This short report is the result of a part time birding trip to Lebanon we did last October 2011. Lebanon lies in a very strategic position along a major flyway for birds migrating between Europe and northern Asia, and Africa.
Birding Information on Lebanon seems however particularly limited – 3 little reports on travellingbirder.com is a good symptom. We think even these few pages might add a little something recent to what is available on line.
The 113 species we scored in just a few days also give an idea of the region’s interesting potential.
Further field working might definitely give good data and – who knows? – good surprises!
The itinerary and general planning of this independent trip was sketched after a few email exchanges with Richard Prior who friendly shared his very precious knowledge of the country. His expertise has been essential to this trip. The sites presentation (description below) was actually part of the mails Richard Prior kindly sent us. We also got fruitful contacts with Nabil Khairallah from the SPNL who is the responsible of A Rocha project. My sincere gratitude goes to them for their helpful information and advises.
This gratitude also goes to all the so helpful and smiling faces we met all along our way in deep Lebanon and the ones that try to do something about hunting.
Birding in Lebanon is sometimes no easy game a.o. due to the chaotic urbanization but also due to hunting. Although October is said to be part of the peak season, the phenomenon is taking such proportions all year long that something is to be said about. A real nightmare. One early morning near Anjar (east Bekaa valley) I tried to count the number ofshootings I heard in one minute. I rapidly gave up. There were too many, too much echo. Hunters where virtually everywhere; And the few living birds I saw really looked likesurvivors.
The words of the Lebanese environmentalist Fareed Abou-Haidar used for describing hunting in 1998 are unfortunately fully up to date now, end od 2011. Large numbers of Lebanese have still have the urge to kill anything that moves, and especially anything that flies. Hunting is definitely a part of Lebanese deep culture, an integral part of manhood — a rite of passage in which boys as young as eight years of age follow their fathers (Cf. enclosed picture : we actually met these three young boys as they were playing at shooting with their guns. As we were talking , one of them shot a grey wagtail that just landed in nearby Chamsine reserve (a tiny USAID financed nature reserve located near Anjar – East Bekaa valley; Cf. also a.o. : http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArchiveDetails.aspx?ID=66282#ixzz1bUxtkNVX) It is unclear how many hunters there are in Lebanon; some estimates put the number as more than 300,000 (on a total lebanese population of about 4 millions and an average number of 373 persons per km2). There are no regulations in place, and the ambiguity of the hunting laws, as well as lax enforcement, has resulted in confusion, accidents and a huge ecological damage. For instance, proud hunters promoting their “way of life” on Facebook give a good idea of the extend of the problem. No need for further comments: (tp://fr.mg40.mail.yahoo.com/neo/launch?.rand=70daehknu937d).
The situation was actually even worse this autumn: as access to Syria was made difficult for the Lebanese bird hunters, a lot of passerines are normally killed in Syria each autumn for the Lebanese restaurant business, the political problems in Syria resulted in more hunting in Lebanon this year. No real surprise in this. For an update of the situation see the article (in french) on the ornithological website www.ornithomedia.com.
We actually did a very classical roundtrip departing from Beirut international airport, where we directly rented our car to Deir El Kamar and Beit Eddine. Then, after a short stop in the westerns slopes of the cedar chouf mountains we took the southern route to lake Qaraaoun. We didn’t really visit the site of Aammiq itself but stopped several times in the region, checking soaring raptors. Short stop also in Aana. We spent the night in Anjar’s brand new hotel before visiting the archaeological site nearby and heading to Baalbek. Then we went northwards to Ras Baalbek and Hermel before crossing back the mountains to Bcharre. From there, we took this improbable mountain track going to Akkar province. The last part of this short journey was focused on the coast going back down to Beirut.
Although the country is three times smaller than Belgium, It seems difficult to visit it without a private car.
It seems there is no efficient GPS mapping system for Lebanon apart with the basic incomplete (and expensive) Garmine. So, be prepared to ask the way again and again. Knowing a few words of Arabic can often be very helpful.
We decided to rent an Avis Vehicle – average price of 28 dollars a day - and departed directly from the airport for our whole tour.
Although accommodation is considered to be expensive, it is possible to find at least some places to sleep at a relatively reasonable price. The situation regarding accommodation is definitely easier now in comparison with what it was the first time I came to Lebanon in 1997. Good values initiatives are a.o.:
Books, maps, and useful readings
· J. Lee, Lebanon Handbook, Footprint travel guides, 2011, 298p. One of the best and most updated source available for practical information on the region. The Petit Fûté – Liban seems also good.
