A visit in 1997 during the spring by Andrew Pryce and myself yielded an impressive list of migrants along with Israels resident species and desert specialities. These included five species of Sandgrouse, Houbara Bustard, Cream Coloured Courser, Hoopoe Lark, Bar-tailed Desert Lark. Other species found nowhere else in the Western Palearctic, Brown Booby, White eyed Gull, Grey Hypocolius, Black Bush Robin, and Namaqua Dove were all encountered.
Israel Trip Report March 24th -April 5th 1997
After a stringent security check at Manchester airport that lasted a good 30 minutes we soon found ourselves in the departure lounge discussing our birding itinerary . Cross-examinations on both Andrew and myself felt more like an interrogation such was the measure of security screening. The political climate in Israel has improved as of late with Jordan opening its borders to Israel. Never the less Israeli authorities take little for granted. Anyone thinking of birding Israel must be prepared for airport security delays and arrive at the airport in plenty of time.
Excited at the prospect of birding the most reputable of migration corridors in the Western Palearctic we boarded our El-Al flight bound for Eilat via Tel Aviv. We chose a package deal as the political climate made this delightful family resort on the banks of the Red Sea value for money. Total cost 600 pounds. Flying time four hours.
We arrived at our hotel, which was to be our base for the coming two weeks. On reflection the Novatel was not the ideal choice as far as location was concerned, being on the outskirts of Eilat. Having said that it was close to the main drag leading in and out of Eilat thus we were able to avoid any traffic hassle when driving to other premier locations. Most of which were within easy reach of Eilat.
Having arrived late into the evening we unpacked and retired early ready for a first light start to our birding. An early head down was futile as neither of us slept well due to the anticipation of some great birding.25th March
We left the hotel just before dawn and could just make out the shape of the mountains, which looked more like a looner landscape. As first light finally broke, our first bird and lifer was the ubiquitous House Crow, followed by our first identifiable warbler "Olivacious Warbler" my second lifer. As we walked toward North beach for what was to become an obligatory morning sortie for incoming migrants, we ticked off Wryneck, which we realised were everywhere, Tristrams Grackle, Collared and Laughing Dove, Hoopoe, were also added.
The palm tree lined ornamental lake behind the beach hotels gave us the first of many Spur-winged Plover much to Andrews delight.
At North Beach a Pied Kingfisher working the surf was a bird we didn't expect this far south, while Sand Martin, and White Wagtail, was a little more expected as birds came in off the sea and passed through most days. Cory's Shearwater, and our first rarity Brown Booby, was a real bonus bird, one we had hoped for and talked about at length during our flight. Cormorant, Yellow-legged, Slender-billed,and the other sought after gull, White eyed Gull (another rarity) were in evidence with 8 birds just off shore. Little Gull, Black-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, ended our Gull encounters. Unfortunately the one we wanted the Great Black-headed Gull was absent today. An Osprey was observed coming in off the sea and was the only one we observed throughout our stay.
On the way toward the pans in Eilat town we saw our first Wheater unfortunately it was a common or (Northern Wheatear) a surprisingly scarce bird during our stay. Hirundines were well represented with a steady flow of Red -rumped Swallow, and Swallow. House Martin, and Crag Martin were observed moving through in numbers and one of too many Bluethroats to count during our stay was ticked off.Spanish Sparrow
At the pans, Black-winged Stilt, Greenshank, Redshank, waded the shallows with Kentish Plover, Little ringed Plover mingled in mixed groups out of reach of Grey Heron. A couple of Spoonbill were present along with the only wildfowl species to be seen, Shoveler! Numbers and variety of species at the pans were surprisingly low.
We decided to pay Eilat Park a visit. Here Lesser Whitethroat occupied every shrub, bush, and tree while Yellow vented Bulbul, were not easy to miss either. The flava wagtails, Black-headed, Grey headed and Blue -headed forms strutted about picking insects from the manicured lawns But the find of the day was a Black Bush Robin the only possible regular occurrence in the western palearctic for this species. Buff bellied Pipit our 4th rarity was another great find as it fed in the company of Red throated Pipits. and Tree Pipit While Redstart, Blackcap, and Sardinian Warbler fed among foliage.
A walk back to the Hotel produced one of many Blackstarts and Steppe Buzzards could be seen soaring overhead.fed in flocks under the palm trees along with House Sparrow and the superb looking Dead Sea Sparrow put in one of many appearances. The ever present Black Kite, soared overhead and the usual Marsh Harriers worked the fields. A Short toed Eagle soared by and our only Graceful Warbler, came out of thick cover while Sedge Warbler used reed and scrub to torment us in the main canal gully.
