Butterflies in Sinai

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!

Butterflies in Sinai

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)

Mantises in Sinai

Mantids in Sinai

Top Left: Giant African Mantis (Sphodromantis viridis)
Top Right: Desert Mantis (Eremiaphilidae sp)
Bottom Left: Cone-headed Mantis (Empusidae family)
Bottom Right: Egyptian Flower Mantis (Blepharopsis mendica)

The bottom two are in their nymph stage.

You can learn more about the Egyptian Flower Mantis in this post.

Foraging with Friends

A memory popped up on my Facebook page today and it’s one of my favorites, so I thought I’d share it here. This post was originally published on May 6, 2014 on Bedouin History Desert Safari’s blog.


It’s spring – my favorite time of year in Sinai! Especially after a particularly wet winter since that means our desert plants are thriving and the goats and sheep have plenty to graze. Recently, we met Freyj, one of Bedouin History’s drivers and guides, at his daughter’s springtime camp in the desert. We were welcomed with smiles and a light lunch of fresh bread and goat milk. It didn’t take long for the children to wander over to see their grandfather and his foreign friends. Freyj knows well my passion for plants and photography and knew I would be eager to explore the surrounding desert. Recalling our failed attempts last year to locate one of the edible plants, Zeinab, one of Freyj’s young granddaughters, eagerly offered to get her digging tools and lead our exploration. So we set off with Zeinab, Farah, Mohamed, and Omar to forage for tummayr (تِمِّير), the Bedouin name for Erodium crassifolium.

Zeinab with her digging tool.
Zeinab with her digging tool.

Known in English as Desert Storks-bill or Hoary-leaved Heron’s-bill, this plant has an edible tuber that grows deep in the ground. But there are eight different Erodium species growing in Sinai so finding the right one involves a knowledge of what tummayr leaves look like and where they grow. All Erodiums have fruit that look like long bird beaks, hence their common English name, but each species has distinct leaves. 

Erodium fruit
Erodium fruit

Zeinab and the other children are a wealth of information about the local plants, especially the edible ones, as foraging for these are a favorite past time of the Bedouin children who live in the desert for a few months of the year.

Erodium crassifolium, (tummayr)
Erodium crassifolium, (tummayr)

I followed Zeinab through the wadi, trying to keep up with her quick steps and even quicker digging abilities. I try to figure out which Storks-bills are the ones we are looking for and was cheered on by Zeinab when I correctly point out a large tummayr plant. 

Zeinab digging for tubers.
Zeinab digging for tubers.

Zeinab dug quickly, scanning the area to check on the progress of the boys, who are leading their own expedition with my husband. It seems that this had turned into a contest to see which “team” could find the most. But we are all successful and end up with handfuls of edible tubers! The children remove the skins with their fingernails and hand them to us to eat. The small potato-like tubers are sweet and crunchy. 

Foraging with friends
Foraging with friends

Along the way, the children have also spotted sweet desert onions. They are so quick to dig these up that I never see what the plant looks like when it is still rooted in the earth. The onions, possibly an Allium species, are sweeter and juicier than the tummayr. And easier to reach as they are not buried so deep in the rocky ground.

Handful of collected onions and tubers.
Handful of collected onions and tubers.

We returned to camp to share our foraged goodies with the other adults at camp, but they showed little interest in eating our treats. It seems foraging with friends is a childhood habit, something to entertain them during the long days in the desert. How lucky I am to have such amazing young friends!

Flowers of Erodium crassifolium.
Flowers of Erodium crassifolium.

Striped Hawkmoth

I promised – to those of you follow on Facebook – that my next post would be about this magnificent critter that I found on a basil plant in my garden –

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– as he was indeed the inspiration for getting back to work on this blog, and so today is all about…hawkmoths!

Unfortunately, I do not know – yet! – exactly who this bright green caterpillar is, but I do know that he (or she) is in the Sphingidae family of moths. Moths in this family are commonly called hawkmoths, sphinx moths, or hornworms.

There are over 1,450 species of Sphingidae moths. The larvae, or caterpillars, of hawkmoths are hairless and have a “horn” on the posterior end.