· Lebanon and Beirut Travel Map. 1:220,000. ITMB. A general road and physical map that uses altitude tinting and spot heights to show elevation, while the road network shows main roads, railroads, and some secondary roads.
For birding, I took two good complementary field guides:
· Richard Porter & Simon Aspinall, Birds of The Middle East , Helm Field Guides, Christopher Helm Publishers Ltd, 2010, 384 pages. Well updated.
· Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney, Dan Zetterstrom et Guilhem Lesaffre Le guide ornitho : Oiseaux d'Europe, d'Afrique du Nord et du Moyen-Orient (Relié - 26 août 2010.
· Richard Prior, Colin Conroy, The Ras Baalbek semi-desert: Lebanon’s aridland area and its birds, Sandgrouse' OSME magazine n°31, 2009, pp.140-145.
Useful Local contacts
- Richard Prior : firstname.lastname@example.org
- The SPNL (Société Nationale de Protection de la Nature au Liban) internet site is giving useful
information on IBAs www.spnlb.org) .The staff is reachable by mail for further information.Assad Serhal is the representative of BirdLife in Lebanon.
- Michel Khairallah, Arocha Lebanon association Focal point - Beirut Lebanon (email@example.com) Mobile: 03-745219 The office manager in Aana, is Mrs. Lodi Bernhard. The Arocha phone numbers are: · Mobile: 76/751410 ; · The office land line number is 08/566578. There are no street addresses in Bekaa (among others!), but once you talk to Mrs. Bernhard, she can tell you how to reach their office.
Other useful contacts:
With Lebanon’s tiny size and the syrian uprising going on next door some Lebanese we met in Europe worried about potential security problems (most of them mentioning the kidnapping of estonian bikers in march 2011). Indeed, we planned an independent roundtrip reaching remote areas located sometimes just a few kms away from the Syrian border (Ras Baalbek, Hermel and the road leading to Qubayat (Akkar) etc.) Security however wasn’t a problem. As we relentlessly asked our way to the people nobody ever told us to be careful about security in any particular place. We haven’t been prevented from going anywhere and did drive at night without any problem.
Chouf Mountains Cedar Reserve (CMCR)
Chouf Mountains Cedar Reserve offers a beautiful hiking area about one hour drive east of Beirut. Not the famous cedars of Bcharre in the north, but still a wonderful forest covering the hillsides of the Chouf range. As Richard Prior did, we hiked from the parking in the flowering scrub lands with patches of trees along a trail leading all the way up to the summit at nearly 2000 m above sea level.
Aana is actually a good place to walk from up into the Chouf from the Bekaa valley side: more bird species diversity, the 'official' Chouf Cedars Reserve on the West facing slopes of the mountain is less varied in habitat. Another great walk is to go from a gate on the road from Kefraya to Col de Kefraya all the way down to old Aammiq village and back to Aana. There is a spring and pond on this walk (Ain Lejje) which is a great attraction for birds (Sombre Tit included). Syrian Woodpecker is lower down on this walk in 'Skaff Woods' just above the village of Aammiq. However, you either need 2 cars, or someone to drop you up near Col de Kefraya to do this lovely walk. Raptor migration is still happening in early October. Levant Sparrowhawk, Lesser Spotted Eagle and Black Kite are the most numerous and high up above Aana on the Barouk mountain is good for watching. Also, there is NO HUNTING there.
The area is under ongoing survey from the A Rocha project based in Aana. Very important for both breeding, migrating and wintering birds since it is one of very few wetlands left in the intensely cultivated Bekaa Valley. Smaller water surfaces, reed beds and surrounding fields and meadows provide an exciting birding area.
The best part of Aammiq is privately owned and guarded, especially the area next to the main road, but great views are available from the hill overlooking the reserve (Qalaat al Mudiq). Just park on the road opposite the reserve and climb up the hill to view. Smyrna Kingfisher and Penduline Tit are classical species at Aammiq. It's also a great walk from Aana to Aammiq, lots of shrikes, warblers etc., with the mountains to your west and the Bekaa below you to your right. After one visit with Faisal you will know the best places - he might also show you the track up to the Chouf if you need help. He speaks Arabic but not really any other languages.
