The abundance of life in the Sinai Peninsula may not be immediately apparent. This again has its roots in the way in which the animals of the desert have adapted to life here. Many species, mammals especially, but also reptiles and even birds such as owls, are nocturnal. They spend the daylight hours in the relative cool of burrows, under boulders or in crevices and cracks in the rock. Many of these creatures will only be apparent from their tracks and trails or from a fleeting glimpse of a diminutive gerbil, or zig-zigging hare, in the car headlights at night. Even those animals that do brave the heat of the day are normally only active in the early morning or evening.
With only sparse vegetation in which to hide, many desert species rely on camouflage as protection. Some, like the desert lark or the gerbils, are coloured in browns and beiges and russets to match the landscape. Others, such as Burton's Carpet Viper or the Sinai Leopard are strikingly patterned, but when seen against their natural desert backdrop that pattern breaks up the outline of the animal and it becomes difficult to distinguish. Even such large animals as the Nubian Ibex can be very hard to see against a cliff face as their initial response to a threat is to freeze. Unless they move they are virtually impossible to find. The few desert inhabitants that are boldly marked, generally in black and white ( like the Wheatears ), can be mistaken for a shadow. Very few of the desert animals are brightly coloured, one prominent exception in St Catherine being the bright blue Sinai Agama. In this case the objective is to be seen as the male agama is holding a territory against other males.
Watching for desert wildlife
Although the wildlife is often difficult to find, the observant, patient and lucky visitor can see a fair cross-section of desert fauna. While a pair of binoculars are of a great help they are certainly not essential. Here is a series of guidelines to help you to find some of the mammals, birds and reptiles:
- Concentrate on those areas where you are most likely to encounter wildlife. Some desert species still need to drink so the gardens, orchards and natural springs in the mountains can be especially worthwhile. The hiking trails will take you to many of these areas.
- Get up early. Many animals, even those that are about during the day, like certain reptiles, are most active before the sun gets really hot. Conversely, late afternoon can also be productive as the temperature drops.
- The time of the year is important also. In winter many species are found at lower altitudes than in summer. In spring and autumn you'll have the bonus of seeing the migrating birds passing through the peninsula.
- Look for the movement. As many desert species are very well camouflaged they will be difficult to see in their natural environment. However very often sudden, small, movements will reveal their presence. A gecko may be next to invisible against a boulder face but as soon as it scuttles across to grab some insect prey it will announce itself.
- Don't ignore areas of human activity. Animals make no distinction between natural and man-made environments so neither should we. It is all habitat. The cafeterias around the summit of Mount Sinai for instance are some of the best places to look for the Sinai Rosenfinch and the White-Crowned Black Wheatear, while your hotel room may be host to the fan-footed geckos you might have missed on the trail.
- Drive carefully, especially at night. Whether in the desert or on the main roads, drive slowly since it is at night you stand your best chance of seeing desert mammals such as hares and reptiles, especially snakes.
- Listen. Species that may not be immediately obvious by sight may make themselves known by sound. Against a vast cliff face, the 25 cm long Tristram's Grackle is not going to stand out. But listen for its weird but unmistakable call and it will soon become apparent. The nocturnal Hume's Tawny Owl is extremely difficult to see, but listen out at night in the mountains for its highly distinctive call. It's not just the birds. The foxes have a wide vocabulary and even geckos chatter!...