Tuesday, 30 March 2010

21st March. Krak des Chevaliers.

The best preserved of the crusader castles, Krak des Chevaliers, is located in the mountains just north of the Lebanese border. A spectacular site, not least for the streams of raptors passing northwards overhead.Each time we emerged from the depths of the castle to a fresh vantage point a new stream of birds was passing overhead. 100s of Steppe Buzzards and Black Kites formed the bulk of the stream, with small numbers of Steppe, Lesser Spotted and Short-toed Eagles, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel and Lesser Kestrel. Swifts poured through. The scrub around the castle held Blackcaps and Whitethroats, Sardinian and Menetries Warblers.

19th-20th March. Tourists but few migrants.

On our third and final visit to Palmyra we explored the ruins. The tourist season is starting with Germans and Italians pouring out of buses and the increasing disturbance making migrants hard to find. The cold northerly winds did not help either. Wheatears were again prominent with Isabelline, Mourning and Cyprus Pied. We also paid a final visit to Ghazi and were soon offered a meal. Jacq disappeared off to eat with Ghazi's wife and family while Mel and I sat with Ghazi. Before moving on we had a quick visit to Sed Wadi Abyed. Numbers of migrants continue to increase but were not exceptional, with plenty of Chiffchaffs and Bluethroats along with Reed Warblers and Garganey. Little Swifts, Chough and Ravens performed overhead. Dead Sea Sparows and Desert Finches showed well. Three Bald Ibis had now returned and were expected to be on eggs by early April.

17th March. Bloudan.

After transferring to Damascus yesterday we travelled out to Bloudan in the Anti-Lebanon. This high level town is close to the Lebanese border and an increasingly popular summer retreat for Arabs from the Gulf states. We had arranged a taxi and a guide, Hazzam, through the SSCW. We picked up Hazzam at the arranged point but shortly after we stopped and again and Madj got in. Apparently he was Hazzams interpretor. Anyway 6 in a taxi was getting tight and 4th gear appeared quite painful for Madj. Even before we reached the higher outskirts of the town we had seen several Syrian Serins. Good views were obtained of a least 14 birds in a small area. We then searched for Pine Buntings but had no luck, nor with many of the other local specialities but Syrian Woodpecker, Wood Lark, semi-rufous Black Redstart and an odd race Lesser Whitethroat were seen. Back in Damascus, Common, Pallid and Alpine Swifts whizzed around the minerets of the Omayad Mosque.

15th March. Black desert.

The last day of surveying at Al Lajat was another 12 km yomp out and back. Chukars, Scrub Warblers and Orphean Warblers were everywhere and the highlights included a low fly-over Short-toed Eagle, Rock Bunting, Eastern Black Redstart and singing Spectacled Warblers.With some time in hand we decided to try to explore the Basalt desert towards the Iraqi border. This vast area of black stoney desert has its own 'black' Desert Larks and Mourning Wheatears, and even the local sparrows and Laughing Doves are dark in colour. Not an entirely successful day due to the strong winds and the reluctance of our driver to drive deep into the desert. "There is nothing out there but Iraq". We did see Desert Lark, many Black-eared Wheatears and a glimpse if what was almost certainly a Blackstart. This is an interesting yet unexplored area that will repay further scrutiny.In the evening, Wadij invited us to his house for a meal. Anwar and others were present and were soon singing while Wadij played the 'od (lute). A great end to the day.

14th March. Traditional cake.

On leaving prison in Syria it is traditional for friends to buy you cake. Mine was very nice. In fact they bought me two types of cake.Late afternoon I was watching some Steppe Buzzards over the hill when I was jumped by two guys. One twisted my arm behind my back while other ripped off my bins and telescope. I was then forcibly marched a mile to an army camp. After a couple of hours I was having tea with the General. Apparently Nazih told them I knew the president personally.Earlier, 25 Cranes had drifted over with 18 Steppe Buzzards and 7 Woodchat Shrikes provided close views.

12th March. Kalashnikov and cake.