Other sites near Aammiq
· Tell el-Akhdar: Some km´s north of Aammiq in the agricultural land, some fields and patches of wood near a stream and a semi-dried out pond: Spur-winged Plover, Rose-coloured Starling. Pale morph Eleonora Falcon has also been seen there in migration.
· Hillside track from Aammiq to Aana: A 3 km trek over the dry hillsides with scattered scrubs, thorns, crags and goat-grazed grass areas. Nice experience with the characteristic birds of this habitat: Woodchat and Masked Shrikes, Orphean Warbler, Black-eared Wheatears, Rock Nuthatch and many Pale Rock Sparrows.
· Kfariya vineyard : Good spot for Syrian Serin.
· Litani River southeast of Aana : A short drive south along the main road and then turn off to the east and back north along the small river, is a known spot for the Upchers Warbler. The Pale Rock Sparrow is everywhere there. Also Isabelline Wheatears, Long-legged Buzzard etc.
The east side is more interesting (cross the Litani over a bridge as it enters the lake, and as the water levels are still low in October it's possible to drive around on grass which later on in winter is underwater, wagtails, pipits and wheatears and some waders and terns if you are lucky. A good view of the southern end of the lake also possible from the main road down the east side (sometimes a few pelicans in October), then, after crossing the barrage turn right and go onto a track (OK for a car if you take care) which goes down to the lake shore on the South western corner, a good place to bird watch peacefully. You will see that very often people stop their cars and ask what you are doing : “suu amtamill?”. Just show them your bird guide and say “toyurr” (birds). It sometimes makes birding difficult but usually people are just curious… and friendly like so many Lebanese!
Anjar, Chamsine & Kfar Zabad
A very small wetland, dominated by reed beds, close to the village of Kfar Zabad in the eastern Bekaa Valley, just by the foothills of the anti-Lebanon mountain range. A project is underway to protect the area and create facilities for visitors. A small visitors centre has been built. Fields, meadows and small farms lie next to the area. Wetlands being a rarity in this country, it is of great importance.
Depending on the period, many species can be seen there: the reeds are alive with Great Reed Warblers, Moustached and Savi´s Warblers. Little Bittern are sometimes flushed from the edges. Also Black-headed Bunting, Cettis Warbler, Calandra Larks, etc. The Pale Rock Sparrow can be found next to a dirt track running through the fields. Sometimes also the Rose-coloured Starling. Black and White Storks as well as two Long-legged Buzzards are regularly seen in migration period. By the parking a few years ago, Richard Prior found a Namaqua Dove flying past towards the village. This was the first record for Lebanon.
Please read Richard Prior’s article in Sandgrouse (the OSME magazine; cf. abovementioned p.4) about Ras Baalbek. You need a 4 x 4 to get to the most interesting area (Wadi Mrah Rafi), but if you don't have one there are areas of flat semi-desert on both sides of the Baalbek to Hermel road after the Hermel road goes west from a junction with the Baalbek to Qaa (and Syria) road. There is a small military camp at the junction so make sure you are at least a kilometre away before using your binoculars, telescopes, cameras etc. (this applies to birding near ALL army places, public buildings etc.) There are several species there which are found nowhere else in Lebanon, as Ras Baabek is the only desert-like habitat in the country.
Few birdwatchers have visited the region in October. No cream coloured courser any more at that period of the year (as we were told by hunters definitely knowing they would be back in may…) but the first Finsch's Wheatears had arrived for the winter The Bedou shepherds and their families were also already present although they usually live in the area from November to May.
The mountain road that links Bcharre and Baalbek is the most reliable place for Crimson winged Finch and sometimes Alpine Chough and Raven. As Richard Prior did, we saw the finches near the place where a track goes off north to the highest mountain in Lebanon.
At least 4 good birding scenarios can be imagined from Bcharre depending on the season (and possibily the political situation):
1/ The small 2 ponds: going from Bcharre to the ridge there is a little secondary road turning left a few hundred meters before the top. At the junction, looking down to the left you will see two little man made ponds (made of thick black plastic) used as reservoir or storm water basin. Shepherds use to come daily there in October. Being the only water available around in this particularly dry environment, the place very attractive for birds (at least in October): linnets, finches, buntings, larks, Syrian serins, etc.
2/ Taking the above mentioned secondary road up to the ridge, you will find a track going left and following the ridge. The place is a. o. a good place for larks.
