April to early May is the best period for witnessing spring migration in full swing, but Easter being early this year meant our trip to Lebanon had to fall on the above dates, luckily, the weather was actually better than when I did my April 2007 visit, and, despite spending time sightseeing, socialising and shopping, we clocked up a good total and visited some sites for the first time.
We flew direct from Geneva to Beirut on the Thursday by MEA, who also fly from Heathrow, and had pre-booked a 4WD from Europcar. Upon our arrival at Europcar’s desk we were told that they had a nice Audi A4 saloon for us, which we explained would be ruined if we took it to some of our intended sites! After initially trying to get us to accept a 4WD from the next Thursday, ie two days before the end of our stay, we eventually accepted the offer to change the Audi on Sunday morning on our return from Tripoli.
So, after a restless night in Beirut, we sped north up the motorway before light to go with our Tripoli based friends to the Cheikh Zennad salt works near the Syrian border, in the hope of seeing waders heading for Europe and Russia. A few Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers were present, with 2 Little Stints and 4 Ruff, but there were hunters working the fields and even shooting from the road when a Buzzard strayed close, so we moved on to the nearby rubbish- strewn beach. We had distant views of around 300 White Pelicans on the horizon, accompanied by 15 Common Cranes, but there was more variety in the passerines, Isabelline and Black eared Wheatear, a Short toed Lark, Black headed Wagtail and 150 Spanish Sparrows the highlights. The hunters showed us a Quail and Meadow Pipit they had killed and our friends had an animated conversation with them in Arabic about the non-sustainable nature of bird killing in the spring! Graceful Prinias were everywhere, and a single Lesser spotted Eagle soared off towards the Syrian border.
On the way back to Tripoli we saw a flock of around 75 Pelicans taking advantage of the very warm air to rise up over the hillside further inland. Our friends’ apartment overlooks the Tripoli fishing port, on the El Mina headland, and relaxing on their balcony proved a very pleasant way to bird the early afternoon away. Gulls around the port included fuscus Lesser black Backed (Baltic), plus the usual Yellow legged and a couple of Armenian Gulls on the boats, and a pair of adult Slender billed Gulls flew around briefly and out to sea again. Terns were represented by winter plumaged Sandwich and a single Common. Laughing Dove were common on the quayside and around the buildings, and more migration was in evidence as first a flock of 64 Common Cranes went over in “v” formation, followed soon after by a superb flock of 75 Black winged Stilts flying low over the water close to shore – I was previously unaware that they can migrate in such big flocks.
As the temperature dropped from the steamy 27 degrees middle of the day heat, we headed south along the coast for about 15kms to Anfeh, where an old monastery stands in quite a bit of greenery and some old salt pans, laid out in tennis court-sized walled rectangles, nicely overgrown with bushes and scrub. We managed to turn up a few migrants, a handsome Bluethroat, Cretzchmar’s Bunting, Northern Wheatear, Black Redstart and 3 Hoopoes. At dusk as the bats started flying around our heads, a Hen Harrier drifted in from offshore to roost for the night. An amazing fish “mezze” meal at a seafront restaurant capped off an enjoyable (but long) day’s birding.
Next morning, some pre-breakfast balcony birding added Red rumped Swallow to our list, but we were soon off into the mountains north of Tripoli in the Mechmech area, in our friends’ 4x4 (almost essential if you’re going off the main roads to the off the beaten track locations).
This proved to be a beautiful area, juniper, oak and pine trees on the slopes leading up to a cliff face on the (receding) snow line. The highlights included a loose Syrian Serin colony of at least 6 pairs just being established (the species is in fact a summer visitor to Lebanon so these birds had not long arrived). Although of lesser “wow” factor, it was possible to find all four of the titmice species possible to see in Lebanon; Blue, Great, Coal and Sombre, a new experience for us all. The Black Redstarts were of the red-bellied semirufus variant and we were delighted to find a group of 6 Crimson-winged Finch up where the snow was melting, though they also melted away when I tried to get within camera range! Western Rock Nuthatches were singing everywhere and we noted 3 Rock Buntings and some Rock Doves. Up on the top of the ridge we found a group of 30 Rock Sparrows and 50 Linnets, as well as a few Northern Wheatears. Late winter visitors that were still due to leave included a Robin and a Siskin, but visible passage was minimal during the day, restricted to a few hirundines, Steppe Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and Lesser spotted Eagle. In all, we were walking and birding for 8 hours and during our descent back to the parked jeep we became aware that we were being “tailed” by a soldier and a leather-jacketed (unofficial uniform of security police!) individual. They had a chat with Mike and gently suggested that next time we let the local police know when we intended to walk in the area, just in case any “groups” were “training” in the area. Normally in Lebanon if you are carrying bins or telescope you may be asked by soldiers/security personnel what you are doing, this usually ends up with the soldiers having a look through the telescope at the bird you’re observing or pointing at birds they recognise in your book, common sense dictates that you don’t obviously bird near military installations, embassies or in towns and villages but otherwise your main “problem” will be the curiosity of passers by who want to chat with you!
Rather than drive back to Beirut on the Saturday evening and risk the heavy traffic (Beirutis like to party at the weekend!) we stayed overnight in Tripoli and had an easy fast drive back to the capital on the Easter Sunday morning. The coastal highway is probably the best road in the country, a proper dual carriageway with a central barrier, most major roads are wide, but lanes are not usually marked, and would be ignored by most drivers if they were. Driving is an exciting experience, everyone expects everyone else to make rapid changes of direction, exit from the side roads without waiting is frequent, so you have to adjust your driving style accordingly, and after the first 20 minutes which can be unnerving for a first-time visitor, people usually get used to the method fairly quickly.
