7-12 March, 2002
After a three-day business meeting in Amman and the Dead Sea, I took four days to birdwatch and visit some of the tourist attractions in Jordan.
My main reference was Ian J. Andrews’ excellent book, The Birds of the Hachemite Kingdom of Jordan. It offers very good information on the habitats and birding spots throughout the country, plus detailed accounts on every species. I ordered the book from his website http://www.andrewsi.freeserve.co.uk/birding-in-jordan.htm, but it can be found in some places in Jordan, namely the Shaumari reserve and Wadi Rum visitor’s center, and probably in some Amman bookstores. The field guide I used in the trip was Birds of the Middle East by R.F. Porter et al, but the classic Collins Bird Guide for Europe with N. Africa and the Middle East covers most of the species to be found. A good road map is of course indispensable, and caution should be used because names are often spelt differently in maps, guide books and signposts (for instance, Qasr Amra can be Qasar Amara, Kasar Hamra, etc). I recommend the Cartographia 1:700,000, which I bought in Madrid.
Jordan proved to be an excellent destination for Middle East birding. The country is safe and beautiful, people are extraordinarily helpful and roads are generally good and well signposted in English as well as Arabic. Taking into account that in neighboring Israel the situation was the worst in many years, I never had the slightest problem. At military checkpoints (there are several along the Dead Sea road that runs parallel, and in some places very close to, the border), I only received smiles and good wishes, and I wasn’t even asked to show my passport. The only risk I can mention is driving at night, especially on secondary roads where dividing lines are often absent, and trucks can be numerous and fast.
Some of the basic costs (car rental, hotel in Amman) had been previously arranged by my company, so I can’t offer much advice in terms of prices. The trip was made during the low tourist season (apart from the fact that due to the situation in Israel there were very few western visitors), so it was easy to find good accommodation and food at very reasonable prices.
In order to maximize the possibilities to see the species I was most interested in, I planned to visit the areas of Suwayma, Petra, Wadi Rum, and Azraq / Shaumari in the Eastern Desert. In the following account species are written in bold, with scientific names the first time they are mentioned, and key places are underlined.
Thursday 7th March.
I had rented a car in Amman (Suzuki Vitara; I strongly recommend a 4-wheel drive if you plan to do any desert birding) and started driving from the recently built Mövenpick resort on the north shore of the Dead Sea, where my meeting had ended. In the gardens of the resort I saw Palestine Sunbird (Nectarinia osea), Yellow-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus xanthopygos), Blackstart (Cercomela melanura), Crested Lark (Galerida cristata) and, in the brush near the shore, several Graceful Prinias (Prinia gracilis). These were also present among the flowers in the gardened area near the entrance of the hotel. Although access to some areas (namely the pool and parts of the Dead Sea shore) is exclusive to guests of the hotel or spa, most of the gardens can be visited. Warning: both the rooms and the bar are grossly overpriced.
From there I drove south along the Dead Sea towards Karak. This is a good road that has the Dead Sea to the right (with Israel on the opposite shore) and high cliffs and gorges to the left. The traffic is heavy (and fast!), but there are several convenient parking areas from which I could see my first Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens), as well as Fan-tailed Raven (Corvus riphidurus) and Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita). I drove to Potash, from where I took the east turn that runs through Karak (it was near dark so I didn’t stop to visit the well-known Crusades fortress) and leads to the Desert Highway. Once there I turned south towards Wadi Musa (the village at the entrance of Petra), where I arrived at around 8:00 p.m. There is an apparently endless line of hotels in the village; I checked in at the very good and reasonably prized Crowne Plaza hotel, which is very close to the entrance of Petra (US $75 per night, incl. breakfast, and, most important, late check-out).
Friday 8th March.
Walked to Petra at 6:00 a.m. which is the opening time, and I was the ONLY visitor. I entered and took the path to the Siq, and saw Mourning Wheatear and my first male Sinai Rosefinch (Carpodacus synoicus) which landed a few meters away. These birds are relatively common throughout Petra, and rather confiding. They’re usually found singly or in small groups of one male and 2-3 females.
