Jordan Trip Report
March 3-15, 2011
I must admit that some of us had misgivings heading to the Middle East at the current time. Several countries were in chaos and the general thought was that this would continue to spread throughout much of the Arab world. After several phone calls with reassuring answers we were on our way to Amman and the prospect of a new adventure. After all, this was a new destination for us here in the Ventures office. While most of us arrived on time, Frances and I missed our international connection in Chicago and had to spend the night. We were then rerouted to Paris and onto Amman a day later that we had planned. Tired and in need of a shower and a change of clothes, we discovered that our bags had not made it with us. Meanwhile the others had all enjoyed a tour of The Citadel and other attractions in Central Amman. Thankfully we still had a day to recover before our tour started.
Meeting our guides, Jamal and Anwar the next morning we were soon off to Madaba for our first cultural stop of the tour and to see the 6th Century mosaics on the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church. The town had barely awakened so we had the place to ourselves before other vistors began to arrive. Watching a sand painter design his camel painting in a jar of sand was also a fascinating and exacting process.
Mt Nebo was not as grand as many of us had imagined and the temple was being refurbished as we drove past the site on our way to the Rift Valley and the Dead Sea. What a view this was as the yellow- brown hills plunged down to the lowest part of the world. We took a small walk and enjoyed the view and some early spring flowers- Crown Anemones and Spring Asphodels were covering the rocky mountainsides and a pair of Syrian Serins gave us brief views before disappearing over the ridge. We did however get our first views of the striking and fairly common Mourning Wheatear.
A stop at Suwaimah on the north shore of the Dead Sea was dramatic in its starkness; overgrazed and damaged habitat, a retreating shoreline and very few birds- not the best birding spot I have ever seen.
Our chalets in Mujib had a stunning view of the Dead Sea but due to the Sea levels dropping so rapidly it was quite the scramble down to the waters edge. It was also a scramble (upwards!) for our Ibex Trail hike. We took it slowly, and were rewarded with incredible scenery and even a few good birds, such as our only Hooded Wheatear of the tour.
The lodge at Dana was perched atop a step cliff overlooking the wadi with mountains surrounding it and a view descending into the Rift Valley way below. Our walks in and around the ancient village and rocky trails produced Chukar, Hawfinch and Eurasian Griffon Vulture, but our views of the endangered Nubian Ibex were just a little distant. Still at least the population is doing well and will soon reoccupy much of its former range. Continuing south towards the Red Sea and Aqaba, our next stop was Captains Camp and the wide open rocky deserts of Wadi Rum. Soaring cliffs and red deserts greeted us as we took 4-wheel drive vehicles through the canyons and rocky wadis. Purple flowers carpeted the sand and a flock of Trumpeter Finches added their tracks to the desert tapestry.
Aqaba, on the Red Sea, is a different type of town- very touristy and very much a beach type of place. Seeing camels on the beach was bizarre as was seeing local Jordanian ladies in all their garb wading into the sea. The Aqaba Bird Observatory (AKA Aqaba Sewage Farm) is an excellent birding locale albeit a little peculiar with the Israel border being so close and security personnel hovering around in their towers. The dense thickets and open wetlands attract a lot of birds and our highlights were Common Quail, Ruppell's Warbler, Slender-billed Gull, and a flock of very difficult to see Dead Sea Sparrows that spent most of their time in the dense tamarisk thickets.
Petra was amazing and there's nothing much I can add about this except it was darn cold the day we visited. The wind whistled down the rocky canyon but the scenery was incredible. Some of us even took donkey rides back up the canyon at the end of the day. Little Petra was also very atmospheric and our evening excursion out owling produced a fly-over Hume's Tawny-Owl- alas it was only a brief sighting and only seen by a few of the group as it was decidedly chilly outside.
Several of us were planning to dip our toes (and maybe even our whole bodies) in the Dead Sea, but the temps were not obliging and we were foced to look for migrants in the thickets along the shore instead! A Reed Warbler and a couple more Bluethroats (!) were the highlights. More Bluethroats (can one ever see too many?) were in the agricultural fields on our way north along with a great flock of Syrian Serins that everyone managed to get onto. A stop at a trashy reservoir produced a northbound (and rare) Black Stork, as well as Common Snipe, and an great comparison between Little and Temmminck's Stint, all good. Dibeen Forest was beautiful and to me (the closet horticulturalist) the wild cyclamen stole the show. Birding was a little tame and it took us some time and effort to get a Blue Tit (really?!!!)
The ancient Roman city of Jerrash was amazing with columns, amphitheatres, and much, much more. Jamal did a great job explaining the history of the times despite our birding distractions, such as the Common Quail that sped past our group. We invisaged ourselves walking the stone avenues of this once, great city and it was certainly odd to think how quickly it had collapsed.
We finished our tour in Jordan with a couple of days in the northeastern deserts. With roadsigns leading to Iraq or Saudi Arabia, sometimes thinking about birds seemed a little trivial, but that's why we were there. Temminck's Horned Larks were great birds and several stops in the desert en route to Azraq produced a little flock of these, plus Bar-tailed Desert Lark, more Ruppell's Warblers and a beautiful male Cretzchmar's Bunting- en route to breeding grounds to the north. Birding these desert oases was always fun as you never knew what bird would appear next. Azraq used to be a great wetland with thousands of wintering waterfowl and wading birds. It was sad to see what used to be and what years of misuse and greed had destroyed. We explored the area, got stuck in the mud and found a few birds, but nothing like what must have been. The little Visitors Center was educational but seemed to have little effect on the policies out of Amman- such a tragic familiar story worldwide. Anwar's brother showed us around Shaumari Reserve with a stark contrast between a managed habitat and the deperately overgrazed desert. Travelling in the back of the truck was thrilling if a little uncomfortable but we did get to see Arabian Oryx and Arabian Gazelle- alas all within the fenced compound. We found a couple of wonderful Long-eared Owls and trekked the desert for our only Hoopoe Lark of the trip. A small desert wetland had Shoveler, Garganey and even a few Tufted Duck- resting on their way north. All in all, a great trip- birds, culture, great guides and probably more hummus than I have seen or eaten in the last 10 years. I will certainly be back.