Today we had to survey deep into a remote area of the reserve. Anwar was waiting for us as we pulled up outside his house at dawn. He trotted down to the bus dressed smartly in his combat gear, peaked cap and white plimsolls. As he reached us he turned and ran back indoors and reappeared with a green plastic bag and his Kalashnikov. He knew he had forgotten something!We arrived at the guard house and Anwar produced communal Arabic coffee and sticky cake from his bag. To reach the areas we were surveying we had to walk 4 km across rocky terrain, then do the 4 hour survey and then walk back; a total of 12 km. The return under a scorching sun and a temperature of 30+, following Anwar who was skipping across the rocks in his plimsols as if it were a Sunday stroll. We were absolutely shattered.The surveys produced many Orphean warblers, Scrub Warblers, Chukars, Short-toed Larks, Desert Grey Shrike, Red-rumped Swallow, Long-legged Buzzard and Black-eared Wheatear.We dropped Anwar off, Kalashnikov unused, and wandered around town. I greeted a young lad with my best Arabic "marhaba", to which he replied "what?"

11th March. Al Lajat.

After a late, heavy evening sampling the local arak and hubble-bubble we set off for our first look at Al Lajat with George, Zobor, Maher and Wajih.Al Lajat is a plateau of volcanic basalt; an area of huge boulders, scree and gullies with scattered bushes. There is a profusion of wild flowers amongst the rocks. However, for walking, the terrain is treacherous and we made very slow progress on the transects. Birds were slow at first but by mid afternoon we had seen Sardinian and Orphean Warblers, Black-eared Wheatear, Woodchat Shrike, Blue Rock Thrush, Quails, Hoopoe, Tawny Pipit and good numbers of Lesser Whitethroats.

10th March. Transfer day.

We transfered across to As Suwayda to start our week of surveying breeding and passage birds at Al Lajat, in the south of the country towards the border with Jordan. We will be training Ministry of Agriculture employees in census and identification techniques. But first we had to say our goodbyes and have our last 'free birding' trip out with Ghazi to see the Bald Ibis. Migrants continue to pour in; the grove of trees on the Ibis valley held 100+ Chiffchaffs, 24 Hoopoes, 30 Black Redstarts, 3 Ruppell’s Warblers, 2 Great Spotted Cuckoos, 4 Sibe Stonechats, 3 Quails and waves of larks and Swallows passing over. The Ibis cliffs held Ravens, Chough, Rock Sparrow, Lesser Kestrel, Desert Lark and Mourning Wheatear.We posed for the group photo in front of Ghazi's house. A stray kid managed to slip into the end of the photo without being noticed. Housam then drove us to Damascus, Arabic beats blaring out and camomile tea being passed around. Driving in Damascus is interesting!

9th March. Farewell to Sociables.

On our last day of searching for SPs we headed north towards Abu Khaseb. With our eye now in on the habitat, we found 43 birds, making a final, fairly respectable total of 391 birds found. Over 8,000 Km had been covered.Heading back to Deir Ezzor, we stopped off at Muhaymidah, More waders were apparent but little new. 20 fly-over White Pelicans and a couple of Blueththroats were a bonus.As we headed back to Palmyra a sand storm engulfed us. This was clearly grounding migrants with 7 Black-headed Wagtails, 11 Siberian Stonechats, 5 Hoopoes and 3 Pallid Harriers noted. Swallows zipped by and Wheatears perched on every rock.

Monday, 29 March 2010

7th March. You never know when you need a shovel.

Ahmed Aidek kindly joined us today to show us his sites to the south of Deir Ezzor. We stopped first at Al Fedha; nothing but 2 Siberian Stonechats. We turned off south of the main Deir Ezzor-Palmyra highway to explore the huge amount of steppe behind Chola village. Straight away we hit Sociables; 10, then 85 then 5. However, after that they dried up and we finished the day on a total of 116. These were good sites though and further strengthened my view that SPs favour areas of seasonally wet land to feed in. The damp wadis and feda support a richer flora and hence more invertebrates. This is where most of the Sociables are to be found feeding.The supporting cast was good; Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Golden Eagle, Pallid and Hen Harrier, Isabelline Wheatear, Tawny Pipit, Temminck's Lark, Bar-tailed Desert Lark and more Hoopoe Larks than you could point a stick at.