The walk through the Siq up to the impressive Al-Kazhnah and then out into the valley with not a single person around (even the little souvenir stalls were closed at that hour) is truly breathtaking. Birds seen along the way included Fan-tailed Raven, more Sinai Rosefinch, Desert Lark (Ammomanes deserti), groups of Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris) and the ever-present Palm Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis). Pallid Swift (Apus pallidus) and Rock Martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris) were also common. The climb towards Al-Dayr is strenuous but beautiful; several Blue Rock Thrushes (Monticola solitarius) were seen, as well as Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus). Once in Al-Dayr (a stall serving cold drinks was most welcome here) there were several Steppe Buzzards (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Greenfinch, and Desert Larks. Two Tristram’s Grackles flew overhead.
At that time (10:00 a.m.) more visitors started to show up, so it was time to get back. More Mourning Wheatears were seen around the Colonnaded Street, in addition to some large Agamid lizards sunning in the rocks. Sadly I didn’t see any of the famed bright blue ones that appear in other reports and in many photographs.
On the way back to the hotel I saw Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala), Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) and groups of Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
I won’t waste space here with descriptions that are widely available in hundreds of guidebooks, but I certainly recommend Petra as a place not to be missed, especially in the earliest hours of the morning. If you travel to Jordan, by all means go.
From Petra I drove south towards Wadi Rum, again via the Desert Highway. Shortly before reaching the highway, near Ma’an, I saw a group of several Black Kites (Milvus migrans) and, on the roadside, my first two Isabelline Wheatears (Oenanthe isabellina) that later proved to be so common. Further down the highway, shortly before reaching the turn towards Wadi Rum, an adult Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis) took off from a mound of debris and flew low for a while.
Some three kms. before arriving at Rum there is an area recommended by Andrews, where an old road splits off to the right and runs parallel to the main one, surrounded by desert with scrubs to the left and stony hillsides and cliffs to the right. Here I saw more Mourning Wheatear, had very close views of a pair of Scrub Warbler (Scotocerca inquieta), and Desert Lark. Upon arrival at Rum I “registered” at the visitors center, where I was provided with some information and a map of the area. Right in front of the reception I saw a small group of Sinai Rosefinch. It was by then 4:30 pm, so I made use of the remaining sunlight by driving to the nearby “Lawrence’s well”, where I saw my first White-crowned Black Wheatear (Oenanthe leucopyga) on the rocks to the right of the well offering, as usual with its genus, very obliging views. Driving past the settlement of Rum into the desert requires a 4-wheel drive because there are no roads or even dirt trails and the only means of finding your way is to follow previous car tracks on the sand, which in certain places can get dangerously deep and loose. Following the indications given at the visitor’s center to the so-called “sunset place”, I drove east from the well around some impressive cliffs with rocky hillsides. Scanning the area I suddenly came upon a Thick-billed Lark (Ramphocoris clotbey), very close to the car. It stood motionless for a while, and then started to run with a wing stretched as if it were injured, all the time looking at me over its shoulder. I followed it for a while and then it took off, flying perfectly. Maybe it was faking an injury in an attempt to lure me away from its nest. Andrews marks this area with a question mark for the species, so I was very excited with this sighting.
I later met a group of Bedouins driving a 4-wheel drive who showed me the places in the cliffs where profuse white spotting supposedly indicated the perches of large eagles (Verreaux’s?). However, according to them “it wasn’t the right season” for the eagles. One of them offered me accommodation for the night as well as serving as a guide the next morning to some “good birding places”. He is the owner of a restaurant in Rum (Wadi Petra Tourist Restaurant), where several western tourists and climbers were having dinner that night. Excellent food, by the way. I accepted the mattress he offered me and spent the night in his house.
-Saturday 10th March. At sunrise we took my car and headed north of the settlement by the same road that leads to the highway, and after some five kms. we turned east to cross the desert until we reached the village of Disi. I’m afraid I can’t offer very good indications about that morning because he was driving, we often crossed the desert using no particular road and the villages were signposted in Arabic. However, our destination was an extensive agricultural “farm”, the irrigated area mentioned by Andrews in his book near Disi and Sahl as Suwwan. These are privately owned and there is no public access to the large, fenced areas, but apparently my guide knew the gatekeepers and they allowed us in. The cultivated areas are watered by huge mobile irrigation lines, which were used by raptors as hunting perches; in a single one I saw a female Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus), a Steppe Buzzard, and a pair of Kestrel. Also perched and on the ground there were dozens of Cattle Egret, and there was a large flock of Spanish Sparrow (Passer hispanioliensis) nearby. Isabelline Wheatear and Crested Lark were everywhere, and Hoopoe (Upupa epops) and White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) were common. I saw several Long-legged Buzzards (Buteo rufinus) of the striking pale morph, and a Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos). Near some rocky slopes away from the irrigated areas, I saw White-crowned Black Wheatear, both adults and immatures without the “crown”. On the edge of one of the irrigated areas there were some puddles of water in which I saw a couple of Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus).
