By Jacob Drucker
The role geography plays in ornithology is undeniably significant. Places where habitats merge, from forest edge to river mouths to migrant trapping oases, are some of the best places for birding and finding wildlife of all sorts. The Middle East is conveniently placed between three continents. The converging of different habitats and climates results in a great diversity of wildlife. Though it may not have as much to offer as the tropics, its role in bird migration is matched in few other places in the world. Israel and the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey serve as funnels between continents, concentrating a number of birds diverse in species. These places are especially noted for their role in raptor passage, each hosting up to two-hundred thousand birds in a day with species such as European Honey-buzzard, Lesser Spotted Eagle and Levant Sparrowhawk. Over the summer I was lucky enough to go on a family trip to Turkey, where from the roof of our hotel I counted in two hours 269 European Honey-buzzards, 19 Levant Sparrowhawks and 25 European Bee-eaters (earlier in the season, diversity is slightly lower). This was only in late August. Imagining what a good day in mid–September would be like is just mind-blowing.
Pale Rosefinch (Carpodacus synoicus), an inhabitant of desert mountain ranges in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt's Sinai peninsula. Colored pencil and craypa, artwork by Jacob Drucker.
The Middle East is also home to many specialty birds for the region, and also a good sample of Asian, African and European birds all in one area. Time spent birding in Israel can result in sightings ranging from Collared Flycatchers, Blackcaps and Red-backed Shrikes to Cream-coloured Courser and Namaqua Dove, to Thick-billed Lark and Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. Farther east reveals a taste of Central-Asian steppe, mountains occupied by Lammergeier and Caspian Snowcock, and deserts holding birds like Iranian Ground–Jay and Hypocolius. The accessibility of some of these birds can be very difficult for several reasons, one of which is the wild politics of the region.
When the average American thinks of the Middle East, the first thing they usually think of is political turmoil. The Israeli-Arab conflict makes security in that region incredibly tight, making birding in parts of Israel very sketchy. In my travels in the country, I would often be given strange looks by soldiers on the border for using binoculars. In Eilat, the southern tip of Israel, I nearly followed a singing Graceful Prinia into a former minefield. The situations in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan make a birding excursion to the country by westerners seem somewhat senseless. It goes without saying that these countries are not on the top of any ecotourism group’s lists. Along with leaving these areas unbirded, the conservation money generated by ecotourism goes down the drain, and localized species Iranian Ground-Jay (a species whose nest is still undescribed) and endangered ones like Waldrapp, Dalmatian Pelican and Sociable Lapwing that breed in, or move through, the areas get little or no protection. Military action results in terrible habitat loss, and already several species of mammal face extinction, Iranian Cheetah for example.
Along with the politics, many parts of the Middle East are incredibly remote and inaccessible. The status of many mountain species like Great Rosefinch and even Himalayan Griffon in eastern regions is unknown. Similar to what occurs in places like Peru and Kenya, isolated mountain valleys promote the evolution of unique endemic species. In underbirded places like Afghanistan—totally secluded by mountains and valleys—who knows what could be living in some isolated canyon inhabited by the Taliban. Though politics does complicate things and now may not be the best time to do so, these areas should not go unexplored.
*Because many of these birds have aliases (Waldrapp is also known as Bald Ibis, for example), the common names for this post have been taken from the Clements Checklist available online at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.