This was the fourth tour to Syria operated by Birdwatching Breaks. Syria continually produces a remarkable migration spectacle with some species that rare or scarce within the Western Palaearctic region. Among a species total of 189, we had many highlights during our tour starting with excellent sightings and numbers of the scarce Syrian Serin at Bloudan. From here we travelled up to Aleppo to visit the remarkable and bird-rich habitat of Jabbul. High numbers of migrants were present with a few lingering winter birds; Spotted and Little Crakes, Purple (Grey-headed) Swamphen, Greater Sandplover, Terek Sandpiper, Temminck’s Stint, Sandwich Tern, Iraq Babbler, Dead Sea Sparrow, Penduline Tit and Bearded Reedlings. Further east at Deir Ezzor we caught up with the scarce White-cheeked Bulbul and four migrating Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. Mheimedah was again a delight with several species of waders including Collared Pratincole and Red-necked Phalarope. The deserts surrounding Palmyra produced a pair of Caspian Plovers, Cream-coloured Courser, Greater Hoopoe Lark and the last remaining Northern Bald Ibis and Eurasian Griffon Vultures in Syria. The tamarisk stands at Talila had Semi-collared and Collared Flycatchers, Common and Thrush Nightingales among the commoner migrants. Nearby a daytime roosting Pharaoh Eagle Owl and a pair of See-see Partridges near the citadel. The tour concluded at Damascus with a visit to an area near Sweida this was due to problems in Deraa.
I am once again indebted for Adeeb and his knowledge of where to find and located the birds of Syria and to Yola at Orient Aroma for making the ground arrangements.
Our next tour to Syria takes place in April 2012 with two extra days in the northwest around Aleppo and another further east of Deir Ezzor.
April 2nd: Heathrow/Manchester, Paris, Damascus, Bloudan.
We caught our respective flights from London and Manchester to Paris Charles de Gaulle for a flight connection to Damascus the capital of Syria. Customs and passport control were passed through quickly and we met up with our Syrian team of drivers, guides and ground agents. Pallid Swifts were seen by the airport buildings catching insects under the lights. Our destination was Bloudan a popular retreat for the residents of Damascus at elevation of 1500 metres. Checked in for the night and enjoyed a good meal before retiring to bed.
April 3rd: Bloudan, Burkush, Aleppo.
Weather: Sunny period with increasing cloud and showers 15 C/27 C.
We met up at 0600 hours in order to walk around the hotel grounds and several streets in Bloudan. Pallid Swifts were observed fluttering around after insects. Around the hotel we quickly located the Eurasian Blackbird, Eurasian Jay, House Sparrow and Laughing Dove. Best of all was the first of many Syrian Serins a species endemic to the Middle East. Our walk added Hooded Crow, Great Tit, Eurasian Kestrel, Black Redstart and a single Syrian Woodpecker. Breakfast followed by the short drive to visit the Burkush Valley which is close to the border with Lebanon. On arrival we quickly found the first of several Lesser Whitethroats whilst the cliff area held Blue Rock Thrush, Eurasian Hoopoe, Eurasian Linnet and a few Rock Petronias. A walk up the valley which is dotted by bushes, small trees and rock outcrops added further species; Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, Sombre and Great Tits, Willow Warbler and Woodchat Shrike. Overhead a few raptors were on the move including Lesser Spotted Eagle, Steppe Buzzard and a single Long-legged Buzzard. Back at ground level we eventually caught up with a Rock Nuthatch singing from the top of a tree. It was time to head back towards Damascus and head north to Aleppo the second city of Syria. The journey was largely uneventful for birds apart from a short stop at a reservoir for a colony of Grey Herons. Aleppo was reached base for the next two nights.
April 4th: Aleppo, Sabkhat Jabbul.
Weather: Warm and sunny with strengthening winds in the afternoon 29 C.
