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

Monday, 30 March 2009

Bald Ibis

One of the rarest birds in the world. Some birds still reside in Morocco but the only ones in the east are these birds and some in captivity in turkey. There are just 5 birds this year inc two ringed birds. More excitedly there are two unringed sub-adults reported, which means that they have appeared from an as yet undiscovered source. What a find that would be. These birds have been wintering in Ethiopia and migrating north. Tragically three were recently poisoned in Jordan.

Bald Ibis

We watched two birds, Sultan and Zenobia. You could see the satellite pack in the field. A real privilege. They are under threat from hunters, predators and starvation. Fingers crossed. Thanks to all the Ibis team who greatly helped us out and we hope our advise and comments were of use. These guys have the eyes of the world on them.

Temmincks, Bimaculated and Lesser Short toed Larks were good, as were Rock Sparrow, Chough and a trio of Egyptian Vultures. Just a shame about the rain!

Friday, 27 March 2009

End of Sociables

John and Graham fly back to Scotland in a couple of days, the Sociable Lapwing side of things now complete. Myself and Hywell are around for a while yet with weeks each based in the Jebel ab Al Aziz, a desert mountain range in the north east, and Latakia in the NW near the coast. Both projects are to undertake surveys of woodland areas for the associated government ministry.

In summary the Lapwing work went well, but we perhaps didn’t connect with as many birds as hoped. It was something of a needle in a haystack job with difficult logistics and security. Sites, habitat and numbers were logged and data passed onto the authorities. Hunters were apprehended at one site and moved on from another (hunting is illegal in Syria) and the profile raising and education side has gone very well.

It looks like the steppe areas were slow to green up this year, due to dryer than normal conditions, which meant many historically good locations weren’t up to scratch when the Sociables moved through. Word is now reaching us that birds are in Iran and Turkmenistan, so they are heading north east and have now passed Syria.


Got some tissues today. They were branded Troy, so here is Troy in English and Troy in Arabic. You’re famous son!

Out and about: In the desert

Desert flowers



Scarab Beetle

Syrian gerbil

Thursday, 26 March 2009


Both John and I are doing a spot of digiscoping – they are the photos you will see on the blog. Hywell has a proper DSLR Canon camera set-up, but we are unable to send the pics out from Syria (technology). By the end of the trip Graham might have figured out how to switch his on!

White cheeked Bulbul outside of the Ziad hotel in Der er Zor

Digiscoping involves attaching a normal ‘family’ digital camera to your telescope. As we both have Swarovski scopes the results have been excellent. Any poor pics will be down to us or the heat/dust haze. The optical gear we use is top notch, and combined with the bright light gives good results. We are both using Swarovski HD scopes with zoom lenses. My camera is a Sony W300, while John in using a Panasonic Lumix.

White-tailed Plover

I have been digiscoping for years, with various set-ups. The first images I really remember taking were of an American Robin that was at Inverbervie, south of Aberdeen on Christmas Day 1988. In those days it was a Kodak Brownie held against a Napoleon naval draw tube scope. How times have changed. John is just starting up digiscoping but it picking it up fast.

Spanish Sparrow

Steppe Buzzard

Hoopoe Lark

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Sand, Sand, and a wee bit of dust

Another day in the field, another sand storm. We had to halt he vehicle at times as the visibility was so poor you couldn’t see what was coming towards you. One donkey on the road looked it had already bit the dust (no pun – honest).

Driving in a sandstorm

Checked a site where Dutch visitors and local hunters had reported birds. We found none in the area – well none alive, but remnants of Sociable Lapwings and hunters camps were strewn around.

Sociable lapwing remains

A large mixed lark flock was also present with 1200 or so birds. Mainly Skylark, but also a good smattering of Short-toeds and at least a couple of Lesser Short toe’s. Star turn though went to the dozen Bimaculated Larks – a chunky species typical of arid steppe habitat.

Bimaulated larks

English Menu

In one restaurant we said we’d be back tomorrow. How surprised were we to be handed an English menu! They had someone translate it for them. How many places in the UK would do that?!

Monday, 23 March 2009

100 uses for a dead Hyena - No.37 Shop fittings

Splat - we have seen three road casualties to date, just hoping we can connect with a live one

Saw one stuffed outside a shop today and went back to take a pic.

Look at the gnashers !

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Red-tailed Wheatear

Photgraph is now up below.

Mheimideh – Jewel of the Euphrates

Unashamedly I have taken this title from a note by Dave Murdoch published in the OSME journal Sandgrouse. A great site to the north of Del ez Zor on the Euphrates. It is an ox-bow lake surrounded by villages and is under threat of being drained.

Graham spies over Mheimideh

The locals are familiar with the birds and the kids keen. One boy even came up and was saying ‘ducks, ducks!’ excitedly as he grabbed our scope for a look. The beauty of this site is it is neat, compact and the birds easily viewable. All the locals were friendly (as ever) and had an interest in the wildlife on their doorstep.