A trip out to the famed Km 33 post for Larks turned out to be difficult work with hours of nothing other than calling Crested Larks. Eventually as the day warmed it gave us Bar tailed Desert Lark, Hoopoe Lark, Short toed Lark, Crested Lark, and Black eared Wheatear.
Back at North Beach The Brown Booby was delighting new birders on their arrival, while Striated Heron delighted Andrew and I. Lesser Black back Gull was a new gull for us here and a Kingfisher in off the sea was a nice find. A stop at a cafe proved to be a bad mistake as thieves made off with Andrews Scope. The scope had been put down at the side of our table for what could only have been a few minutes. The drive up to the reservoirs was somewhat subdued but News of a Greater Sandplover at the reservoir was a welcome distraction. We drove there in minutes to see the bird perform well for us. Our arrival coincided with the arrival of a dozen or so Black winged Pratincole. A Snipe, was also a new trip bird.
A chance encounter with a British birder rewarded us with news of Crowned Sandgrouse coming to drink at the Shizzafon sewage plant so like our timing with the Pratincoles we timed our visit to coincide with the arrival of the birds. Before we left Black bush Robin put in another appearance and was gladly ticked it again while waiting to depart for the sewage works. Also Rufus Bush Chat was found.
We arrived at the works intime to see the Crowned Sandgrouse (9) birds come in from the desert, thus becoming our fifth Sandgrouse Species. The end of the day had its rewards too as a fine male Ortolan Bunting sang from a rocky outcrop.3rd April
The night before was spent at the Police station trying to get a report on the stolen scope for insurance purposes. This meant a later start the following morning. Our morning visit to North Beach gave us a Montagu's Harrier (a ring tail) coming in off the sea. The only new birds that day was at wadi Roded where Tawny Pipit, and Wood Warbler. were added.4th April
A 180 species so far and with two more days to go we were doing well considering we had not visited northern Israel, but 200 species now seemed a little ambitious. Kittiwake, sitting on the sea and a Little Gull were ticked before we got a shout of Pied Wheatear, which interrupted our sea watch. After much debate about the bird it was decided this was a first year male and not a Black eared wheatear as some birders first thought. The bird was duly ticked off as was Purple Heron after we resumed our sea watch. A Black Redstart, and Willow Warbler at the date palms was a much needed new trip bird. Another Rufus Bushchat at Km18 ended the day5th April
Our final day gave us only two more trip birds Little Tern at the beach and Turtle Dove. Final total for me 189 Andrew managed Great Spotted Cuckoo and was convinced he had Hobby from the airport Lounge. I wasn't convinced, but that's what birding is all about I advocate we use our field skills to deliver decisions and verdicts to ourselves not to others! The bird could well have been a Hobby.Eilat can be worked on foot and can be a rewarding effort, but it is an effort. If you want to get out to the reservoirs or the famed K33 for target birds like Temminks Horned Lark, a car is handy. Its worth mentioning that getting around Israel is easy, hitch hiking is a way of life for Israelis. You will not have long to wait for a lift hitch hiking, provided you don't stick out your thumb. This is looked upon as an insult, so when hitching just point your index finger ahead of you. Good luck! It's also worth mentioning sensitive military areas like Nizzana if in doubt keep away. Even now when the political climate is not as tense, Israelis are protective of their military outposts. You can bird pretty close to the Jordan border without much hassle from the military. They may be curious driving up and down in their jeeps as they patrol their border, but usually a wave in their direction is all it takes to reassure them that you are just birding. That is not the case along the Syrian border. " careful with those binoc's!"
The resort is geared up for tourism so there is no lack of amenities for non-birders. Some of the best Scuba diving and snorkeling in the world can be had in Eilat too. From the international bird watching centre in Eilat you can, if you wish, book onto an all day excursion with Hadoram Shihiri. This will guarantee the more difficult species like Houbara Bustard Eagle Owl, Hume's Tawny Owl . I do prefer finding my own birds, but to come away from Eilat and not see all the target species seems a waste. So I paid for a trip out with Hadarom and never regretted it.The much-anticipated visit to mount Yoash to witness Eilats raptor migration unfolding came at first light. Vast numbers of raptors choosing this migration route from Africa to Europe will use the thermals created by Israels mountain ranges to help them along the way. As daylight fails the birds use the surrounding valleys to roost up for the night before continuing their journey. In anticipation of thermals created by the suns warmth had Andrew and I well placed and ready on top of Yoash by 9.00. We were rewarded with thousands of raptors spiraling up in the distance as various kettles held huge numbers of birds. There were one or two surprises in among the thousands of Steppe Buzzard, Black Kite, and Steppe Eagles. The best raptor of the day was a male Pallid Harrier. Other interesting birds including Egyptian Vulture brushing wings with Short toed Eagle.
