As everyone who can heads to the beaches or swimming pools to cope with summer’s fierce summer heat, the Lebanese countryside bakes under the relentless sun.
How do the plants and animals survive?
Will there be anything to see if I take a nature hike?
The answer to these questions is - surprisingly – yes! But take plenty of water and go early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Lebanon’s nature is well adapted to survive the high temperatures; we are not so well equipped and need to take plenty of water, a sun hat and sun cream.
If you do take a hike, head high up into the mountains where the air is cooler and there are still some green patches in the shade and overhangs of rocks. The first thing you notice is that most of the flowering plants and grasses have died, leaving the ground brown and prickly. You need good hiking shoes as the spines – an adaptation to prevent grazing by goats of the few remnants of green – can be very sharp. Most flowering plants grow through the wetter months of winter and spring, and then flower, set seed and die as the seasonal drought sets in. Their hope for next year is in the soil – seeds are capsules in suspended animation just waiting for water and milder temperatures.
Other plants survive the harsh summer conditions by having thick, often waxy or hairy leaves, specially adapted to prevent water loss – what biologists call sclerophyllous plants. Many of the leaves contain complex oils with strong scents and flavours, designed to prevent grazing. However, many of these we find attractive and add to our food – spicy herbs!
In the middle of the day, the landscape seems devoid of animal life. Never easy to see, the mammals will be most active at night, spending the day holed up in dens. There are actually fewer birds at this time of year, and the residents and summer visitors will be much less active in the heat of the day. Nevertheless, if you arrive early enough, the residents are still about: rock nuthatches, long legged buzzards, kestrels, crows and many more.
But if you really want to see birds, find places where there is still water. Because it is at such a premium at this time of year, the few pools that are left will be frequented by a wide variety of birds, mammals and insects. If you head to the marshes of the West Bekaa it can be a great time to see herons, kingfishers and grebes as they make use of the shrinking pools trapping thousands of fish – ready for the taking. These pools will also give great views of freshwater turtles and amphibians, concentrated by the summer heat.
Although it’s a hard time for the birds, mammals and freshwater life, most of the reptiles have a much easier time. Being poikilothermic (cold blooded), they receive much of the energy they need to regulate body temperature from the sun – and there is plenty of sun in Lebanon in the summer! Lizards and snakes thrive – particularly in the drier habitats. Again, they will be least active during the hottest parts of the day – spending time under stones or in holes underground – but early mornings and late afternoons are a great time to reptile-spot.
If, having read this blog you still decide to go to the beach, look out for Lebanon’s most spectacular coastal flower: the Sea Daffodil (Pancratium maritimum). With a spectacular white trumpet flower growing straight out of the sand, it is a very special plant. The best place to see the flowers is the sandy reserve next to Tyre beach. The seeds are able to float and survive long periods at sea – an adaptation to dispersal - which has enabled the flowers to colonise sandy beaches around the Mediterranean. Although widespread, tourist development has destroyed much of its original habitat so that it is now quite rare.
Soon the first of the fall migrants will be here – even by the end of August migration starts, with large numbers of hoopoes being the most obvious sign with their black and white “butterfly banded” wings, backward crest and curved bill – but that is for the next post.
It’s countdown to Christmas and the winter holidays!
Just as expectation and preparation mark the coming days and weeks for us, so it is for Lebanon’s wildlife. Although the spectacular flocks of storks, cranes, pelicans and birds of prey have passed through, bird migration hasn’t stopped. This is the season of arrival for the winter visitors.
The exact timing and location of these visitors depends on the weather, particularly the heavy rains, snow cover on the mountains and, crucially, when the severe cold arrives in the north. With the onset of the winter rains, the Bekaa wetlands start to fill after the long summer drought. With the returning water come the birds – look out for ducks at Aammiq, Kafr Zabad and Qaraoun including Teal, Mallard, Shoveler and – the most elegant of all – the Pintail. Birds of prey are also arriving: this is the best time to see Hen Harriers and the resident population of Long-legged Buzzard is boosted by incomers, along with large numbers of Steppe Buzzards.
You don’t have to go out to the countryside to see this seasonal change. Mountain birds such as Black Redstarts come down the mountains to rocky areas along the coast. Building sites in Beirut are a great place to see them!
Trees mark the changing season too. At low altitudes the hardest time to get water is during the long, dry summer, so leaves are often thick and waxy to keep water in. High up in the mountains, water is locked up and unavailable in the form of ice and snow for much for the winter. Many trees there thus lose their leaves to prevent water loss at this time of the year. This is beautifully illustrated by two of our oak species: Kermes Oak (Quercus calliprinos) is found from sea level to 1500m and is evergreen; Brant’s Oak (Quercus brantii) grows from 1400 to 1800m and loses its leaves, being deciduous.
Further north in Europe, far more trees lose their leaves. Bringing in evergreens into houses – Christmas trees, Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe – is a mark of the season, a reminder of colour and life amid the winter chill.
A Rocha International
The Greatest show on Earth
To be in Lebanon in spring is to be at the heart of one of the greatest shows on Earth. Millions of birds pour through the country as they are in mid migration, between their southern wintering grounds and northern breeding territories. They come singly, in small flocks, large groups and on occasion great clouds of spiraling aerial acrobats. To the observer it is a fabulous spectacle and now is the time to be out there watching. Year on year, the birds pass through regular as clockwork. In fact, they are so regular that you can predict when each species is most likely encountered. This is a great help to the bird watcher! The good news is that the peak of the migration is just ahead – in April.
And why is Lebanon such an important country for migration?
To answer this question we need to understand how birds fly! Birds travel in one of two ways, which has implications for the routes they take:
1. Broad front migrants – these are mostly small and medium sized birds that travel by active flight. This means they travel across the country in a broad front and can cross water.
2. Soaring birds – these are mostly larger birds, like the White Storks (Ciconia ciconia). It would be very expensive, in terms of energy, to flap over large distances, so they soar. They do this by gaining great height from rising air currents, or thermals, and then gliding down on broad spread wings, traveling huge horizontal distances. This means that they cannot cross large water bodies, as no thermals form over seas, so they are concentrated on coastal routes around the Mediterranean i.e. Lebanon!
So get out and enjoy the greatest show on Earth this spring!