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Return to the Middle East, the Hashmite Kingdom of Jordan. (1 Viewer)

Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
Staff member
United Kingdom
Back to the Middle East, albeit the tame, ultra safe, politically stable, welcoming Hashmite Kingdom of Jordan ;)

Having travelled extensively in the Middle East before, this mid-winter break was very much the result of a desire to seek out just two species of bird - both elusive denizens of wild remote wadis and mountain top, neither particularly easy to find. The birds in question, Syrian Serin and Hume's Tawny Owl, the first an endemic to the highlights of the region and the latter a localised resident of remote desert wadis and canyons across the Middle East.

Thus, this my third visit to Jordan, would see my two weeks in the country concentrate initially on the Dana and Petra areas, stunning mountain landscapes at the lip of the Rift Valley, favoured localities for the two target birds. Thereafter, I would enjoy the rest of the country at leisure - travelling south to the dramatic Wadi Rum and then the Red Sea at Aqaba, before looping north through Wadi Araba to the Dead Sea, then to the Jordan Valley and Northern Highlands, before a final push which would see me crossing the Eastern Deserts to reach the Azraq oasis and habitats around.

Unlike its better-known neighbour, relatively few birders visit Jordan, fewer still in winter - the result being a trip of discovery, finding your birds and turning up surprises here and there. On my trip, these included quite a number of species previously unrecorded in winter, including Masked Shrike, Common Redstart and Whiskered Tern, plus several birds that would be classified as national rarities, including Sociable Plover, Woodcock (perhaps third record for Jordan) and Ruddy Shelduck.

As a country, Jordan is impressive - a land inhabited by exceptionally friendly people, blessed by natural beauty and architectural wonder unrivalled in the region and rich in birds throughout. An idea country for a short winter break, the weather rather kind too.
Ahh - so that's where you've been - I was about to post something along the lines of "Where's Jos?"

Look forward to reading this account in particular, as my wife knows the country well and is trying to get me to visit.

Have you been walking into people's houses and demanding food and coffee again? ;)

Looking forward to reading this.
18 December.
16.30 Vinius airport, minus 14 C, heavy snow. Eight hours later, via a transfer in Riga and short stop in Beirut, touchdown in Amman, Jordan. 6 C, clear skies.

Cleared customs, picked up a hire car. 2.00 a.m., time to hit the roads, dawn would see me at my first destination.

19 December. Wadi Dana.

One of Jordan's jewels, Wadi Dana is a jaggled slash in the world's crust, a dramatic wadi cutting deep into the limestones that mark the edge of the Great Rift Valley. And perched high on the crags overlooking this wadi is the quaint Dana Village, a cluster of stone-built cottages, one of which is now the Dana Hotel, home for the next two nights.

Dana Village however would wait a few hours, my first port of call was Barra Forest - land of the Syrian Serin. Stunted pine and juniper woodlands dotting the high slopes, dramatic landscapes indeed. Reports however spoke of the bird being not so easy to find.

Arrived pre-dawn, had a couple of hours kip in the car, then it was time for the birding to begin. Coveys of Chukar exploded off rocky slopes all around, the flutey trills of Spectacled Bulbuls announced it truly was dawn, high time I was out and wandering. At an altitude of over 1500 metres, t'was rather chilly up here - still a mere 6 C and mighty breezy too! Wolf whisltles and ee-oorrs carrying on the morning winds, flocks of Tristram's Grackles arriving from roost, a good 120 or so swooping down, circling around. Pink pink pink, Chaffinches next up, an abundant bird wintering in these parts. Indeed they were, as I began my walk, Chaffinches everywhere on the slopes. However, a wind now buffeting did little for my attempts to find the Syrian fella - three hours I walked, the tops of this vast canyon none too sheltered. A flock of Rock Sparrows made for a nice pause, five Griffon Vultures hanging low over the ridge impressive, but almost no hint of anything I could possibly construe as a Syrian Serin. Almost no hint! A fenced compound some kilometres down a small road held a most juicy wad of fine habitat. Round the fence I went, two Scrub Warblers alarming, flocks of Great Tits here and there, plus one mystery songster stubbornly refusing to budge from its chosen perch deep in a tall juniper. Through the fence I peered, changed angle many times, thought I could out sit it ...but I blinked before it chose to show! One possible Syrian Serin singing, hardly a conclusive find.

Gave up and decided to try the lower slopes - the serins do disperse in winter, perhaps they would be in the gardens and wadi bottoms near the village. Checked into the cosy Dana Hotel, sat atop its roof a while, sipping Arabic chai and admiring views. Blue Rock Thrush and Black Redstarts hopped about on an adjacent roof, Tristram's Grackles most showy, very vocal and bouncing around everywhere.

