isrtrip17

Israel Trip Report

24 March - 5 April 2000

Summary

This first visit to Israel was a clockwise round trip from Tel Aviv going gradually from Mediterranean through steppe and semi-desert to desert habitats, including the migration hotspot Eilat. This way, the species list was built up gradually too, totaling to 212 species.

Roads, hotels, food and security were good, and although a bit expensive it was an easy trip. The main sites we visited were Ma'agan Mikha'el at the coast N of Tel Aviv, the Hula marshes and the Mt. Hermon foothills in the extreme North, the Golan Heights, Kfar Ruppin wetlands and fields in the North of the Jordan valley, the Dead Sea depression, the Arava valley N of Eilat, Eilat itself (raptors, passerines, seabirds), Nizzana desert of the W Negev, and Urim steppe of the NW Negev. Birding mostly went on all day, but we also took a few hours 'off', for a view of Old Jerusalem from the Mt. of Olives, floating in the Dead Sea, a visit to the Masada fort (photo is of wadi below the fort), and a bit of snorkeling in the Red Sea. Birders rarely mention a visit to the touristy En Avdat gorge, but apart from the fantastic scenery this proved to be good birding as well (where we had our finest Water Rail ever).

Of the 212 species observed on this trip, 51 were not seen in the South. Half of these 51 were rather common European species, but the other half includes species like Black Francolin, Sombre Tit, Little Swift, Crane. Great Black-headed Gull had left from Ma'agan Mika'el but we got a few of them in Eilat just before they left there too. The list of raptors (22 species!) was built up throughout the country, although in numbers Eilat was unsurpassed of course, culminating in 4000 Steppe Buzzards in one hour. Some species that were only briefly seen in the South on migration, sometimes in odd habitats, were seen better earlier in their breeding habitat in the North, like Cretzschmar's Bunting. Still, the social 'hunt' for rare migrating birds in those odd habitats near Eilat was a most intense birding experience, rushing from one place to the other according to the info exchanged with other birders. We guess that at Eilat some 150 to 200 birders were present, spreading in all directions of course, and originatin g mainly from the UK, Holland, Sweden and Finland. Eilat is certainly a place to go back, and choosing different weeks in March/April means varying species composition.

Even after having seen so many good species from the extreme North down to Eilat, it was thrilling to get new species in the W/NW Negev, with maybe the absolute highlight of the whole trip being those minutes from 6.15 to 6.45 a.m. in the desert of Nizzana. Here we ticked the resident species Houbara Bustard, Cream-colored Courser, Temminck's Lark, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Spotted Sandgrouse and Desert Wheatear.

Logistics

We flew El Al from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv for a reasonable price, and rented a car (pre-ordered by e-mail) at Eldan, reportedly Israel's nr. 1 car rental company, but I think that next time I would try another company, for reasons concerning service. All the hotels were booked from Holland through Isropa, a tour company specialized in Israel and surroundings. They got better prices for these rooms than when I would order them directly myself. I can recommend all the hotels we had: kibbutz Shefayim N of Tel A viv (1 night), hotel Astoria in Tiberias (3 nights; moderate but adequate), kibbutz En Gedi (1 night, expensive), hotel Mercure in Eilat (5 nights), hotel Desert Inn in BerSheva (2 nights). To get an idea of the often hefty normal hotel prices, have a look in e.g. the Lonely Planet guide for Israel.

We rarely used this LP booklet in Israel, as most info came from trip reports, Gosney's booklet (see below) and the invaluable road atlas by an Israeli company called MAP (1: 100.000; all roads surfaced and unsurfaced are shown; we bought it in Holland). Beware that the Lonely Planet guide (1999) contains a serious mistake. It gives details about a kibbutz hotel at the prominent bird site Ma'agan Mikha'el, but they have confused this with the kibbutz Ma'agan near Tiberias, as I learned when calling the numb er given in the LP guide. There is no accommodation at Ma'agan Mikha'el.