3/ Following the above mentioned secondary road further away a few kilometres in a magnificent landscape, you reach an improbable deep valley pond zone. At time we were there, these sports fishing pools seemed disused. Like a wadi lost in the middle of nowhere. Again being the only water supply around in this particularly dry environment, the place is probably also very attractive for birds. At the time we were there however, the weather was very windy and the place seemed totally empty. After the pools, the road is becoming a track going northwards. After a dozen kilometers, it reaches a brand new road. We did the track with our two wheel drive hired car without any problem. The landscape there is amazing. Much more time should be spent there. Many raptors seem using this remote way through the mountains. But also wheatears, larks, huge groups of linnets (mixed with Syrian serins), etc. Richard Prior told us however that the track was closed during the 2006 war.
4/ Coming from Bcharre on the main road and going down after the ridge, you reach the village Ainata. There, you can take another secondary road to the left through a wild mountain zone. The road passes through Barqa, Oddam (there is another little dead end road departing from that village that might also be worth checking) and come to Chaat, a bigger village located not far away from the main Bekaa road leading to Baalbek south and going northwards to Ras Baalbek and Hermel.
Tannourine Cedars Reserve can be good: lots of cedar forest and raptor migration as well as the ssp. semirufus Black Redstart resident there. It is located North of the Laklouk ski resort.
Other good sites
The ONLY good wader spot is at Cheikh Zennad. Zennad salt works north of Tripoli, on the coastal road up to the Syrian border. Early morning is best as hunting is very common around there. Richard Prior saw Broad-billed Sandpiper, Terek Sandpiper and Black winged Pratincole there. The Al Mina presqu'île is a nice place to stay and the sea watching can be good there. Beirut has a good sea watching place too, the café at the lighthouse Manara, tables outside with room for telescopes, so you can drink tea, eat an omelette and see Pallas' Gull at the same time!
The American University gardens can be good for passerines too, plus Common Myna are colonising.
Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar Perdrix choukar 11 Barouk (CCMR)
Common Quail Coturnix coturnix Caille des blés
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos : 2 Anjar
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis : 1 Anjar
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea : 1 Qaraaoun lake
Little Egret Egretta garzetta : 10 Qaraaoun Lake
Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus : 60 Flying over Hermel
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus : 1 Barouk ; 1 Qaraaoun : 1 Ras Baalbek
Eurasian Hobby Falco subbuteo : 1 Ras Baalbek : 3 Bcharre ; 1 Qubaiyat
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus Faucon pèlerin 1 Qaraoun
European Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus : 2 Aammiq
Black Kite Milvus migrans 2 Barouk ; 3 Aammiq ;3 Bcharre.
Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus : 2 Aammiq
Western Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus : 1 Barouk
Levant Sparrowhawk Accipiter brevipes : 8 Ammiq ; 3 Qubaiyat
Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus : 1 Barouk
Eurasian Buzzard Buteo buteo vulpinus : a few
Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus : 4 ex Bcharre
Lesser Spotted Eagle Aquila pomarina : 35 Aammiq ;
Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis : 2 near Aammiq
Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus 1 ad ‘pale morp)
Spotted Crake Porzana porzana Marouette ponctuée 1 at Chamsine pond
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus : 2 ad and 2 juv. at Chamsine pond
Common Coot Fulica atra : 2 at Chamsine pond
Yellow-legged Gull Larus cachinnans : Tripoli Harbour
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis : Along the shore Tripoli
Rock Dove Columba livia : Barouk
European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur : A few Passing (Bekaa, Tripoli)
Eurasian Collared Dove : Streptopelia decaocto Beyrouth, Tripoli
Laughing Dove Streptopelia senegalensis : Common throughout
Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri : Baalbek - introduced
Alpine Swift Tachymarptis melba : 1 Aammiq
Common Swift Apus apus : 3 Tripoli
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis : 1 at Chamsine USAID pond ; 1 in Byblos Harbour
European Bee-eater Merops apiaster : High altitude passage :
Northern Wryneck Jynx torquilla : 1 Anjar ; 1 Tripoli suburbs
Syrian Woodpecker Dendrocopos syriacus : 1ex CCMR
Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio : 3 Anjar ; 1 Qubayat
Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius : 6 CCMR
