“Our observatory is a type of restaurant for birds; one of the most important on the migratory route.” We’re in the Aqaba Bird Observatory, and manager Feras Rahahleh is standing in front of an illuminated map with large arrows showing the main routes taken by birds as they move between winter feeding grounds in the south and their northern nesting sites.
The Rift Valley is the easternmost of the three main routes between Africa and Asia, and Aqaba’s position at the northern end of the Red Sea means it serves as a vital stopping point on the birds’ journeys. Birds from Europe and western Asia pass over the area before either following the Saudi coast towards Yemen, or heading south along Egypt’s Sinai coast. Feras explains, ”They’ll always fly a course which involves the minimum time over water, as that’s where they use the most energy.”
The observatory is an artificially-created environment, with wetland and forest habitat cultivated to support the birdlife. As we take a walk through the site, the smell of sewerage hangs in the air, and it’s the waste water that’s responsible in no small part for the birds’ presence here. The observatory began almost by accident. The city authorities established sewerage treatment ponds in 1986, and soon noticed that migrating birds were attracted to the water. Eventually the Aqaba Bird Observatory was established, to exploit the potential of the site in this bottleneck along the migratory route.
Feras started working at the observatory seven years ago, after spending time here as a researcher. He quickly learned to identify different birds, and in doing so developed a passion for bird-watching. That passion is obvious within moments of meeting him, and he’s certainly kept busy at this wild spot, squeezed in between the Israeli border on one side and one of Aqaba’s mega-sized development projects on the other. The site attracts over 200 bird species — around 45% of the total species count in Jordan. “It’s recognised as the best site to observe wading birds in the whole of Jordan,” he tells me. Popular sightings include the Arabian babbler, the Nubian nightjar and the Dead Sea sparrow, as well as the national bird of Jordan, the Sinai rosefinch.
While the site is popular with bird-watchers and attracts visitors from all over the world, Feras also works on promoting environmental awareness and education among local people, especially children. He tells me that in 2012 there were only 600 local visitors, but by 2014 this number had increased to 5,000.
We walk alongside a long, narrow lake, which Feras tells me is popular in the winter with ducks. There can be hundreds on the lake at any one time, and with a constant flow of take-offs and landings, he’s named the lake Ducks Airport; particularly apt given that two international airports (Aqaba and Eilat) are within earshot of the observatory.
Many come to see the white-eyed gull — the largest concentration of the species in the world is found in the Gulf of Aqaba. Feras tells me, “The difference between local tourists and committed bird-watchers is that the locals want to see large numbers of birds, while the birdwatchers come to the observatory to see one particular species.”
We explore some of the 1.5 km of trails within the observatory and stop at the modern hide. Feras picks up his binoculars and we watch as a black-headed gull passes across the largest of the observatory’s eight lakes. The sounds of this rapidly growing city rumble in the distance, but for now the site offers a peaceful retreat at one of the world’s most important aviary crossroads.
The Aqaba Bird Observatory is open every day except Friday. Admission is 7JD (around £7).
Follow Andy and Sam over the next two weeks as they travel around the Jordanian region of Aqaba, blogging and posting on social media as they go #NGTUKnomad