TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
31 OCTOBER - 9 NOVEMBER 1998
We arrived at Queen Alia International Airport, which lies about 30 km. to the south of Amman, after dark at about half past five in the afternoon. Already the crescent moon was shining brightly in the sky right next to the planet Jupiter, which made a suitably Islamic welcome to Jordan. We had already met our local guide Jad Al-Younis at Heathrow Airport and he had flown out with us. Jad had been working in London for the last few months and the opportunity that I had had to meet with him a few weeks earlier had left me with the impression that this was going to be an excellent trip. We settled into our modern hotel with a welcome glass of orange juice and a fine Jordanian meal.
We got up at 6.30 am. to find that the sun was well up in the sky, and had a fairly late start leaving at 7.30 am. The drive through Amman was interesting enough. We saw the distinctively painted trucks that the locals use for transporting vegetables and other things, and also the road-side coffee sellers with their steaming brass urns. We were heading north into one of the climatic zones of Jordan, the Mediterranean pine forests.
Our first stop was at the Roman city of Jerash. This is a hugely impressive Roman site. The weather was beautiful; it was warm, clear and sunny and we were, to start with, just about the only tourists there. On the way in we had already seen a Common Redstart, a Bluethroat and a Black Redstart before walking up to the almost perfect amphitheatre and had a go at listening to the amazing echoes that the walls project here. We walked up the Avenue, strolled through the Plaza, wondered at the Temple of Artemis and wandered back down through the colonnaded streets towards the Market Place. On the way we saw a Lesser Kestrel flying over briefly, and also three Steppe Eagles.
There were some other interesting creatures around the ruins. As well as a few butterflies there were lizards very commonly and at one point we saw a tortoise which had been found by a groundsman. Janet found a moth which we later identified as a kind of Tiger Moth (Cymbalophora pudica).
But perhaps it is the history which remains the most fascinating aspect of this site. The intricacy of the decorations on the stonework is breathtaking. The quality of the marble is also interesting. Some of the stones were 'singing stones', that is, if you struck them with another stone they would produce quite a clear note like a bell, and we had a fascinating time trying to produce a tune from several adjacent columns. We walked back via a grove of pine trees around the museum where there were a lot of finches, including Serin (European, and not, alas, Syrian) with at least one singing male there.
In the restaurant just outside the ruins we had a nice break and watched one of the chefs making the thin Druze bread (called Shrak). This was made by twirling a dough rather like a very thin pizza around in the air and slapping it on to a hot gas fired dome, like a metal dustbin lid. Several of the group had a go at this and pictures were duly taken of people proudly staring at their spinning UFO . Meanwhile the rest of us were watching a superb male Palestine Sunbird feeding on the flowers nearby.
After this we headed on into Dibbin Forest for lunch. As well as the impressive pine trees and Arbutus understory, one of the most striking things about this place was the abundance of litter in the area. The littering had been going on for quite some time : Jad scraped around on the ground a little bit and found quite a bit of Roman pottery! Jad gave us one of his famous quotes : "well, archaeology is all rubbish !".
In the pines here there were many small birds, literally hundreds, possibly thousands of Chaffinch going to roost and there were also Linnet and Greenfinch here and at one point at least one Hawfinch flew over. Here too were birds very much like we get in Britain including Robin, Chiffchaff, Jay, Great and Blue Tit, perhaps unremarkable until you realise that the nearest other Blue Tit population is over 500 miles away in Turkey!
We spent the final hour of the day by the Zarqa river. This was extremely productive with Graceful Warbler, many wagtails going to roost and an absolutely splendid White-breasted Kingfisher, which all of us eventually saw well through the telescopes. There was a steady passage of falcons overhead which we think were probably mostly Common Kestrel, but several others were claimed including a possible Hobby. Here there were also many Hooded Crow going to roost; this was the only day when we saw Hooded Crow throughout the trip.
We left at 7.30 am. again with the sun high in the sky; another warm, calm and sunny day beckoned. We drove through the dead centre of Amman through the poorer Palestinian area. Jad told us about the uprising in the 1970's, which sounded fairly horrific, but all seemed very peaceful now.