After changing vehicles at the Europcar desk at the airport, we spent a couple of hours seawatching at the café by the lighthouse on the Corniche (Beirut seafront). This is one of the best seawatching spots in the country, and with scrambled eggs and coffee, very civilised too! Seabirds were as at Tripoli, but 3 Little Egrets lumbered north, as did an unidentified pipit. Common Mynahs were nesting in an old tree on the Corniche, but offshore passage was very light, reminding me of Selsey Bill on a bad day (but warmer).
Early Monday morning saw us heading across the mountain range towards Damascus, turning north up the Bekaa valley and past Baalbek, to visit the only desert area of Lebanon, home to a range of species not found anywhere else in the country. In my two years’ working in Lebanon in 2005 and 2006, we had proved first breeding in Lebanon for no less than three species here, Scrub Warbler, Desert Lark and Bar-tailed Lark. Although a bit early for Bar- tailed, we saw a Scrub Warbler and heard Desert Lark during our visit to this fascinating habitat, plus good numbers of Mourning and Isabelline Wheatears, Temminck’s and Lesser short-toed Larks. We also had close views of Trumpeter Finches, and a Hoopoe and Long-legged Buzzard added to the variety. As usual, the Bedouin shepherds and their families treated us to tea and goats’ cheese and yoghurt, and we came away with a dozen fresh eggs and milk as additional gifts, so it was a good job that we had thought to take fruit to them in return!
For the rest of the week we stayed at the A Rocha Field Centre where we used to work, so our birding was Bekaa Valley based. The Aammiq Marsh is nearby, but we also made a point of visiting the seasonal ponds just to the north of Aammiq, at Tel al Akhdar. Although little more than 300 metres by 50 bounded by potato fields, a road and 2 ditches, this spot turned up some nice migrants on 3 consecutive mornings, highlights were Black Stork, Great Egret, Squacco Heron, Black winged Stilt, Green Sandpiper, Pallid Harrier, Pallid Swift, Water and Red-throated Pipits and Black-headed Wagtail, plus plenty of the local Calandra Larks in fine voice.
On the Tuesday we spent most of the day at Lake Qaraaoun, Lebanon’s largest area of fresh water, a reservoir on the Litani River. New birds for the trip included Little Egret, Tawny and Meadow Pipit and various warblers newly arrived such as Lesser and Common Whitethroats. 3 Collared Doves would have been unusual in the Bekaa just a few years ago, but this species is clearly occupying new territory all over the region now. A Nightingale also made an effort to compete with the noisy Rock Nuthatches and groups of Crag Martins passed north. The best sight of the day though was of a Jungle (or Swamp) Cat slipping away from the lake shore and up the hillside, our first ever sighting of this elusive sandy-coloured mammal. In the evening we did an hour’s single point observation of Aammiq at dusk, it was cool and cloudy so not a lot of migration was evident, apart from Alpine Swifts.
After a hard morning’s shopping, our Wednesday afternoon birding was limited to a scramble up the side of a wadi where, in 2004 we had proved that Eagle Owl bred in Lebanon, and , sure enough the female was in the nest cave incubating, and staring the 100metres across the gorge at us. A pair of Short-toed Eagles were displaying overhead and two rival Blue Rock Thrushes were singing as the sun began to set, illuminating the green Bekaa and the brown Anti-Lebanon mountain range to the east.
Breakfast next day was blessed by three noisy Great spotted Cuckoos near the Centre, this was after an early morning look at Aammiq which confirmed that Moustached Warbler numbers were building up again after a large part of the reedbed had been burnt down the previous Christmas. 3 Garganey and singing Graceful Prinias were not unexpected, but 3 Wigeon were a good sighting, this duck is not that easy to see in Lebanon.
Two (non birding) places not to miss if you visit Lebanon are the Roman ruins at Baalbek, and the Palaces of Beiteddine, near the Chouf Cedar reserve between Beirut and the Bekaa valley. We had never been to the latter, so spent the morning being “proper” tourists, though we did spot some more Lesser Spotted Eagles and a Common Kestrel slipping over.
The afternoon was “garden birding” from the back of the A Rocha Field Centre. As the temperature rose, so we started seeing big flocks of White Stork heading north, in a two hour period at least 1,400 thermalled and glided on their way. A few Lesser spotted and Short toed Eagles also passed through.
The plan for that evening was to attempt to trap and ring owls (Scops, Long eared and Barn), but the very strong wind spoilt our chances, a Long-eared was calling, but our main compensation was a flock of 200 plus storks which arrived to roost in the trees all around us, bill clacking as the night fell.
Friday was our last day and a meeting in Beirut in the afternoon meant that we only had the morning for birding, we explored the hillside overlooking Aammiq Marsh, the sun shone and migrants were all around, so we had a great finish to our trip, with excellent views of Ruppell’s, Eastern Orphean and Sardinian Warblers, plus Wryneck, Nightingale, Black eared Wheatears and the first Woodchat and Masked Shrikes of the year. At least 200 Lesser Spotted Eagles and 30 Black Storks went north along the Mount Lebanon ridge, all guaranteed to make us determined to return to Lebanon for more great birding as soon as possible.
Blue Rock Thrush
Crimson winged Finch
Eastern Orphean Warbler
Great Spotted Cuckoo
Lesser Black backed Gull
Lesser Short toed Lark
Lesser Spotted Eagle
Little Ringed Plover
Red rumped Swallow
Red throated Pipit
Short toed Eagle
Short toed Lark
Western Rock Nuthatch
Yellow legged Gull