Lunch by the only trees for miles around produced 40 Chiffchaffs, 3 Black Redstarts and 5 Hoopoes.We covered many kilometres of desert habitat, with one dodgy moment when the vehicle got stuck in soft sand. We leapt out to push and quick as a flash Housam produced his salvaged shovel to dig around the wheels. You never know when you need a shovel.

6th March. The chase is on.

With southerly winds for 2 days and reports of large numbers of SPs moving in the Deir Ezzor area we head south. A quick re-check at Al Howl reveals 3 flocks totalling 68 birds. More Northern Wheatears are evident this morning and Swallows zip through.Over to Ar-Ruweira where a further 12 SPs fly east. At the transmitter tower a small 'fall' has taken place; 2 Robins, an Eastern Black Redstart and a stunning Red-tailed Wheatear.We fortuitously met our friends from yesterday in a petrol station and gave Salem a lift back to his house where we ate a quick lunch outside in the sunshine. Calandra, Crested, Short-toed and Lesser Short-toed Larks scuttled around.

Heading south to Abu Khashab, we stopped and scanned, stopped and scanned, stopped and scanned. 550 Cranes went north, 3 Garganey and 2 Ruff were on a pool, a few Finsch's, Northern and Isabelline Wheatears were noted and a Steppe Buzzard soared above. With the sun sinking and the afternoon looking like an anti-climax, we suddenly stumbled on another 51 SP feeding in a shallow damp wadi. A total of 131 for the day and 229 so far. Tomorrow could be the big day.

5th March. International tension.

International trips are seldom unconstrained by the politics of the situation. We had already picked up Yusuf and Mahmoud before the local guide Salem, got in. Nine in the vehicle is not ideal. It was tight. Very tight.

We felt every bump as we drove across a desert now riddled with water-worn gullies after the downpour of 2 days before. We spent 7 hours in the vehicle. With so many people, communication went astray and it took ages to get out and into the vehicle. We were becoming somewhat frustrated!.

The highlight occurred just before lunch. We stopped for a scan and Ghazi picked up a large flock of Cranes heading north. Just under 1,000 went over. Then he picked up 6 distant flying blobs, I got onto them, bustards!! We followed them until they landed. Not the expected Houbara but Great's! Another rare Syrian bird not recorded for some years. While watching them, Ghazi called again, 6 Sociables flying over. He was on fire! The tension was lifted, smiles returned and the customary hand-slapping ensued. Mahmoud nodded towards Mark, commenting "he's happy now".

Abu Mahmoud had offered lunch, which of course was rude to refuse. A typical Bedouin offering followed; communal Arabic coffee, tea, chicken mansaf with spring onions, bread and yogurt, tea and finally, another dose of taste-bud tingling coffee. The local custom is for the head of the house to taste the food to check it is good. Then he watches while the guests eat. Succulent pieces of meat are torn from the bones and placed in front of the honoured guests. How would that go down in the UK? Mel was not eating much so Yusuf placed a particularly plump leg in front of him. Mel tried to explain he was vegetarian so Yusuf kindly plucked him some breast meat instead.

4th March. Al Howl scores a half century.

Bir Said, Eiwa, Al Almair and Al Ruweira presented a gloomy procession of sites as we worked our way checking from Ar-Raqqa across to Hassakah. No SPs were seen and precious litle else; a few migrating Cranes and 5 Black-bellied Sandgrouse, even the huge numbers of Skylarks seen last week had moved on.
We reached Al Howl by 4.00pm for the final checks of the day. At last we hit lucky, with our biggest flock of Sociables so far; 50 birds. Contrary to current wisdom, these birds were feeding in floodplain pools rather than steppe. We paddled around in ankle deep mud trying to check for colour rings. A close Bimaculated Lark added to the occasion.
We attracted the usual crowd, who helpfully also called the security men we had managed to avoid all day. All ended well with the usual invitation to tea, this time sat out on plastic chairs in front of a car workshop. We sat supping tea as the sun went down.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

2nd March. Birds on the move.