The trip reports all came from internet sites, via several links. Dave Gosney, the author of the small but detailed booklet Finding birds in Israel (1992/1996) gives some updates to his booklet on his website www.birdguides.com. Another birdfinding guide for Israel should appear in 2000. Our field guide was the new Collins, which I think is the best one ever for Europe including N Africa and the Middle East. Apparently, many birders at Eilat thought so too, I saw it on several occasions. When preparing this round trip, it was good to have the detailed distribution maps in Hadoram Shirihai's Birds of Israel. This is an expensive but also very good bird atlas with ample descriptions of what is migratory, what resident and what wintering, and with a superb set of hundreds photos of birds and scenery. Even with all this written information, for Eilat and surroundings listening to other birders present there may be more important, as not only the birds but also many of the sites are changing all the time. Even dur ing out short stay in Eilat (5 days) a bird-productive arable field at Km. 40 was ploughed so we had to look for comparable fields elsewhere.

It was getting light at 5 a.m., and dark shortly after 6 p.m. Mostly we brought our hotel breakfast out into the field (pre-ordered before 8.30 p.m.), but in Eilat we also did pre-breakfast birding and returned to the hotel (Mercure, conveniently located) where breakfast was served until 9.30 a.m. Like dinner this breakfast is of the extensive buffet type where you can fill up nearly for the rest of the birding day. The box breakfasts were mostly huge as well (best one was at Desert Inn of BerSheva in the N egev). Dinner is mostly served from 7 till 8.30 p.m., and there are good local beers (try Maccabee).

Entrance to national parks is from 8 a.m. now (instead of the 9 a.m. mentioned in Gosney), and the fare is 18 shekels p.p. (1 sh = US$ 0.3). Closing time is 4 or 5 p.m., so forget dusk as well in these parks. We found every N.P. visited (Hula, Gamla on Golan, En Evdat) worthwhile and well organized.

Apart from the very first day, the last of a severe cold front, we only had sunny weather all the time. Temperatures gradually rose, and not only because we went further South. According to a newspaper we saw later, in Eilat we had 37 degrees C on our last day there, but because of the dry air we did not particularly notice this.

Part 2. Day reports North (incl. Dead Sea)

Friday 24 March 2000
Even while landing at 2.30 p.m. at Ben Gurion Airport of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I ticked Spur-winged Plover and Stone-Curlew beside the runway. After the drive to kibbutz Shefayim just N of Tel Aviv where I joined Nollie (who arrived three days earlier for a workshop), we made a late afternoon stroll along the coastal bushes which produced surprisingly tame Quail, and some remains of the migrant warbler fall-out of the last few cold days. Here we had our first Cretzschmar's Buntings, Graceful Prinia's and Palestine Sunbirds.

Saturday 25 March
We set out early for the coastal wetland site Ma'agan Mikha'el, some 30 km to the North. Permission to enter was given as a matter-of-fact. The site is an interesting mixture of pools, reedbeds, bushes and beach, and the best birds were Clamorous Reed Warbler, Penduline Tit, Rüppels Warbler, five Pied Kingfishers sitting together, and the first White-throated Kingfisher. Armenian Gull (split from Yellow-legged Gull) was easy, but Great Black-headed Gull had probably departed. This was along the southern ent rance road. The northern entrance road is blocked off now so we walked a while there, and this produced a group of 55 Black Storks. Gladly this was one of the very few occasions on our trip that a road, surfaced or unsurfaced, was blocked. Here we also had our only Spoonbills. We then crossed Israel from West to East, a remarkable short distance, and after some roadside birding we ended up at the multi-habitat kibbutz Kfar Ruppin, where we had a close encounter with a pair of Black Francolin, one of the bes t species of the trip. Another wish-list species was Pygmy Cormorant, because I dipped it when it was in Holland for the first time ever. It flew around nicely above the first pool S of the kibbutz terrain proper.

Looking down the impressive Jordan valley to the South, we saw some migration of White and Black Storks, although in relatively small numbers (largest group was 150 White Storks). Arrived near dusk at hotel Astoria in Tiberias, for the first of three nights.

Sunday 26 March
We drove up the wide grassy Golan Heights via the scenic route 869 from the east side of the Lake of Galilea/Tiberias/Kinneret. The panorama point Bethsaida is worthwhile for the view over the lake depression, some birds, and a funny group of hyrax (sort of mountain marmot). At the Gamla National Park we walked the trail to the Gamla falls, situated at the head of a deep gorge in this high plateau, for a splendid view on a Bonelli's Eagle nest (female + 2 chicks). The male flew around in the gorge, as did L ittle Swift, trying to catch up with the much bigger Alpine Swift. The gorge is popular because of the vultures (we saw Griffon and Egyptian). Across the wide natural plains we saw several groups of Crane migrating. A strange phenomenon was a group of 80 Corn Bunting in a lone tree, because we also had singles singing at other spots. This is an expression of what Hadoram Shirihai unravels so often in his book - a species can both be migrant, wintering and resident. We also had our first Wryneck, turning its head at least 180 degrees.