We headed out into the desert to the east of Amman. This was hammada, or flint desert. On the way we stopped for raptors. One particular bird caught my eye: a large long-winged raptor, which turned out to be a pale Long-legged Buzzard. It flew around with a Steppe Buzzard for comparison.
After not too many miles we stopped at a small wadi which looked promising. Here there were several kinds of finches coming into drink; a nice view of a Bluethroat and a couple of Cranes rather unexpectedly flew in and landed in the desert. Jad told us that this was a favoured wintering area for them. We continued on to our first desert fort. This was an eighth century Arab fort called al-Kharaneh. Jad told us that it was built to maintain some sort of control or contact with the Bedouins at that time. Outside was one of our first desert birds, a fine male Desert Wheatear, which interested both us and the guardsmen of the Desert Patrol who were waiting around outside,and who enjoyed looking through our telescopes. The fort itself was very impressive, with immensely thick walls producing a cool interior. We clambered around this place pretending to be Beau Geste and so on, and then travelled on to our next Islamic desert fort at Amra.
First we decided to walk up the wadi opposite to see if we could find any desert birds. The sun was very hot but we managed to see a few things including Northern Wheatear and then a superb Temminck's Horned Lark carrying food and probably breeding in the area. On the way back we had a nice view of our first Southern Grey Shrike perching on one of the bushes in the Wadi. We then moved on to the fort which was in fact a bathhouse for the Caliph in the seventh century. There was a sauna, a kind of swimming pool, drying rooms; in fact this was an early Islamic 'leisure centre'. The walls were decorated with superb frescos showing birds, asses, Oryx and several naked human beings. The whole thing was in the process of being cleaned. Bedouins throughout the centuries have been using it for storing their sheep and lighting fires inside, rather obscuring the frescos, but it was now looking both impressive and fascinating. One of the best bits was a representation of the constellations on a domed ceiling above one of the baths.
We continued on to Azraq for lunch where we had our first visit to Jad's cousins restaurant. Here once again we did the tourist bit with at least one leader dressing up in full Bedouin gear and trying to do the 'Lawrence of Arabia' thing. This included having to smoke a hookah, or a 'hubbly bubbly' as they call it.
We go on and check into our rather quirky hotel here. Jad tells us it is run by a Dutch lady, whereupon David leaps out of the bus and starts talking to the lady owner about what a wonderful time he had in Holland. She smiles indulgently at him and says 'Oh how nice...and by the way I am Bulgarian'.
The hotel itself was a converted private house, evidently built for private hunting parties in the area. The owner told us that the place used to be full of birds, with the marshes coming right up to the edge of the hotel, but today it seemed to be dry as far as the eye could see. If we were coming here to look at wetland birds in an oasis, we were obviously doomed to be disappointed.
Later on the afternoon we finished up at Jad's family farm which was mostly olive trees. We could see part of the problem that Azraq faces: there were no date palms here, only thirsty crops of olives and other trees which needed watering every day. After sunset we headed back to the hotel and noticed a constant roar of traffic from the road. These were Iraqi oil trucks. These trucks were coming through all night in small groups, and there was obviously a lot of oil leaving Iraq along this route. At this point we were not to know that Saddam Hussein had just kicked out the UN weapons inspectors, and that the US was just working its way up to a military air strike on Iraq. It was just as well as we were about 200 km. from the border here.
Another fine, clear dawn, and the hotel garden, which is planted up with olive trees, had several small birds including Redstarts, Chiffchaffs and Laughing Doves. After breakfast we started off at the fish ponds. These were mostly dry, but there was one with some water in. Here we saw a Reed Bunting and also a lovely Pied Kingfisher. The book tells us that it is quite a local rarity here now, although they used to breed.
We then went on to the Wetland Reserve where we were welcomed by a number of the people working on this project. The Wetland Project has got some impressive buildings, including a visitor centre in the process of construction, and a nice mud-brick hide. In fact it was a fine reserve, with just one missing ingredient : water ! We saw several pipes, and there was obviously the potential for pumping water to the reserve from ground water supplies. The amount of water they are allowed to use is severely restricted and we were to see how much the oasis had been damaged over the years.