Breakfast at 0630 followed by a day’s birding around the huge lake of Sabkhat Jabbul situated east of Aleppo. The fields and drainage ditches along the way held Gull-billed Terns, Green Sandpiper, a Water Pipit, Crested Lark, Spanish Sparrows and Corn Buntings singing from telegraph wires. We entered the main gate to Sabkhat Jabbul and obtained permission to drive along the tracks and study the abundant bird life of this extraordinary place. The first fifty metres took us an hour to cover watching over an area of open water, stands of reeds and patches of sand spits and food-rich edges. In the shallow water migrant shorebirds included Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Black-tailed Godwit, Common and Wood Sandpipers. On the water's edge we were entertained by obliging Water Rail, Little Crake, Bluethroat (white-spotted form) and Chiffchaff. Out on the main water body we quickly located Marbled and Ferruginous Ducks, Great Crested Grebe, Pied and Common Kingfishers and a single Black-crowned Night Heron. The large stands of phragmites were excellent for sightings of Little Bittern, Bearded Reedling, Penduline Tit, Iraq Babbler, Cetti’s and Eurasian Reed Warblers and the first of several Dead Sea Sparrows. On the opposite side of the track a bay had Kentish Plovers, an adult Armenian Gull, Temminck’s Stint and terns including Sandwich, Common, Gull-billed and Little. We took a slow walk up the track to scan over another section of the lake and flushed a Spotted Crake; it promptly disappeared into the reeds. Out in the middle a flock of c90 White-headed Ducks plus a few lingering Tufted Ducks and Common Pochards. Overhead two groups of White Pelicans drifted over in a northerly direction. Back in the bus to drive a couple of kilometres up the track and stop at a particularly smelly spot adjacent to a marsh. In the marshy area Eurasian Marsh Harriers, Purple Swamphens in good numbers and the first Garganey of the tour. The smelly mud was attractive to hundreds of Whiskered Terns, and lesser numbers of Caspian and White-winged Terns the latter in a mixture of plumages. Further up the road Northern Shovelers and a glimpse of the Greater Flamingo flock. Turned around and stopped at the first place again. Similar birds with the addition of a Terek Sandpiper which was appreciated by all as it ran and chased all over the place in search of food. We left the site and turned right to visit another sector of this wonderful place. Flooded fields had several Little Ringed Plovers and Yellow Wagtails. An elevated spot was found for our picnic lunch overlooking the lake and stands of reeds. This was again quite remarkable as poor weather forced thousands of Barn Swallows and Sand Martins to lower levels. A group of Eurasian Spoonbills showed well in flight. Careful scanning of the reeds produced a singing Savi’s Warbler. Retracing our journey we stopped again at a lagoon overflowing with waders and terns including Common Snipe, Spur-winged Lapwing and a bonus in the form of thirteen Squacco Herons together and two Cattle Egrets. Overhead a migrant Osprey spooked everything around before gaining height and disappearing. We decided to visit another area of Sabkhat Jabbul and an island reached by a causeway. This took a little longer than expected due to the road being destroyed by workers laying pipes, fortunately for us they made a makeshift ramp to continue. At the causeway entrance huge numbers of Slender-billed Gulls and Ruff were noted the two most numerous birds of the area. The wind was strong so I decided to go to the end of the causeway where some protection enabled us to study huge numbers of waders. Undoubtedly the highlight was locating at least two Greater Sandplovers in breeding plumage. Also of interest were Spotted Redshank, Dunlin and Curlew and Marsh Sandpipers. Our last birding was on the sheep-grazed sandy soils of the island with Northern and Isabelline Wheatears running around on the ground and occasionally perching in low bushes. In the distance we could see the Greater Flamingo colony a fitting end to the day.
April 5th: Aleppo, Wadi al Thakar, Buhayrat al Asad, Baath Lake, Halabiayh, Deir Ezzor.
Weather: Sunny and warm, 27 C.
