Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Lost in translation

Abu Quibes and migration

This is the second United Nations Development Programme Protected Area that we are working in. It is on the west side of the country, near Hama, and forms part of a mountain chain running north to south up the spine of the country. Dense maquais (ie bloomin’ thorny) scrub predominates, with oak and pines amid the groves on the sun-blasted slopes. Great team here and we are out doing samples in 1km squares as well as vantage point logging of migrating species – mainly raptors and storks

1300 Eagles in a day cant be bad. Primarily Steppe Eagles, but in recent days, Booted, Lesser and Greater Spotted, Short toed (Snake to the Syrians) Eagle, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Goshawk, Kestrel, Levant’s Sparrowhawk, Long legged and Steppe Buzzard have all added to the mix. Non raptors have included big numbers of Black and White Storks as well as a surprise group of c.300 White Pelicans.

Egyptian Vulture

Passerines have included Masked Shrike, Cretzchmar’s Buntings, Orphean Warblers, Thrush Nightingales, hundreds of Lesser Whitethroat (probably nominate and Hume’s), Sardinian Warbler etc. A bonus surprise was an Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler.

Female black eared wheatear

Finches wheatear

Rock thrush (male)

Saturday, 18 April 2009

A hunter's tale

Part of promoting conservation here has always been talking to as many locals as possible. This time we were told of a prolific hunter who may be willing to meet us. A few phone calls later and it was arranged. We went to a darkened apartment block and were met by a larger than life friendly character who showed us his collection. Quite a revelation, with all manner of species stuffed and an ammo collection a small army would be proud of.

Species investigation gets underway

Among them were two Red-breasted Geese that we ascertained were the first and only Syrian records, having been shot in Feb 2007.

Red breasted geese and a red faced Maggs

The hunter was well aware that his pastime is technically illegal, but as he said it isn’t policed. He clearly had an intimate knowledge of his quarry and showed us many of the species he sees from our European Field Guide. He had never seen a bird book before, but was interested in their status, distribution etc. He suggested off his own back that something more practical, such as a permit system needs to be implemented, rather than an unworkable blanket ban. We left after several glasses of Arak as friends and with a better understanding of each others positions, and an agreement that no more White headed Ducks, Marbled Teal or Red breasted Geese would ever be shot by him now that he knew their significance.

White fronted geese and Ruddy shelduck massacre

Hot Shave

Us going feral was too much for the Jebel team so we were taken out for a makeover Syrian Style. Being shaved with an open blade is always a nervy experience, but even more so when in security conscious Syria.

We went in looking like ho-bo’s, and came out as George Clooney and Robbie Williams – or so they told us!

Hywel goes into the barbers

Robbie Williams comes out!


It was our final day in the Protected Area of Jebel Addul Azizz when we connected with wolves. We’d been out since 6ish and three hours later I was scanning down a dry gorge. Something stirred beside a tree, a dog maybe, so I put the scope on it. I couldn’t believe my eyes as a wolf, only a 100m or so away stood up and began to slowly walk up the hill side. I signalled for Zoober to come quickly, and he seemed to disbelieve me when I said Wolf, and told him to look in the scope. He grinned like a Cheshire cat – it was a first for him too.

As a one off wildlife experiences it is one that is in my top five. Killer Whales chasing seals and penguins off the Falklands and stumbling on an Armadillo in South America are two others.


Apologies for the sparse postings this week. Things have been pretty hectic as the trip comes to an end and only occasional access to the internet.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Out and about: Birds

Tawny pipit

Black Kite

Blue rock thrush

Desert wheatear

Marsh harrier

Sociable Lapwing

Penduline tit

Semi collared flycatcher

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Night Owls

A night out was arranged for a nocturnal adventure. Our guide took us to a cave where Desert Eagle Owl is known to hang out after dark. Suddenly in the cold gloom we could hear a gun being loaded. Our guide had a revolver in his hand and was brandishing it about. Things didn’t look good. We’d been lead to a cave in the middle of nowhere and our guide now brandished a loaded gun. Underwear was in need of a change. It was then explained that the gun was in case a wolf came out the cave and attacked us. Soon after we headed back to our accommodation - no owls, no nightjars, no hyena and no wolves – dead or alive.

Proper Protection

The designation here made me smile. Not only is grazing restricted, and currently all but absent, but noise is controlled too. It is illegal to hoot your car horn in the protected area. Maybe SNH should try this level of protection at home!