Shortly after first light, we were at Sed Wadi Abyed, a lake 10 km north of Palmyra. We worked along the lake shore, in and out of the bands of Tamarisk while keeping an eye on the high cliffs on each side. Chiffchaffs were everywhere, along with a few Bluethroats, Water Pipits and Lesser Whitethroat. Overhead were Red-billed Chough, Alpine, Pallid and Common Swifts. An excellent site for migrants and one we must return to.
Driving north through some amazingly desolate and stunning scenery, Housam screached to a halt. We assumed he had spotted something good. Well in a way he had; a shovel lying by the side of the road which was quickly put into the boot. We arrived back at Lake Jubbal by lunchtime, and back searching for SPs. We found just 3, all on fallow within arable land, a contrast to the usual steppe habitat. The fallow has a sparse flora and is very stoney. Lake Jubbal measures an impressive 220,000 ha. Wildfowl seem almost impossible to count; in one bay we managed 156 White-headed Ducks, 630 Shoveler and 750 Pochard.

With the fine sunny weather today, birds were definitely on the move. By the end of the afternoon, 1200 Cranes had arrived at the lake, the whooping calls of each successive flock announcing their arrival, and audible at around a mile distant.

We walked out to the lake at dawn the following morning from Yaseem's house, where we again slept communally on the floor. It was a cold night but day dawned bright and we were soon looking at around 1,850 White-headed Ducks, perhaps 25% of the world population. As the sun warmed the morning, the Cranes that had roosted on the lake overnight began to lift off and circle up, all with loud bugleing calls. We counted 3,613 in all, wave after wave passing over us heading north.
By a stroke of luck we met Abu Said, a sheep farmer, at lunchtime. Bread with sheep's yogurt, cheese, butter and colostrum, all freshly made that morning, were promptly laid out. Served with camomile tea of course.

1st March. Houbara Houbara!.

For our 'day off' from Sociables we aimed to start out at the Talila reserve. But first we had to meet the president of the Desert Commission. Over a cup of camomile tea he urged us to seek out further rare species in the Palmyra area. By the end of the day we had obliged.
We drove deep into the reserve to hear about their breeding programme, gathering photos of Arabian Oryx and Sand Gazelle, whilst adding 10 Hoopoe Lark, 14 Temminck's Horned Lark, 230 Lesser Short-toed Larks, 3 Greater Sand Plovers and the usual wheatears along the way. The desert flora was the best we had seen.
The afternoon passed slowly by, with little added but many miles covered as we travelled deep into the desert. By 4.30 we turned back towards home. Staring idly out of the window as always, a movement caught my eye. HOUBARA! HOUBARA! The car erupted. A Houbara Bustard ran parallel with the vehicle and up over a ridge. I fired off a few shots with the camera. Ahmed leapt out of the car and did a jig. Much high fiving ensued.
We circled around quickly but failed to find the bird; it must have flown in all the commotion. We scanned around from a high point and in the next 30 minutes added 2 Cream-coloured Coursers, 243 Cranes, 3 Dotterel and a Lybian Jerd.
We ended the day having completed our first loop of Syria, covering 5,060 Km and with the first recent record of Houbara Bustard under our belts. The president was duly informed (and now has a framed photo on his desk).

28th February. Abu Kasheb and on to Palmyra.

A couple of days of wet weather. On the first we covered the area north of Deir Ezzor known as Abu Kasheb. This is an extensive area of steppe which unfortunately was covered in low cloud and drizzle. We managed a fly-over flock of 8 Sociables, seemingly moving north with some purpose. It appears that spring is late this year and movement is only just beginning. As usual, birds on the stepppe were sparse but the tally included a few Isabelline Wheatears, a Pallid Harrier and 400 Desert Finches.
We arrived at Muhaymidah, an ox-bow lake by the Euphates in the late afternoon. After tea in a locals house we were mobbed by kids as we watched the lake. Marbled Teal, White-tailed Plover, Iraq Babbler and Garganey were all seen but the highlight was a brief view of a Jackal.

