Hidden in plain sight: birdwatching in Cairo reveals city's hidden beauty

Dr El Kollali's passion for birdwatching is matched by the rapid growth of a local community of birdwatchers made up mostly of nature enthusiasts

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With its incessant traffic, pollution and noise, Cairo would, initially, appear a most unlikely place to enjoy the simple pleasures of birdwatching.

But one keen photographer, a plastic surgeon turned amateur ornithologist, has turned his lens on the Egyptian capital and revealed the intricate lives of its feathered inhabitants.

In the six years since he took up birdwatching, Dr Raeaf El Kollali has discovered the surprising ways in which nature, hidden in plain sight, has adapted to even the most arduous conditions in Cairo.

But it was a chance encounter that sparked years of obsession for the Egyptian surgeon.

“I saw a white-throated kingfisher that stood right in front of me for an hour,” he told The National. “I kept photographing it and wrote a poem themed around the wonder of its seasonal migration, only to find out later that it belonged to a local species.”

Now a committed birdwatcher, Dr El Kollali photographs the birds he sees and posts the images online along with explanatory, often humorous notes, written in English and Arabic.

Dr Raeaf El Kollali, plastic surgeon and birdwatching enthusiast. Photo: Raeaf El Kollali

He continues to write short poems in the vernacular Egyptian Arabic to accompany some of the images.

On the day The National visited Dr El Kollali, he strolled through the leafy Cairo district of Zamalek, his camera dangling on his chest and a small satchel slung over his shoulder.

In a manner much like the famed British naturalist Sir David Attenborough, he would stop speaking suddenly to listen out for the sounds of birds calling and chirping among the trees.

After a few seconds of silence, he would share an educated guess on the bird’s species.

“You must use your ears. You will not be able to properly birdwatch without carefully listening,” he said.

Dr El Kollali, who sports a greying moustache and a full head of silver hair, does not restrict his birdwatching to Cairo. He pursues his hobby also around his holiday home at Al Solaimaniyah Golf City, a walled residential compound 60 kilometres west of Cairo which he says could become a popular spot for birdwatchers.

Other favourite spots in Egypt for birdwatching include the Red Sea coast, the oasis region of Fayoum south-west of Cairo and the southern city of Aswan.

Black Kite. Photo: Raeaf El Kollali

But it is in the capital that he finds birdwatching and taking photos to be more challenging.

Always thrumming with the activity of its 20 million human residents, Cairo is possibly one of the world’s most crowded cities.

But that does not seem to matter much to Dr El Kollali.

“I just block out everything around me.”

For Dr El Kollali, who has always liked being outdoors, the route into birdwatching was perhaps a logical step.

“I have always enjoyed walking and photography. I had a camera since I was a little boy. I also love nature and quiet. Birdwatching gave me all this in one package and it’s spiritually rewarding,” said Dr El Kollali, who has his camera on him virtually every time he leaves his Cairo home.

Birdwatching revival

Now a knowledgeable member of a growing community, the British and French-trained plastic surgeon is revelling in his hobby at a time when more and more Egyptians are beginning to appreciate the country’s natural beauty.

Social media has emerged as an important forum for this new generation of budding Egyptian naturalists.

One birdwatching Facebook page, for example, now has 12,000 followers, when a few years ago it had only 2,000.

There is also an online encyclopaedia with information on indigenous Egyptian birds compiled by Ahmed Riad, a career diplomat widely viewed as one of Egypt’s birdwatching pioneers.

Birdwatching tours are also advertised online, with day trips to spots where migratory birds gather.

Alexandrine parakeet. Photo: Raeaf El Kollali

In some ways, the growth of this community is unsurprising.

Some estimates suggest Egypt is home to as many as 500 species of birds, of which one third is indigenous, while the rest are temporary visitors stopping off on the great migratory routes stretching from Africa to Europe.

The country also has mostly mild weather and a mighty river in the Nile, which travels the entire length of the country from the border with Sudan in the south to the Mediterranean more than a 1,000 kilometres north — providing ample habitat for water birds.

But it is the birdlife of Cairo that has been the most surprising discovery for Dr El Kollali.

The city’s birds seem to be able to make do with whatever the city throws at them.

Dr El Kollali’s accounts of birds’ behavioural patterns in Cairo speak to their ingenious adaptation to life in the big city.

Many, he says, spend hours perched on the jungle of television antennas that sprout from almost every rooftop.

Others build their nests high up in air conditioning vents or in vacant apartments, spending time on the ground only when they descend to feed.

Some birds have adapted to searching for food among the rubbish strewn along the banks of the Nile in the heart of the city.

Egyptian goose. Photo: Raeaf El Kollali

As well as feeding there, he has even spotted some birds building their nests on floating food trays made of white cork.

“It is true that you may spot many floating objects thrown in the Nile but some water birds seem to recycle what they find and make use of it to protect their nests and chicks or simply use them as a ‘boat’ to stand on while catching fish” he said.

Curiously, bird species living in Cairo include kites, kestrels, and Alexandrine and rose-ringed parakeets that have, over the years, escaped captivity and multiplied in the capital, and now jostle for space with the scores of native and migratory birds that also call the city home.

Dr El Kollali’s bird watching also helps him meet fellow bird lovers, although at times that happens under unlikely circumstances.

One story he enthusiastically shares is about a parakeet he recently spotted in Zamalek that had a ring on its foot. After he posted a photo of the bird online, a mutual friend called him to say it was her pet that had escaped a few days earlier.

The distraught owner soon joined Dr El Kollali at the spot where he saw the bird and repeatedly yelled her parakeet’s name. It soon flew over and perched on her shoulder. She fed it, placed it in a cage and took it home, where it lived freely.

The bird, however, had other ideas and escaped again, only to be found and returned home three more times before finally disappearing altogether. Its owner believes it may have chosen to live among the wild birds of Cairo.

Updated: March 22, 2022, 9:00 AM
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