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SYRIA 2009, April 2nd - 11th

...with Chris Bradshaw

This was the second tour to Syria operated by Birdwatching Breaks following our ground-breaking tour of 2006. Once again the country demonstrated what excellent birding it can offer, with specialities including Northern Bald Ibis, Iraq Babbler, Syrian Serin, White-cheeked Bulbul and a wide selection of migrants and late wintering species all recorded during the course of the trip. In addition we included a visit to the magnificent Roman ruins at Palmyra and the crusader castle of Krak (Crac) des Chevaliers.

Syria continues to suffer from something of an image problem, and the portrayal of this fascinating country by parts of the western media leaves a lot to be desired. For western tourists it is generally speaking a very safe country to visit, having very low levels of petty crime. The people are delightfully friendly and at times almost overwhelmingly hospitable. A good road network, generally good accommodations and usually very tasty food (typically served in copious quantities) make for an excellent trip.

I must record my thanks to Yolande at Orient Aroma for her assistance in organising logistics and to our drivers throughout the country. However, the greatest thanks must be extended to the ever patient and helpful Adeeb al-Asaad, without whom this tour would not have been such a smooth running affair, and who made such sterling efforts to ensure we gained weight during the trip. I hope this report brings back some good memories of a very enjoyable trip.

April 2nd: London – Damascus

The group met at London Heathrow in the late morning and caught a direct flight with BMI to Damascus. The flight was pretty uneventful and we arrived in Damascus around 10.30pm local time. On arrival we were met by Adeeb and were soon at the hotel and heading to bed.

April 3rd: Burkush, Bloudan.

Weather: Warm and sunny all day, with a cool breeze at higher elevations and some patchy cloud in the afternoon.

After some confusion as to what the precise time was (thanks BMI – your crews should note that they have daylight saving in Syria too!), we left the hotel and headed for the border with Lebanon. Around Damascus we saw Pallid and Common Swifts, Laughing Dove and Hooded Crow. Close to the border the road passed through a valley where a roadside stop produced two Short-toed Eagles, Blue Rock Thrush, Lesser Whitethroat, Rock Sparrow, Western Rock Nuthatch, Eurasian Jay (of the form atricapilla) and smart Black-eared Wheatears. A little further along exploration of a side valley proved productive. Initial impressions of the birds here were rather reminiscent of home as we noted Great Tit, Wren and Greenfinch. However, evidence that we were somewhere rather different came in the form of some smart Sombre Tits and a pair of all too brief Syrian Serins. More Lesser Whitethroats and some Chiffchaffs were seen, a Hoopoe flew past and a Woodlark sang on a nearby hill. A small group of Isabelline Wheatears were the first of many of this widespread and common inhabitant of Syria. A smart male Semi-collared Flycatcher was eventually seen well, and a Sardinian Warbler was briefly seen doing a display flight. Overhead our first Steppe Buzzard was recorded.

After a quick tea stop, we headed for Bloudan, pausing to buy provisions along the way. After a couple of false starts and some unusual manoeuvres by the driver we arrived on the high parts of the mountains here, with snow at an altitude of 2140m. Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear and a fine male Rock Thrush were the main highlights here before we dropped down into an area of orchards to take a picnic lunch. Whilst lunch was being prepared we enjoyed a fine Long-legged Buzzard and a Steppe Eagle. After lunch our main target was to secure views of Syrian Serin for those who had not seen those seen in the morning. This proved rather hard work, and although we found several individuals it took us most of the afternoon to track down some that would sit still enough to oblige all those who needed a view. However, we did succeed in this quest and headed back to Damascus a tired but contented group.

April 4th: Damascus to Palmyra with stops en-route at Khunayfis. Afternoon visits to ruins at Palmyra and Talila reserve.

Weather: Warm and sunny all day, with a late afternoon dust storm.