We checked out of the hotel in Aleppo to make the journey east to Deir Ezzor. A few kilometres outside the city a roadside lagoon attracted migrant waders; Common, Green and Wood Sandpipers and Little Ringed Plover. Down the highway we stopped to watch migrating Steppe Buzzards and a single Eurasian Sparrowhawk. Our first major birding stop was at Wadi al Thakar although small in size it appears to attract a wide variety of birds. The large shallow lagoon held Black-winged Stilts, Marsh Sandpiper and a Temminck’s Stint. A walk through the low scrub and odd olive tree added Bluethroat, Graceful Prinia, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Dead Sea Sparrows. Visible migration was happening here as Egyptian Vulture, Montagu’s and Marsh Harriers, Northern and Spur-winged Lapwings, Garganey and Water Pipit were all recorded in a few minutes. Returned to the bus and travelled to Buhayrat al Asad the largest body of freshwater in Syria. A surprise find on the entrance road was a pair of Woodpigeons. By the water edge a scan of this vast water area revealed three species of grebe including Black-necked, Great Cormorant and fishing Common Terns. In the reeds up to five Common Stonechats of the race variegatus and Bearded Reedlings. To our amazement we were granted permission by the military to visit Baath Lake a large water body surrounded by dense stands of reeds. Drove over the dam and turned left and entered a section of houses. From an elevated position over the lake we observed Squacco Heron, Whiskered Tern, Purple Swamphen, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Wigeon and up to five Pygmy Cormorants. In the reeds numerous Chiffchaffs, Blackcap, Penduline Tit, Great Reed Warbler and a female Menetries Warbler. Back over the dam with flocks of Yellow and White Wagtails, Black-headed Wagtail and Little Egrets. Lunch taken in a rather run down town and afterwards visiting the low cliffs and fields near Halabiayh. Along the cliffs we studied the Lesser Kestrels and also enjoyed seeing Little Owl and Jackdaw. Over the fields a hunting female Hen Harrier. The road runs adjacent to the Euphrates on one side and cliffs and ruined buildings on the other. The latter attracted Eastern Black-eared Wheatears. The final birding stop was a dry valley where we watched a male Pallid Harrier, Pied Wheatears and the first European Bee-eaters of the tour. Filled up with fuel and entered Deir Ezzor, a rather strange town with a rather 'wild' feeling to it.
April 6th: Deir Ezzor, Mheimedah, Halabiyah, Al Sokhna, Palmyra.
Weather: Sunny with late afternoon showers 27 C
Following breakfast we walked out of the hotel and observed Common Swifts feeding over the town with a single Eurasian Sparrowhawk and a Blue Rock Thrush sitting on a building. The walk down towards the Euphrates River was enjoyable as the local people went to work and children were going to school. In a garden the group located the localised White-cheeked Bulbul. Also present was a male Redstart. On reaching the river close views of Penduline Tits, Cetti’s and Reed Warblers, Chiffchaff and a Common Kingfisher sitting on a concrete buoy. It was time to visit Mheimedah an important wetland close to the city. On arrival a thorough check of the first water body revealed Great Crested and Little Grebes, Marbled, Ferruginous and White-headed Ducks, Teal, Garganey and Purple Swamphen. Further along the road we walked down to the pools and scanned the area finding Ruddy Shelduck, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler and the commoner shorebirds. By the bus we scanned another lagoon with muddy edges, an island and stands of reeds. This proved to be an extremely productive area for birds; Greenshank, Redshank, Marsh, Common, Green and Wood Sandpipers, Little Ringed Plover, Collared Pratincole and four Red-necked Phalaropes. Time to move on with a return visit to Halabiayh, and a walk up into the scree and boulder strewn slopes. The lower areas had Northern and Eastern Black-eared Wheatears whilst further up we came across two Desert Larks which allowed a close approach. No sign of the localised See-see Partridge so we returned to the bus. Lunch was taken by the river in a farm area with stands of trees. The latter held many migrant warblers, Tree Pipit and Black Francolins calling from the cover of wheat fields. The rest of the day was spent travelling to Palmyra with an area of desert attracting Steppe Buzzard, Lesser Kestrel and a female Montagu’s Harrier. Final stop was at Al Sokna a small oasis by the main highway. The olive trees here attracted Blackcap, Lesser Whitethroat and a female Red-breasted Flycatcher. Arrived in the historical city of Palmyra our base for the next three nights.