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Striped Hawkmoth (Hyles livornica)

And while I do not know which caterpillar was munching on my basil plant, I do know who was bending over backwards to eat the tips of desert lavender. That is a larva of the Striped Hawkmoth, Hyles livornica.

It was early spring 2013 and we had had a wet winter in Dahab. There had even been a hail storm in November. So the desert plants were flourishing in the wadis!

On one early morning wander, we came across an area lush with fresh green asphodel, lavender, and sorrel. And crawling across the sandy wadi were the most amazing caterpillars I had seen in Sinai! Dozens of them. Some of the largest were as long and thick as my index finger. They were happily munching on all the nearby herbs.

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Like all caterpillars, these Striped Hawkmoth larvae go through several stages of development, or instars, and their colors and patterns can change quite dramatically at each stage.

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Hawkmoth caterpillars will burrow into the soil or gravel or hide among the rocks to pupate and I have never seen that stage of development. But about a month after we saw the caterpillars, we discovered the adult Striped Hawkmoths. They were busy feeding on the dhafrah (Iphiona scabra) flowers.

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Sphingidae moths are known for their rapid flight and ability to hover in midair while they feed. They use their long proboscis (mouth parts) to reach the nectar in the flowers. Male moths are typically smaller than females. Both are beige with white stripes. Their hindwings, not seen when the wings are at rest, are pink and edged with black and white.

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a Striped Hawkmoth, attracted to the light in the tent during a spring safari

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Dahab was blessed recently with several good rainstorms and young desert plants are already poking their heads through the sand. Let’s hope the plants start to thrive again and that we have beautiful green wadis to wander through this coming spring. The butterflies and moths would be happy with that, too!

References:

Striped hawkmoth ~ ARKive

Hyles livornica ~ Moth and Butterflies of Europe and North Africa

Hyles livornica ~ Wikipedia

Egyptian Red Fox

The Egyptian Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes aegyptiacus) is the largest fox in Egypt and one of three species of fox occurring in Sinai. I’ve never spotted a fox while wandering through wadis, but over the years I’ve spotted several from moving vehicles. Always magical to see! But difficult to capture with a camera. (Especially if you’re the one driving.) One night, though, we were treated to a visit by a fox – a fox intent on stealing some fish!

Egyptian Red Fox (2)

We had driven up one of the wadis behind Dahab with Eid, a Bedouin friend, who had promised to make us a traditional meal cooked over a campfire. (You can read more about the watermelon fettah here. It was delicious!) As the men were preparing the food, this fox came inching closer and closer, drawn by the scent of fish. Eid put the fish on a small raised platform to keep it away from the fox but that didn’t deter it.

Egyptian Red Fox (1)

The fox also didn’t seem bothered by the flash from my camera. He was persistent, but the fox never did get the fish and was eventually shooed away by Eid’s young son.

Egyptian Red Fox (4)

The Egyptian Red Fox lives elsewhere in Egypt and only relatively recently did they expand into South Sinai, most likely related to the increasing spread of human activity. These foxes are not foxes of true deserts. They inhabit vegetated wadis, farmland, gardens, and desert margins. We spotted this Red Fox several years ago, when tourism in Dahab was booming and this wadi was a popular destination for tourists to enjoy a desert dinner. Our Bedouin friend said this helped explain why the fox was around, feeding on leftovers, and not so scared of humans.

The foxes are nocturnal and eat insects, small rodents, fish, fruit, and vegetables. In Ras Mohamed, they are known to dig for crabs.

Although they are commonly called Red Foxes, this subspecies is not red, but more of a ruddy grey-brown. They have large ears and the hair on the back of the ears is black. Their tails are bushy and white-tipped and they have a darker-colored streak that runs from their muzzle to their eyes. Facial markings are a distinguishing feature among foxes and so can help identify the species. I am no expert, of course, and at first had thought this was a Rüppell’s Sand Fox, another species found in Sinai, but I have learned that the Sand Foxes have very distinctive black marks under their eyes. Tail color and proportion is another distinguishing feature; the Blanford’s Fox, also found here, has the longest tail of Egyptian foxes and it’s dark-tipped.

If you’re like me, though, you’ll be delighted to spot a fox in South Sinai, no matter what the species!

References:

Hoath, Richard. (2003). A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.