The local guides took us for a walk through what can only be described as a scene of complete desolation. The ground was dusty, dry and burnt up. We were obviously walking through old reed beds. These were reed beds only five or maybe ten years ago, and the roots were still there to scratch our legs as we sank into the dust. It was a very hot day, and the dust was certainly getting to us as we walked round. However, even since Jad's last visit not that long ago, the water had receded dramatically, and now was confined to a very small section of the reserve just in front of the hide. Normally there are quite a few raptors in the air over the reserve but even in this today we were sadly disappointed.
This had obviously been a rich hunting ground, not just for the people that had stayed at our hotel ten or more years go, but for several thousand years in the past. Jad found arrowheads and Neolithic scrapers on the ground showing evidence of hunting up to something like twenty thousand years ago. Also in the burnt-out areas were the bleached bones of water buffalo that had once lived here. This just added to the desolate feel of the place. How incredibly sad that one of the Middle East's great wetlands should have come to this parched dustbowl. Conservationists like Jad are struggling to revive parts of the marsh and certainly some money is going in to the reserve. The rather fine mud-brick hide where we ended up is not only unique, but extremely comfortable and well designed, and we watched Water Rail and several other birds including Kingfisher from here, as well as watching the workers cutting reeds. But unfortunately no amount of money spent on the reserve will bring back the water, unless permission can be granted for more to be pumped out of the ground.
After a fine lunch back at Jad's cousins again we headed off for Shaumeri Reserve. This was just off the Saudi road and again here there was a constant procession of trucks, this time transporting goods between Syria and Saudi, both of whom have borders very close to here. Azraq certainly has the feel of a frontier town with people on the move all the time.
After the turning we stopped as several larks flew past, and got out to have a look. I found Temminck's Horned Lark at the same time as Jad found a Hoopoe Lark! We watched both these wonderful desert birds through the 'scopes. One Hoopoe Lark gave a wonderful display of its wing pattern as it flew high across the road. Just by the reserve fence we stopped again; it was absolutely alive with small birds here. Inside the fence the scrub had grown to about a metre in height where grazing had been prevented, whereas outside the fence it was nice and open for birds to feed, so that the edge was very productive. We saw Southern Grey Shrike, Redstarts, Stonechat and two species of Wheatear here.
Jad used to be in charge of the Arabian Oryx project here and, after duly greeting the wardens and pointing out the room where he used to live, he directed us up the tower to look at the Oryx and the Onagers (Arabian Asses) in the open. We could also see the Gazelles and Ostrich in the enclosures. To get closer to the Oryx we had to go out on a tractor cart. We climbed up into the trailer and bumped off across the compound and out through the fence. I was not very optimistic about the bird potential of doing this but was pleasantly surprised when a Harrier flew across and the tractor driver stopped for us to see. It was one of those very difficult female or immature harriers which Jad thought was probably a Montagu's. We then saw a pale male Harrier, a superb and much more easily identifiable Pallid Harrier. The two flew together hunting over the reserve. As we watched these about ten Cranes also flew over.
We drove up to the Oryx and had excellent views of these superb creatures browsing in this rich reserve, and ended the day with a very pleasant mint tea with the wardens under the trees in the reserve garden and watching a very fine sunset across the desert.
Last night an intrepid band of us went out to hear the oud music in Jad's cousins cafă, and had a bit of arak, a local aniseed liqueur, but nonetheless, all were counted present and correct at breakfast.
It was another hot and sunny day and we started off at Azraq Castle, also known as Lawrence's Castle. We saw the stone doors written about by Lawrence, but could not get them to 'clang shut and echo round the castle'. The castle itself is very impressive and we saw Roman foundations as well as the later Arabic stone ceilings. The room where Lawrence plotted the invasion of Aqaba was very evocative; another superb historical site with absolutely no other tourists.
We then started on the long road south towards Petra; the desert here is absolutely featureless and you can imagine the difficulty of navigating without any signs here. We stopped for Hoopoe Larks again and also Mourning Wheatears. At mid-day we looked for a place to have lunch and found some bushes in a small old quarry. These were absolutely alive with Chiffchaffs and a few Redstart: probably as many Chiffchaff as we had seen during the whole trip.
We enjoyed the lunch that Jad had bought for us in Azraq and then started to explore. The quarry had obviously been going for quite a long time. Jad managed to pick up a few more Neolithic flints and found what were obviously dozens more lying about on the surface. He was of the opinion that it was one of these Neolithic flint 'factories', a place where they made the flints and then discarded all the ones that were sub-standard. After lunch we drove on to Al-Jafr, the mud flats where Richard Noble tried to break the land supersonic record.
