I saw collared doves in Baghdad and Kabul

Collared dove
Collared dove

‘BRAVO Dick’ he called, over and over again. After some weeks I, with more than a trace of vanity, began to believe him. How silly of me. I told my wife. “No”. she replied. “What that wretched bird is saying to me is ‘I feel sick’.”

Then she said: “I wish someone would shoot him,” looking at me. Well, I couldn’t. The collared dove, which nests each year in the hedge around the garden is a pet. Even, I think, a source of encouragement.

When I’m really feeling low, I believe my original explanation. After all, I used to be called Dick when I first heard that sleepy, or as some say, that irritating and monotonous call. That was in Baghdad.

There in the 1950’s I first heard this Middle Eastern bird when I used to run for the RAF in cross-country challenge races between the camps or The Arab Legion.

At RAF Habbaniya, the eucalyptus trees growing along the banks of the Euphrates were a-croon with the call of this strange bird.

I was enthralled with my first sighting, as I was with my first fleeting glimpse of a flock of ruddy shelduck coming at evening flight against a pink sky on to the vast lakes of Iraq.

Today you can see ruddy shelduck at Bentley Wildfowl Collection , east of Lewes, but it isn’t the same. Nor was it the same to see at Bosham a few years ago, a skein of bar-headed geese on the fields. They must have escaped from a collection.

But I first saw them in a high clamouring flock migrating out of Tibet across the Pamis mountains on the edge of the Himalayas.

That is where to see these oriental newcomers, on their home ground, not in the backyards of tame old England.

Next week I am giving a talk to the Chichester Festivities about these birds seen in their natural habitats. The talk is on July 7 in Chichester Newell Centre and is organised by the RSPB with proceeds going to them for their marvellous work throughout the world. You will have to book through the Festivities ticket office.

I shall take you on an excursion to the far end of Afghanistan when I searched for the Marco Polo sheep along the Old Silk Route to China.

I saw all kind of things up in the sky and out in the snowfields: Snowcocks, lammergeiers (bearded eagles), snow leopards (a long way away) and those enormous wild sheep which live in the highest mountain passes and above.

Afghanistan has a check list of about 400 bird species and the places I was lucky enough to travel to have hardly ever been seen by Western eyes.

I even saw collared doves in Kabul. And quite honestly I think now my wife is right when I think back to that place and its lack of sanitation. They used to call it the Kabul Trots and it really does need a stronger stomach than I had.