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Red rocks, pink birds and blue lizards: Jordan in early autumn
21st August- 5th September 2001
By Mike Kilburn
I was in Jordan on behalf of HKBWS for a BirdLife International workshop.
The workshop was held at Wadi Dana Nature Reserve Visitor Centre, which is managed by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) – the BirdLife partner in Jordan. It perches on a promontory, 200 metres below the edge of a huge canyon (wadi in Arabic), several hundred metres deep, which stretched 60km to the lower Jordan Valley. The centre is right next to a village with a large spring and a couple of hectares of orchards. This provided some wonderful birding over the first week we were there.
There were good numbers of birds in the scrub oak and holly trees around the centre. These included migrant Northern Wheatears, a bewildering variety of resident Black-eared Wheatears, a highly elusive male Hooded Wheatear and a couple of pairs of the similar, but substantially more co-operative, Mourning Wheatear. Both sexes showed buff-tinged undertail coverts, slightly longer legs, a shorter bill and more rounded head than the low-slung and slimmer Hooded. A chestnut-capped Woodchat Shrike loitered in a tree right next to the rubbish dump and one morning a Blackstart from lower down the valley made a brief appearance.
The cliffs above and below the centre held good-sized flocks of Chukar Partridge – which are thriving under the no hunting regime imposed on the reserve by RSCN. They provided good views on an almost daily basis. Probably the most spectacular sight of the trip for me was seeing a flock of 30 birds whizzing over my head and down the wadi in a near vertical dive like a squadron of very fat, stubby fighter planes, the wind rushing over their wings. It is likely that they had been scared by a patrolling Barbary Falcon (we saw two birds during our stay) and were taking evasive action.
Other good cliff birds included up to ten dusty brown African Rock Martins floating and jinking along the precipice right below the veranda, a noisy party of Rock Sparrows near the village spring, and several riotous Scrub Warblers, which hopped about, tail cocked vertically, scolding the universe and everything in it.
Other birds seen from or near the centre included a couple of Blue Rock Thrushes, that seemed most at home on large boulders, while the cliffs across the wadi provided roosting perches for ten or so Griffon Vultures (not nearly as pale as the Himalayan Griffon of Western China) and thermals for soaring Fan-Tailed Ravens, Long–legged Buzzard and several Short-toed Eagles. One evening a pair of Bonelli's Eagles swept past the balcony, just fifty yards from us.
Probably the most productive area was the terraced orchards on the other side of the village. These were visited most mornings and evenings, and provided the best evidence of a vigorous early autumn migration, particularly of sylvia warblers. Every fig tree seemed to hold three to five Blackcaps, while a couple of days hard work resulted in confidently claiming the vast majority of the smaller sylvias as Lesser Whitethroat, and the larger birds as Orphean. In addition, the odd Garden Warbler and Common Whitethroat popped up, and I found a single Sardinian Warbler. Other migrants included three or four Spotted Flycatchers and samamisicus Common Redstarts each day. The best rarity of the trip was a first year Rosy Starling which appeared briefly, kindly showed most of its diagnostic features, then disappeared, never to be seen again.
Resident birds in the same area included Yellow-vented Bulbuls, a few Blackbirds, several flocks of recently fledged Goldfinches, the world's most brightly coloured Great Tits and some real class in a Sooty Falcon and Jordan's only regular breeding population of Syrian Serin. These can be easily told from any interloping European Serin (there weren't any) by the pure yellow-green greater coverts. We also saw one or two Rufous Bushchats a day and good numbers of Tristram's Grackle – a black, long-tailed starling with big orange wing patches, which flew about in flocks so it could be easily seen.
The worst-named bird in the entire Middle East is Orange-tufted Sunbird. It's an iridescent purple-black sunbird, which apparently shows two tiny tufts of orange feathers under the wings. Not a single one of the hundred plus birds I saw over the week showed even the least sign of either orange bits or tufts! Palestine Sunbird is a far better name.
We had a couple of outings away from the centre and added a large group of Sinai Rosefinches, a couple of Pale Rock Sparrows and several Woodchat, Masked and Red-backed Shrikes at the Beduoin campsite across the wadi, and on a trip to Wadi al Mujib, a very narrow and steep-sided canyon which guided a freshwater river into the eastern shore of the Dead Sea we added White-breasted and Common Kingfishers, several Blackstarts and Olivaceous Warblers, Grey Heron, Great Grey Shrike, Glossy Ibis, Crested Lark, Graceful Prinia, Little Egret and NO Dead Sea Sparrows! I found ample compensation in floating gently along the wadi and looking up to catch the silhouettes of a pair of Bonelli's Eagles circling high above.
