Syria 2010

...with Mark Finn

April 2nd - 11th

This was the third tour to Syria operated by Birdwatching Breaks following our ground breaking tours in 2006 and 2009. The tour was for the Highland Branch of the Scottish Ornithologists Club and proved to be a great success. Due to the relatively unknown status of birds and migration within Syria several interesting records were made plus many arriving and migrant species. Iraq Babbler and Syrian Serin were found fairly quickly in their relevant habitats. During our stay there was a significant passage of Steppe Buzzards and harriers plus an exceptionally early Levant Sparrowhawk and several Red-backed Shrikes.

My thanks go out to Yolanda at Orient Aroma for arranging all the logistics in Syria. Adeeb al-Asaad for showing us all the main birding sites despite being unwell during the tour.

Syria continues to suffer from an image problem, and the portrayal of this fascinating country by some elements in the Western world leaves a lot to be desired. The group found the local people to be overwhelmingly hospitable and helpful in all areas. For western tourists this is a very safe country to visit.

April 1st: Edinburgh/Manchester, Paris, Damascus, Bloudan.

After checking in at our various airports we flew to Paris and an onward connection to Damascus the capital city of Syria. Passport control and customs were straight forward with polite staff. On exiting the airport we met up with the team from Orient Aroma and made the short journey to Bloudan a small town near the border with Lebanon. An enjoyable meal was consumed after a travel day from the United Kingdom.

April 2nd: Bloudan, Burkush, Aleppo.

Weather: Sunny and warm with light winds 25 C.

At 0600 hours the group met up outside the hotel to walk around the grounds. Overhead feeding flocks of Common and Pallid Swifts. In the grounds birds included Eurasian Blackbird, European Greenfinch and Laughing Dove. In no time at all our main target species, the range-restricted Syrian Serin was located singing from the top of a cypress tree. Other species present included Syrian Woodpecker, Eurasian Jay, Eurasian Hoopoe, Hooded Crow, Common Chaffinch and Eurasian Linnet. After breakfast we headed in a westerly direction towards the border with Lebanon and birding the Burkush Valley. This is an interesting habitat of lightly wooded slopes intermingled with stands of rocks and low cliffs. In the valley singing Eastern Black-eared Wheatear and migrant Lesser Whitethroats. Further up we located Rock Petronias and at least two pairs of Sombre Tits. Retraced our steps with excellent sightings of Western Rock Nuthatches singing from the tops of trees. Another area was visited where Common Kestrel and north-bound Steppe Buzzards were observed. On the cliffs wintering Black Redstarts along with singing Northern Wrens and Great Tits. It was time to head east towards Damascus and north to Aleppo the largest city in Syria. A short diversion to Malia where the group walked through the narrow gorge. The journey north to Aleppo passed through lush countryside where the main crops were wheat and apples. En route a short stop produced a Desert Finch for some of us. Aleppo was reached an historic city with many splendid old buildings. Our base in the old quarter was delightful with narrow alleyways and arches.

April 3rd: Aleppo, Jabbul.

Weather: Hot and sunny 30 C.

Today was spent birding in and around Sabkhat Jabbul, a vast lake. En route to the lake our journey passed through areas of wheat fields and farms with Corn Buntings being particularly common on roadside wires and exposed rocks. The first birding stop was just beyond the main gate a mixture of fresh and brackish water interspersed with stands of reeds and muddy islets. The first lagoon attracted Ruff, Avocet, Black-tailed Godwit, Cattle, Little and Great Egrets, Spur-winged and a single White-tailed Lapwing. Open water areas held Red-crested Pochard, Ferruginous and White-headed Ducks, Garganey, Great-crested and Little Grebes. Overhead a steady stream of Collared Pratincoles, Gull-billed, Whiskered, White-winged and Sandwich Terns, the latter a scarce migrant in Syria. On the saline side of the road Slender-billed Gulls, Little and Common Terns. The group then walked along the track and watched the narrow channel and reedbed for birds. This proved to be good for Bluethroat, Reed Warbler, European Penduline Tit, Bearded Reedling, Iraq Babbler, Graceful Prinia and a pair of Little Crakes. Returned to the vehicles with Water Rail and Pied and Common Kingfishers added to the bird list. Our journey took us to another area adding Dead Sea Sparrows in a stand of dead reeds. A stop near a lagoon added Northern Pintail, Common and Green Sandpipers, Glossy Ibis and raptors including Black Kite and Osprey. Lunch taken at an elevated spot looking onto reeds and open water. Lynda picked up a male Pallid Harrier whilst the lake had Mallard and the commoner ducks. After lunch we embarked on a journey passing through remote villages with distinctive mud houses. Eventually a causeway was reached with thousands of Slender-billed Gulls and Ruff. The whole area was a haven for shorebirds with Common Snipe, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Marsh and Curlew Sandpipers, Dunlin and Temminck’s and Little Stints for company. After crossing the causeway we visited an island where Northern and Isabelline Wheatears and Tawny Pipit were seen. As dusk started to fall we went back to Aleppo for another night.

