Lebanon, a brief Easter visit, April 2007

Published by Richard Prior (richwprior AT hotmail.com)

Participants: Richard Prior, Colin Conroy


This was not a birding holiday as such, so no charging around for “specialities” of the country like Syrian Serin, Upcher’s Warbler, Crimson-winged Finch etc. I had decided to return to Lebanon during my Easter one week break to lend a hand to my old colleagues at A Rocha Lebanon. 2007 is the third year of a project jointly undertaken with SPNL (Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon) to survey potential IBAs in the country. Five new IBAs were declared following the 2005 work but 2006 surveys were of course severely affected by the summer war, although enough significant species were discovered breeding at the northern desert site near Ras Baalbek to merit that location’s proposal, even though no summer or autumn visits were made. STOP PRESS I hear that Birdlife International have just (July 2007) recognised this site as well.

Early April weather in Lebanon is often changeable and I had the misfortune to experience a cooler week than ideal for big movements of soaring birds, which can be spectacular.

Beirut was however typically balmy on the Saturday evening when I arrived from Geneva, the traffic more chaotic than ever, partly due to the bombed bridges still under reconstruction in the suburbs near the airport. I stayed at my friend Colin’s flat in Hadath and before dark we spotted two Lesser Whitethroats and an Egyptian fruit bat as well as several smaller pipistrelle-types.

Easter Sunday dawned misty and cool, later a stiff breeze blew away the grey and an Osprey passed north over the city centre mid morning. Small groups of hirundines, Barn and Red-rumped Swallows and House Martins, plus Common Swifts were moving. Most of the day was spent socialising, but the typical Beirut resident species were all in evidence, Laughing and Collared Doves, Yellow-Vented Bulbuls and Graceful Prinia, offshore Yellow-Legged gulls mixed with northbound fuscus Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a Common Sandpiper was heard. Three Crag Martins over Hamra shopping area were a surprise.

We finally escaped the social round at 5pm and went south on the Tyre “motorway” to Damour, where the river Damour runs into the sea after rushing down from the Chouf area on the west facing slopes of the Mount Lebanon range. This had proved quite a good spot for migrants in spring 2006 and our brief visit did not disappoint. Resident raptors (Long-legged Buzzard, Common Kestrel and Sparrowhawk) were joined by two passing Hobbies, one of which launched into the numerous hirundines. A Wood Warbler and Pied Flycatcher in the same tree brought memories of Bolton Abbey (me) and Ynys-Hir (Colin) but a flock of 20 Bee-Eaters soon broke the UK reverie! We located a Nightingale by its odd “creak and whistle” call, before it treated us to its song for a while. There were several Blackcaps and Lesser Whitethroats in the area, plus the ubiquitous Bulbuls, and a Tree Pipit flew over. An impressive group of over 200 Red-rumped Swallows were circling low over the river and the nearby cliffs, much to the delight of 3 youths, who blasted them continually with their shotgun (I have seen hirundines being shot on several occasions in Lebanon, the bodies are thrown away afterwards, so to call the activity “hunting” would be inaccurate). Bird shooting is a huge problem in Lebanon, mostly for “sport” (ie, target practice), and everything from wrens to pelicans are fair game. The youths were part of a family group who had just finished their picnic, and sadly we witnessed one of the other common problems facing the environment in this beautiful country, one lady finished her drink and tossed the plastic cup onto the grass beside her, alongside the plastic plates and plastic bags they were leaving behind. Almost all the “beauty spots” that are visited by picnickers are littered with – well, litter which gradually of course makes them less beautiful. Still, a campaign to change behaviour is underway, though bizarrely, the billboards for the campaign show a Blackcap (big target for hunters) giving the message, the “rubbish” featured is an apple core!!

Monday saw us on the road by 06.15; we went north from Beirut then turned east at Jounieh and climbed towards the ski resort of Faqra to survey potential IBA Jabal Moussa. A long scrambling climb up a wadi didn’t produce many birds, and winter wear was required, sleet and rain and thick cloud restricted our vision. Typical upland species seen (or heard) included Woodlark, Black Redstart (the really smart semirufus race, Jay (very pale-faced variant in Lebanon), Blue Rock Thrush, Black-eared Wheatear and Western Rock Nuthatch (very common). A Bonelli’s Warbler was also heard. Most pleasing however were the good numbers of Blue Tit holding territory. Until quite recently this species was considered as an “extremely scarce winter visitor” (as per “An updated checklist of the birds of Lebanon” Sandgrouse 21 (2) 1999), but it actually now appears to be a quite numerous resident breeder in the west facing Mount Lebanon range north of Beirut, up to and including the high altitude (c1700 metres) cedar forests at Tannourine and Ehden. This recent change in status is reminiscent of the situation in Jordan, where there was a 91 year gap with no sightings between 1893 and 1984 when it was “rediscovered” and has now been proved to breed.

