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Birding in Jordan – Late May 2010,
If you plan to go birding in Jordan, be prepared, because it seems to be a destination that is just at the dawn of ecotourism. Also, be prepared to be disappointed. The Internet “fluff” is intriguing: “Jordan is situated on the crossroads of the Middle East at the junction connecting Africa with Asia and Europe. The varied topography, which can be roughly divided into three north-south bands, has created an unexpected diversity of habitats across three different climatic zones. For the keen bird watcher there is a pleasing variety of species present in Jordan. The habitats change from the open desert and its inhospitable wadis to the pine and oak forests of the hills and down into the sub-tropical Jordan Valley. In each place there are birds that are adapted to their environment. As well as the resident species, the spring and autumn brings large numbers of birds that migrate along one of the major routes between Europe and Africa. In this tour we will visit the different habitats, each set in impressive scenery as well as to visit some of the most memorable of the historic sites for which Jordan is famous.”. However, reality is not always the same.
17 May 2010 Amman, Jordan
My wife and I booked a “Jordan Birdwatching Tour” through Amani Tours on the Internet for the period 17 May through 27 May 2010. We had numerous email interactions between December 2009 and May 2010, and we left Australia expecting to enjoy our birding experience in Jordan. I have provided the following as a report of our experience in hope that it might be of value to anyone planning to visit Jordan.
We were met by the company representative at Queen Alia International Airport departure gate in Amman as expected, who pointed to the huge Customs & Immigration sign and told that we would be met at the baggage carrel. We met our driver, but learned (Problem No. 1) that there would be no “expert birding guide”, as we expected from our extensive previous correspondence. We were transferred to the 4-star Landmark Hotel, which was perfectly acceptable to us, but it is located in a section of Amman with no alternative restaurant or grocery facilities, if you aren't willing to choose the rather expensive hotel restaurant fare.
18 May 2010 – Azraq Wetland Reserve
In the morning we were picked up by our driver and driven the two hours into the “empty quarter” out to Azraq, where our tour schedule included visits to the “Shaumari and Azraq Wetland Reserves”. Our tour description described the area thus: “This is the most important oasis in the region, where birds of many species can be seen, particularly during the migration seasons. The Shaumari Reserve is the first wildlife reserve established in the area and is famous for its captive-breeding program of the Arabian Oryx. As well as these beautiful creatures we will see Onager and Ostriches. The afternoon will be spent in the ancient marshlands, which have always been used by both migrating and resident birds. During the winter there is a large seasonal lake that is home to many waterfowl and birds of prey. Today we would expect to see large numbers of ducks such as garganey, mallards, pintails, shelduck, and teal. Waders for instance, black-winged stilts, plovers, redshanks and sandpipers as well as storks, cranes and egrets make use of the waters edge. Amongst the trees and shrubs there may be golden orioles, rollers, grey shrikes with buzzards, marsh harriers, and kestrels overhead. At Shaumari you can find the most mature vegetation in the eastern desert dominated by Atriplex halimus. "Dinner and overnight in RSCN Lodge in Azraq.” Problem No. 2 surfaced. We learned that our Amani Tours driver had never been there, but with some local guidance on arrival into the small village of Azraq, we were deposited some kilometers north of the town centre with our luggage at the Azraq Wetland Reserve's “nature centre” and told that we would be transferred to Azraq Lodge in a shuttle bus. Our driver would be back in the morning to pick us up again. We were given a personal tour of the displays of the nature centre, which was totally unnecessary, since the “guide” provided nothing additional to the written descriptions of the displays, but we learned that they were awaiting their “birding expert” to arrive, so we accepted their interpretation of each display to fill the time. The Azraq Wetland Reserve is really only the small remains of a formerly large marshy oasis, which is now being “robbed” of water by sub-surface water drilling and commercial exploitation. The reserve's “bird expert” arrived and together (since he had no book reference, but only “local knowledge” and mostly Arabic names for the birds) we toured the boardwalk through the marshes and small open water area and surrounding scrub of the reserve. With the aid of our Princeton Field Guide “Birds of the Middle East”, we were able to find a number of “good birds” including: Little Bittern, Purple and Grey Herons, Red-wattled Lapwing, Rufous Bush Robin, Namaqua Dove, Masked Shrike, Great Reed Warbler, Crested Lark and Squacco Heron. Since we were “late” for migratory birds, we felt reasonably satisfied with our efforts and vowed to make the best of our situation to enjoy what we could concerning the avifauna of Jordan.