Pretty warm by now, the mid-morning sun most welcome, onward the hunt for Syrian Serin. From Dana Village, a small path runs parallel to the slope - a most merciful thing, the wadi itself plunges a thousand metres and a half to Wadi Araba far below, a hot sandy plain below sea level. With springs feeding the gardens, plenty of lush vegetation ...and in it plenty of birds. Spectacled Bulbuls by the bucketload, Chukars in their hundreds launching into space at every turn, plus wintering Robins, a couple of Blackbirds, more Chaffinches and a bevy of locals - Palm Doves, two Rock Buntings, a few Sardinian Warblers and some rather smart Spectacled Warblers . No serins of any description. Still, more good birds to follow - a cracking flock of Arabian Babblers doing their stuff, my second flock of Rock Sparrows of the day and, from a damp patch amongst the gardens, a Woodcock. Nice I thought, didn't expect that. Only later did I discover this might actually be only the third record for Jordan, the previous two being in 1968 and 1979.

More tea, then back up to Barra Forest for an afternoon session - a long pleasant walk, a flock of Woodlarks to kick off, several Scrub Warblers with their bob tails along the way, but mighty birdless it seemed overall. Thankfully it was nice and sunny though! By 3 p.m., with barely any birds seen in the previous hour, I happened upon a little flurry of birds dropping down to water, a temporal rock pool the result of storms a week earlier. Greenfinches, Linnets, but was that something else? A smaller thing flitting through with yellow flashes on the tail? Maybe just hallicinations, undoubtedly a Greenfinch. Squeezed through a gap in the rock to reach the pool ...then bam, there it was, one cracking male Syrian Serin perched on the boulder directly opposite! What a little corker, yellow face and all. Quickly grabbed the camera, a quick few snaps followed, then down to the water he dropped, out of sight. No sooner had he descended, then so too did two more, females this time. Most splendid, three Syrian Serins to round off the afternoon.

Target number one under the belt. Back to the hotel, a well-deserved night of rest to follow.

Photographs: dodgy images of mister, slightly better of missus...


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20 December. Wadi Dana.

Dana, day two. My eyes were bigger than my legs - from the top, peering into the cavernous Wadi Dana, a stroll down its precipitious drops seemed a most wonderful idea, the scrubby wadi bottoms no doubt a haven to delights such as Palestine Sunbird and Blackstart. And how easy it all seemed, shimmying down scree slopes, Chukars parting in my wake, the whistles and yodels of Tristram's Grackles a pleasing backdrop for the ear. By 10 a.m. however, sitting atop a huge boulder drinking coffee and surveying the world around, doubts began to surface as to the sanity of the descent ...for every easy metre down, it was going to be one hell of a slog up! Way up above, the cozy retreat of the village now stood as testiment to how far I already had to climb. And what is more, bar the oh so numerous Chukars and ever-present Spectacled Bulbuls, I was actually seeing very few birds, the arid slopes basically devoid of life.

Change of plan required, a little admiration of little yellow crocus flowers emerging from the sun-baked sands, then upward, and upward ever more. Thermos totally empty by the time I reached the gardens, the bird list hardly padded out at all - a couple of Black Redstarts, a few scrawny Sardinian Warblers bleating their scratchy songs from tussocks, and that was about that. Back at hotel, over and above the stunning landscapes, I actually realised there was little reason to stay much longer at Dana - the winter bird community is sparce, and its star, the Syrian Serin I had already seen. It was decided, next morning I would leave, but that still left time for second helpings on the Syrian Serin front. Back to Barra I went, a small detour taking me via the nearby town to sample again the felafal munchies, a pause on the high plateau adding the first Finsch's Wheatears of the trip.

So it was another aternoon on the rolling slopes of juniper forest, again largely devoid of birds, but enjoyable all the same - Scrub Warblers quite common, little gems they are, but little else. Ended up at the drinking pool, and then right on cue, 3 p.m., in came the Syrian Serins again, this time just two females. Very nice. Hiked back to the car, and there waiting for me, a flock of six! And, stone me, another kilometre up, a further three by the roadside. Like London buses, you wait all day, then they all come at once!!!

For evening entertainment, a little night drive - perhaps a few critters of the dark out and about. One Red Fox sauntering across the road, a small flutter and there atop a post, a most engaging Little Owl. Stunning views, he just sat there, mere metres from the car. I began to dream, 'wouldn't it be good if Hume's Tawny Owl choose to show so well...'. Mind you, it was blowing a right hooley just now, it was as much as the poor Little Owl could do to just sit tight!


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Excellent - a new adventure begins! I came here for training with BirdLife in Aug/Sept 2001. My itinerary was a limited (public transport only) version of yours, so I'm very interested to see how different the birds are in winter compared to the early days of the autumn migration.

21 December. Petra.

Petra requires little introduction, the fabled city of the ancient Nabateans, towering monuments and temples calved into a sea of sandstones, their reds swirling in a sensual mix of shade and hue. Truly one of the world's outstanding sites of beauty, Nabatean hands and two millenia of nature in harmony.

For all its allure however, I would not spend the whole day at Petra. Some kilometres to the north, in wild contorted wadis, a very special bird lurks - the be all and end all of my trip, the mystical Hume's Tawny Owl, its very name almost magical for me. With a little afternoon planning, identifying likely wadis, planning my route, I had hope that the hours of darkness would bring my goal within reach - all of that however was still many hours into the future.