The day after the course, Thai bird guide Uthai Treesucon (utree[at]loxinfo.co.th) and I headed south to the famous ruins at Petra. Being first through the Siq canyon to see the famous Treasury building carved into a sandstone cliff made rising at 5:30 well worth it.
Combining some amazing geology, a 2000 year-old ancient city and some very good birds, Petra can safely be labelled as a top class site for birders with wider interests. We saw good numbers of the lovely Sinai Rosefinch, - at the other end of its range from the birds in Qinghai in western China, and added White-crowned Black Wheatear to our tally. One of these fluttering round a huge knarled fig tree like a Pallas' Leaf Warbler was joined to my delight by a Hooded Wheatear, which I had missed at Dana. We also saw several Fan-tailed Ravens, which fitted perfectly with the historical context, especially of the High Place of Sacrifice, which in days gone by doubtless swam with the blood of slaughtered animals.
However, the oddest creature here was the Blue Agama – a stunning bright blue lizard which stands out a mile on the reddish sandstone gorges of Petra and which obviously knows as much about camouflage as Eskimos do about crocodile fishing.
We spent the next four days in Aqaba, Jordan's only town on the Red Sea and a choke point for migrants. We found Chiffchaff, Willow, Olivaceous and Garden Warbler and Masked Shrike in small parks around the town , and in the allotments behind the waterfront added a couple of Hoopoes, Red-backed and Masked Shrikes, Yellow Wagtail, two unidentifiable “Pied-type” flycatchers and lots of House Crows.
Birding off the beach produced a couple of Caspian Terns, up to six or seven Middle-East specialist White-eyed Gulls, a single unidentifiable shearwater and a Tern which drifted by against the sunset, showing only its silhouette as either Lesser Crested or Crested Tern – both mega rarities in Jordan - major frustration! However, we did have good views of an adult White-cheeked Tern, which obligingly showed us an elongated pale cheek patch between uniform pearly grey upperparts and underparts.
An area known as the scattered palms near the big beachside hotels was better than it looked. We found several Little Green Bee-eaters, Red-backed, Masked and Lesser Grey Shrikes, a Wryneck, and a pair of Isabelline Wheatears and four flyover White Storks.
The most important site here is the Aqaba Sewage Farm, which we eventually got into after a day s patience practice with the local bureaucracy. We eventually got our permissions from the Agriculture Ministry and had it duly chopped by the army and headed onto the sewage farm. Such is the power of attraction that water holds over migrant birds in the desert that we saw more birds in three hours in the middle of the day here than we had with seven or eight birders out every morning and evening in Dana!
Highlights over the two days we visited included four Glossy Ibis, a Greater Flamingo, ten White Storks and a Black Stork, which took off and soared over us before heading south. We also saw 5 Squacco Herons, which in winter look very similar to Hong Kong's Chinese Pond Herons (they are both Ardeola herons), over 100 Grey Herons, a single Barbary Falcon resting on the causeway between two of the large pools, a Booted Eagle. Any one of the flock of 30 Slender-billed Gulls would have been a major rarity in Hong Kong.
Having dipped on Collared Pratincole in Xinjiang (even further north and west in China, it was great to see three birds here, flying over our heads and clearly displaying reddish underwings. On both days we had good views of a hyperactive male Namaqua dove with a ring on its leg, 150 plus Spur-winged Plovers, 60 plus Ruffs, and 3 Pied Kingfishers. Other additions included a female Desert Wheatear, a briefly seen Golden Oriole and a pair of first year Black-headed Buntings, showing the black streaking on the head which is a key feature in separating this species from Red-headed Bunting in Hong Kong.