Stop the hunting poster

There are local people picking a fungus that occurs at this time of year to eat, but the site is basically to be kept wild. Over the years hunting and overgrazing have had severe negative impacts. The idea of the UNDP is to rectify that.

“Nature is soul food” we were told. “This means total protection so your soul can benefit from nature.” Like it.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Jebel birds

Isabelline Wheatears are everywhere, Egyptian Vultures daily and Lesser Kestrels at every turn. Short toed Eagles are crusing about and the gorges are smattered with Pied, Black eared and Finsch’s Wheatears. Hoopoes flush up from every wadi and larks abound in the plains. Corn bunting ‘sip’ in flocks and Redstarts flit from tree to tree. Nice place.

Isabelline wheatear

Egyptian vulture roosting on a pylon

Egyptian Vulture over the Jebel

Lesser Kestrel (female)

Finschs wheatear (male)


Highlights have been Rock and See-see Partridge, Pin tailed Sandgrouse, Semi Collared Flycatcher, Scops Owl (sp), several Red tailed Wheatears. Reintroduced Common Gazelle are about too.

Common Gazelle

Return of the Kebabs!

A 24 bout of illness hit home. With my guts sounding like a coffee machine going into warp factor 9 it wasn’t the best, but it is a fine way to loose weight. My belt slipped down two notches overnight! A small blessing was the fact that we were in a place with a pedestal rather than a squat toilet. No food for 36 hours and weaning back on with flat 7-Up to rehydrate.

The kebab shop!

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Jebel life

Jebel Abdul Azziz is a protected area (PA) for nature in the Syrian Al Jazeria (island desert). As part of a UN Development Program we are here to survey the site for birds and habitats. It is nearly 40km long, and about 4km wide and runs basically east to west. Mountainous and arid with a few pistachio trees and deep gorges. The later makes doing transects interesting to say the least! My calf muscles have turned to concrete.

The Jebel

We are based in an office to the east of the reserve, 30km from Al-Hasake, with basic accommodation, but a good new team. Hussien from Al-Raqqa is translating for us and we also have Mr Zoober, Mr Akmed the Driver, and Mr Security.

Mr Zoober, Mr Security, Mr Driver

Zoober is the bird researcher and it is good to see him flourish. His English is improving with us and we have had a laugh. We have nearly killed him, he reckons, walking 15km plus a day up and down steep gorges, in searing heat. He reckons he lost 7kg in the first three days.

Mr Zoober


We meet lots of nomadic shepherds but one today certainly made a huge impact on me. Usual friendly greetings ensued and he insisted on making a pot of tea by gathering some sticks to start a small fire. Typical translated small talk ensued, and was all smiley, then came an awkward moment. There was clearly tension between the shepherd and the translator. Eventually I was asked,

“America and Scotland like brothers?” No I said, “not brothers just friends.”

“One million dead, one million dead”, then a pause “Why?”. I knew exactly what he was talking about. Nervous, I was slow to answer and he said “Iraq. Why?”

“Greed” I replied after a minute of pondering, not wishing to discuss politics (something we have tried to avoid throughout), and this was passed on. Again an awkward silence and then the shepherd stood up. He stared deeply into my eyes, then suddenly grabbed me and hugged me, following up with a hearty handshake and pat on the back.

“F*ck Bush” he said. His first and only English of the encounter. Kind of says it all.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Out and about: In the desert 2

Even the desert has boggy bits!

Typical desert houses

Meeting nomads

Nomad children

Tea in the desert

Splendid isolation

One for Troy

Here is a Syrian school we passed at a village called Eiwa. The kids were all in blue uniforms, shirts and trousers, and were charging around the playground. The girls were wearing head shawls and playing football while the boys seemed to be playing tag. With often ten children in a family no sign of falling school roles here.

School playground

Thursday, 2 April 2009


What a place. Surely one of the largest, best and most important wetland sites in the Western Palaearctic. We spent a day here and only managed the NW area. The site really deserved a week. Here it wasn’t just quality, but quantity.

Jabbul Wetlands

Near on 12,000 Greater Flamingos was stunning, nearly 10,00 Shoveler and 298 of the globally endangered White headed Ducks was awesome. 18 chicken like Purple Gallinules stomping about the reeds added a bit of character while the general birding was non-stop.