On return to the nature centre after the hour's free use of the “nature centre's birding expert”, we learned that the staff had called the Azraq Lodge and their shuttle had arrived to take us. We enquired about “The Shumari Reserve” part of our day's tour activities and they reported (Problem No. 3) that the Shaumari Reserve had been closed to tourists for about two years. Since it was now only about 10:30am, we opted to stay at the reserve and asked the shuttle driver to return for us at about 2:00pm. Fortunately we had a limited amount of “lunch material” and water, so took another turn around the boardwalks ourselves and had lunch in the shade of the nature centre's veranda. During the five hours we were at the Azraq Wetland Centre, we were the only visitors, the quiet only disturbed by the deafening sounds of the jets taking off from the adjacent Jordanian Air Force Base. The time of the year had something to do with the lack of birding tourists, but the present pathetic condition of the oasis must have been “general knowledge” that we didn't learn from our own attempts on the internet prior to our travels from Australia.
Our shuttle to the RSCN Azraq Lodge was promptly on time and efficiently transported us back into town to the lodge. We learned that the “RSCN” part of the lodge's title is the “Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature”, which is doing its best to support conservation and promote ecotourism. The Azraq Lodge is comfortable, but basic. The dinner and breakfast meals provided were filling, interesting, local-Chechen foods. In the evening, we watched a video on efforts of the RSCN of the conservation of wildlife on the Arabian Peninsula, which was well done. The film also explained why the Shaumari Reserve was currently closed to tourists to further attempts to save the Arabian Oryx from extinction.
19 May 2010 – Wadi el Butum
After rather fruitless attempts at finding birds around the lodge and the town in the late afternoon and early morning, our young, ever-enthusiastic and “overly-helpful” Amani Tours driver arrived at the lodge to transport us further on the Amani Birdwatching Tour. Our description provided for our day's tour itinerary was “Azraq, Amran, Wadi el Butum – Amman. Today is devoted to birding in the semi-desert to spot birds adapted to arid environments, such as hoopoe larks, thick-billed larks and cream-colored coursers. This is an area of low hills with sparse vegetation cut through by occasional wadis that have bushes and pistachio trees. Among the usual residents are wheatears, crested larks, scrub and graceful warblers and we may be lucky and see some trumpeter finches or the little known black morph of the mourning wheatear. "At Wadi el Butum, where you can see the last group of the Atlantic wild pistachio (Pistacia atlantica) in the desert which are the last group of old trees in the area. "At Azraq the only extensive areas of water and saline vegetation in the eastern desert, it comprises more than 136 species of plants, some are rare, endemic and even newly recorded to Jordan's flora and to science. "Dinner and overnight at RSCN Lodge in Azraq.” Our Amani Tour driver was unaware that the Shaumari Reserve was closed to tourist and we learned that our “Amani Birdwatching Tour” was “the first provided by the company” (Problem No. 4). Since we couldn't go to the Shauari Reserve, we had learned from the lodge's staff that a large area of mud flat/seasonal lake, called locally “The Qa”, was to the north of the town, so our driver did his best to find directions, so we could visit. After a number of attempts on the local tracts through the croplands and samphire scrub vegetation and directions from a number of local inhabitants, it was apparent that reaching the edge of the mudflats required a tractor or a 4-wd vehicle, and then a lengthy walk. We gave up and directed the driver to proceed onto Amran.
Qusyr Amra is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, which dates from the 8th century. It is a “small palace”, actually more of an ancient “wayside stop”, but has numerous well-done frescos, and is well worth a visit. At Amra, we learned that Amani Tours is rather “good” at “cultural tours”, but not to expect anything about “birds”. On arrival, we learned that our driver didn't know where “ the Wadi El Butum” was, but we learned from the local curio-sellers that the ravine to the north of the cultural site was what we were looking for, so we set off or a couple of hours on our own. There we found some reasonable-sized trees among the shrubs and sand of the wadi and two, small, water-filled reservoirs with surrounding shrubs. Although birds were not “plentiful” (except for numerous and “friendly” Masked Shrikes), we found some interesting birds including: Upcher's Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, Black Tern, Black-wing Stilt, Red-backed Shrike, Common Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher, Blackcap and the Scrub Warbler. In a “better” time of the year, Wadi El Butum could be quite productive. On return to find our driver, he indicated that he didn't have any further information about potential birding sites (Problem No. 5), so we were returned to the Landmark Hotel in Amman. Since the late-May temperatures were nearing the 40oC levels, we accepted the chance to get out of the heat of the day, resigned to the fact that our “Amani Birdwatching Tour” would have to be a “cultural tour with the odd potential to find a few birds”.