The next day we headed into the spectacular Rum desert, famed for its connection with Lawrence of Arabia, 2000 year-old rock carvings and a pair of Verreaux Eagles which we didn't see. However we did add Lesser Grey Shrike to the reserve list on our way out. We went in by 4-wheel drive – a practice that will be more tightly controlled when the reserve comes under the management of RSCN - but benefited by finding Arabian Warbler and Little Green Bee-eaters in an acacia tree in the stony desert. We also found several Desert Larks a couple of migrant Barred and Sand Partridge – a specialist of arid desert mountains. We also saw more Mourning and White-crowned BlackWheatears, around 30 Brown-necked Ravens, Sinai Rosefinch, Blackstart, Rock Martin and Scrub Warbler. Top mammal was a Rock Hyrax, a cliff-loving creature the size of a hare (but without the big ears), whose closest relative is the elephant!
For our last two days we headed north to Amman, and spent a morning at Amman National Park adding only Tawny Pipit and the distinctive white-faced race of Jay. Nashat, the reserves ecologist for RSCN, very kindly drove us an hour and a half east to the Azraq oasis, where RSCN has a reserve and another guest-house.
That evening we birded the reserve, which is a small heavily reed-fringed pool. This site is a major wintering site for waterfowl – important enough to receive Ramsar designation, but in the summer the flat dusty areas around the reedy pool are as bare and arid-looking as any desert. The area has suffered from overuse of the natural groundwater, drying the spring, and the reserve is now maintained by artificially pumped water. We added Squacco and Grey Herons, a lone female Marsh Harrier, 3 Whiskered Terns, a male Namaqua Dove, and a Common Mynah which is the first record for Jordan, although it is tainted by the possibility of escape.
Having left the reserve for the evening we stopped to share an apple and while casually scanning the darkening sky I got onto a group of raptors flying towards the reserve. Over the next 30 minutes at least 120 Honey Buzzards dropped in to the reeds and bushes to roost – the sort of sight I'd hoped for when thinking about autumn migration at a desert oasis! Four Night Herons came in at exactly the same time although it is possible they had roosted elsewhere and were coming in to feed under cover of darkness.
Next morning the Night Heron count had increased to ten, and we also added a young Purple Heron, a female Namaqua Dove, migrant Sedge and Reed Warblers, Yellow Wagtail Green and Wood Sandpipers and Ruff. We again saw the Jackal we had seen coming to the pool to drink the previous evening.
The final stop on our tour was RSCN's Shaumari Reserve close to Azraq. This is a desert reserve dedicated to breeding programmes for the former wild Ostrich and Arabian Oryx. Our key target here was the desert larks we hadn't seen elsewhere. We were dropped by the Shaumari reserve manager on the drive a couple of miles from the reserve centre and began walking into the stony and rather barren-looking desert. A dead jerboa on the road and a Hedgehog a little way into the desert showed how rich the habitat is. We soon found a couple of groups of Temminck's Horned Lark, which obviously fills the same ecological niche as the Horned Larks (otherwise known as “Batman”) in NW China. It took a further hour to find a Bar-tailed Desert Lark, which has a helpful dark subterminal band on its tail to separate it from the slightly larger and heavier-billed Desert Lark.
My major target was Hoopoe Lark, which I wanted compare with the similar-looking groundjays of Xinjiang and Qinghai. They turned out to be something of a disappointment, looking more like a stretched and scraggly Richard's Pipit with an overlong bill, but with same ground jay flashes of white in the wing. They appeared to fill a different niche from the ground jays, picking insects from the foliage of small bushes, rather than ripping apart sand dunes as Biddulph's Ground Jay does in Xinjiang. However their spring song display is meant to be impressive.
Around the reserve headquarters we found good numbers of early autumn migrants. These included a female Montagu's Harrier, Olivaceous, Barred and Garden Warbler, Great Grey, Lesser Grey and Red-backed Shrikes, and a full breeding plumaged Black-headed Bunting – one of the most beautiful birds I have ever seen. We finished off with my first Barn Owl for over ten years, a Golden Oriole, a Red-breasted Flycatcher and our final bird – a very grey-toned juvenile Thrush Nightingale.
Jordan is a superb country for the visiting birder: good birds – we saw close to 150 birds at a rather quiet time of year, good food, reasonably-priced accommodation, and wonderful kindness and hospitality from the Jordanian people. In particular Omar and Mousa from RSCN looked after us superbly during the Birdlife training and helped out whenever we asked during our week long travels, while many others were happy to share their time and information with us. Ian Andrews' book “The Birds of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan” is an essential planning tool as is his website.
Anyone interested in receiving more detailed information on the birds or logistics of this trip should email me at mkilburn[at]hkstar.com