We left this “farm” and entered another one (again my guide knew the guards), which was less irrigated and closer to some rocky hillsides. Here I saw a large Steppe Eagle flying overhead. Also in the cultivated plains there was a large flock of Trumpeter Finch (Bucanetes githagineus), and I saw my first Desert Wheatear (Oenanthe deserti). A male Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus) flew close by several times.
We went back to the village where we had lunch and met an old falconer, who had a Barbary Falcon (Falco pelegrinoides) in his house. We had lunch in the village and then drove back to Rum, where I left my guide after paying him 40 JD for dinner, bed, breakfast, lunch and guiding (1 JD=1.41 US$). Leaving the settlement I saw a Blue Rock Thrush perched on a chimney, as if bidding me farewell. It was 3:00 pm by then and I spent some time on the old road trying to find Sand Partridge, but all I could see was the same pair of Scrub Warbler, plus Mourning and White-crowned Black Wheatear. I was later told that Sand Partridge are heavily hunted in this area, so they’re extremely wary and hard to find. Well, I thought, there can hardly be a more hunted bird than Red-legged Partridge in Spain and still you see them all the time… Missing this species was probably my biggest disappointment on the trip. I gave up after a long search and took the highway towards Suwayma on the Dead Sea, where I arrived around 8:00pm.
- Sunday 10th March. Left my hotel (Mövenpick; again, painfully overpriced and rather pretentious) at sunrise and went to the tamarix scrub area on the north shore of the Dead Sea in Suwayma. Driving left from the Mövenpick (and from the Dead Sea Hotel - probably much more recommendable), this place is some three kms. away, turning left next to a small funfair. Andrews describes it as a marsh area, but it was practically dry. Here I saw a group of three very active Arabian Babbler (Turdoides squamiceps), a Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor), and many Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto). I walked through the tamarix toward the shore, and in the tall scrubs I found several Dead Sea Sparrows (Passer moabiticus). They were all males, each singing (very loudly!) from a tamarix in which they had built their curiously large and untidy nests. They were probably trying to attract females, of which I saw none. I saw a group of Spur-winged Plover (Hoplopterus spinosus) closer to shore and with them a Redshank (Tringa totanus), a Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) and, to my astonishment, a group of several Teal (Anas crecca) and Garganey (Anas querquedula) swimming in the Dead Sea. I later learned that this particular area is where the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea, making the water in that spot almost fresh. A female Marsh Harrier (Circus aeroginosus) flew by over the same area. At that point a civilian came from the funfair and politely informed me that this was a restricted area (the Israeli border is very close), and saw me to my car. From here I again took the road south toward Potash, trying to find Sand Partridge on the slopes and cliffs along the road. I saw several Blackstart, Fan-tailed Raven and Tristram’s Grackle, but no partridges. Shortly after the Zara hotsprings there is a small, steep paved road that climbs to the left. I took it and saw Graceful Prinia, Hoopoe, and two Indian Silverbills (Euodice malabarica). According to Andrews, there is a small population of these escaped cage birds in the area. Back on the main road, I again turned north toward Amman in order to take the road to Azraq and Shaumari. I lost my way in Amman and asked three policemen who were having tea next to their car. They hardly spoke any English, but with the aid of my map I explained which road I was looking for. They packed their tea gear, got in their car and signaled me to follow them, and they led me to the point where the road started. This is only a sample of how nice Jordanian people are. After an uneventful drive through the desert I picked up a hitchhiking soldier who put me on the road to Shaumari. This is reached by turning west from the road from Azraq to Al Umari, taking a signposted approach track from the main road that leads to the reserve. From this narrow but well paved road I saw my first Temminck’s Horned Lark (Ramphocoris clotbey). They are discrete but hardly shy, although difficult to see unless they face you with their clown-like masks because their back is exactly the same color as the sand. Shortly before arriving at the reserve, I saw a beautiful female Cyprus Pied Wheatear (Oenanthe cypriaca) on a scrub. As usual, I was the only visitor at the reserve. Here is where the RSPN (Royal Society for the Protection of Nature) keeps a large number of Arabian Oryx, a species that became extinct in the wild in the early 70’s. Some 200 are currently in the reserve, together with a number of Wild Ass, Ostrich and Gazelle. They are kept in very large enclosures, and their keepers do everything possible to ensure that the animals don’t become tame through close contact with humans. I had a chat with the director, a very pleasant man who told me about the project of releasing the first group of Oryx in the wild this year in a reserve near Wadi Rum, one of the few remaining spots where the desert hasn’t been degraded by overgrazing (a good sample of this is to compare the vegetation inside and outside the fenced area). This will provide a great excuse to come back and see if the project has been a success.