After a 6.00am breakfast we headed in the direction of Palmyra. The visibility was rather poor for the first hour or so and we saw very little in the way of bird activity. Eventually the sun broke through and we began to encounter a few birds. A stop at a small clump of isolated bushes produced two Chiffchaffs and a flyover Short-toed Lark. A little further down the road we paused for our first Temminck’s Horned Larks, whilst Crested Lark, Northern and Black-eared Wheatears were further distractions.

We paused at a large area of olive trees and worked the bushes and rough vegetation close to the road. Chiffchaffs, Lesser Whitethroats and a single Blackcap were again in evidence, but of greater interest were Nightingale and Bluethroat. Overhead more evidence of birds on the move was provided by a flock of flava wagtails and a couple of Tree Pipits that flew over. A superb Booted Eagle showed well, and a number of Black Kites were also recorded in this area. Further down the road we paused again, this time for two Egyptian Vultures, a Marsh Harrier and a Steppe Buzzard.

A small plantation east of Khunayfis proved an excellent site once again. Chiffchaffs were in good numbers here (at least 50), whilst three Pied and a brief Semi-collared Flycatcher were also present. Common Redstart (nominate race), Bluethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, a Tree Pipit that had walked straight out of the Collins Guide, White and Grey Wagtails and best of all a Eurasian Scops Owl were located during our walk here. A small stream fringed with reedy vegetation was host to another Bluethroat, Nightingale and a cracking male Rüppell’s Warbler. Adeeb saw a male Pallid Harrier, but this escaped the group. After a quick glass of tea, we continued our journey to Palmyra, arriving in time for lunch.

The post lunch session began with a half hour exploration of the Roman ruins here before proceeding to Talila reserve. The access road to the reserve served up a showy Hoopoe Lark, which had the good manners to do some brief display flights and also sing for us. Actually getting to the reserve entrance proved problematic; there were just too many birds! A stunning male Pallid Harrier cruised by, whilst a damp area of grass hosted Tree and a smart breeding male Red-throated Pipit, several Black-headed Wagtails, a stunning male ‘white-spotted’ Bluethroat and a flock of Spanish Sparrows. As we reached the entrance, I decided we should have a quick look before heading into the reserve. This quick look proved to take rather longer than expected as we notched up Woodchat Shrike, at least 3 Ménétriés’s Warblers, a very obliging Orphean Warbler, Whitethroat and Blackcap.

At the reserve we enjoyed excellent views of a male Montagu’s Harrier, with a further two ringtail Monty’s. The watch tower served up two more male Pallid Harriers, whilst close by we located a flock of flava wagtails that included Blue-headed and Grey-headed amongst the Black-headed birds. The reintroduced and captive Arabian Oryx and Sand Gazelle were seen in good numbers.

April 5th: Palmyra area including Wadi Abied and Talila reserve.

Weather: Warm and sunny with some late afternoon cloud and a few spots of rain.

After an early breakfast we headed out to Wadi Abied. Our first stop was at the small dam lake, which attracts good numbers of birds and provided an excellent start to the day. The lake hosted significant numbers of waterfowl. Many Coots, Shoveler and Garganey, along with small numbers of Gadwall, Mallard and Teal were present. Waders were dominated by Ruff, with some Marsh and Green Sandpipers, Little Stint and spinning Red-necked Phalaropes. Migrant Chiffchaffs were once again very evident, along with Semi-collared and Pied Flycatchers, a skulking Wryneck and singing Graceful Prinias and Moustached Warblers. A stunning male Penduline Tit showed at close range and skulking amongst the emergent vegetation we found Spotted Crake and three Little Crakes.

Heading into Wadi Abied we went in search of Bald Ibis. Two Cream-coloured Coursers were seen in flight but they soon disappeared. On arrival at the preferred feeding areas of the Ibis, we saw all five of the birds that had returned to the breeding colony for the summer. We were able to enjoy watching these endangered birds at leisure, whilst in the same area we also located five Greater Sandplovers and enjoyed watching some displaying Bar-tailed Desert Larks.

