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Courtesy of Randel Rogers

Birds
The Conservation Front

Others on duty in Iraq might choose to linger in their bunks on their day off, but Major Randel Rogers is up by sunrise, binoculars in hand, searching for blue-cheeked bee-eaters. At Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq, Rogers has spied a wealth of wildlife in the vast barren stretches and in the oasis, palm grove, and seasonal wetlands the base encompasses. Since arriving in July, he’s averaged a life bird every other day, from the little crake, a green-legged waterbird, to the elusive Egyptian nightjar, whose beige wings hide it in the sand by day and stretch to nearly two feet when it hunts at night. The largely self-trained naturalist has also had some hairy adventures, like an up-close encounter with the cobra-fighting honey badger.

Rogers wants to document Iraq’s rich wildlife, a neglected treasure in this war-torn nation. He and local scientists believe the time is ripe to start building the foundation for an environmental movement. To lay that groundwork, Rogers is helping Nature Iraq, one of the country’s first environmental organizations, founded in 2004. Through donations of equipment and funds from Columbus Audubon and the Ohio Ornithological Society, he’s provided Nature Iraq with Arabic field guides, telescopes, binoculars, and live-animal traps. “If we help Nature Iraq now,” says Rogers, an Ohio Army National Guard logistics specialist, “they can build a movement, and one day more Iraqis will realize the importance of these natural areas.”

Azzam Alwash, a civil engineer, cofounded Nature Iraq with his wife, geologist Suzanne Alwash. “The science performed during the past 30 years wasn’t worthy of the name science,” he says. In the south, Nature Iraq is supporting the restoration of the Mesopotamian marshlands Saddam Hussein drained. The group, whose 65 members include 40 scientists, is also doing the first wildlife surveys in northern Iraq since 1980.

Courtesy of Randel Rogers

He has recorded 104 bird species; several, like the marbled teal, are listed as vulnerable by BirdLife International. By summer’s end Rogers will send his report to Nature Iraq, the Iraqi government, and the Ornithological Society of the Middle East. “Western Iraq is too dangerous right now for our scientists to travel in,” Alwash says. “So the information Randy brings is sorely needed.”

Rogers chronicles those finds in Al Asad Au Natural, the biweekly newsletter he e-mails to the base’s 3,000 soldiers and friends back home. “I didn’t appreciate how much life is around where he’s located,” says Michael Packer, vice-president of Columbus Audubon, which posts the newsletter. “Randy just loves the outdoors, and it shows.”

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