As we conversed with other birders one of our target species surprised us by appearing right in front of us, a male Hooded Wheatear followed by a female. The pair had set up territory and had been seen around the vicinity for three days but had gone unnoticed, spending most of the morning on the southern slopes. A Brown necked Raven put in a brief appearance ending our morning on Yoash.
We decided to pay the North fields Km20 and the northern reservoir another visit. On our arrival we were rewarded with a candidate for the bird of the trip, a Grey Hypocolius. This mega rarity has appeared at this location for the past three springs We were more than pleased with the bird putting in its fourth consecutive appearance. This is the only location in the western palearctic for this species. Lesser Kestrel and two pale looking Great Grey Shrike's occupied an area of field around the back of the reservoir. A Gull billed Tern hawked the same fields before spending the rest of the time over the reservoir.
A look around the sewage works at Km18 produced new waders including Little Stint, Ruff, Black tailed Godwit, up to 50 Green Sandpipers. Also Water Pipit, noted most days was also added.28th March
After checking out north beach the only new bird seen was Nightingale so we headed up to Yoash. The only new birds there were 5 Alpine Swift flying overhead. We did however manage our first lark of the trip at the pumping station, a Desert Lark. Also Sand Partridge, Palestinian Sunbird, and Scrub Warbler.
The spring at En Netephim at the head of one of the Wadi's (dry river bed) was a difficult and unproductive walk, hardly worth the effort. Having climbed down the rock crevice, which was barely wide enough for us to negotiate. Our optics were carefully lowered down to us. A Flycatcher high up a rock face had Andrew and I struggling to agree on its identification, half collared or Pied? The bird stubbornly refused to show itself. I decided to climb up and see if I could get better look. After a precarious climb I got within a few meters of the bird, alas it was to no avail as the bird stayed too well concealed and would not budge.29th March
A quick look at north beach produced nothing new except for two Oystercatcher and two Egyptian Vultures high over Eilat town.. Also of note was a flock of 50+ Gargany, and a Water Rail sighted briefly as it dashed into vegetation along the main canal. Eilat park produced one Night Heron the fist of 8 birds observed flying overhead the other 7 being on the 3rd. The ever- present Yellow vented Bulbuls called from every tree while Wrynecks and Red throated Pipits competed with Yellow Wagtails on the lawns. A Whitethroat and a Redstart hawked for insects in among hundreds of Lesser Whitethroats, while Blackcaps and Bonelli's Warblers of the eastern race were now passing through in numbers.
Another visit to the K18 Sewage works gave us the usual waders including 15 Little Stints 10 Green sandpipers and Ruff. Also Whiskered Tern the best find was a Citrine Wagtail found by Andrew along with two male Cretzschmar's Buntings.
Onto the Km20 ponds gave us Black-neck Grebe and our first Bee Eaters 7 in all and within minutes we had a flock of 21 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. We were on a roll Sedge and Reed Warbler and our only Whinchat put in an appearance as did a flly bye Black Stork. Then for me the find of the day was the Baillons Crake a bird we were to see again.30 th March
A much awaited trip out with the man himself Hadoram Shihiri turned out to be both productive and memorable. We met up with Hadarom at 4.00am having booked his expertise through the international bird watching centre.
After meeting up with other birders and negotiating car shares we drove north toward Nizzana, birds here included Hooded Crow and gems like Houbara Bustard, and Cream coloured Courser, Isabelline Wheatear, Desert Wheatear, Pallid Harrier, Bimaculated Lark, Lesser Short toed Lark, Short toed Lark, Crested Lark, and Spectacled Warbler (nesting), Other target species like the vocal Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, (300) became our second Sandgrouse species. Black bellied Sandgrouse, (38) followed and en-route back we picked up our fourth Spotted Sandgrouse.
A stop at the Bouqor vulture restaurant rewarded us with Griffon Vulture, while overhead a spectacle unfolded as a flock of an estimated 12,000 White Stork soared on thermals above us. As we scanned the flock hundreds of Black Stork could be seen, and two Lesser spotted Eagles kept all eyes glued to the sky. It was amasing how such a vast amount of birds could disappear so quickly as within minutes the sky was devoid of birds
The Eagle Owl site at Ben Gurion didn't disappoint producing more Alpine Swift, Pallid Swift, Crag Martin, two Fan-tailed Raven, Rock Dove and more Palestinian Sunbirds but disappointingly no sign of the over wintering Wallcreeper seen only the day before. The arrival of coach loads of very noisy school kids screaming up and down the canyon obviously convinced the wallcreeper to make a hasty departure. The male Eagle Owl however obliged by standing at the entrance to its cave, one of four owls today. The others being Long eared Owl, Little Owl and the most sort after Humes Tawny Owl.