Pleased with these successes we headed back in the direction of Palmyra, pausing on route to enjoy two Golden Eagles soaring over some low hills. Egyptian Vulture, Short-toed Eagle and some rather distant Choughs were seen before we had a picnic lunch. After lunch a visit to the local Griffon Vulture colony proved fruitless. Undeterred we headed south to the Talila reserve where we searched for migrants. The species mix was broadly similar to the previous afternoon, but new species included superb male White-throated Robins, Quail and Song Thrush. Just as we were about to leave I noticed a distant pied-type Wheatear, which was eventually seen well enough to confirm it was Cyprus Pied. A maurus Stonechat in the same area was a very pleasant way to finish what had been an excellent day in the Syrian desert.

April 6th: Palmyra to Deir Ezzor, with stops at Arak and Al Sokhna. Mheimedah.

Weather: A dry, warm and sunny day although rather breezy at Mheimedah.

After leaving the hotel we headed up to the Palmyra citadel for a photo opportunity, pausing for Mourning Wheatear and a male Rock Thrush on the way. On the southern side of Palmyra we found our first Desert Finches, with a good number of Hoopoes in the same area. Heading east we stopped at the oasis at Arak in order to search for migrants. Here we found good numbers of hirundines migrating overhead with Sand and House Martin noted in addition to Barn Swallows. Dead Sea Sparrows were in the palms, whilst migrants in the bushes included Common Redstart, Nightingale, Whitethroat and Garden Warbler. The water levels at the Al Sokhna reservoir proved to be very low, so we did not linger long here, just adding Little Egret and Wood Sandpiper to the trip list and enjoying excellent views of the large numbers of flava wagtails that were present.

On arrival at Deir Ezzor, we had a quick look from the suspension bridge, where a Pied Kingfisher and a couple of elusive Iraq Babblers were seen, before we enjoyed an excellent lunch in a riverside restaurant. Nearby the Deir Ezzor speciality, White-cheeked Bulbul was present in a riverside park.

In the afternoon we visited Mheimedah, which as usual provided some excellent birding. The best sightings amongst a wide variety of species included Squacco Heron, many Garganey, some obliging Marbled Ducks, a couple of rather less obliging White-headed Ducks, Purple Swamphen, Collared Pratincole and several White-tailed Plovers. Before leaving the site we checked a reedy corner for Iraq Babblers, which performed very well at close range, allowing everyone to enjoy excellent views of this localised species. Even more obliging was a singing Savi’s Warbler which offered scope views over an extended period, and concluded an excellent day in the field.

April 7th: Travel from Deir Ezzor to Aleppo with a stop at Halabiayh and Wadi Al Thakar.

Weather: Warm and sunny with a stiff breeze.

Today we headed west in the direction of Aleppo. Our first major stop was at Halabiayh where we braved rather strong winds that blew dust and sand about as we walked up a wadi in search of See-See. Initially our only success was with Sparrowhawk, Steppe Buzzard and Blue Rock Thrush, but eventually we located a See-See at the end of a side valley and had good if somewhat brief views of a pair before they headed over the ridge and out of view. Jean and Margaret had views of two Desert Larks, whilst on the way back most of us connected with a sizeable flock of Bar-tailed Desert Larks.

On the Euphrates River we paused to check through the assorted ducks and waders on the river, adding Great Black-headed Gull and Wood Pigeon to our list in the process. Some cliffs were home to a colony of Lesser Kestrels that afforded excellent views at close range. A Raven and some Jackdaws were also present.

We were again disappointed that our planned visit to Ba’ath Lake was refused, so we had lunch overlooking the lake to the west, with few birds to see apart from a single Black-headed Gull, some distant terns, a Great Cormorant and a Purple Heron. An opportunistic stop at a reedy area at Wadi Al Thakar produced sizeable numbers of hirundines and a couple of Iraq Babblers, but little else, so we continued our journey to Aleppo, arriving in the early evening and allowing some time for a short walk in the old quarter.