We continued on to Ma'an; just at the far side we stopped for a raptor and saw what turned out to be a pair of Lesser Kestrels flying about and displaying over a hill-side, a superb sight. Then we drove up over the mountains and down into the Petra valley to arrive at about 5 pm. Wadi Musa seemed to be a very busy and touristy place after the areas we had been but we enjoyed a good welcome at the fine Petra Palace Hotel.
It was important that on this crucial day we got up early and had breakfast as early as we could and got to the gates of Petra as soon as they opened. We breakfasted at 6 am, left at 6.30, and got to the gates in time for the 7 am. opening. It was well worth the effort. The light for one thing was superb, but it was also very quiet and (apart from the odd French film crew!) there was hardly anyone else walking in.
On the track down we already got an impression of how good a bird site this was and already saw Mourning Wheatear and several Scrub Warblers while Rock Martins flew overhead. We continued on through the narrow gorge called the Siq where Jad pointed out the recently excavated wall-carvings of a camel-train, and the ancient water pipes of the Nabateans.
The first glimpse of the famous Treasury was as amazing as it was no doubt designed to be. Perhaps the most surprising thing to me were the colours of the rocks inside the cave. Swirling sandstone bands gave it decoration that no human artist could imitate. We strolled through this formidable city of caves and saw several tombs still being excavated. Jad explained that only 20% of Petra had been looked at so far, and there is still an amazing amount of archaeology to do here.
We stopped for morning tea at a Bedouin rock cafă on the way down through the main valley and then continued up to the tomb of the Urn, on the way seeing a very scruffy Sinai Rosefinch which nonetheless gave us good views. The tomb gave us a great view out over the main part of Petra, had superb colours again inside and also had some good birds around the entrance. We saw White-crowned Black Wheatear and two Blackstarts flying round a bush They turned out to be mobbing a snake, which disappeared rapidly under some stones. Below the tomb there were also three more Sinai Rosefinches. We went down for a better look at these and also saw Desert Lark and Mourning Wheatear.
We continued on down through the Roman colonnaded street for lunch at a Bedouin restaurant. Only when we got here did we get any impression of large numbers of people. The rest of Petra was delightfully uncrowded and not nearly as fraught as I had expected. From the cafă Jad showed us the cave where he used to live for four months while he was excavating here.
After lunch the group split up, with Jad taking half the group up the eight hundred steps to the Monastery for wonderful views out over the Rift Valley. The rest went with me down a side wadi for some breathtaking cliff scenery and a few birds, including, surprisingly, Chaffinch and Great Tit, and masses of Yellow-vented Bulbuls. Overhead a large eagle with a pale crown flew past : a fine Imperial Eagle. There were also flocks of Tristram's Grackles flying about high overhead, but the other group going up to the Monastery had much better views of these.
As we walked back in the lovely late afternoon light we had another new species of bird in the shape of a flock of Rock Sparrows going to roost in the Siq. We reached the gates as it was getting dark in time for a little bit of shopping.
Later that evening just two of us walked into Petra again on one of the first 'Petra by Moonlight' excursions that they had run. I must confess that I was spurred on by the possibility of hearing Hume's Tawny Owl which the books say is present there, but was unprepared for the overall quality of the experience. The locals had put candles in brown paper bags to illuminate both the Siq and the Treasury area. The overall experience was wonderfully atmospheric, with incense and flute music, and the hushed voices of the fifty or sixty people that joined us. I should mention that there was a full moon that night as well !
It was hot even as we started, without any wind today. We began by a visit to the nearby Neolithic village of al-Beidha near Little Petra, a miniature version of the more famous site. We emerged from the coach into a truly Biblical scene : around the Bedouin tents, the women were hand-spinning and weaving, while the men across the wadi were slaughtering a goat. The kids followed us (I mean the children rather than the young goats !) and we soon had a small procession clinging to us, and rather curious to know what we were doing. Eventually I let them take turns to look through my telescope, and, as usual on these occasions (remembering Morocco and Egypt!) they were more interested in seeing their sheep in the distance than seeing the nearby birds that we were looking at.