It was 1:30 pm and I left towards Azraq. I saw two Hen Harriers right after leaving the reserve, and further along the road there was a Temminck’s Horned Lark. I pulled off for a closer look, and from behind a scrub came what at first glance looked like a Cream-colored Courser (by the way it ran looking at me over its shoulder). Upon closer inspection it turned out to be a Hoopoe Lark (Alaemon alaudipes), one of my main targets for the trip. It seemed shyer than the Horned and allowed only quick views between the scrubs.
I arrived at the Azraq Wetlands Reserve, which over the years has been pumped out to the point of exhaustion, so very little water remains. All I saw here was a Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), and some of the Water Buffalo they have introduced to graze on the reed and keep it from overgrowing the few remaining ponds. I didn’t spend much time here, and I drove to Qasr Amra, one of the small desert castles found on the road between Amman and Azraq. When I arrived (4:00pm) the doorkeeper told me that it was closed, but I managed a very convincing face of bitter disappointment and he not only let me in but showed and explained the place to me. The castle is in an enclosed desert area and near the entrance I saw a male Desert Wheatear. The castle itself is a small, beautiful structure built by the Umeyads in the eighth century, and its interior is beautifully decorated with some exquisite paintings depicting human and animal figures, very unusual in Muslim art. According to the signposts at the entrance, it is being restored by the Spanish Cooperation office; I asked the doorkeeper about this and he told me that the last time he’d seen the Spaniards there was in 1996, when they assured him that they’d come back soon… After that I preferred not to mention that I was a Spaniard myself.
After this I took a look at the other side of the road, where I found a Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) together with a Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) in a small pool.
I drove back to Azraq, and checked into the Azraq Lodge, very easy to find from the road coming from the wetlands; excellent rooms, with a fully equipped private bathroom for 16 JD. Here I met some young researchers from the RSPN, who told me I had been quite lucky seeing Thick-billed Lark at Rum and confirmed that Cyprus Pied Wheatear was being regularly seen at Shaumari. Indeed, they said that for the desert species I was most interested in, the area I had seen around the track leading to the Shaumari reserve was probably my best choice.
- Monday 11th March. I drove back to Shaumari in the early morning and shortly after arriving I saw a group of five Cream-colored Courser (Cursorius cursor) near the entrance of the reserve, and among them a Greater Sand Plover (Charadrius leschenaultii). A large flock of Lesser Short-toed lark (Calandrella rufescens) kept coming and going, as well as many Crested Larks. On the fence of the reserve I was surprised by a male Bluethroat (Luscia sverica), ssp. magna, and after a while a female showed up. A Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) was also seen on the fence, together with several Phylloscopus warblers.
I started to drive back towards the main road, and further along I saw a smaller group of Cream-colored Courser. While I looked at them, I heard an unfamiliar call that sounded like Andrew’s accurate description of the “drawn-out, high-pitched, out-of-key whistles…” that is the “evocative, but melancholic song” of the Hoopoe Lark. I scanned the area very carefully and, sure enough, there it was running, hitting the stones with its large, strong bill in a curiously woodpecker-like manner. I put the scope on it and enjoyed great views for several minutes, with a Temminck’s Horned Lark showing up to boot. This alone justified bringing along the scope on the trip. After leaving this spot, very close to the main road, I had the bonus of a gorgeous male black-throated Black-eared Wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica).