April 7th: Palmyra, Talila, Wadi Abied including the ibis reserve.
Weather: Warm and sunny with afternoon showers and thunder 29 C.
After breakfast we set off towards Talila via tracks and roads running through the local rubbish dump and desert. The dump had Black Kite, Egyptian Vultures, Raven and migrating Yellow Wagtails. Beyond this point the desert starts to take over with stunted shrubs and low mounds of sand. Steppe Buzzards were very much in evidence along with a migrating male Montagu’s Harrier. In the desert Cream-coloured Courser, Temminck’s, Hoopoe and Bar-tailed Larks, Northern and Eastern Black-eared Wheatears and two waders which flew a few hundred metres away. We tracked down the mystery waders which turned out to be a pair of Caspian Plovers, a species rarely seen in Syria. We had good views before they flew off high to the east. On reaching a tarmac road we turned right to enter Talila reserve which has been set up primarily for Arabian Oryx and Soermmering’s Gazelle (both seen later in the morning). At the entrance gate the group embarked on a slow walk around the service compound. This proved to be a magnet for migrants with sightings of; Common and Thrush Nightingales, Redstart, a female Collared Flycatcher, Wryneck, Lesser Whitethroat, Whinchat, Woodchat Shrike, Menetries Warbler, Tree Pipit and Chiffchaff. At 1040 a stop for tea and coffee with the local guardians and workers. Afterwards another short walk among the tamarisk trees where we located a male Semi-collared Flycatcher, Black-headed Wagtail, Red-throated Pipit, Pied and Isabelline Wheatears. Returned to the main gate and made a short diversion into the desert to observe a Pharaoh’s Eagle Owl which was found by Biff sheltering under a boulder from the sun. Back on the main road a temporary pool hosted Ruff, Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Greater Sandplover and Little Stint. Back on the main highway a stop for lunch at a farm with shelter from the midday sun. In the olive groves a wide range of migrant passerines including Rufous-tailed Bush Robin, Reed Warbler and Graceful Prinia. In the early afternoon we headed to Wadi Abied and the Ibis Reserve. The desert held many wheatears and larks in a habitat of closely cropped grass, stony areas and cliffs. On reaching the reserve careful scanning of the cliffs revealed the presence of Eurasian Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Booted Eagle, Mourning Wheatear, Brown-necked Raven, Red-billed Chough and wild Rock Pigeons. A highlight for us all was the sight of two Northern Bald Ibis flying back to their breeding cliffs – literally the last pair in the Middle East and on the verge of extinction in this area. Steppe Buzzards appeared to be grounded for the night. By the tracks a group of Trumpeter Finches, Greater Short-toed and Desert Larks. Returned to Palmyra for our second night.
April 8th: Palmyra, Al Balaas, Al Bazoriah.
Weather: Sunny with afternoon rain showers 26 C.