Common Magpie Pica pica : A few Troughout
Hooded Crow Corvus cornix : Common
Great Tit Parus major : Barouk Qubayat
Blue Tit Parus caeruleus : Barouk, Qubayat
Coal Tit Parus ater : Common in CCMR - Barouk
Sombre Tit Parus lugubris : 1 Qadija vally
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica Hirondelle rustique Heavy passage
Eurasian Crag Martin Ptyonoprogne rupestris Hirondelle de rochers 3 CCMR
Northern House Martin Delichon urbicum : A few Barouk
Calandra Lark Melanocorypha calandra : A few in the Bekaa
Bimaculated Lark Melanocorypha bimaculata : 3 track norh Bcharre
Desert Lark Ammomanes deserti : 2 Ras Baalbek
Crested Lark Galerida cristata : Common in Akkar
Woodlark Lullula arborea : Common in Chouf
Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis : A few passing Barouk
Horned Lark/Shorelark Eremophila alpestris : 35 Bacharre region
Temminck's Lark Eremophila bilopha : 4 Ras Baalbek
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis : 1 Ammiq
Graceful Warbler Prinia gracilis : A few here and there (Lake Qaraaoun, Anjar, etc)
White-spectacled Bulbul Pycnonotus xanthopygos : Common throughout
Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti : Common throughout
Great Reed Warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus : 1ex Aammiq
Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus : 1 Anjar
Eurasian Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus : A few Aammiq
Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita : A few throughout
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla A few Alvie (Aana, Anjar (a lot shot dead)
Garden Warbler Sylvia borin : 1 dead (Aana)
Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca : A few Aana, Anjar
Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala : Common throughout
Ménétriés's Warbler Sylvia mystacea : 2 Ras Baalbek
Goldcrest Regulus regulus : 1 Barouk (CCMR)
Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes : 2 Barouk (CCMR)
Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea : 1 in Qadija valley
Western Rock Nuthatch Sitta neumayer : 2 in Qadija valley
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris : 8 Aammiq
Eurasian Blackbird Turdus merula : 2 Chamsine
Redwing Turdus iliacus : A few heard passing Bcharre
European Robin Erithacus rubecula : 2 Barouk (CCMR)
Bluethroat Luscinia svecica : 2♂ & 1 ♀ - Anjar
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros : Few throughout
Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus : Common thourghout (+ a dozen shot dead)
Whinchat Saxicola rubetra : Regular throughout (few shot dead)
Common Stonechat Saxicola torquatus : 2 Anjar (+1 shotdead)
Isabelline Wheatear Oenanthe isabellina : 1 Ras Baalbek
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe : Common throughout
Desert Wheatear Oenanthe desertica : 1 Ras Baalbek
Cyprus Wheatear Oenanthe cypriaca : 1 full automn plumage
Black-eared Wheatear Oenanthe hispanica : 2♂ first winter Ras Baalbek
Mourning Wheatear Oenanthe lugens : 1♂ Ras Baalbek
Finsch's Wheatear Oenanthe finschii : 1 ♀ first winter (dark throated) Ras Baalbek
Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata : 1 dead - Aana
Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis : 1 Anjar
House Sparrow Passer domesticus : Common Throughout
Dead Sea Sparrow Passer Moabiticus : 1♂ pond near Chamsine -Officially not in Lebanon’s bird list.
Currently under approval by the commission
Rock Sparrow Petronia petronia : 2 Ras Baalbek
Dunnock Prunella modularis : 2 (CCMR)
Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava : A Few ( Aammiq, Ras Baalbek, Bcharre)
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea Bergeronnette des ruisseaux : 1 Chamsine (killed by a 13 year old boy)
White Wagtail Motacilla alba : Regular througout
Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris : 15 Ras Baalbek
Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis : A few heard passing (Aammiq, Anjar, Bcharre)
Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus : 1 Anjar, 2 Bcharre
Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs : Common
European Serin Serinus serinus : 2 Bcharre
Syrian Serin Serinus syriacus : 25 Bcharre; 15 track north of Bcharre - Vulnérable
European Greenfinch Carduelis chloris : Few CCMR, Bcharre ; 1 Ras Baalbek
European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis : Common throughout
Common Linnet Carduelis cannabina : 60 Bcharre ; 150 track north of Bcharre
Crimson-winged Finch Rhodopechys sanguineus : 15 Bcharre
Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra : Few in Bekaa Valley
Western Rock Bunting Emberiza cia : 1 Bcharre
Cinereous Bunting Emberiza cineracea : 1♂ (semenowi) Bcharre
Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana : 6 Ras Baalbek
Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus : 1 Aammiq, 1 Anjar