April 8th: Jabbul.

Weather: Sunny morning clouding over later with a few spots of light rain. Cold breeze all day

Today we spent the whole day exploring the huge lake at Jabbul, which is a superb area with very large numbers of wildfowl, waders, gulls and terns. During our explorations around the edge of the lake we were almost always accompanied by large numbers of Slender-billed Gulls, of which there were certainly in excess of 3000. Large numbers of Greater Flamingo were present, whilst ducks included Garganey, Red-crested Pochard and White-headed Duck. Waders were dominated by in excess of 2500 Ruff, with good numbers Black-winged Stilt, Little Stint and smaller numbers of Dunlin, Spotted Redshank and Marsh Sandpiper. Other waders new for the list were Avocet, Kentish and Ringed Plover. Over 300 Whiskered, a Caspian and at least 40 Gull-billed and 40 White=winged Black Terns were enjoyed. Other highlights of a rather chilly and breezy day included two Bitterns, a Hen Harrier and Penduline Tit.

April 9th: Aleppo to Damascus via Krak des Chevaliers and Maloula.

Weather: Sunny with partly cloudy skies and a cold wind.

The day began with a drive south from Aleppo to the crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, regarded in some quarters as one of the finest examples of a crusader castle. On the last trip we had observed significant passage of raptors, but today the weather was against us with cloud and cool winds. Those birds that were on the move were often distant. A 100 minute watch produced 29 Black Storks, nine White Storks, a Short-toed Eagle, three Sparrowhawk, three Steppe Buzzards and an unidentified ringtail harrier.

We headed south from here and made a visit to Maloula. This was an impromptu cultural diversion, but birds here included Blue Rock Thrush and Crag Martin. Taking one of the back roads south to Damascus we encountered a few interesting species, notably Cuckoo and Horned Lark.

April 10th: Al-Mzeireeb Yarmuk area.
Final species total 194
Weather: Sunny and very warm.

The two hour drive from Damascus was for the most part fairly uneventful, but a stop for some very obliging Calandra Larks impressed the group and a Chukar was perched up in a roadside boulder field. A small marshy area in the village of Al-Mzeireeb had on our previous visit hosted a singing Clamorous Reed Warbler, but on this occasion we found no evidence of this species being present. We contented ourselves with some obliging Red-rumped Swallows, two Squacco Herons and a Kingfisher. Some weedy fields with scattered trees nearby provided some excellent entertainment in the form of a pair of Masked Shrikes, a fine Ortolan Bunting and our first White-spectacled Bulbul. A little further along the road and we all piled out of the bus for an interesting Sylvia warbler. It promptly disappeared, but Serins were in evidence, whilst working the olive grove we found at least two Eastern Bonelli’s Warblers, an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, another Ortolan Bunting and several Blackcaps. We never did establish the identity of the sylvia warbler.

Our picnic lunch was taken in a wadi that had a few reed-fringed pools. Reed Warblers were in evidence and a pair of Palestine Sunbirds searched for food. A shadow moving over the ground alerted me to the presence of a Steppe Eagle flying over. Birding down the wadi we located Sardinian Warbler, several more Ortolans and three very obliging Cretzschmar’s Buntings. On our previous visit to the Yarmuk area we had experienced problems accessing the main valley which forms the border with Jordan. Consequently we explored a little and found an interesting side valley that contained much the same habitat. Despite much Friday afternoon disturbance we still managed to find several of our target birds in the form of a pair of Blackstarts, a Long-billed Pipit and two Southern Grey Shrikes of the form aucheri.

With a fine meal in the Christian quarter of old Damascus we concluded another excellent day in this wonderfully hospitable and fascinating country.

April 11th: Damascus to London

We caught our BMI flight from Damascus to London, arriving ahead of schedule just before 1400hrs.

For details of the full species list or to request further information about the next time we will be offering this trip. Contact us at enquiries@birdwatchingbreaks.com.

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