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The only permanent, natural wetland in the Jordanian desert, 85 km east of Amman, and one of very few such sites in the Arabian peninsula. A (formerly) permanent, spring-fed marshland near the village of South Azraq (Azraq Wetland Reserve, 31°50'N 36°50'E, 1,255 ha) with a large, adjacent, seasonal playa-lake to the south-east (Qa al Azraq, 30°50'N 36°53'E, c.6,000 ha). The site also includes some artesian pools with associated marshland (31°51'N 36°50'E, 50 ha) and fishpools (31°49'N 36°48'E, 100 ha).
Until heavily degraded in recent years (see 'Conservation issues'), the Azraq Wetland Reserve was a flat area of pools, marshes, water meadows and silt dunes. Plant cover was very varied, including dense stands of Juncus, Carex, Typha, Scirpus, Cyperus and Arundo in the wetland, and bushes of Nitraria and Tamarix on the silt dunes. Similar marshland also formerly occurred around the springs at the village of North Azraq.
Qa al Azraq is a low-lying, enclosed basin which is seasonally flooded by c.10 wadis after winter rains over a catchment area of c.13,000 km2. A temporary, shallow, freshwater lake (max. depth 1.25 m) is formed, with a flat, muddy margin of up to 35 km circumference and scattered islands (the mounds of dry-season saltworkings). The water never overspills into the adjacent freshwater marsh of the Wetland Reserve, and the lake does not drain into and re-charge the underlying aquifer, instead remaining for several months (good aquatic invertebrate populations develop during this time) while becoming increasingly brackish as it dries out to form a siltflat, usually by mid-May. The basin is barren of vegetation when dry, except for salt-tolerant herbs (Halopeplis, Halocnemum) around the edges.
The artesian pools are an variable area of standing water of variable extent, fed by a small artesian borehole drilled in 1963 and still flowing. There is a small area of Tamarix bushes surrounded by damp to wet meadow/marshland with grass and other low vegetation. The fishpools were recently excavated in low-relief, silt desert on the edge of Qa al Azraq, with muddy shore and islands, fringed with reeds Phragmites when water levels are not high.
The oasis is a major crossroads for highways running between Amman, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and Iraq, and the level of human activity is high, there being two large settlements, North Azraq (formerly called Druze) and South Azraq (formerly Shishan), as well as a military base. The oasis is a major social and economic resource to Jordan, being one of the largest and most exploited sources of water for human consumption in the country. Cultivation is extensive in former silt desert surrounding the wetlands, irrigated from private wells. Qa al Azraq supports a substantial salt industry; regulated wildfowl hunting occurs in winter. Large numbers of sheep, goats and camels are watered and grazed in the remains of the marshland at Azraq Wetland Reserve and the artesian pools. Small-scale fish farming occurs at the fishpools.
See box for key species. Other species which currently breed (mostly less than 10 pairs for the waterbirds) include Rallus aquaticus, Charadrius dubius, C. leschenaultii, Vanellus spinosus, V. leucurus, Sterna nilotica, S. albifrons, Pterocles senegallus, Caprimulgus aegyptius, Ramphocoris clotbey, Calandrella brachydactyla, C. rufescens, Eremophila bilopha, Oenanthe deserti and Rhodopechys obsoleta. Large numbers of birds of prey are attracted to drink at the pools on autumn migration, including Pernis apivorus (14, September) and Circus pygargus (66, September). Currently, Qa al Azraq still supports internationally important numbers of wintering and spring migrant waterfowl in years of good rain (e.g. more than 20,000 waterfowl in winter 1991/2). The artesian pools and fishpools support important numbers of a few species of non-breeding waterbirds, especially during spring migration, and are the only remaining permanent wetland habitat now that the Wetland Reserve is almost dry. They are thus very attractive to all kinds of passage migrants, especially during the very dry autumn period. Azraq has been relatively well-studied and over 300 species have been recorded, a very high total.
The Wetland Reserve is currently lacking importance for waterbirds, due to the drying up of the springs. In the 1960s, before the permanent marshland was so severely degraded, the Wetland Reserve was an important breeding site for many waterbird species and together with Qa al Azraq supported up to c.350,000 wintering wildfowl, predominantly Anas penelope, A. crecca, A. acuta and Fulica atra. However by the 1978/79 winter only 2,500 wildfowl were present in the reserve, and by the 1990/91 winter less than 100-200.
The site was listed as a wetland of international importance by Carp (1980).
Non-bird biodiversity: Mammals: Canis lupus (V); Caracal caracal (rare) and Gazella gazella (V) are thought to be recently extinct. Reptiles: Varanus griseus (rare) occurred in the surrounding desert, at least formerly. Formerly the Wetland Reserve supported a relatively rich fauna and flora, including important and highly isolated or endemic populations of fish, invertebrate and plant species; many species may not have survived the ongoing degradation of the marsh.
BirdLife International (2019) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Azraq. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 15/12/2019.