Talking of Bedouins I notice in the log that this was the day that Alison, who seemed to be looking increasingly 'Bedouin like' in her kaffiyeh, and Peter were claiming to have been married in a secret Bedouin ceremony some time over the last few days. They didn't say how many camels were involved in this !
There were some interesting desert birds around here with many White-crowned and Mourning Wheatears, and plenty of Desert Larks and Rock Martins. Jad took us to see the amazing ruins of a village that was an incredible nine to eleven thousand years old. People at this time were just settling down and turning from hunters into herdsmen, and no doubt living very much as the Bedouins who live there today.
On the way back we saw a flock of about twenty Fan-tailed Ravens. As we drove on through the highlands we found another flock of at least fifty; this was surprising to me as they were much less numerous on the Israel side of the Rift Valley.
We drove onto Wadi Rum stopping for views over a dramatically different landscape. Here huge isolated sandstone hills were scattered over a broad flat desert landscape. We stopped briefly on a busy road to look at a Steppe Eagle overhead and continued on for lunch at Wadi Rum Guest House. It was very hot by this time, and our tea in a Bedouin tent round the back was a sweltering affair, with the thermometer reading 32§. But after this we were hoping that the jeep ride round Wadi Rum would cool us.
The jeeps turned out to be small trucks; we climbed into the back and bumped off across the desert. It was an exhilarating experience to be bouncing along amongst this vast desert scenery with such wonderful colours. Jad took us to see the Talmudic inscriptions at 'Lawrence's Spring' and then we drove in a cloud of dust across the plain where 'Lawrence of Arabia' was filmed: a wonderful choice of film set with a fabulous sense of space. We drove across to the huge red sandstone hill that features on the cover of Ian Andrews' 'Birds of Jordan' , and Jad took us again to see more drawings and inscriptions in a narrow gorge here. We drove along increasingly bumpy tracks to hills that looked like molten candle wax, passed red sand dunes that reminded Henry of the interior of Australia, and then back for late afternoon tea. At dusk we set of for Aqaba and descended down to the Red Sea coast amidst impressive jagged rocks and scenery, which grew ever more purple in the dusk.
We were up before breakfast and onto the beach hoping for a few seabirds. Aqaba is a rather different experience to North Beach at Eilat. We had to pick our way amongst the rubbish and the untidy cafăs along the beach front here, and with very few birds to show for it. We did of course see the ubiquitous House Crow and a couple of White-eyed Gulls in the bay.
After breakfast we headed off to Aqaba Sewage Pools which sound somewhat unexciting but in fact turned out to be the best bird site of the whole trip, as well as being quite a pleasant place to be. The tree-lined avenue leading to the pools was probably the tidiest place in the whole of Aqaba!
Immediately through the gate we starting finding birds in the shape of two very smart Little Green Bee-eaters on wires. As we walked to the ponds there were many Grey Heron standing around together with a few Little Egret. The first pools were bulldozed too deep for birds. We decided to investigate and, as we looked at the last one a brown bird flew up : a Nightjar, which perched briefly on the side of the track giving those who were quick enough good views, before flying off under the trees. It was an all-dark bird which makes it a female or immature European Nightjar, a very late record for Jordan - certainly later than any Ian Andrews mentions in his book. We continued on to the main pools and got the first real wildfowl and waders of the trip, with hundreds of Coot and Teal and smaller numbers of other duck.
But perhaps the most striking feature of the morning were the raptors flying over. We had an amazing eight or more Steppe Eagles flying across, a Griffon Vulture, and two large brown eagles which Jad and I independently identified as Spotted Eagle: a very unusual bird down here. The raptors came through in a period of perhaps an hour or so and as we were watching these we could also see Red-throated Pipits, Bluethroats and Yellow Wagtails. Suddenly an Namaqua Dove flew across and settled to drink by one of the pools. This was a wonderful record for this area. Despite being common across the frontier. Namaqua Doves are rarely seen over on the Jordan side. In fact this was apparently the first autumn record!
We walked along a promising path hearing the high whistles of Penduline Tit and walked back in the heat towards the coach. It was very hot when we were out of the wind, but this dry area still had its rewards: a pale lark turned out to be our first Bar-tailed Desert Lark ,and we also flushed a fine male Desert Wheatear near the sands here.