We returned via the 789 South along the lake of Galilea, and from the first view after turning from the 789 on the 92 we heard Clamorous Reed Warbler again at the lake border below us. There too, a Quail was flushed by two of those beautiful Dorcas gazelles. In late p.m. we checked the North face of Mt. Arbel just N of Tiberias, opposite the village of Wadi Khamam, because on this slope there should be Long-billed Pipit. The habitat looks fine, but we found no pipits, and we should have tried at similar si tes nearby. But we got our first Syrian Woodpecker here at the base of the slope, at the cemetery.

Monday 27 March
The northernmost part of the rift valley, in which Red Sea, Dead Sea and Lake of Galilea are situated, is the depression of the Hula marshes, or what is left of them. Before opening time of the Hula National Park (8 a.m.) we made a short walk between the first ponds 1 km or so before the entrance of the park. Here we had our only Little Bittern of the trip, and Clamorous Reed Warbler, White-throated Kingfisher, Black-crowned Night-Heron again. Then, as it was still too early for the park, we did the recomme nded side road of the 90 half a kilometer more to the North. In the fishponds here we had our only Marbled Ducks, some 20 in total. Then we finally entered the reserve proper, a fine classical marsh area with good trails and a few hides, with the snow-capped Mt. Hermon on the background. We walked the circular trail clockwise and added Lesser Spotted Eagle, White-tailed Eagle, White Pelican, Long-legged Buzzard, Little Crake and Garganey to the list. All of these except the Lesser Spotted Eagle were not see n again afterwards on this trip. The crake stepped all along the left (Northern) reed fringe of the lake with the long hide. Clamorous Reed Warbler did we hear and see in several spots along the trail, and we helped an American bird tour leader identify this sound and that of Cetti's, Reed and Sedge Warbler also singing there. We got the White-tailed Eagle in exchange for this. It was discovered by one of the tour participants by just scanning the dense foliage of the tall trees near the entrance, where the bird was perfectly hiding.

In the afternoon we extended our day trip to Mt. Hermon, as distances in Israel are smaller than expected, quite the reverse from many other birding destinations. We went till above the snow line and the scenery was impressive all the way, but the only specialty we got was Sombre Tit. The original stake-out for Syrian Serin (which we got a Eilat anyhow) and Crimson-winged Finch has fallen victim to the enlarging of the parking place, where some fifty buses had thrown up school children. We asked them if this was a special day but this was not the case.

Tuesday 28 March
We departed from the hotel in Tiberias to go south, but first visited kibbutz Kfar Ruppin again. In the fields before (just N of) the kibbutz entrance we had Black Francolin again (one pair seen and another two heard), and saw a party of three Hoopoes being chased off by a Spur-winged Plover. A male Pallid Harrier was sitting on an irrigation device in the middle of an alfalfa field. We completed the trio of Kingfishers possible here with the (European) Kingfisher. South of the first pond complex S of the k ibbutz is a creek where crakes are seen but we had none. Pygmy Cormorants did appear again, falling in like ducks.

Now we went down the Jordan valley in a gradually more barren habitat, where even the wadi's had no trees, but we got our only Golden Eagle here along the road following the mountain rim. It had the broad tail band of an adult.

Approaching the Jericho area we saw an oasis like settlement Yafit and got permission to enter. Here we had Ortolan Bunting and Indian Silverbill. After passing the Jericho area (keeping the 90 all the time) we made a side trip of two hours to the Mount of Olives at the Eastern border of Jerusalem, just for the classical view over the old city. We easily got there by taking the turnoff 'Tur' off the highway 1, driving this steep road up until a crossroads on top, and turning left there. The viewpoint is jus t 300 m further on. Now we descended down to the Dead Sea, which is 400 m below sea level. Soon we ticked Fan-tailed Raven and were surprised to hear Clamorous Reed Warbler again in a reed bed on the salty shore. After leisurely installing ourselves in the En Gedi kibbutz hotel for one night, we strolled around on the green hotel grounds and ticked Little Green Bee-eater, Pale Crag Martin (Rock Martin), Arabian Babbler, Blackstart, and Tristrams Grackle. In late p.m. we went to the public beach nearby, in o rder to have a short but thrilling experience of floating in the Dead Sea. A guard is on watch all the time and sends people who got water in their face out to the showers on the beach. The water is dangerous for your eyes they say.