On Tuesday we visited the upper Nahr Ibrahim (Adonis River), which rises on the other side of Monday’s site, en route we were delighted by the sight of a female Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush perched alongside a Rock Nuthatch. The river bursts out of a cave on the mountainside rather than bubbling up apologetically from the ground as most rivers do, Grey Wagtails were breeding and the wood clad slopes around held more Blue Tits, Sardinian Warblers and common finches, and a male Common Redstart. A flock of 45 White Storks drifted over, and before the rain set in we saw Alpine Swifts and a loose group of 30 plus Lesser Spotted Eagles, struggling to find any warm air to aid their migration, often disappearing in the cloud. We had been hoping to find Dipper on the various rivers and streams visited so far, droppings on a rock in one likely looking stream encouraged us to scramble upstream and we were extremely chuffed to see 2 Dippers fly by, one pursuing the other. One returned and flew by showing its underside, but neither of us was able to note the gingery belly band that would indicate that it was an example of the Lebanese subspecies rufiventis. In 2 years of working and 2 other visits these were the first Dippers I had seen in Lebanon, the species is perhaps one of the rarest breeding species in the country now and it is hoped that climate change will not see its demise, as occurred in Cyprus.

A coffee and cake stop in Byblos saw sunshine and passing Short toed Eagle, Booted Eagle, Kestrelsp and a paltry 4 White Storks moving north.

We moved north to the headland of Ras Chekka, arriving before a thunderstorm, in time to see a migrant Eleonora’s Falcon cruising around the cliffs. Parking at a shrine on the cliff top we were able to look down on passing Red- rumped Swallows, a nice Bonelli’s Warbler, and far below, a Quail escaping two hunters and their dogs. A few Steppe Buzzards, Sparrowhawks, Marsh Harrier and Black Storks flew north in front of the storm, and a Hoopoe and another male Pied Flycatcher (Collared is supposed to be the commonest of the “Black and White” flycatchers through Lebanon but we saw none this week) were sheltering at the roadside in the copious cover of evergreen oaks. An ideal place for a Bird Observatory, if ever there was………..

After a morning meeting in Beirut, Wednesday saw us drive up and over the mountains early in the afternoon, and dropped down into the flat and wide Bekaa valley (a continuation of the Rift valley, it is at around 800metres altitude in the area we were visiting).

After installing ourselves at the A Rocha Field Centre accommodation, I undertook some monitoring at the Aammiq marsh, observing the western end of this vital wetland for the hour preceding dusk. Around 260 species have been recorded at the site since 1997 when A Rocha became involved in protecting and managing it, with the blessing of the owner. A cold westerly almost gale was blowing, but I still managed to see a sample of typical early spring birds, such as Great and Little Egrets, Squacco Heron, Little Crakes, and about 15 Marsh, 2 Pallid and one Hen Harrier. It was good to see the Estate guards patrolling in their jeep, which deters most hunters, though I could hear shots fairly regularly from the area furthest from the road. Several Common Snipe were buzzing about, with more time I would have walked the marsh edges, where Great Snipe are regular spring visitors, Long-eared, Barn, Scops and Eagle Owls all breed in the vicinity but an early night was called for, as a ringing session was on the agenda early the next day.

A starlit and frosty morning meant that the furled nets took a little persuading to open up, little globules of ice made patterns on the net surface, but they soon melted, even before the sun rose. The previous week had been fairly quiet, but we struck lucky this time, and caught and ringed around 50 birds, all warblers, namely Savi’s, Reed, Moustached, Cetti’s and some chunky migrating Sedge. Penduline Tits hung around the rides but weren’t in any mood to fly into the nets, nor were the 2 Great Reed Warblers, just arrived back from their winter quarters.

Nearby there were good numbers of Calandra Larks, Black headed Wagtail, and the first Whinchat and Turtle Doves of the spring were seen.

Later we made the long drive back over the mountains to the coast, and on up to Tripoli, where the thousands of Black-headed Gulls that winter had all departed, leaving a handful of Yellow-legged and fuscus Lesser B B Gulls behind.

Friday morning was a crazy 04.30 wake up call, in order to be at the salt pans of Cheikh Zennad before dawn (and before the hunters that sadly plague the site at times). We actually arrived a good 30 minutes before light, flushing at least 5 Quail from the track edges (this may have spoilt things for the hunters who arrived an hour or so later, because the two groups of them hardly fired a shot for the 2 hours that they were there, luckily they stayed focussed on Quail, and did not actively disturb the waders that we enjoyed).

