The Middle East is a hugely fascinating region to visit, whether you are a birder or not. Israel is perhaps a better known birding destination but Jordan is an under-watched country, so visiting birders have the opportunity to find and enjoy some very special birds in diverse habitats in solitude.
A trip to Jordan should include birding sites such as the RAMSAR protected wetland of Azraq, the coast at Aqaba, the mountainous region of Dhana and any number of desert areas for specialities such as Dead Sea Sparrow, Sinai Rosefinch, Hume’s Owl, Syrian Serin and White-eyed Gull.
Add in the breathtaking ancient city of Petra – a UNESCO World Heritage Site described by Smithsonian Magazine as one of the 28 places to see before you die – and you have a special trip to look forward to.
Isn’t it always the same, no matter which country you visit on a birding trip? You look for, and fail to find, a speciality bird in all the known places and then happen upon ten when you aren’t expecting to see any!
In this instance, Malik, a Jordanian ecologist, had taken the group to every one of his known hotspots for Syrian Serin, all to no avail. The very next morning, four intrepid birders dragged themselves from their pits at dawn for a pre-breakfast stroll around the village surrounding our hotel in Dhana. Virtually the first species we encountered was this easily overlooked, small finch. Typical!
With neighbours such as Israel, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia, it is all too easy to become distracted by the negative publicity sprayed around by western media, though seasoned world travellers have long since learned to rise above such hysteria and have a look-see for themselves. I certainly didn’t hesitate for a second to take up an invitation from the Jordanian Tourist Board and at no point did I regret my decision.
Jordan is nestled at the northern edge of the Great Rift Valley, the vast corridor running from Africa to the Middle East that funnels migrating birds from their wintering grounds in Africa to breeding territories in Europe and Siberia and back again. Raptor passage can be spectacular, with Steppe and Honey Buzzards numbering in the hundreds of thousands, joined by Eastern Imperial, Lesser Spotted, Booted and Short-toed Eagles (see also the report from Israel by Laura Kammermeier).
Your visit will undoubtedly start in the capital, Amman. A couple of hours’ drive to the east is Azraq Wetlands. This used to be a huge expanse of water but due to drainage for agriculture is now but a shadow of its once vastness. Plans are afoot to restore it to its majesty but it still attracts passage migrants and water birds into a desert landscape.
The deserts and dry mountains surrounding Azraq are home to many speciality birds, plants and animals. Black, Mourning, Hooded, Black-eared and Desert Wheatear somehow manage to find something to eat in the harsh environment, along with Desert, Bar-tailed and Temminck’s Larks, numerous sandgrouse and if you are very lucky a MacQueen’s Bustard or two. There’s even a chance of seeing elusive mammals such as wolf, golden jackal, wildcat and caracal.
The aforementioned Dhana Valley provided breathtaking scenery. The hotel was precariously perched on a cliff on one side of the valley and without leaving my bedroom I was able to enjoy telescope views of Chukar, Sardinian Warbler, Black Redstart, Blue Rock Thrush, Arabian ibex, rock hyrax and a truly wonderful, crystal clear star-filled sky at night.
Jordan’s most visited tourist attraction is the ancient city of Petra. In its heyday, over 10,000 people a day dropped by but because of adverse media coverage numbers are now down to 500 per day. The west’s slanted media coverage is directly affecting people’s livelihoods without even a second thought and it is only when one takes the trouble to experience it for oneself that the devastating consequences can be seen.
I must admit that I am not easily impressed by old buildings and the like, I much prefer the here and now of a living, breathing bundle of feathers that has seemingly magically flown thousands of miles on migration to a pile of old bricks or a dingy cave but Petra found me speechless at its majesty. It effortlessly ranks alongside the tombs, pyramids and temples of Egypt in the takes-your-breath-away stakes.
Even when being blown away by the history of the place, there’s still time to tick off Sinai Rosefinch, Blue Rock Thrush and Fan-tailed Raven!
Any birding trip to Jordan must include the Red Sea coast at Aqaba. Just like the Rift Valley, the Red Sea acts as a direction marker for passage migrants. Seabirds often get diverted up this ‘channel’ as they swirl around the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. They then hit Aqaba (and neighbouring Eilat in Israel) and turn around to get back on course.
White-eyed Gull, Western Reef Egret, Brown Booby and Striated Heron are sought-after species here and you can usually see them while sat on a sun-lounger on the beach with a cooling drink in your hand!
On my visit, the allotment plots along the promenade at Aqaba were loaded with passage migrants such as Semi-collared Flycatcher, Cretzschmar’s Bunting, ‘Eastern’ Whitethroat, Masked Shrike, Chiffchaff, Black-headed (Yellow) Wagtail and so on. Each visit produced a new set of birds.
Just north of Aqaba is Fifa Reserve. Here, we were shown Dead Sea Sparrows, one of the more attractive members of the Passer family. The Tamarisk bushes provided food and cover for a stream of migrants such as Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Blackcap, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Lesser Whitethroat and Woodchat Shrike, while the muddy edges of the Red Sea produced shorebirds such as Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Little Egret and Little Ringed Plover.
We also searched for day-roosting Nubian Nightjars amongst the Tamarisks, an endangered denizen of the night that I had the privilege of seeing in Israel a few years earlier. We were careful not to stray too close to the Israeli border, though! After our fruitless search, we retired to the visitor centre for a sweet tea, only to be joined by a Painted Lady butterfly, also a delicate migrant heading north.
Our whirlwind tour ended with a bit of relaxation on the banks of the Dead Sea. This body of water is famously so saline that it is impossible to drown. I was jokingly determined to be the first casualty. I nearly succeeded too: boy was it rough!
No visit to Jordan should pass without mentioning the people. Friendly doesn’t even begin to describe the welcome we received. It is a tradition to invite any stranger into your home and offer them tea and food. It is also a tradition to eat as much of the food you are offered as you can: anything less is considered an insult (I had no problem fulfilling my hosts’ wishes!). Tea is highly significant and accepting a small cup is the height of good manners.
On an unproductive search for a Hume’s Owl at Little Petra one night, five of us gathered in an ever-darkening canyon waiting for nightfall. A Bedouin appeared from his tent and approached the bunch of foreign strangers (us). Without hesitation, he invited us into his home for tea with his family (and goats) and we humbly accepted his offer.
Switch the situation round to almost anywhere else in the world (Arab-looking strangers hanging around your house after dark) and what would the reaction of the locals have been? I can almost guarantee that the first thought wouldn’t have been to invite them into your house for a cosy chat and a brew!
My experience of Jordanians was so far removed from the one portrayed in our media that they may as well have been from Jupiter for all the TV and newspaper editors knew. I recommend that you go see for yourselves…
- Pick your bird guide carefully. Fares Khoury seems to be the best.
- Jordanian Homeland Security seems to distrust optical equipment! Understandably, security is taken seriously in the Middle East but on my visit, the group were delayed by security for 25 minutes while they examined our binoculars, cameras and especially telescopes. My advice is to try and book your trip through the Jordanian Tourist Board and make sure they meet you off the plane and get you through security as you leave the country!