We set off from Deir Ezzor towards Palmyra and our first stop produced 17 Sociables feeding alongside the road at Al Fedha We wandered through the empty, pre-tourist season ruins in the afternoon, with the views from the hil top fortress being truly spectactular. Birds included Blue Rock Thrush, Mourning Chat, Isabelline and Finsch's Wheatear, many Lesser Short-toed Larks and a pair of Brown-necked Ravens.

26th February. Sociable Plover workshop.

A Sociable Plover workshop had been arranged in Deir Ezzor with key government, police, army, local authority and hunters in attentance. The key issues in the breeding areas: a decline in native ungulate grazing but intensified,domestic grazing close to villages. There has also been a change in agricultural practices. Nest trampling and predation by foxes are important issues. SPs require short vegetation (but taller vegetation for the chicks). They feed on invertebrates.
Virtually all SPs nest in Kazakstan. Nest survival is variable between years but overall is good at around 50 percent. Fledging rate is also good.
Satellite tagging of SPs has shown that the birds move west through Kazakstan in August, then SW through Turkey and Syria in September/October, then south to winter in Sudan. They return through Syria in February and March.

Before the workshop we had a look around Deir Ezzor; White-cheeked Bulbul, Iraq Babbler, Bluethroat, Quail and Siberian Chiffchaff provided some highlights.

25th February. Birding on the edge.

We pick up Yaseen, our guide, from the centre of a small village, creating quite an attraction in the process, and then speed towards Al Rawda on the Iraqi border. The landscape is flat, dotted with oil wells and Bedouin tending sheep. Yaseen is a Saker hunter and has a picture of Saddam Hussein as his mobile phone 'wallpaper'. He caught only one Saker in 2009 but sold it for 700,000 Syrian pounds. Sakers are present at Al Rawda in autumn from October to December. We passed some Bedouin with a herd of 150 Dromedaries and stopped briefly for a drink of camel's milk from a communal silver bowl. Driving on across the desert, we skirted along the Iraqi border close to the watch towers. A meeting with a Syrian army border patrol passed uneventfully.
We reached a cliff edge; below us lay a huge crater with a shrinking shallow lake with muddy edges stretching in all directons. An estimated 40,000 - 50,000 waterbirds were before us. We drove down into the crater to get closer. A courtesy call on a group of hunters in a tent resulted in a fragrant glass of camomile tea and a look at a dead White-fronted Goose. As we continued on, our guide had clearly got us lost. An hour of to-ing and fro-ing ensued, culminating in us having to push our vehicle out of the mud. Stuck in mud with no phone signal on the Iraqi border. Not ideal!

Eventually we come to a viewpoint over the lake. The sheer numbers of birds was mindboggling. Counting individual species was near impossible. However, at least 9000 Ruddy Shelduck were nearest. Flamingo, Pintail, Teal, Shoveler and White-fronted Geese were all numerous. Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Gull-billed Tern, Imperial Eagle, Siberian Chiffchaff, Tawny Pipit, Pallid and Hen Harriers and many waders added to the tally. What a place! Never surveyed and probably never visited by westerners before.

Yaseen invited us to dinner but we respectfully declined. After some persuasion he let us go, stating, as he pulled a hand gun from his bag "next time I will insist".

24th February. Sociable at last.

Lapwings Lapwings Stop Stop. After several hours of searching with no luck we were travelling south to Deir Ezzor. Staring out of the window, I suddenly saw 3 Sociable Lapwings coming in to land. I shout, Mark shouts, Ghazi jumps from his slumber and Hussein performs a perfect emergency stop. Two males and a female, at last we find some SPs.
We had started the day at the Lower Khaber reservoir with a selection of waterbirds including 5 Pallas' Gulls, 25 Slender-billed Gulls, 30 Armenian Gulls and 500 Pochard. As we travelled south we looked at several areas of steppe and desert. Bird highlights included a superb Steppe Grey Shrike and 10+ Isabelline Wheatears, Northern Wheatears, Hen Harriers, Merlins, ‘desert’ Little Owl and 30+ Lesser Short-toed Larks.

22nd February. Houbara!!