Towards dusk we birded some more on the even greener kibbutz village proper, uphill from the hotel. Many large trees are found here and we got scops owls at three different locations in half an hour, and I guessed that the total of these owls might easily have been 15 or so for the whole kibbutz. One of the three was shortly calling and this clearly was European Scops Owl. However, one of the other two did we get at 10 m distance in our huge Q-beam torch and this one had no whitish spots on the back, which was greet with clear scales, and it had remarkably streaked underparts, so this may have been Striated Scops Owl.

Wed. 29 March
First of all we did the parking place of wadi Arugot where we had some migrant passerines like Bluethroat in the wadi itself, where water had been let in during the previous night. New residents on and around the parking place were Brown-necked Raven, Sand Partridge, Scrub Warbler, and again Little Green Bee-eater, and a nesting pair of Indian Silverbill in the acacias near the ticket office.

After breakfast we left En Gedi and went first to wadi Mishmar, c. 10 km further South. In the wadi we had a nice array of semi-desert species but none new, but at the end of the dirt road, below the mountain rim, we witnessed some raptor migration with Spotted and Booted Eagle as trip ticks. All raptors circled above the gorge of the wadi to gain height, and all were attacked then by Brown-necked Ravens. Looking up to the raptors we nearly stepped on two very confiding Desert Larks which apparently often v isit this place.

Further south, the Masada fort, sitting on a singular promontory, offered great views but few birds except Tristram's Grackle.

Up till now we had seen only two of the many possible wheatear species (Northern and Black-eared) but this was to change soon. First we had our lifer White-crowned Wheatear just on the shoulder of the road (the 90 all the time). We paid a short visit to the Neot Hakikar fish ponds along a side road of the Dead Sea depression. This was a good area but did not produce species that we did not get elsewhere. Later in the season this is a stakeout for Blue-cheeked Bee-eater.

Then we crossed the strange watershed area between the Dead Sea depression and the Arava valley south of it, and right at the sign 'Sea Level' we had another new wheatear, the Mourning Wheatear, which we would see only once later on the trip. At the same spot was an equally uncommon Bar-tailed (Desert) Lark. The desert here was spectacular, with extremely well developed 'desert pavements', the technical term for the gravelly surface after the sand has been blown out, and equally well developed caps of cemen ted sandy material on top of the remains of eroded surfaces.

At sunset, the drive down the Arava valley to Eilat was very impressive, and we were eager to visit those famous sites here the next days. Thursday 30 March
Ofira Park in Eilat is one of the first really green spots that birds will see when migrating North over the Red Sea, and it attracts many passerines this way. Here we went first thing in the morning, and it was a feast of pipits and wagtails, not to forget the loads of warblers (mainly Lesser Whitethroat) and a few cooperative Wrynecks. Pipits: many Tree, several Red-throated, and one ringed and heavily photographed Buff-bellied (japonica). Wagtails: a truly international party of subspecies/races o f Yellow Wagtail from allover Europe.

We then paid a short visit to the new bird ringing station, where we had the first of many Marsh Sandpiper, but were a bit shocked when we saw a Masked Shrike killing a Lesser Whitethroat hanging in the mist net. 'Oh yes, they do that all the time'.

After an enormous breakfast in our hotel (the conveniently located Mercure), we drove on to the raptor watch point for the first of four visits: Steppe Buzzard and Steppe Eagle. Now the information circuit started to work, because we got a tip to visit the Km 37 along highway 90. There we saw the promised Bimaculated Lark and the Caspian Plover (female), and also Short-toed Lark and some other migrant passerines, in a temporarily interesting arable field (a lot to eat). Funny to see red spotted (svecica ) and white spotted (cyanecula of S and C Europe) Bluethroat together. The next stop was Yotvata where we had three Citril Wagtails, all in different plumage, at the small sewage pond and a Bonelli's Warbler in the acacias. A first visit in late p.m. to the 'lark field' of Km 33 was not productive except for a Desert Lark, and we rounded the day off with what every birder will do in his or her first day in Eilat: the pumping station at the back of Eilat for the show of drinking Lichtenstein's San grouse. Splendid birds!