Today we visited two distinctive sites north and south of Palmyra. In the morning we headed towards the area known as Al Balaas which is famous for its pistachio trees and sheep farming. First birding stop was at a farm by the main road to Homs. A walk through the olive groves revealed the presence of several Desert Finches. On the telegraph wires a lone Turtle Dove and a male Pallid Harrier heading in a northerly direction. Red-rumped Swallows were also in the area along with Eastern Black-eared and Northern Wheatears, Crested Lark, Hoopoe, Raven and numerous Barn Swallows. Further up the road a right turn towards Al Balaas passing through small villages and a rather, harsh barren landscape dotted with stunted bushes. A stop at a rather rundown farm produced a Menetries Warbler and a male Redstart plus two Common Swifts flying at low level. A flooded area held a Bluethroat and Rock Petronia. Walking among an area of Pistachio and pine trees we located various commoner migrants. A short diversion onto another track saw us visit a grassland area heavily grazed by sheep. A good place for larks with sightings of Greater and Lesser Short-toed, Crested and Sky Lark the latter being scarce in April (thousands in winter). It was time for lunch and it proved to be a problem in getting out of the wind. Eventually we drove towards a Bedouin camp and consumed lunch in a large open-planned tent. This was a fantastic occasion as the whole population of the camp came to watch us eat and discuss various things from sheep farming to the local people – a real privilege for us and the kind and welcoming hospitality of the local people. After lunch a visit to another village for fuel and then to Al Bazoriah a remote oasis south of Palmyra. Thankfully we were travelling as the heavens opened. On arrival at the oasis several Montagu’s Harriers flying over cornfields and parties of Yellow and Black-headed Wagtails dropping down to feed with breeding plumaged Red-throated Pipits. The trees were alive with migrants including Stock Dove, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, and Lesser Whitethroat. The best area was the pomegranate orchard which attracted Thrush Nightingale, Whinchat, Tree Pipit, Common Whitethroat, Graceful Prinia and hordes of Barn Swallows and House Martins. At the end of the track at least three Levant Sparrowhawks, Lesser Kestrels and flocks of Spanish Sparrows. Back to Palmyra for our last night before heading to Damascus for two nights.
April 9th: Palmyra including The Citadel and Temple, Oases to Damascus.
Weather: Warm and sunny 28 C.
The last morning in Palmyra was spent visiting The Citadel and The Temple two contrasting historic areas of the city. The Citadel was first which towers above Palmyra. Very few birds here until Jo located a pair of See-see Partridges below the fort this was a good find for the area. Near the car park a pair of Mourning Wheatears. Returned to Palmyra and entered The Temple. Here the old walls attracted Common and Pallid Swifts, Blue Rock Thrush and Little Owl. At 1100 hours we set off on the road towards Damascus and stopped at an oasis 40km from Palmyra. The olive groves here held a few birds; European Turtle Dove, Eurasian Wryneck, Desert Finch, Redstart, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler. A few kilometres down the road another small stand of trees attracted Pied Flycatcher, Grey Wagtail, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Blackcap, Lesser Whitethroat and Red-throated Pipit. Lunch taken at the Baghdad Restaurant by the main road followed by a visit to another complex of trees. The commoner migrants were present plus Eastern Olivaceous Warblers. We continued on the road to Damascus passing through some pretty run down areas and industrial outlets at their worst. Overnight in Damascus.
April 10th: Damascus, Braq, Ateel, Sweida.
Weather: Cool with a strong westerly wind 10 C/15 C.
This morning we left Damascus and travelled south towards the city of Sweida. Although not on our itinerary we decided to some exploration birding due to the closure of the Yarmouk Valley and adjacent villages. Our first stop in an area of cereal fields had singing Calandra Larks. Further down the road another stop to walk into fields with wild flowers, pistachio and olive trees. It proved to be the best spot of the day as it was sheltered from the strengthening winds. We eventually located several Sardinian Warblers singing from fig trees before dropping into cover. Sweida was reached, a rather untidy and dirty town with a park and protected area. The latter was closed so a short walk in the park resulted in the group finding five Hoopoes and Lesser Whitethroats. Adeeb decided to go further up the mountain and explore orchards and a reservoir; it was a bitterly cold place today and this affected birdlife. Flocks of Eurasian Linnets and Greenfinches, and a solitary Kestrel was all we had to show for our efforts. Lunch taken in Sweida followed by a slow journey back to Damascus. In the evening a meal at a traditional Syrian restaurant with entertainment by some rather strange traditional dancing.
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