20 May 2010 – Jeresh, Dibben Forest, Ajloun Nature Reserve
Day Three of our tour's itinerary reported: “Amman, Jerash, Ajlun Forest, Zubia Nature Reserve. An hour's drive north of Amman brings us into the hills of Gilead for a visit to the impressive Roman city of Jerash, where one can catch a glimpse of the Palestinian sunbird amongst the other residents in the ruins. In contrast to the desert of the first days, the afternoon is spent in an area of oak forest offering excellent shelter for many birds. Some of these will be very familiar species like blue tits, jays, sparrows, blackbirds, redstart and wrens. Other birds will include warblers (blackcap, Cetti's, graceful, lesser whitethroat, olivaceous, Sardinian, spectacled), blackstart, Calandra lark, hoopoe, palm dove, Syrian woodpecker, pipits and wheatears. "At Jerash, Dibbin forest is located near by which represent the last remaining pure Aleppo pine forest in the region. It is dominated by the Aleppo pine (Pinus haleppensis), arbuts and rachne, cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum), as well as some rare species such as different species of orchids and the Pistacia lentiscus shrub. The area represents the best evergreen Oak Forest in Jordan with more than 160 species of plants. The evergreen oak (Quercus calliprinos) and Palestine (Pistacia atlantica) dominate the forest. Cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum) and some other Mediterranean species, which of some are newly recorded in Jordan.”
On being picked up for the day by our driver, we learned that the reported “personal tour driver” would, indeed, be available for our personal transport, but since he would have to return daily to Amman, he might not be able to start our ‘birding tour” very early in the morning, nor stay into the evening (Problem 6). However, we enjoyed our morning at the ancient Roman city of Jerish, although we didn't see the Palestinian Sunbird among the ruins. In the afternoon, we first visited the Dibben National Park, driving up the winding road to near the summit of the wooded ridge about the picnic grounds. We convinced our driver that a “normal birding activity” was to lets us walk down the road by ourselves for a period, then drive down to see how we were getting along, then to repeat the process for as long as we needed. He wasn't too happy to let us out “in the forest alone”, but eventually relented. Being the middle of the mid-week day and quite warm, there was only very limited car activity on the small mountain road, but we saw few birds. Here in the Dibben National Forest, we added Eurasian Jay, European Blackbirds, House Martins and the Hoopoe to our meager Jordan list.
We left the Dibben Forest in search of the Zubia Nature Reserve. Despite a written set of directions from Amani Tours and frequent stops to consult with local inhabitants, amid frantic Arabic arm-waving and pointing, we never did find the reserve (Problem 7). We proceeded to Ajloun Nature Reserve and were deposited at Ajloun Lodge, another RSCN-supported conservation lodge. We were directed toward one of the timber-floored, elevated tent cabins for the night and told about the time for dinner. On enquiry, we learned that the Ajloun Conservation Reserve had a circular hiking trail, but no birding hides and no one in attendance knew anything about birds of the area. The shrubby scrub was very thick, generally about 3m high and finding any birds was a “challenge”. We added the Lesser Whitethroat to our list, but generally saw few birds. As it turned out we were the only guests for dinner, but the open-air “restaurant” had a nice meal: hot vegetable soup along with two salads and Lebanese bread and dips and a beef -flavoured rice dish.
21 May 2010 – Wadi Sheuib, Dead Sea, Dana Nature Reserve
Day Four's written itinerary read: “Amman, Wadi Shueib, Dead Sea, Dana. Wadi Shueib is one of the main routes down from the hills to the Jordan Valley. It has a permanent flow of water and in spring is covered in a profusion of wild flowers, which in turn provide food for insects and birds. This area should be good for brown-necked raven, woodchat shrike, warblers, blue rock thrush, rufous bush-chat, red-romped swallow, bee-eater, hoopoe and doves. The Jordan Rift Valley is a main route for birds migrating between Eurasia and Africa and huge flocks of storks and buzzards and smaller ones of black kites can often be seen passing overhead. There are also many interesting residents such as Smyrna kingfishers and Dead Sea sparrows. "The Dead Sea lies at the lowest elevation in the world. This is where you can see the tropical elements of the vegetation. This vegetation is considered to be the best in Jordan. Many of the elements are considered rare and many are newly recording to the Jordan's flora, such as Ophioglossum polyphyllum, Moringa aptera and the Dead Sea Orchid (Epipactis veratifolia). A swim in the Dead Sea is an experience not to be missed and perhaps a mud bath too. Wadis leading down to the Dead Sea and the hot springs offer a beautiful setting to look for finches and warblers. Along the shores of the Dead Sea passing by many unexpected springs in this otherwise barren but powerful landscape, and up to Dana. "Wadi Shueib, where we can find different vegetation types in one place, is surrounded by Mediterranean forest in the highlands dominated by the evergreen and deciduous oak (Quercus calliprinos, Q. aegilops and Q. infectoria), then it changes into shrub vegetation of Retama (Retama raetam), Ferula communis, to herbs and bushes of Atriplex halimus, Salsola vermiclate and lower down by tropical species, such as the Ziziphus spinnochist and Z. lotus. Dinner and overnight at Rummana Campsite (Dana Nature Reserve).”