Friday 31 March
Ofira Park did not produce anything new today so we drove on along the beach where we wisely ticked the distant Great Black-headed Gulls in non-breeding plumage before they would leave the next day… After breakfast we did the raptor watch point from 9 to 11 a.m. where we had many Steppe Buzzard, 8 Steppe Eagle, Lesser Spotted and Booted Eagle, Sparrowhawk, Marsh Harrier and a few Black Stork. Again we got a good tip from our Dutch source and we headed for the small wadi at the end of Jerusalem street: House Bunting and Syrian Serin, and also our first group of Trumpeter Finch.

In late afternoon we did the Northern Reservoirs at Km 20. Six bee-eaters were sitting on a fence and two Quails kept walking beside our car (photos in part 1). In the huge ponds (see photo) were several Marsh Sandpipers, Stilts, 70+60 Flamingos and a Greater Sand Plover amidst dozens of Kentish Plovers in their first migration influx.

At dusk we joined the party of birders at North Beach and ticked Bridled tern, a very early one that had been hanging around here for some time.

Saturday (Sabbath) 1 April 2000
At 6.50 a.m. we were at the ringing station in the hope of finding Dead Sea Sparrow which eluded us thus far. We found none but got a White-tailed Plover instead. Citrine Wagtail and Squacco Heron were other goodies. After breakfast in the hotel we sped on to Yotvata where we found Arabian Warbler immediately. In vain we searched (with a couple from the States) for the reported Semi-collared Flycatcher but got our first Rufous Bush Robin and other nice birds, all in the greens between the cabins.

Now we had info for a couple of interesting species at Km 40, where some arable fields were known for passerines at the moment. We got them all: Cinereous Bunting (in a group of Ortolan Buntings), Pale Rock Sparrow (extremely quietly sitting in the shade of a low bushy crop), and after a long collective search in the date palm plantation an Olive-backed Pipit. Driving between these fields we also got extremely good and prolonged views of a Corn Crake, walking along a dripping water pipe alongside the track.

A short check for Dead Sea Sparrow at Km 20 did again not produce the sparrow but a Tawny Pipit anyway. Opposite this Km 20 site is the road into the mountains, to the Amram's Pillars, where the parking place just inside the mountains is a very scenic spot to stay a while. No more wintering Sinai Rosefinch were here but extremely tame Desert Lark, and a few Sand Partridge.

Back at the beach near dusk we were directed straightaway to the wadi at the end of Jerusalem street - a Striated Scops Owl had been seen here. We went there and saw a glimpse of it, flying off in the dusk, but not tickable for us. The bird was not seen again the next day.

Sunday 2 April
An early morning visit to Km 40 produced two Rufous Bush Robin and finally Namaqua Dove, a pair. The small pond 300 m to the South was good for Little Ringed Plover, Water Pipit ssp. coutelli, a Bluethroat in juvenal plumage, Greenshank. Another 200 m South of this pond stood a Stone-curlew in the gravelly desert.

Back to Km 20 we went for one last try to find Dead Sea Sparrow, and indeed I saw one group of these small and pale sparrows racing overhead. After the usual voluminous breakfast we went to the raptor watch point one more time, and in only one hour, from 9.50 to 10.50 a.m., we watched the passing overhead of thousands, I think 4000, Steppe Buzzards. Rather lost in between them were Steppe Eagle (3), Black Kite (20 or so), Sparrowhawk (3).

Then we entered the hot mountain valley of wadi Shlomo driving very slowly with the airco on. Besides with the scenery we were rewarded with a Rüppel's Warbler twice, in some of the few (acacia) trees here. Especially where the wadi is halfway joined by the wadi Rekhav'am, there were some more of these acacias and here we had Little Green Bee-eater, Palestine Sunbird and Sardinian Warbler as well, species more common on the earlier part of the trip. Blackstart is always present in these stony desert areas.

