peninsula and are actually one of the most common snakes in Egypt.
And there’s a reason they’re called Sand Racers – they can reach speeds up to 16 kph when chasing prey! The snakes typically eat lizards, small birds, rodents, and other snakes. After grabbing their prey, they release a venom that immobilizes the animal before swallowing them head first. Despite being venomous, Schokari Sand Racers are generally not a threat to humans as their main defense is their speed. I’m grateful for that. 🙂
Have you come across snakes during any of your wadi wanders? How did you – or how would you – feel about such an encounter?
Baha El-Din, Sherif. (2006). A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.
Schokari sand racer (Psammophis schokari) on ARKive.org