Since our driver told us that he had “no guidance” on where in Wadi Shuelb we might stop to look for birds, we abandoned hope of a “productive birding day”, but proceeded with at least a smile to see just might happen today in this interesting country. The road down from Amman through Wadi Shuelb is perched mainly up on the dry hillside, usually some 50-100m above the water, with only an occasional rough tract down to the narrow watercourse. We eventually had enough warning of an approaching tract to have the driver stop on the road edge to let us out for a walk, while he found a better place to pull off out of traffic, and with instruction to drive by again at a particular time. We walked down the steep tract to the river and did, indeed, find “our” Palestinian Sunbird, but little else of lasting interest. Toward the end of the Wadi Shueib Road at the junction with the main road through the Rift Valley, is a small reservoir, where we saw White-breasted Kingfishers, lots of Little Egrets, a Great Grey Shrike and a White Wagtail for the list. Earlier in the year, when the water level is greater, this could be a good spot.
Along the road south through the Rift Valley next to the Dead Sea there were a number of concessions that provided swimming access and towels, so we stopped, only to find they charged JOD15.00 apiece. We reconsidered. We stopped at a couple of places along the road to enjoy the views and added the Fan-tailed Raven to the bird list. We turned off the Dead Sea Road up an incredible mountain road to Tafila, finally stopping about 2:00pm for our lunch. On arrival at the Dana Nature Reserve we found more “problems” (Problems 7-10). My schedule indicated we were to spend one night in Rummana Camp, one night in Dana Village and one night in Feinan Lodge, but Amani Tours booked us into Rummana Camp for two nights and then we were supposed to walk down to Feinan Lodge. No arrangements were made for our luggage and eventually we learned that we were to pack some overnight things, arrange ourselves to get from Rummana Camp to Dana Village, where the trail (actually a 4WD-road) starts. Apparently no one walks down at present since it is too hot, so a stalemate occurred. We seemed now to have to pay our own way from Rummana Camp to Feinan, and then after the night there we would be taken back to up Rummana Camp by a 4WD Jeep tour. The company didn't tell our driver “anything”, so things were left in a bit of mess.
We eventually were shuttled down from the assembly point on the rim of the canyon to Rummana Camp, where we were assigned a tent and told the time for the evening meal. Fortunately, we met a couple from Sharm El Sheikh, who run a scuba-diving centre (www.sinaibirds.com), but he was also a good birder. Before dinner we sat in a small, but well-sited bird hide with him and learned a number of birds: Little Owl, Tristrum's Starling, Green Finch, Common Linnet, Turtle Dove and Shining Sunbird. Dinner was great, but the low table and chairs presented a challenge for me. After tea in the “Daytime Bedouin Tent”, we went to bed.
