The Birdwatcher of Baghdad Dodging Bullets for the Sociable Lapwing

Being a birdwatcher in Iraq is a dangerous business. But ornithologist Omar Fadhil is passionate about it nonetheless. One recent venture involved a convoy of nine Humvees and a run-in with a Blackhawk helicopter. It turns out he wasn't the one doing the watching.

The sociable lapwing (Vanellus gregarius) is the kind of bird that spends its winters in areas that are politically hot. In fact, this could be one of the reasons why this avian species is on the "critically endangered" list.

Any civilian air traffic controller would think twice about recommending this flight path Kazakhstan-Iran-Iraq-Eritrea-Sudan to pilots. Yet this is exactly the route that the lapwing takes year after year. The feathered traveler often takes a rest stop in the Sunni triangle, an area once infamous for being a hotbed of Iraqi resistance, a staging area of al-Qaida operations.

Omar Fadhil considers the bird's behavior completely legitimate. "You don't change your behavior just because there is a war going on somewhere," he says. "On the contrary. It is best to simply ignore the war."

Last Birdwatcher in Baghdad

Omar Fadhil calls himself a birdwatcher. There aren't many in Baghdad. "Actually I am the only one," he notes.

He concedes that he may well belong to an endangered species too. "I survived the bombs in Baghdad and the horror of the militias because every day I did the obvious: Get up, go to work, hope to come home again. You have to keep to your routine," he says, referring to his own flight path. Just like the lapwing.

Fadhil is a slight, well groomed 32-year-old with a slight overbite who lives, together with his small family, in the Saidiya area in southern Baghdad. He is a qualified ornithologist and lives from his work as a lecturer at the University of Baghdad. He is also an associate member of the Darwin Society. In his free time he breeds doves and photographs birds. He is also a trained taxidermist -- "more as a hobby than anything else," he says. He works on small animals, which stand in display cases in his living room. He is also a gifted artist and is working on his first bird identification guide, "Mesopotamian Birds of Prey," which will feature hundreds of pictures he has drawn himself.

Fadhil has undertaken avian research in every part of Iraq. He has been in the southern marshes and in Kurdistan, at the border by Iran and in the Sunni triangle where al-Qaida elements hide. He knows an Iraq different from that found on military maps.

Before every excursion he must negotiate with the local police and military commanders and, if needed, ask for an escort. He has only been shot at one single time, Fadhil says. And that was a misunderstanding.

Looking for the Lapwing

While humans shoot at one another, he observes Egyptian vulture couples, steppe buzzards, the Syrian woodpecker and the spectacled warbler. As a result Fadhil and his group "Nature Iraq" have been able to register six new species as domestic with international birdwatching groups.

Only the sociable lapwing was missing.

In March an expedition led him to Lake Tharthar near the city of Ramadi in central Iraq. "I knew from ornithologists in Kazakhstan that there was a flock en route to Tikrit," Fadhil says. "One animal had been tagged with a transmitter and we were tipped off that the flock would land at Lake Tharthar."

At the lake there is a summer palace once belonging to Saddam Hussein -- the dictator was at home here. Al-Qaida still is.

Fadhil had to explain to the district commanders how important the sociable lapwing was to the Iraqi nation. "I told him that a country could only be united and strong if it knows its domestic birds," he said.

That made sense to the general. He gave Fadhil a fleet of nine, armored Humvees complete with armed bodyguards. The birdwatching expedition suddenly resembled a commando mission. Shortly before they reached Tikrit, two American Blackhawk helicopters set course for the group. "We waved at them," Fadhil says, "and they must have understood that we were harmless, and turned away."

'They Said I Was Crazy'

The farmers in the villages were likewise initially skeptical that the mission's aim was merely a sighting of the lapwing. "They said I was crazy. People are dying and I am out looking for a bird. But I explained it to them," Fadhil says. He also promised $50 (€36) to anyone who sighted a Vanellus gregarius.

Despite the effort, Fadhil was not successful in spotting the lapwing. All he found was a few apparently deserted mud huts. "It was very sad for all of us," Fadhil says. "The transmitters only work when the birds are at rest. As soon as they move, they cannot be found."

Nobody knows how many of these birds still exist, says Fadhil. There could be a lot -- or there could be very few. The sociable lapwing lives in loose groups or alone, hidden on the ground. In 1882, the zoological encyclopedia "Brehms Tierleben" wrote: "Waders are citizens of the world in the true sense of the phrase." Everywhere and nowhere, sometimes in a group, other times alone and always adapting to their terrain. Like a network, and difficult to trace.

Three weeks later, two long-hunted leaders of al-Qaida, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, were detected in one of the mud huts and killed. "They were there when we were there," Fadhil says. "And they must have been watching us the entire time."

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