Here is a short story from Chris Dickey who recently just completed a tour in Afghanistan. He talks about his experiences of birding while serving in a conflict zone. I can certainly identify with some of the reactions he gets from his colleagues. In my case they all took the p@%s before we deployed however as I predicted they all pretty much ended up taking an interest in the birds around us, funny that.
BIRDING THROUGH SUSAT
Gunner Chris Dickey
On the 25th September 2008, I left the Royal Citadel Plymouth under the cover of darkness to begin my six month deployment in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Being a member of a six man FST (Fire Support Team) of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery and being the lowest rank, I went armed with my minimi machine gun with SUSAT weapon sight, 4,000 rounds of link, a lot of water bottles, my digital camera, ’Birds of the Middle East’ and everyone’s spare kit.
My team (C/S Opal 58) was flown out to Musa Qaleh, a large trading town found on the river confluence of the Musa Qaleh and Bagni wadis. Our task was to support the light infantry on all of their patrols; D Coy 5 Scots. Having been briefed by some of the Army Ornithological Society (AOS) members before departure, I embarked on what would be the most primitive and extreme form of birding; birding ‘on the hoof’ around the FLET (Forward Line of Enemy Troops).
My first operation with 5 Scots taking on a Taliban stronghold; ‘Kats‘, saw a number of first’s for me. After being dropped off by Mastiff APV, we then fought for ten straight hours in the blistering heat in confined, house to house fighting. Apart from firing my weapon in anger for the first time, being shot at and blown up by RPGs and seeing my first dead Taliban, I came across a new bird. Unfortunately, the Hoopoe that I spotted flying to the ground from the tree came in a lull of the battle. Being shocked by the proximity of the bird (a few feet away), I let out a ‘Oh my God’, which unfortunately, everyone else mistook as meaning we were about to be out flanked on my side, thus causing a huge uproar!
5 Scots soon ended their tour and my team were integrated with B Coy 2 RGR. The Musa Qaleh wadi is a 300m wide river bed with a braided river running north/south. The wadi acts as a natural path for migratory birds, which did not disappoint. Within Musa Qaleh, Myhnas, Sparrows, Kestrel and Magpie were common place. However, with the winter migration beginning in October, morning sangar duty took on a new light for me. Barn Swallow, Black Headed and Little Gull were a few of the species heading south, while Raven, Saker Falcon, Egrets and Heron were all over-wintering with us. It was during my two hour sanger duties that I was able to have both my binos and spotters’ guide out and primed for action. Whilst on patrol, when I did not know the species I was looking at, I took to either drawing or jotting down distinctive details, which I could then use once back in the FOB (Forward Operating Base) with my guide to hand.
It was at the beginning of November, that I was given my R+R. When I returned, my team was split into pairs and I given the job of joining the 1 Rifles OMLT (Operational Mentor and Liaison Team), who were responsible for training two companies of ANA (Afghan National Army). The job meant moving to a new camp, in the desert region north east of Musa Qaleh. From there, I patrolled every day with the OMLT, usually heading north to the FLET, to see if we could upset someone’s day. It was during this time that I was able to see some more species including Hobby, Chukar, Rock Dove and Long Legged Buzzard.
Our role generally involved interacting with the local inhabitants to gain information but also involved some major operations including some quite bizarre ones, for example; looking for a Russian legacy minefield through the use of advancing whilst in extended line. Being higher up in the desert overlooking the villages, my 10x42 binos came into their own, not only to spot weaponry under Taliban clothing but also to spot the smaller species of birds like the Masked Wagtail and Chaffinch. A memorable incident was when we were trying to find a sniper who had hidden his weapon under his shirt and tried to escape. Whilst looking through the binos for the culprit, a bird flew across my sight and landed in the desert. Being a blip in the desert I was impressed that I found the bird so I said ’aaha’. Unfortunately everyone thought I’d found the shooter and weren’t impressed when I could show them the whereabouts of a Hobby instead.
The winter period lasted from November through to late January during which time frosts were common and heavy rain turned every road, track and path into a thick soup. The desert at this time greened up with grass sprouting out through the soil crust and flowers showing their faces amongst the rocks.
With only a month and a half left of the tour, I moved back into the Green Zone to Patrol Base (PB) Woqab with the Gurkhas. From this small base I continued my patrols around the local area, which included the wheat fields and the Hasi Rashid gardens. By now I had written blogs on the AOS website about species I had positively identified and also given descriptions of ones I couldn’t. Working in the Green Zone around March meant that I saw a few more species including the migratory ones. These included Blackbirds, Mistle Thrush, Eversmann’s Redstart, Common Swift, Barn Swallow, Great White Egret, Kestrel and Saker Falcon. During my time at Woqab, I was involved in some more operations and numerous re-supplies to the wadi. It was during these times, covering the wadi to the north whilst lying in the river bed, that I saw Common Kingfisher and Black Kite, both fishing.
My final operation in Musa Qaleh was to deny the Hasi Rashid Gardens to the Taliban. The gardens were pomegranate orchards with some tall evergreen trees in the middle. Unfortunately the operation turned into a cordon-op after we found six 105mm HE shells wired together in a ‘daisy chain’ bomb. Whilst baking in the sun on the roof of a house covering the north east, two Ring-necked Parakeets flew into the trees, obviously inhabitants of the gardens. Under Taliban rule it was forbidden to keep parrots so could they have been captive birds set free? The cordon-op did however allow me to find the whereabouts and establish the exact numbers in a heronry. Although the explosive shells had been detached, the detonators with some of the explosives needed to be destroyed. As it was dusk when they blew up, I was able to count every heron that took off at Mach 3 when the explosive went off at the base of their trees. I counted fourteen. If that’s not an efficient way of counting heronry numbers, I don’t know what is?!
Once off the ground and back in Bastion where the coffee is strong, the showers are hot and the food is edible, I was able to go for morning runs again. During these periods of cool and general quiet (unless the US marines were scaring off everything with their squads jogging and chanting) I came across Blue-cheeked Bee Eater, Crested Lark and Verreaux’s Eagle.
Although using a SUSAT is a crude form of birding, my experiences of ornithology in Afghanistan have been immensely enjoyable with many memorable encounters, which have helped improve my identification and knowledge of birds in their habitats. I can also safely state that Afghan birding is not for the faint-hearted and will probably be the most extreme form of birding that I will ever do. CAOS trip anyone?!