Omar Fadhil – Nature Iraq

“Salam Alekom” – my name is Omar Fadhil, I’m an ecologist and wildlife photographer working for Nature Iraq.  I’m also the team leader of the Sociable Lapwing surveying team in Iraq.

Omar searching for Sociable Lapwings - Palmyra - March 2011

My passion for birds and birding started when I was very young. From the earliest age I was close to birds – I was raised in a family of falconers and I learned from them to love and respect these birds. In fact it was from an adult Saker Falcon that I got my first scar.

I have birded all over Iraq since I was 18 years old. I’ve photographed most of my country’s birds too – ranging from big flocks of cormorants, pelicans and ducks in the southern marshlands (the biggest wetlands in Arabia) to the eagles and woodpeckers of the alpine mountains in the north. So I have been able to see the different characters of birds within these landscapes. I also like to paint birds when I get the chance.

In 2005 I was involved in one of the biggest rehabilitation projects in the Middle East, which was carried out by Nature Iraq. This aimed to refresh and renew the southern Mesopotamian marshlands of Iraq, which had been drained and demolished by the ex Iraqi political regime and has been considered the world’s worst environmental disaster since the Chernobyl reactor melt down in the former Soviet Union.

I am always thinking about birds that I’ve read about in the historical literature of Iraq but have not yet had the chance to see. I’m fascinated when I learn how people used to see them ages ago and described their plumage and habitats but for some reason they have now become very rare – after once they were common. One of those birds is the Sociable Lapwing … finding one in my country became an inspiring challenge for me as I had always wished to see these desert waders closely and have the chance to study them carefully.

In 2009 the opportunity arose for me, when international efforts were established to conserve and protect the species, through the Darwin initiative project led by RSPB and supported by Swarovski Optik. Nature Iraq took the lead in this initiative in my country and handled the field file to me.  Finally I had the chance to engage in the biggest ever search effort to look for this elusive bird in the western and north-western deserts of Iraq.  From the outset I knew this bird would be very hard to find and that the areas of Iraq it passes through are very dangerous to survey.

My passion and respect for the Sociable Lapwing provided the inspiration and motivation that took me to some very remote and unsecured areas. Most of them had negligible civilian activities but even so, the team and I were totally committed to search for the birds whenever and wherever we got the chance.

In spring 2010 Dr. Rob Sheldon called us from the UK and alerted us that a stable signal from one of the tagged birds had been received in an area near Lake Al Tharthar – a place famous for its bad security conditions and reputation!

After a long discussion we decided to try to visit the site, wondering whether the reason that the Sociable Lapwings had chosen this stopover site among many others was somehow because they instinctively knew it would be safer for them than for humans.

Omar searching for Sociable Lapwings supported by Iraqi Special Forces - Spring 2010.

After evaluating what equipment, vehicles and protection was required, we issued the necessary permission letters to the Iraqi military forces based at the site. The result was fifteen Iraqi Special Forces policemen with four armoured cars joined my small Nature Iraq team of two trainees, one guide and myself. With this protection we marched with full attention toward the SL coordinates.

At first the soldiers were surprised. They asked: “what are you looking for? Is it a precious bird or a golden bird” or something like this. And I thought it was going to be difficult for me to make all the troops who came along understand the importance of this bird. But actually I can say that soon all the eyes of the group – the policemen, the Iraqi army, as well as my team – were looking for the bird too.

After discussing the nature of our quest and our quarry with the soldiers their mission soon changed from just being a normal military escort expedition to 20 committed and engaged persons all of whom were very keen to locate the Sociable Lapwings and help educate the local people about them. For me this can only be described in one word – amazing!

At the recent Sociable Lapwing International Working Group meeting a few weeks ago in Syria, I was surprised and delighted when Swarovski Optik presented me with a pair of their very latest 12 x Swarovsion EL 50 binoculars to help me in my work surveying and monitoring the birds in Iraq. My team will be conducting our next survey this month and I’m hoping these superb new binoculars will bring us luck finding the birds once again. I look forward to letting you know how we got on soon…