Hadoram arranges regular trips into the negev desert canyons to see this secretive owl and after a detour to Yeroham to tick off the suprise birds we didn't expect to get like Syrian Serin and Trumpeter finch we headed for the Humes Tawny owl site. Chuka Partridge was ticked off as we headed into the canyon.
As dark engulfed the canyon walls the taped calls of Humes Tawny Owl were relayed by Hadoram. Within minutes the bird duly answered and the spotlight was turned on the canyon wall to reveal the silver ghostly image of Humes Tawny Owl another memorable experience.31st March
Nothing could compare with the day we had yesterday so it was no surprise that new species would be few, but the new birds we did get were worth the extra footwork. North Beach produced all the birds already mentioned from that locality plus A Caspian Tern and Sandwich Tern. A trip to Yotvata produced Squacco Heron and Stone Curlew while a Moustache Warbler in the caravan park adjacent skulked with a possible but dubious Thrush Nightingale. The best of the warblers however came in the shape of a nesting Arabian Warbler a bird we didn't expect to get. A Collared Flycatcher performed well making up for the mystery bird at the wadi days earlier. The evening had to include a crake watch at the Km20 ponds and both Little Crake, (3) and Baillons Crake performed brilliantly in front of a pleased crowd of birders.1st April
The decision was taken the night before to leave Eilat and drive to the fishponds at En Temar. Here we ticked off Barbary Falcon, Clamorous Reed Warbler, White-breasted Kingfisher and another fine male Citrine Wagtail. The Journey out to the ponds gave us the chance to do more raptor watching en-route as tens of thousands of raptors streamed over the mountaintops of Mizpa Dragot. This was indeed the best bit of raptor birding I have ever witnessed. Looking down upon 10 species of raptors including 50 Long legged Buzzards in among tens of thousands of Black Kite, equaled in number by Steppe Buzzards, plus hundreds of Steppe Eagles, Short toed Eagles, Egyptian Vultures, 5 Lesser spotted Eagles, Booted Eagle, Pallid Harrier, and Kestrel is forever etched deep in the memory. The birds still streamed over as we reluctantly left for the ponds five hours after we had arrived there.
On our return to Eilat we stopped at the Northern reservoir to watch a Quail casually walk in front of our parked car to drink at the reservoir. Amazing!The walk to North Beach gave us Arabian Babbler before another of our target species Western Reef Heron was ticked off as it perched on the fishing buoys with a few Little Egrets. A look up in a hope rather than observation for raptors rewarded us with two Great Black headed Gull. Another target species in the bag! We decided to check out the Northern Reservoirs, so we walked our way north picking up birds along the way notably, Namaqua Dove, again this is the only place in the western Palearctic for this species. A Sparrowhawk hunted low over the fields and was scrutinised in the hope of Levants Sparrowhawk but unfortunately we were a little early for Levants. A flock of 30 + Glossy Ibis could be seen in the distance and were duly ticked off..
At the main reservoir Greater Flamingo, Pintail, Gargany, Green Sandpiper and Marsh Sandpiper were seen. While our walk back past the pond at Km20 gave us a party of Little Green Bee Eater hawking from the perimeter fence around the pond. The long walk back gave us our first Masked Shrike a stunning male and Woodchat Shrike was also found.
A stop a cafe in the resort for a well-earned bite to eat and refreshing drink after our long walk gave Andrew and I time to view our species list. After our much needed respite we set off for the famed pumping station for Liechtenstein Sandgrouse. It was hard to believe that this suburban wasteland with its pump house signs indicating "no trespass" was in fact the right place! The shallow water filled trough placed under the acacia tree put our minds to rest after realising we were in the right locality. The huge boulders set out to form a half circle became a natural amphitheater around the tree in which Bonelli's Warbler, Ruppell's Warbler and Chiffchaff appeared like magic, as we awaited the incoming Sandgrouse . The surrounding wasteland held Sand Partridge, Desert Lark, Pale Crag Martin, and White Crowned Black Wheatear.
On cue just before dark 27 Liechtenstein Sandgrouse flew in over our heads amidst a silent throng of patient birders who watched as the birds took it in terns to drink. Only after each and every bird had drank did they take to the air, to disappear into the dark. from whence they came. An experience!
Kentish Ploversilat has attracted birders from all over the world for many years having justifiably earned the reputation as the finest migration watch point in the Western Palearctic. Thousands of species pass over the Red Sea into Israel every spring and autumn. Raptors can be observed in their thousands passing through Eilat having negotiated the short sea crossing from Africa