Lunch was taken in an Azraq restaurant. It turned out to be a rather mammoth affair with kebabs and masses of Jordanian starters. After a massive lunch like this we had to have a rest and went back to the hotel to find that they had folded all our bathroom towels into swan shapes and arranged them neatly on our beds in a row!
Most of us then went out again to try the newly-built back road near the Saudi border. On the way down we had wonderful close views of an adult Steppe Eagle level with the coach. The back road was at first rather disappointing, apparently over rather barren sandy wadis. Only the odd Blackstart provided any interest, but on the way back our coach driver Naim spotted several birds by the roadside, including Desert Larks, and a pale bird that we initially thought was another lark. The problem was that we could not see it as it kept perching on the roof of the coach! Eventually it landed alongside us, and I realised that it was a female Hooded Wheatear, "a notoriously difficult species to find" according to Ian Andrews.
After this amazing piece of luck we headed down for a view of the sunset at the beach which not only gave us a few good photos but also three Kentish and one Greater Sand Plover in the fast fading light. The great finale to what had been an excellent birding day were two Caspian Terns flying right over our heads. When we got back to the hotel we heard the sad news that Naim our excellent driver and wonderful bird-spotter had to leave to take another group that day, and we paid our farewells in the bar.
A hazy start with light cloud and more humid conditions today. Aqaba Sewage Pools were so good yesterday that we decided to try again. The first pool had the usual herons but these had been joined by about fifty White Storks, which gave us something of a surprise. There was also a Spoonbill here. As we were watching these, a Hobby flew over. This immature was to give us wonderful views all morning as it hawked for the abundant dragonflies here.
Just round the corner I saw a man sitting on the ground beckoning to me, so I went over, as you would, and found that he was inviting me to have tea. I squatted down and took the proffered glass of mint tea while waiting for a somewhat bemused party to make up their minds about this splendid offer. Neither of us could speak the other's language so Jad came over to translate. The man had absolutely reassured him that the water did not come from the sewage pools - so why was I the only one drinking tea at this point ? The White Storks, he told us, rather sadly often died here. It was a place where they landed and could not find food, and sometimes weather conditions stopped them from taking off again on their migration. We were later to see three White Stork corpses.
Again we had a hot walk back to the coach, this time through the date palm plantation. This area is going to be excellent in about ten years time. Just as Eilat have rooted out all their date palms, this area is going to improve immensely. By the main farm we had superb final views of the Little Green Bee-eaters. After another fine lunch in the restaurant several of us went down to the Royal Diving Centre for some snorkelling and some rather quiet sea watching. Those of us who braved the waves and went snorkelling had wonderful views of the coral reef as you would expect and the very colourful fish. I personally remember getting face to face with a Lion Fish at one point, an impressive encounter.
In the evening we went into town to check-in for tomorrow's flight and get our luggage labels. The place to do this was a souvenir and carpet shop, the owner of which did airport check-ins as a side-line ! Henry pointed to the carpets and hoped that these weren't supposed to be our means of transport as well. It proved to be a very useful combination - buy a heavy carpet here, and there is no problem at all with the luggage weight at check-in! On the way back we also stopped off at a fascinating spice shop, and got a few recipes from Jad - I still haven't tried the chicken and sumach !
Time to say farewell to Jordan, and we said good-bye in style, with a flight from Aqaba along the Rift Valley over Petra, up to Amman. This was a very entertaining flight giving us views of both the Jordanian and the Israeli side. Those of us that knew the area well could pick out well-known landmarks, including K33, Yotvata Sewage Pools and so on, and we also had the most amazing aerial views of the moonlike landscape around Petra.
We said a very rushed farewell to Jad at Amman airport as our flight had been delayed and left us very little time to connect, though we were soon settled in our seats reflecting on what had been the most entertaining of introductions to a fascinating country and its history.
Many thanks indeed are due to Naim our wonderful keen-eyed driver, to Fadi Sayess of Discovery Tours who organised the trip so effectively, but most of all to Jad Al-Younis our walking encyclopaedia of a guide, whose knowledge on almost anything including archaeology, wildlife, culture and cooking was breathtaking. Thanks too, Jad, for being such an excellent companion throughout the trip !
© The Travelling Naturalist 1998