A Day in Wadi Qelt
By Sami Backleh
Glossy black plumage with orange patches on the outer wing that are particularly noticeable in flight … a very noisy character with a call that resembles a wolf-whistle: this was the first bird that my eyes and ears directly spotted soon after I started my hike from Wadi Qelt to Jericho. It was a Tristram’s Grackles - an endemic bird to the Jordan Valley and the surrounding area - roaming through the Wadi. It is, no doubt, considered one of the most notable bird species in dry wadis along the Jordan Valley.
It was on the second of November that I decided to go hiking and bird watching in Wadi Qelt - a site that I always admired not only because of its rich history, archaeology, and natural scenes but also due to its being a goldmine of diverse flora and fauna species, many of which form important elements in our valuable natural heritage.
Naturalists are an odd bunch. For most people, a holiday means relaxation and sleeping in. Not for us devotees. An ideal break involves being up and running before dawn, at least a couple of hours before work requires, and wrapping up exhausted, but overjoyed, by 8:00 a.m.
I tried to reach Wadi Qelt from its eastern side by 7:00 a.m., starting from a relatively high hill with a panoramic view that overlooks Jericho and the Dead Sea. By 8:00 a.m., however, the temperature had risen to about 25°C, and the Dead Sea had disappeared behind a scrim of bluish haze, so I decided to keep on going to see other forms of wildlife down the Wadi.
Wildlife in Palestine? To those steeped in bad news from this tiny, accursed corner of the world - whether they know it as Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza, or the occupied territories - it can be a shock to learn that much of anything is thriving here, wild or otherwise. But hyenas and gazelles are still roaming through the wadis of the eastern slopes of Palestine, and ibex still gambol in the mountains of the Dead Sea.
I kept on walking down the steep sides of the Wadi, which is teaming with an array of desert life that thrives on the numerous freshwater springs. The Wadi still provides water for the city of Jericho using old aqueducts. Indeed it is a place for exploration.
As I hiked through this harsh but astonishing landscape, I tried to keep my eyes on the sky in anticipation of a potential sighting of an interesting gliding raptor, as it was the time for the fall migration. Loud trumpeting, far-reaching calls, and deep and trilling “kroo kroos” emerged out of nowhere. I tried to distinguish where the sound was coming from; however, in a magical sight, the air was suddenly filled with hundreds of cranes soaring and twirling in the sky as they were carried up by the warm air currents. Like fighter-pilot squadrons, the birds adopt arrow-like formations as they are lifted by the thermals, which will eventually guide them south towards Africa. A few minutes later, they disappeared into the horizon.
It is one of nature’s most astonishing spectacles: Every spring, more than half a billion birds fly north from Africa to breeding grounds in Europe and Asia, and every fall they return. A few strong fliers can cross the Mediterranean in one go. But the vast majority of the 500-odd species that make the trek are obliged to do so overland - for example: passerines (small perching birds), because they need to stop and eat; raptors and other big soaring birds, because they depend on thermals, spiralling updrafts, that don’t form over water.
The choke point for most of this traffic is this bottleneck piece of land between Africa and Asia, a region currently shared (if that’s the right word) by Israel, the fledgling Palestinian political entity, and Jordan. This slender land-bridge is furrowed by two parallel mountain ranges and, between them, the Jordan Valley, itself a northward continuation of Africa’s Great Rift. The valley is a perfect avian flyway, its high temperatures and steep walls spinning off thermals while its wetlands offer abundant cover and forage.
The Wadi’s birds include many of those typical to the dry and semi-dry ecosystems. A number of Black Redstarts, males in black breast and face with a rusty-red rump and tail, work their way along the Wadi floor. Mourning Wheatear seem to call from every other boulder while the similar but much less common Hooded Wheatear probably also breeds in that area.
One of my most memorable incidents came after I was alerted by a group of bulbuls behaving very oddly, calling incessantly, and flitting up and down - clearly very nervous. The cause of their unrest was made apparent after a little searching: a snake that disappeared between the rocks soon after I came closer. I didn’t manage to see it well; however, the colour of the last few centimetres of its tail hinted that it could be a Palestine viper. I was sad for upsetting the viper during its potential hunt, but I was sure that the bulbuls were happy with my arrival.
To my surprise as I passed by an Acacia bush along my chosen route, an impaled lizard on one of the thorns was being executed by somebody! I stayed still trying to hide myself as I was certain that the “butcher bird” was close by. I was confident enough to know that it was a Great Grey Shrike. It is typical for this bird to impale its prey on thorns for later consumption. After a while, I saw it perching right in the open on an exposed branch, ready to swoop down on its insect or small vertebrate victim. It was such a beautiful bird with a stunning appearance; a handsome black, white, and grey bird with a striking black bandit mask over its eyes.
By that time it was about noon, so I decided to look for some shade on a hill in order to rest and watch some migratory soaring birds. As I sat enjoying my packed lunch, I watched a pair of rocky hyraxes with their pups foraging for plant roots in the Wadi bed. Suddenly the group was alerted through a deep but rather scary call from one of the hyraxes and, at once, all were scattered in different directions. I tried to use my binoculars to see what the problem was all about, but the only thing I saw at that moment was the shadow of a big bird hovering over one of the pups and trying to catch it. It was an incredible, breathtaking moment; the only thing I saw was the surge of dust that formed as the raptor - which was most likely a migratory Great Spotted Eagle - hit the ground. The eagle failed to catch the little hyrax but flapped its wings and flew southwards, leaving the hyrax with another survival adventure and me with an unforgettable experience.
Sami Backleh is a free-lance conservation biologist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Article photos by Anton Khalilieh