April 4th: Aleppo, Wadi al Thakar, Buhayrat al Asad, Halabiayh, Deir Ezzor.

Weather: hot and sunny 28 C.

After breakfast we left Aleppo and started to head east towards Iraq and the town of Deir Ezzor. The first birding spot was an area of reedbeds and adjacent desert interspersed with scrub and grasses. On arrival Al located a male Common Redstart (samamisicus). Our walk was alongside a water channel bordered by reeds the latter holding singing Savi’s Warblers. On a nearby hillside a female Montagu’s Harrier passed by. Scattered stands of tamarisk bushes hosted Common Chiffchaff and another Redstart. On returning to the bus an area of reeds hosted a male Little Bittern, Iraq Babbler and overhead a group of White Pelicans. Further down the road we stopped for a pale phase Booted Eagle. Next on the agenda was Buhayrat al Asad the largest water body in Syria which can be difficult to access at times. From the causeway good numbers of Great-crested and Black-necked Grebes, Eurasian Coot and small numbers of migrants including Common Sandpiper and Armenian Gull. In the lakeside scrub Spanish and Dead Sea Sparrows and fishing Common Terns. On the return to the main road we encountered a party of Black Kites. Lunch taken in the bustling and busy town of Arraque. Our journey east was largely uneventful apart from a European Roller heading north. Halabiayh is a noted historical site next to the Euphrates River an important area for birds. The crumbling cliffs here had large numbers of Lesser Kestrels, Little Owl, Eurasian Jackdaw and a calling Black Francolin. A male Montagu’s Harrier appeared from over the cliff along with two Red-rumped Swallows. A stop near the ruins of Halabiayh added a flock of Pygmy Cormorants, Armenian and Slender-billed Gulls. Travelled to Deir Azzor for the night.

April 5th: Deir Ezzor, Mheimedah, Al Sokhna, Palmyra.

Weather: Sunny and warm 28 C

Before breakfast a visit to habitats adjacent to the Euphrates River. Good numbers of swallows and martins on migration and a single Eurasian Sparrowhawk. On the riverside reeds Little Bittern, Iraq Babbler, Common and Pied Kingfishers. We walked across the suspension bridge and explored another area; Lynda had brief views of a White-cheeked Bulbul a localised species within Syria. Back for breakfast and onto Mheimedah a village with several wetland areas. On arrival we located Squacco and Grey Herons, Eurasian Spoonbills, Garganey, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Teal, Tufted, Ferruginous and Marbled Ducks and a spattering of waders including Ruff, Common and Spotted Redshanks and Black-tailed Godwit. Another area of marsh was visited where Black-headed Wagtails showed well perched on reed stems. A bonus came in the form of a first year Citrine Wagtail which promptly disappeared into cover. Lunch taken at a private house with an extended family a lovely experience to have. After lunch another area of marsh allowed us to observe a singing Savi’s Warbler perched on a reed. Overhead the group noted Booted Eagle, Osprey and the first of many migrating Marsh Harriers. Back to Deir Ezzor with a quick check for bulbuls without success and onto the historical city of Palmyra. The desert was truly amazing for birds with the first stop producing Black-eared Wheatears, Lesser Short-toed Larks, and the latter feeding young. Further down the highway a lush grassy area was a magnet for Pallid, Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, Steppe and Long-legged Buzzards, Calandra, Temminck’s and Crested Larks and a lone Red-throated Pipit. This was a truly amazing migration spectacle with several species involved. The last birding stop was at Alsokhna a small oasis next to the main highway. In the olive trees Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Common Redstart, Woodchat Shrike, Eurasian Hoopoe and good numbers of House Sparrows. Checked in at Palmyra for a three-night stay.

April 6th: Palmyra, Wadi Abied including the dam and ibis reserve.

Weather: Hot and sunny 31 C.

After leaving Palmyra we passed the historical ruins and started to explore an area of farmland adjacent to the main road. The only birds of note here were a family of Desert Finches with young. At the end of the plantation migrant Whinchat and Woodchat Shrike. The habitat started to turn from farmland to desert heavily grazed by sheep. The latter area held typical birds including Black-eared, Northern and Isabelline Wheatears, Short-toed, Lesser Short-toed, Crested and Temminck’s Larks and at least nine Cream-coloured Coursers. Next on the agenda was Wadi Abied Dam literally a lake surrounded by cliffs and dry-desert countryside. En route two male Pied Wheatears were noted. On the lake high numbers of Green and Common Sandpipers, Common Tern, Garganey, Northern Pintail and Northern Shoveler. A visit to the far side was made where we added Brown-necked Raven, Red-billed Chough and a single Egyptian Vulture. Lunch was taken in the grounds of a nearby farm a haven for migrants. Birds before lunch were an obliging Common Nightingale, Tree Pipit and a Eurasian Wryneck located by Carol. Luck was with us as a Northern Bald Ibis flew overhead and out of sight. After our picnic we had great views of Common Quails and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler. Time was getting on a bit as we headed into the desert and promptly stopped for a party of Bimaculated Larks and a Bar-tailed Lark singing from a dry wadi. The day ended at the Northern Bald Ibis cliffs which have only three birds left a precarious situation for the Syrian population of this internationally endangered bird. Also present were Long-legged Buzzards and a Desert Lark singing from a small cairn. Returned to Palmyra after another excellent birding day.