Cheikh Zennad is the best ( and virtually the only) coastal habitat for waders in Lebanon, the rivers that enter the sea tend to be canalised in their final stages, so the salt pans, with their varying water levels, are a real magnet for waders that need to refuel. At first we saw nothing on what looked like good pools, hearing a distant Black-winged Stilt call before dawn had encouraged us to start at the inland end of the site, a nice ringtail Hen Harrier quartered the fields and Red-throated Pipits plus White and Black-headed Wagtails kept us amused until we moved location to try the other pools nearer the main road. Sure enough, there were the waders - and a nice mix too, Little Stint were the most numerous, only 20, but probably the biggest flock in Lebanon that day! The rest of the wader list comprised, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Ringed, Little Ringed and Kentish Plover, one Lapwing, one Wood, one Broad-billed and 3 Marsh Sandpiper, Ruff, and best of all, a delightful swooping Black-winged Pratincole, almost exactly a year after we saw a single here in 2006. Other migrants passing through included a Black Kite, a Little Egret, Lesser Short-toed and Short-toed Larks, a female Black-eared Wheatear, Tree Pipits, an Ortolan and various hirundines, including some weary Sand Martins dipping down to drink at only arms length from us.

Some six hours since getting up, breakfast called, so a roadside café came to the rescue, then we headed inland up a wadi north of Tripoli, to a lake that isn’t on any maps of Lebanon, a lot of plastic rubbish around its edges didn’t deter a Grey Heron. Several cows had proved a magnet for a handsome Blue-headed Wagtail that allowed very close views, and en route we had frustrating glimpses of what was probably a female Subalpine Warbler, an uncommon migrant (in our experience) through Lebanon. Singing Willow Warblers were another surprise. A bout of “Tripoli tummy” made your author a passenger for the return to Beirut, a nasty crash made the journey 2 hours longer than usual (and very uncomfortable if you read between the lines!).

All too soon it was Saturday again and the 07.25 flight back to Geneva, where it was at least 5 degrees warmer!

Species Lists

(in alphabetical, not scientific, order - sorry!)