22 May 2010 – Dana Nature Reserve
The tour itinerary for today read: “Dana Nature Reserve. Spend a day in the beautiful Dana Reserve, which encompasses a major wadi leading down from the hills to the Wadi Arabah (Jordan Rift Valley) more than 1000 meters below. Here we should spot a variety of birds including Steppe and Bonelli's eagles, Griffon vulture, black kite, Steppe and long-legged buzzards, kestrels, lanner falcon, sand partridge, chukar, pallid and alpine swift, rock martins, rock and palm doves, fan-tailed ravens, Tristram's grackles, rock sparrows, blue rock thrush, house bunting and wheatears. "Dana is where one finds different vegetation. Types included in the Mediterranean Irano-tauranian, Saharo Arabian and Sudanian. You can see more than 680 species of plants from forest trees like the cypress (Cypressus sempervirens), juniper (Juniperus phoemica) to acacia trees (Acacia radiauna and A. tretilis) as well as different trees, shrubs herbs and grasses; three of them are new to science, Rubia danaensis, Micromeria danaensis and Silene danaensis. Dinner and overnight at Dana Guest House.” Dana Reserve is a designated “Important Bird Area” and deservingly so, however, the staff at Rummana Camp have only limited knowledge of the birds of the area and, although we walked many of the available trails, the birds seemed to have more sense than us and stayed out of the heat. We spent quite a while at the small bird hide with its small water pool to have excellent views of the small number of resident visitors available. “Good birds included: Cretzschmar's and Ortolan Buntings, Black-eared and Mourning Wheatears and a close-up look at a Chukar. Rummana Camp in the early Spring would be an excellent site for birding, but at the end of May and with no expertise on the birds of Jordan, our experience here was “limited”.
23 May 2010 –25 May 2010 -- Dana Nature Reserve
Dana Nature Reserve has two additional places of accommodation: Dana Village and Feynan Wilderness Lodge. We didn't stay at the Dana Village Lodge which is reported to be quite good, but did stop at their water supply, which supports nesting Lesser Kestrels. We had to “supplement” our Amani Tour independently to get to Feinan, but by this time we had already determined the Amani Tour wasn't going to receive any “repeat business” from us. However, we did eventually independently reached the Feynan Wilderness Lodge for a day and a half among the dry wadis and desert scrub. A “goat watering place” near the lodge provided good looks at Desert Larks, Trumpeter Finches, Common Linnets, House Buntings and Blackstarts.
Amani Tours wouldn't allow our driver to take the Wadi Namala Road from Feinan to Wadi Musa, the village that “services” visits to Petra, but it is a road not to be missed. In any other country, it would be a major tourist road, as the scenery is so magnificent. We organized another “supplement” and arranged for a Bedouin in his beat-up Toyota Twin-Cab Pick-up to take us to Wadi Musa, where we could return to our pre-booked Amani Birdwatching Tour itinerary.
26 May 2010 -Aqaba
We enjoyed our “Cultural Day in Petra”, an experience one shouldn't miss for the world. Petra has been chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and has been a World Heritage Site since 1985. Petra was also chosen by the BBC as one of "the 10 places you have to see before you die". It is truly magnificent, but is now a bit “commercial”.
After our driver drove down from Amman to pick us up in Wadi Musa, we traveled down to Aqaba, where further “problems” arose. There we attempted to get permission to visit the Aqaba Birds Observatory from the Jordan Society for Sustainable Development. I was surprised (well not really, given our experience so far with Amani Tours), because they didn't seem to know anything about the existence of this area. A permit from the Jordanian Army for every visitor is required because of the observatory's location on the border with Israel. We filled in the permit and were asked to call back in the morning. Only because of reading previous “Birding Reports” were we aware of the Aqaba Birds Observatory.
Since we were at “loose ends” regarding birding around Aqaba, we decided to go on to Wadi Rum for the day and move our “expected birding activities” to tomorrow. Despite being “at our disposal”, our driver had to receive permission from the main Amani Tours office for permission to “move” our tomorrow's itinerary to today. Since our poor driver had no instructions about possible places to see birds anywhere in Jordan, let alone Aqaba and Wadi Rum, it seemed “beyond the pale” to have to receive permission to re-plan our own itinerary for the day. We enjoyed the scenery vicinity of the Wadi Rum Visitor Center, but only learned late in the day, that there was a spring near the Bedouin town, where birds were more common. A “special price” was offered, but we didn't have time to take up the offer, before our Amani Tour driver was due back to pick us up at the main visitor centre, so we failed to see many birds at Wadi Rum. However, it is an amazing place and worth a visit, no matter what time of the year you have available.
27 May & 28 May 2010 - Aqaba
Despite two further days in Aqaba, we failed to get permission to visit the Aqaba Birds Observatory, so I can't give any further information about its avifauna. Although our “Jordan Birdwatching Tour” by Amani Tours was “a bust”, the country itself is fascinating and the cultural sites of Jerish and Petra are breathtaking. The material presented on the Amani Tours Internet site has obviously be prepared by someone with knowledge of the birds of Jordan, but there is presently no one associated with the company that knows anything about ecotourism or birding in Jordan. Hopefully there will be “Jordan-based” birding tours of repute in the future as the potential is great, but take our advice to steer clear of the Jordan Birdwatching Tour of Amani Tours at present.