White headed duck

Purple Gallinule

Part of the lake is saline and salt is being extracted. However, due to contamination, the salt is currently condemned from consumption – perhaps an early warning about this site if something isn’t done about the effluent pouring into it from surrounding villages (and Aleppo?). There is also a threat of a large chemical works being built on its shores.

The two local wardens took us back for tea and we had a good chat about the site and birds in general. Two guys who need all the support they can get.

Waders on the Jabbul

Family day out

Came across a car in a petrol station. Mum, Dad and 7 kids all sharing the two front seats of a pick up truck, with all their gear in the back. Impressive!

No room for seat belts!

Return of Mohammed 1

The going got tough when various logistical problem and security problems manifested themselves. Mohammed 1 came to our rescue and smoothed things out. A feast at Mohammed's house to meet his family helped us relax.

The feast

His son Bashar, who is just six, impressed us by writing out the alphabet in English. Each night he learns five words of English, so that he can get a better start in life. Pretty damn impressive.


Next day was Mohammed’s 40th birthday which meant more gorging on food……….

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Heading for the hills

When you read this John Wills and Graham Rebecca will be back in the UK. Thanks guys for a great trip. Myself and Hywell Maggs are staying out to work on another conservation project for the Global Environmental Fund (a UN project), all about Biodiversity in Protected Areas in association with the Syrian Government again.

A week in Jebel Abdul Aziz (a remote mountain range about 40km SE of al-Hasake) is then followed by a week in the NW near the Turkish border and the city of Latakiya. Both are labelled forestry projects and it is a new team of Syrians we’re are working with and training. Back to basics, but hopefully logistics might be a tadge easier this time in the north east.

Quick initial thanks

Just a quick thanks to all for the help with the Sociable Lapwing Project. Primarily Rob Sheldon for being patient, when we often weren’t, and being bombarded with queries in previous months and pulling it together for us (beer is due), and all the other UK RSPB staff (especially GC and Eilidh the other day when it hit the fan). Special mention to Richard Porter and Tony Marr for helping out with contacts in the early days.

In Syria special thanks to SSCW (especially Akram Darwish, Osama Al-Nouri, Roula and Sala) and Mohammed 1, Yassen, Hussein, Ibrahim, Mahmood, all the drivers, Ahmed in Deir er Zor, and Sharif at Birdlife Middle East in Jordan. I have probably missed some folk, so apologies.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Palmyra – a spot of history

We felt obliged to do a spot of culture. The ruins here are on a par with those at Efesus in Turkey. Columns and pillars mark out millennia of history.

One of the main stories is about Zenobia (that’s were one of the ibis names comes from), a Queen of Palmyra, and beautiful woman, who fought the Romans. Her army defeated them then moved onto take what is now Saudi Arabia. They were beaten back to Palmyra, where the Queen tried to flee to Persia on a camel, but was caught and taken to Rome, where she was paraded in gold chains.

Talila Reserve

This is where all the reintroductions happen. A project that has been guided by the Italians (especially a chap called Gianlucca Sierra). This shows how positive conservation can be. Habitat looks great and shed loads of larks and pipits about. In turn these attracted raptors including two Imperial and one Great Spotted Eagle. Stars bird wise though must have been the 5 Pallid Harriers that were continually hawking over the plains giving stunning views. Another must visit site if in Syria.

A cracking red spotted male Bluethroat followed us around by the gate at the Talila reserve following a fall of migrants (from a rain shower). PHAW!!!


Also Rock and Blue Rock Thrush, both Black eared, Pied and Cyprus Pied Wheatear, Wrynecks, Desert Finch, Tree Pipit, Menetries and Sedge Warbler, Tawny pipit, Eastern Redstart and hundreds of chiffchaffs caught up in the fall. Fantastic birding.

Rock Thrush

Pied wheatear

Cypress Pied Wheatear


Desert finch

One hundred and fifty Arabian Oryx have also been reintroduced onto the reserve at Talila near Palmyra, along with now 600 Sand Gazelle. Cool to watch them wander about from the jeep. Very safari like. The difference in grazing each side of the fence was amazing. The sheep have grazed the steppe to buggery, but the Oryx graze differently and you get good flushes of wildflowers etc. One to be learned in certain parts of Scotland.

Arabian Oryx

Sand Gazelle