April 7th: Palmyra, Talila, Arak, Al Mouhazam.

Weather: Sunny and warm with a strong breeze at times 31 C.

This morning a visit to an area of olive groves close to Palmyra. The strong winds made birding difficult at times with any migrants keeping in cover. A short walk produced little of note so the party headed to Talila a reserve created for the reintroduction of Arabian Oryx and Sand Gazelle (both seen in reasonable numbers). At the entrance gate north bound birds were in evidence around the maintenance yard including Tree and Water Pipits, Lesser Whitethroat, Spotted Flycatcher and a Purple Heron which looked totally out of place flying over the desert. Overhead a steady passage of Steppe Buzzards, Montagu’s Harriers and two Egyptian Vultures. Beyond the entrance in the dry ground scattered with bushes – Ortolan Bunting, Menetries and Wood Warblers, Red-backed Shrike and best of all a White-throated Robin sitting in the bottom of a tamarisk bush. Next on the agenda was the small village of Arak. On arrival we walked through the olive groves recording Desert Finches and passage Northern Wheatear, Woodchat Shrike and Eurasian Wryneck. After lunch another walk produced the commoner migrants. Late afternoon saw us head in a southerly direction towards Iraq and the remote farm of Al Mouhazam. En route a stop for diesel and beyond the village Common Chiffchaff and Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler flitting amongst low vegetation. Al Mouhazam was simply an incredible place with stands of trees and vegetable gardens in the middle of a desert. Huge numbers of migrants including Steppe Buzzards, Black Kite, Montagu’s Harrier, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Redstarts, Common Chiffchaff. The sky was alive with European Bee-eaters, Barn Swallows and several views of hunting Pallid Harriers. Luck was with us a male Levant Sparrowhawk offered fantastic flight views.

April 8th: Palmyra including the Citadel and Ruins, Khunayfis (area), Damascus, Dera.

Weather: Warm and sunny 25 C.

After checking out of the hotel we made the short journey to access the impressive ruins of Palmyra. Among the ruins birds included Little Owl, Northern and Black-eared Wheatears and a Woodchat Shrike. After an hour we then drove towards the Citadel recording Mourning Wheatears perched on rocky outcrops. I decided to visit the area around the Citadel which proved to be excellent for birds. Pale Rockfinch, Trumpeter Finch, Rufous-tailed and Blue Rock Thrushes were all seen in the area. A marked passage of raptors included Montagu’s Harriers, Black Kites and high numbers of Steppe Buzzards. It was time to head west to Damascus with a stop at an oasis accessed from the main road. A few birds here with the best being a Thrush Nightingale and a single male Blackcap. Next on the agenda was an extensive area of olive trees just beyond a main junction. Slowly walking through the groves added Purple and Black-crowned Night Heron, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Chiffchaff and Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler. After lunch the drive to Damascus was fairly uneventful apart from a quick visit to an impressive shopping centre. From Damascus we headed south to Dera on the border with Jordan.

April 9th: Dera, Al Mzeireeb, Yarmuk, Damascus.

Weather: Hot and sunny 31 C.

Today was our last full day in Syria where we concentrated on areas in the south a sensitive region with Jordan and Palestine. After leaving Dera a rather rundown border town we visited the freshwater lake and marshes of Al Mzeireeb. On arrival access was tricky due to closed gates. Short walks in one accessible area produced Little Egret, Reed Warbler and the commoner species. On the other side we walked down towards the lakeside and started scanning reeds and water edges. Luck was with us as a Clamorous Reed Warbler was seen singing high on a reed stem, a rather localised species of the Middle East. A major attraction here was showing local people birds through our extensive range of optical equipment – excellent public relations and learning exercise. Next on the agenda was the upper reaches of the Yarmuk Valley. A slow walk among the fields and rocky slopes added White-spectacled Bulbul, Blue Rock Thrush, European Serin, and best of all singing Cretzschmar’s Buntings which were joined by at least two Ortolan Buntings. Towards the end of the walk several showy Squacco Herons and Sardinian Warblers singing and displaying from bush tops. The lower reaches of the Yarmuk Valley are not too far away as we stopped near an old quarry. This area was good for Blue Rock Thrushes, Black-eared Wheatears and a Long-billed Pipit sitting on top of a large rock. Walking down the valley several Palestine Sunbirds were noted feeding on flower heads. At the valley bottom a picnic lunch with a superb Blackstart sitting a few feet away from us. Afterwards a walk through the extensive olive groves produced a few birds in Blackcap, Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, Spotted Flycatcher, European Turtle Doves. Returned to the bus for the short journey back to Damascus.

April 10th: Damascus, Paris, Edinburgh/Manchester.

An early start back to Damascus International Airport for the flight back to Scotland via Paris. Few birds of note included Common Swifts flying around in the twilight and an unexpected Barn Owl observed by Carol along the highway. The flight went smoothly to Paris despite a late departure.

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