The boy who knew ducks

Birds were top notch too – 47 Spur winged plovers, 27 Ferruginous ducks, 19 Marbled Teal, Squacco heron, Red necked Phalarope, 24 Great white Egrets, Isabelline Shrike, Graceful Prinia’s and an assortment of wagtails.

Spur winged plover and Black winged stilt

Ferruginous duck

Marbled teal

The site is under threat from drainage. As such we took a chap from the local agriculture ministry with us and showed him the importance of the site. He was as impressed as we were and he is going to raise the issue of getting protection for the site. This is certainly one for us to work on and keep the pressure up with when we get home.

Black headed wagtail

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


When in Raqqa in became apparent to all that we needed a dedicated translator if things were to run at all here. Mohammed 1 -as we have dubbed him- did some calling round and found a nervous young man called Yassen, a 21 year old fourth year English student from Damascus University who was on holiday.

He came out with us initially for a day to see how he got on. Initially very nervous of us and all the entourage and goings on he has really come out of his shell and even after a few days exudes confidence. He was such a good apprentice we hired him, and haven’t been disappointed.

It’s been great for him too, meeting high ranking officials and practicing English with us all day long. We have discussed and learned about each other’s cultures, laughed, joked and birded together. For a guy who a week ago this was unthinkable, he is now touring the country with four Westerners and seeing places he has never been to either. He has quickly developed an interest in birds and always grabs a scope if one is spare and helps when we get surrounded by kids explaining what we are up to.

The banter has been good which keeps morale high (though Yassen really struggled initially to get to grips with Graham’s Aberdonian accent) and we have taught him a few Scottish phrases.

He woke up this morning and greeted us with “Fit like min” and a wry cheeky smile.


Monday, 16 March 2009


At the Iraqi border site there are twenty one Sociables, but now word is filtering through about large numbers about 4 hours to the south of us. We're off, Dier-Ez-Zor here we come!

Sociable Lapwing and Hoopoe

Sociable Lapwing Female

Red-tailed Wheatear

This species was a good bonus bird for a hard day in the face burning, wind swept steppe. Flitting around some buildings late afternoon it eventually put on a fine performance.

I had seen this species in Armenia way back in 1995, but it was a tick for everyone else, and a tricky bird to get in the Western Palaearctic.

Confusion (for us at least) still reigns about the taxonomic status of these birds. Basically there are two (sub)species – one with white at the basal sides to the tail, and the other with red. Both have reddish vents. This bird had white sides, which makes it of the form ‘xanthoprymna’, rather than the red sided ‘chrysopygia’.

The English names of Persian and Kurdish Wheatear have also been variously used in recent years for this attractive species. If you are Dutch, and follow their taxanomic rules, you can get two ticks for the price of one. Remco

Red-tailed wheatear

Northern Wheatear

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Out and About in Syria

The Place

While in al-Hasakah we have been hosted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment in an apartment. Pomegranate trees outside, three bedrooms, squat toilet and comfy living room.


Hywell eyes up chillies

Fantastic food!


We are always the star attraction in town. Some really cheeky kids. Handed out pens and badges to them as well as taking their pics and showing them on the back of the camera.

The audience

Mohammed 1

Ace guy who we all really like. He certainly has the patter and the swagger though and is a real character. He is a member of SSCW but works for the Ministry and has been with us on a few days in the field. He likes a bit of banter and I think is very proud to be seen out and about with us. He has arranged our meetings, the mosque etc. He even talked me into trying the hubble bubble (a smoking machine with cool fragrant tobacco -double apple flavour- definitely NOT my thing) despite his English being on a par with my Arabic. Then there is Mohammed 2…….

Mohammed 1 showing me the ropes

Hubble Bubble time

Where ever we go out here the Hubble Bubble can be seen. In Damascus the first restaurant we walked into everyone was puffing away – no smoking bans in Syria that’s for sure. Even the ladies were getting stuck in which was quite a surprise.

Eventually the Syrians have persuaded all of us to have a go. They are designed apparently to cool the smoke so it is smoother than a normal cigarette. The tobacco that goes in is fragranced. Strawberry was grim, and double apple (the most popular) wasn’t that great either. You rent them out in the cafes and the staff come and pop hot coals onto the tobacco to keep it burning. You then have to drag heavily to get the smoke to flow down the long hose like pipe.

Not one that will catch on in Stornoway I suspect.

The double whammy


For the drive out to the desert this morning I got the MP3 player out for the first time. The Proclaimers seemed a good choice – even Yassen got into them and picked up some more Scottish phrases. Maybe Craig and Charlie need a Syrian tour!


Not just an Arabic TV station. The past week has been spent surveying it, or at least its northern fringe. The literal translation means ‘the island’ as this patch of northern desert is road free and isolated. Dusty, stony, dry, cracked, harsh, arid, barren, sparse, sandy, hot, windy, acrid. That’s the Al-Jazeria.

Our convoy in a sandstorm

Scanning for Sociables

Trucking in the desert