We headed out at dawn towards the Kharabaga reserve. Three Pallid Harriers, Long-legged Buzzard and Raven livened up the early stops. After a couple of hours of driving through a vast area of desert we came across a couple of typical one-storey mud and block houses and some animal pens. Chickens wandered around. Little did they know. We were invited in for tea by the Bedouin. A typical Arab room with rugs and cushions on the floor around a wood burning stove. We sat cross-legged around the stove. Even before we could ask about SPs the talk was about Houbaras. Up to 17 seen since November and 3 just 10 days ago! However, we suddenly realised that Houbara was the Arab word for bustard and these were likely to be Great Bustard, but still a rare bird nowadays in Syria. We set off to look for them, with one of the guys on board, and a promise of food on our return. Sadly we found nothing in 2 hours but aim to return.

We returned for lunch, sat down and food was laid out before us. Spring onions, chillies, yogurt with cabbage, bread and a yogurt drink. And then the centrepiece; a large silver platter heaped with freshly cooked (and killed) chicken covering wheat stewed in the chicken broth. The head man pulled meat from the bones with his fingers and placed it in front of me.

The hospitality and kindness of these people continues to amaze me. These people are very poor yet their generosity is huge. A lesson to us all.

21st February. New friends.

Searching, searching and more searching for Sociable Plovers. Today we covered a vast area north of Ar-Raqqa. Yet again almost the first birds seen were 3 SPs north of Bir-Said village. Birding was hard today in this largely agricultural landscape. The remaining areas of steppe are dry and over-grazed and support very birds, at least in winter. Vast areas of land have been given over to arable cultivation, mainly cereals. The remaining areas of open steppe are very overgrazed and is a major conservation issue. Skylarks however, were everywhere, with 14,000 logged during the day. SPs were nowhere to be seen at the supposed hot spots of Eiwa and Ar Ruweira.

Again we lunched with Bedouin. We stopped to chat and out came the rugs, yogurt, tea and monstrous spring onions. A pleasant hour was passed.

As we travelled east to Al Hasakah, close to the Iraqi border, we picked up more and more 'new friends'. Either wearing leather jackets or smart suits, they took a sudden interest in birding and followed us to most of the sites today. They also decided to escort us to the hotel and hang around. They are clearly very interested in birds as they want to know where we are going tomorrow. We turn heads in Al Hasakah - westerners are clearly unusual here.
Bird highlights included Pallid Harriers, Long-legged Buzzards, Spur-winged Plovers, Lesser Short-toed Larks, 400 White-fronted Geese, 14 Black-bellied Sandgrouse, 3 Dead Sea Sparrows, 57 Calandra Larks, our first Isabelline and Finsch’s Wheatears, and 2 Bluethroats.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

19th February. Lake Jubbal.

Having arrived at Jabbul after dark, we slept communally with the Syrian guys, on the floor, fully clothed, under rough blankets. It was still pitch black when we were woken by the call to prayer. A hot sweet glass of tea was followed by a communal cup of powerful Arabic coffee. Our team included Ghazi and Hussein from the Desert Commission and Hayan from SSCW. We were joined by Yaseen and Ahmed from Jubbal.
We birded around the lake all day. Eleven Sociable Plovers were almost the first birds seen. Calandra Larks were everywhere and the large flocks of White-fronted Geese included 2 Lesser White-fronts. The lake held huge numbers of wildfowl including 2450 Shoveler, a massive flock of 2300 White-headed Ducks and 50 Ferruginous Ducks. We counted just a small proportion of the Flamingos (320) and Great White Egrets (92). Other birds included 55 Whiskered Terns, 28 Spoonbills, 17 White Pelicans, 200 Little Stints and 102 Kentish Plovers. The reedbeds held Moustached Warblers, Bearded Tits, 2 Iraq Babblers and a couple of Grey-headed Swamphens.
We stopped for lunch near some Bedouin tents and they greeted us with coffee, then provided rugs to sit on, and fresh sheep’s yogurt and cheese. Finally they gave us hot tea. Our first taste of the amazing hospitality and friendliness of these people. A super experience.