On the way back to Amman I pulled off at Qasr Qarana, another place recommended by Andrews. The best area is shortly before reaching the actual castle if driving from Azraq, to the southeast. There is a shallow wadi that goes under the road and crosses an area of white limestone; I followed it and walked toward a small pond that is probably dry most of the year. Here I saw a beautiful pair of Desert Wheatear, of which the male kept following me in a loudly defiant manner, and had my best views of Horned Temminck’s Lark, some so close that I couldn’t focus my binoculars. The charm of these cartoon-like birds is among my best memories of this trip.
Unfortunately it was noon and already very hot. I’m sure this area would have proved more productive in the early morning. I took the road back to Amman, where I arrived about 1 ½ hour later. After returning the car and checking into the hotel for my last night, I took a taxi to the Amman National Park, a recreational park really, rather crowded even though it was a Monday. Here I saw a Sparrowhawk flying overhead, a pair of Jay (Garrulus glandarius krynicki), a Stonechat (Saxicola torquata), a Redstart, and many Chiffchaff, Chaffinch and Blackbird (Turdus merula). The pine wood area was so full of people that I didn’t even try for Syrian Woodpecker.
Although it was early in the year for some of my “most wanted” migrant species, such as Masked Shrike, and despite the very short time I spent in the country, I managed a very decent birdlist that included most of my target species for the area. Browsing the Internet I have found that most trip reports on Jordan consist of a side visit from Israel; after a great, if a bit rushed experience, I think Jordan deserves a trip on its own, certainly longer and more relaxed than mine.
Cattle Egret Wadi Rum
Grey Heron Suwayma
Black Kite Na’an
Marsh harrier Suwayma
Hen Harrier Wadi Rum, Shaumari
Sparrowhawk Wadi Rum, Amman
Steppe Buzzard Petra, Rum area
Long-legged Buzzard Rum area
Steppe Eagle Rum
Kestrel Petra, Wadi Rum
Cream-colored Courser Shaumari
Kentish Plover Qasr Amra
Greater Sand Plover Shaumari
Spur-winged Plover Suwayma
Snipe Qasr Amra
Green Sandpiper Rum area
Collared Dove Suwayma
Laughing Dove Everywhere
Pallid Swift Petra, Wadi Rum
(Common) Kingfisher Azraq
Hoopoe Suwayma, Rum, Shaumari
Desert lark Shaumari, Petra, Wadi Rum
Hoopoe Lark Shaumari
Thick-billed Lark Wadi Rum
Lesser Short-toed Lark Shaumari
Crested Lark Shaumari, Suwayma, Wadi Rum
Temminck’s Horned Lark Shaumari, Qasr Amra
Rock Martin Petra
(Barn) Swallow Rum area
White wagtail Common throughout
Yellow-vented Bulbul Common throughout
Bluethroat (ssp. magna) Shaumari
Redstart Amman, Petra, Shaumari
Stonechat Amman, Wadi Rum
Isabelline Wheatear Shaumari, Qasr Amra, Wadi Rum
Northern Wheatear Shaumari
Cyprus Pied Wheatear Shaumari
Black-eared Wheatear Shaumari
Desert Wheatear Shaumari, Qasr Amra
Mourning Wheatear Petra, Wadi Rum, Shaumari
White-crowned Black Wheatear Wadi Rum
Blue Rock Thrush Petra, Wadi Rum
Song Thrush Wadi Rum
Graceful Prinia Suwayma
Scrub Warbler Wadi Rum
Sardinian Warbler Petra
Chiffchaff Common throughout
Arabian Babbler Suwayma
Palestine Sunbird Suwayma
Great Grey Shrike Suwayma
Jay (ssp. krynicki) Amman
Brown-necked Raven Wadi Rum
Fan-tailed Raven Suwayma, Petra
Tristram’s Grackle Suwayma, Petra, Wadi Rum
House Sparrow Common throughout
Spanish Sparrow Rum area
Dead Sea Sparrow Suwayma
Indian Silverbill Suwayma
Chaffinch Petra, Amman
Trumpeter Finch Rum area
Sinai Rosefinch Petra, Wadi Rum