Going down through this valley we arrived around noon at the Red Sea 1 km left of Coral Beach national Park, a small coral reef. This has been made easily accessible for watching the corals and fishes, even without going into the water. But that's what we did, with snorkeling gear for rent at the entrance (21 shekel complete set), where they also have showers and lockers. The fishes, large and small, were overwhelmingly beautiful.

On this last afternoon in Eilat we just tried a bit here and there (ringing station, Km 33, Ben Ora) but found nothing special. Ber Ora is a deserted kibbutz a bit N of Km 20. It has a lot of trees amidst the mountain border desert and this may be productive although we've never heard about it from other birders. Arabian Babblers owned the place now.

At late p.m. we went to North beach once again, and went there as usual by the back road along the canal. Finally we had good views of House Crow which we had somehow neglected all the time, sort of blind spot. At the beach were a lot of birders, also the American group that we had met at Hula in the North and they had seen many good birds in Jordan. At the beach we ticked Little Gull and Caspian Tern, but more importantly we got a last tip: White-throated Robin had just been discovered at Km 20.

Monday 3 April
We checked out of the hotel early, with box breakfast this time, and wanted to be at Shizafon at about 7.30 a.m. Shizafon is about 70 km up North, along the 40 to BerSheva, and is famous for Crowned Sandgrouse (the only real stake-out for this species), although we heard that they don't show up every day, nor always at the same time. First we went to Km 20 and indeed, after another collective search with a few other birders, we saw the White-throated Robin, a female, with splendid views in the first sunrays . Then we went on to Km 33 for our last chance on Hoopoe Lark here (although not a lifer), and indeed found it there. Now we sped on to the pool 2 km before Shizafon, where we had to wait till 8.15 a.m. until Crowned Sandgrouse appeared in two small groups, which after drinking flew right overhead. After this relief (the least easy of the five sandgrouses seen), we went on to the kibbutz terrain proper, where a Caspian Plover had just been seen, and we found it hiding in a small arable field because there w ere some cars of other birders already. A male this time!

We went back a while along the 40 towards the Arava valley. First we had Trumpeter Finch and Scrub Warbler in the stony wadi along the road down. Then we paid a visit to the Lotan kibbutz terrain where we had a female Rock Thrush at the swimming pool, but very few birds at the specially created little reserve for bird ringing. This little oasis looks promising though. We helped pushing a car of Swedish birders out of the sand, something for which we would be rewarded by them with some very good birds the ne xt morning.

And so we entered the Negev, that vast wilderness and our last main region in Israel. The road (40) from the Arava valley to BerSheva is one long film of desert and semi-desert scenery. Exactly at Km 111, a while North of Mitzpe Ramon, is the head of a narrow wadi valley that goes to the East. Here, just 80 m from the shoulder of the road we had two male Mourning Wheatears fighting. Wild red tulips were there too.

A while before BerSheva, our place for the night, is the road to Nizzana. This road first passes by the Ashalim farm where Sandgrouses are reported now and then. In late p.m. at 2 km past Ashalim we were rewarded with a veritable falcon show. First, two Hobbies were skillfully chasing a Barn Swallow for about a minute before we lost them near a stand of trees. Looking around in this open steppe-like arable field area we then spotted a large, chunky, allover medium light brown falcon with a steady, low fligh t straight North: a Saker! The light brown race of Lanner is excluded here because it is resident in NW Africa only. We could follow it in our scope a long way across the fields and noticed that it frightened small birds (larks) here and there. After this, a Kestrel showed up, as if willing to take part in the show, and on the way back we had another Hobby.

At dusk we entered BerSheva and found out that you can drive straight on all the time until you see a sign for the Desert Inn.

Tuesday 4 April
We left the hotel at 5.25 a.m. with a huge box breakfast, and arrived at Nizzana at 6.05. We drove straight on to the spot for Houbara Bustard, as it is known as a species that will show up only in this early hour. The four Swedes of yesterday were there already and with their four scopes scanned the surroundings fanatically in search of the specialties they could offer each other and us. This is not all that easy because the sandy desert is strewn with stones and low bushes. We tried hard too but within mi nutes they skillfully scoped out all the specialties for each other and us: Houbara Bustard, Cream-colored Courser, Temminck's Lark, Desert Wheatear, Spotted Sandgrouse. In the remaining hour, till 7.30 a.m., we saw all of these species a few times more, although the bustards were hiding more and more after their initial display-like watching around from low sand heaps (and actually displaying the white feather balls now and then too). We also ticked Isabelline Wheatear with its explicit upright stance, and Little Owl. Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew overhead now and then. Spotted too, with their remarkable black stripe on the belly, an easy but maybe underestimated field mark.