Here I was now, 8.00 a.m., beginning the dramatic walk down the narrow Siq, an awe-inspiring cleft through the mountains barely three metres wide, but 150 metres deep. The sky above barely visible, the walls of the canyons reds and oranges, a 2 km stroll, eyes constantly on the look out for Sinai Rosefinch, frequently seen on this route. None seen, but already I had encountered superb Mourning Wheatears, flocks of Desert Larks and a Blue Rock Thrush. And then, as the gorge spills out into the lost city, Petra opens before your eyes, the imposing Treasury like a slap in the face, greeting you with the power of its position, 40 metre high grandiose, Rock Martins circling its upper ornaments. Not my first visit here, but even for me, a self-confessed history ignoramus, I had to just sit a while and just take in the spectacle. Not too long mind you!

Petra is a massive place, so having bought a two-day ticket, today would see me hurrying through the main city, past its amphitheatre and along its collonaded street, then beginning the long hot trek up to the Monastry, the furthest-flung, hardest-to-get-to, but most impressive monument in the whole complex. And it is a right slog to reach - a steep narrow path twisting up through wadis and cracks in the cliff face, near an hour in temperatures a pleasant 24 C, frequent pauses to enjoy the views and birds, a couple of Blackstarts, my first Sinai Rosefinch of the trip, a smart male, and yet more Mourning Wheatears (the whole city actually littered with these). With the sun beating down, the final steps taken, you can then turn and admire, the Monastry not visible until you round a rock face ...and then there it is, even bigger than the Treasury, a stunning piece of work. And dead good for birds too! All around, Desert Larks scampering about, Scrub Warbers in little tussocks, Rock Martins overhead and both Black Redstart and Blackstart hopping across boulders, White-crowned Black Wheatear too. What a perfect place, coffee time.

Much scrambling down, back across the paths and through the Siq, it was time to explore the wadis ten kilometres or so to the north. With sunset still three hours away, I quickly found the wadi that seemed just top notch - now inhabited by just a Mourning Wheatear and a couple of scrawny dogs, hopefully dark would reveal a ghostly shape upon the boulders and ledges that towered above.

Time to kill, I ventured on a couple of kilometres, happened upon a small patch of irrigated land - a teeming oasis in this arid land, truly bustling with birds. Only had ashort time to explore, a very quick look around revealing Chiffchaffs by the dozen, large flocks of Spanish Sparrows and, hopping along the field edge, Bluethroats most royal.

However, the sun was now edging towards the horizon, it was time to relocate, time for attempt number one on Hume's Tawny Owl.

Photo, a little desert bird...


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A top night...

6.30 p.m., near total darkness, the sun long gone, a full moon yet to rise. A pack of dogs howled a manic welcome as I crept back through the wadi to my chosen wait point. Boy I hoped those dogs would shut up - my only hope to locate these owls would be if they chose to start calling, something I was by no means sure they do in late December. I sat on the sands beneath an emormous boulder and waited for the dogs to calm down, cliffs looming above in the darkness, not a breath of wind to stir the night. The dogs quietened, an eerie silence befell the valley ...a total silence, not a hoot of a bird, not a whimper of an animal.

I waited, time ticked by. A full moon appeared over a jagged crest of rock, then far in the distance, not in the wadi I sat, an oo-oo-oo carrying on the air. Hume's Tawny Owl, excellent, one in the area. Ten minutes later, I was in the wadi the calls had seemed to emanate. Total silence, hmphh! And then the calls started again, back in the wadi I had been sat earlier!!! Dogs started up again as I plodded back, but the owl was still active as I returned, me sitting back beneath my boulder to listen to it call. Not wishing to startle the bird, I thought it prudent to locate by ear before turning on any lights ....it seemed to be right in front of me, perhaps 40 or 50 metres up the cliff opposite. On with the spotlight, sweeping the rocktops and ledges, the bird not even pausing in its calls. There it was, one Hume's Tawny Owl in all its glory, a sandy beaut on a small ledge, calling and peering around at the wadi below. Having only the in-camera flash, this was way too high for any chance of a decent photograph, but the bird was just sitting there, bird of the year in an instant. Then into the air he launched, right over my head and onto the cliff behind me, still about 40 metres up. With possiblities to scramble a little closer, I thought it a good idea to check all was set with my camera, down I crouched, fiddling with the dials in the dark, the spotlight off.

I then almost jumped out of my socks - the owl had moved again, it was calling right behind me! Afraid to move, I gently turned and switched on the spotlight ...stone me, it really was right behind me, literally sat on the boulder I was crouching beneath!!! Raised my camera, click click, the bird just four or five metres away. Christmas had come early, I watched him a while, then back up to the cliff he went. Cheers, Hume's Tawny Owl, you made my night.

Left him in peace, back to Petra for felafal and celebratory tea. Rather chuffed, it has to be said.


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Congratulations Jos - it sounds like you had a similar experience to me! Was this bird one of the same pair that I saw? And did you nail it in the middle wadi at the site I pinned on Googlemaps or somewhere else in the area?

A great bird and brings back strong memories of May.
Another healthy dose of vicarious tick fest for me, thanks!

Make a tape of the noises you were making and sell it as a Hume's Tawny Owl Lure!
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