Alpine Swift - Small flock over Upper Adonis River, a single over Aammiq marsh
Barn Swallow - Seen every day
Bee-eater - One flock at Damour River
Black Kite - One at Cheikh Zennad
Black Redstart - Common in the mountainous areas visited, all semirufus race
Black Stork - Two flocks, totalling around 50 birds seen at Ras Chekka
Blackbird - common in the hills and in woodland at sea level at Cheikh Zennad
Blackcap - Common in orchards and woodland
Black-eared Wheatear - Males displaying in the mountains and the Bekaa, female seen migrating on the coast
Black-winged Pratincole - One flew around Cheikh Zennad for 5 minutes, but did not land
Black-winged Stilt - One or two heard calling before dawn at Cheikh Zennad
Blue-headed Wagtail - One nominate male seen with cattle north of tripoli, others were feldegg race, in Bekaa and at Cheikh Zennad
Blue Rock Thrush - Pairs seen in the mountains
Blue Tit - Quite common on wooded slopes of the Mount Lebanon range north of Beirut
Bonelli's Warbler - One heard at Jabal Moussa, another seen at Ras chekka
Booted Eagle - One light phase bird flew north past Byblos
Broad-billed Sandpiper - One with Little Stints at Cheikh Zennad
Calandra Lark - Common breeder in the Bekaa valley,migrant flocks also seen
Cetti's Warbler - Common at Aammiq marsh, but also heard high up in the Adonis river valley, and in a wadi north of Tripoli
Chaffinch - Common on the slopes of Mount Lebanon
Chiffchaff - Common on Jabal Moussa mountainside
Collared Dove - Common in Beirut, one also seen at Cheikh Zennad
Common Buzzard - A few passed Ras Chekka and one was near Aammiq marsh
Common Kestrel - Breeding pairs in the hills and at Ras Chekka, and migrants seen at various sites
Common Mynah - One seen in Beirut, where it is becoming more numerous
Common Redshank - A few mixed in with the other waders at Cheikh Zennad
Common Redstart - One in the Upper Adonis River, several also heard at Ras Chekka
Common Sandpiper - One heard from the Beirut Corniche, another seen at Damour River
Common Swift - Already returned to Beirut, also seen at Damour and Aammiq
Coot - Around 120 at Aammiq, two groups of juveniles already on the water, but the majority will have been migrants
Corn Bunting - One seen at Cheikh Zennad
Crag Martin - Seen over Beirut and in the Upper Adonis River valley
Crested Lark - Common in the Bekaa and at Cheikh Zennad
Dipper - Two in a tributary of the Adonis River
Eleonora's Falcon - One at Ras Chekka
Goldfinch - Common on Mount Lebanon slopes, and in the Bekaa
Graceful Prinia - Common in all the coastal strip and in the Aammiq marsh
Great Egret - Three at Aammiq
Great Reed Warbler - A few back on territory at Aammiq
Great Tit - Common on the coast, in the Bekaa and especially on slopes of Mount Lebanon
Greenfinch - A few seen on the Mount Lebanon hillsides
Greenshank - 10 at Cheikh Zennad
Grey Heron - One on the lake inland from Tripoli
Grey Wagtail - Breeding on the Adonis River
Hen Harrier - Ringtails seen at Aammiq and Cheikh Zennad
Hobby - Two hunting hirundines at Damour
Hooded Crow - Common away from the coast
Hoopoe - One on the road at Ras Chekka
House Martin - Seen most days
House Sparrow - Common around buildings everywhere
Jay - Common on hillsides, one group of 7 seen in Upper Adonis River valley
Kentish Plover - c10 at Cheikh Zennad
Lapwing - One at Cheikh Zennad
Laughing Dove - Very common in Beirut and all coastal towns
Lesser Black backed Gull - Up to 10 off Ras Beirut, a few also at Tripoli
Lesser Short-toed Lark - A flock of 6 flew over Cheikh Zennad
Lesser Spotted Eagle - 33 flew north in the rain over the Adonis River
Lesser Whitethroat - Very common on the hillsides and in gardens in Beirut
Little Crake - Three or four at Aammiq
Little Egret - 5 at Aammiq and one past Cheikh Zennad
Little Grebe - Around 10 pairs at Aammiq
Little Ringed Plover - Two at Cheikh Zennad
Little Stint - c20 at Cheikh Zennad
Long-legged Buzzard - Seen daily, usually in upland habitats
Mallard - 4 at Aammiq, including a breeding pair (ducklings seen a week later)
Marsh Harrier - c15 at Aammiq
Marsh Sandpiper - 3 at Cheikh Zennad
Moorhen - c12 at Aammiq
Moustached Warbler - Common at Aammiq and some also at Cheikh Zennad
Nightingale - 1 or 2 at Damour River
Northern Wheatear - One south of Jabal Moussa
Ortolan Bunting - One on a wall at Cheikh Zennad
Osprey - One drifted north over Beirut
Pallid Harrier - Adult male and a female type seen at Aammiq
Penduline Tit - Up to 3 in the reeds at Aammiq
Pied Flycatcher - Two males seen, one at Damour River, one at Ras Chekka
Quail - One at Ras Chekka, several at Cheikh Zennad
Red-rumped Swallow - Seen on several days, including a group of over 200 at Damour
Red throated Pipit - "Flyovers" at Aammiq and Cheikh Zennad
Reed Warbler - Common at Aammiq
Ringed Plover - One at Cheikh Zennad
Ruff - 18 at Cheikh Zennad
Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush - Female south of Jabal Moussa
Sand Martin - Seen at Damour River and Cheikh Zennad
Sardinian Warbler - Very common from coastal scrub to wooded mountainside
Savi's Warbler - Some at Aammiq
Sedge Warbler - Around 10 seen at Aammiq
Short-toed Eagle - A pair over Aammiq and one near Byblos
Short-toed Lark - c15 passed over Cheikh Zennad
Snipe - 8 counted at Aammiq
Sparrowhawk - Pairs and migrants seen most days in ones and twos
Spectacled Bulbul - Common along the coast and the lower slopes of Mount Lebanon
Spotted Redshank - Two at Cheikh Zennad
Squacco Heron - One at Aammiq
Tree Pipit - Singles flew over Damour River and Cheikh Zennad
Turtle Dove - One at Aammiq
Water Pipit - One flew over Jabal Moussa
Western Rock Nuthatch - Very common in all upland areas
Whinchat - 3 or 4 at Aammiq
White Stork - Flocks of 46, 4 seen migrating, plus 2 feeding at Aammiq
White Wagtail - Common at Cheikh Zennad, and in the valley north of Tripoli
Willow Warbler - Singing males inland from Tripoli
Wood Sandpiper- One at Cheikh Zennad
Wood Warbler One at the Damour River
Woodchat Shrike - One at Aammiq
Woodlark - Two heard singing at Jabal Moussa
Wren - Common on hillsides
Yellow-legged Gull - Common off Beirut and Tripoli
Zitting Cisticola - A few at Aammiq and at Cheikh Zennad