So now we had seen four of the five Sandgrouses of Southern Israel, and for the fifth one, Black-bellied, we followed the Swedes to a new pool near the gas station, now that the former 'official' pools had dried out. It is scarcely possible now to watch the wary sandgrouses here (Spotted and indeed Black-bellied) without disturbing them. Most of the Spotted's did not dare to drink although we (4 + 2 Swedes, 2 Brits, 2 Dutch) stood motionless. This was between 8 and 8.30 a.m.

We went back to the road along the fence again, and saw Bar-tailed Desert Lark, resident here, and a migrating adult Lesser Spotted Eagle. At Eilat we had nearly only seen immatures and subadults, with their much more striking wing pattern. We followed the road further south because in the distance we had seen some trees. This appeared to be a large picnic place with many tall trees. We took our time here, finally having breakfast. Strolling around between the trees I noticed Bonelli's Warbler and several B lackcaps, Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat, but also two trip ticks: Orphean Warbler (large, all the time in the tree tops, restlessly foraging), and the much desired Semi-collared Flycatcher, a male, beautifully exposed at eye level in a small tree, fully in the sun.

In the afternoon we drove back east and then south a bit along the 40 again, to En Avdat National Park, a gorge in a limestone plateau. To get to the best (= bottom) part of the gorge, take the road to Midreshet Ben Gurion and keep right when arriving there, going downhill all the time till the parking place behind the entrance. Scenically it is a highly interesting area, a narrow gorge with pools at the bottom, and we had good birds as well. Bonelli's Eagle nests halfway to the left, and around closing tim e (5 p.m.) both adults circled in the gorge, as if celebrating the withdrawal of all those visitors. The air in the gorge was filled with swallows and swift: Alpine Swift, Swift, House Martin, Pale Crag Martin, Red-rumped Swallow. Egyptian and Griffon Vultures stood watching on the ledges in the walls of the gorge. A Scrub Warbler was present in the bushes near the pools at the bottom. There we had a few Green Sandpipers and much to our surprise a Water Rail at only 10 m, splendidly lit from all sides in th is white-stone gorge. According to the warden Eagle Owl had not been seen here a while.

On the way back to our hotel in Ber Sheva we made a short detour along the village of Revivim, which is sometimes mentioned in bird reports. We had a group of 17 Bee-eaters, in a wood plot along the 222 near the entrance of the village.

Wednesday 5 April
On our last day we wanted to have an exploratory look at the steppe grasslands of Urim, a famous place for raptors in wintertime. We did not expect much this late in the season, and when we arrived at 6.30 a.m. we were in the mist. We waited and waited, crossed some of the sandy tracks, had our breakfast on a raised spot, until at 8.30 the mist disappeared, and the vast scenery of rolling grasslands and some arable fields unfolded.

We still got our share in the raptors, appetizing enough for coming back in another year and earlier in the season. First we got a Peregrine in one of the high pylons. Then a female Marsh Harrier with extremely white shoulder patches came along, busily hunting and hardly noticing us.

At a cluster of trees in this otherwise totally open landscape we had a female Merlin, chasing around. Another trip tick was male Montagu's Harrier, bringing our number of raptor species to 22. Regularly we also saw Black Kite here. There was some migration too: White Stork (a group of 500), Crane (30 resting and feeding on a small arable field), some Short-toed Larks, and a group of 4 Bee-eaters flying straight North, a strange view if you have always only seen them flying in circles at their breeding grou nds. An Isabelline Wheatear tried to distract us, apparently it was breeding there.

For the last hours of the trip we wanted to be in some lush Mediterranean bush vegetation, something we had scarcely seen earlier on the trip. I'm afraid that little of this is left in Israel. However, along road 38 some 20 km SW of Jerusalem there is some, and we found a nice spot at the first dirt road left of the first side road right to Nekusha. Nice to have Sardinian Warbler territorial here, and Short-toed Eagle is common here. A Lesser Whitethroat (migrant only in Israel) was singing, and indeed this song is missing the entire rattling part of the song, as we know it in Western Europe.

Further North are large reforestation plots, and here during our late lunch we had six Short-toed Eagles together, probably competing for territories. There we finally also saw a few orchid species.

After checking in at the Ben Gurion airport the birding was not over yet. We sat at the external windows of the self-service restaurant on the first floor above the main hall from 5.30 p.m. Here, we witnessed the arrival of groups of Spanish Sparrow at their night roost behind café Tasim, about 20 groups of 100 each. Even closer by was a night roost of wagtails, White and a few Yellow, in the palms at the Blue Moon kiosk. We went outside to have a closer look at both roosts, and enjoyed the musical cheeps o f the sparrows, but soon ended up having a last beer at the terrace before our flight back home to Amsterdam.

Part 4. List of species observed

MM = Ma'agan Mikha'el coastal wetland N of Tel Aviv
No = The North: Hula, Golan, Tiberias, etc.
DS = Dead Sea basin
EA = Eilat and Arava valley
Ne = Negev

 

Little Grebe MM No DS Tachybaptus ruficollis
Great Cormorant MM EA Phalacrocorax carbo
Pygmy Cormorant No Phalacrocorax pygmeus
Great White Pelican No Pelecanus onocrotalus
Little Bittern No Ixobrychus minutus
Black-crowned Night-Heron MM No EA Nycticorax nycticorax
Striated Heron EA Butorides striatus
Squacco Heron EA Ardeola ralloides
Cattle Egret MM No EA Bubulcus ibis
Little Egret MM DS EA Egretta garzetta
Great Egret No Casmerodius albus
Grey Heron MM No DS EA Ardea cinerea
Black Stork MM No DS EA Ciconia nigra
White Stork No EA Ne Ciconia ciconia
Glossy Ibis MM No EA Plegadis falcinellus
Eurasian Spoonbill MM Platalea leucorodia
Greater Flamingo EA Phoenicopterus ruber
Common Shelduck MM EA Tadorna tadorna
Garganey No Anas querquedula
Common Teal MM Anas crecca
Mallard MM No Anas platyrhynchos
Northern Pintail EA Anas acuta
Northern Shoveler No EA Anas clypeata
Marbled Duck No Marmaronetta angustirostris
Black Kite No DS EA Ne Milvus migrans
White-tailed Eagle No Haliaeetus albicilla
Egyptian Vulture No DS EA Ne Neophron percnopterus
Eurasian Griffon Vulture No DS Ne Gyps fulvus
Short-toed Eagle MM No DS EA Circaetus gallicus
Western Marsh-Harrier MM No DS EA Ne Circus aeruginosus
Hen (Northern) Harrier No Circus cyaneus
Pallid Harrier No Circus macrourus
Montagu's Harrier Ne Circus pygargus
Eurasian Sparrowhawk MM EA Accipiter nisus
Steppe (Common) Buzzard No DS EA Buteo buteo
Long-legged Buzzard No Buteo rufinus
Lesser Spotted Eagle No EA Ne Aquila pomarina
(Greater) Spotted Eagle DS Aquila clanga
Steppe Eagle EA Aquila nipalensis
Golden Eagle DS Aquila chrysaetos
Booted Eagle DS EA Hieraaetus pennatus
Bonelli's Eagle No Ne Hieraaetus fasciatus
Osprey No EA Pandion haliaetus
Common Kestrel MM No DS EA Ne Falco tinnunculus
Merlin Ne Falco columbarius
Eurasian Hobby Ne Falco subbuteo
Saker Falcon Ne Falco cherrug
Peregrine Falcon Ne Falco peregrinus
Chukar No DS EA Alectoris chukar
Sand Partridge DS EA Ammoperdix heyi
Black Francolin No Francolinus francolinus
Common Quail MM No DS EANe Coturnix coturnix
Water Rail Ne Rallus aquaticus
Little Crake No Porzana parva
Corn Crake EA Crex crex
Common Moorhen MM DS EA Gallinula chloropus
Common Coot MM No DS EA Fulica atra
Common Crane No Ne Grus grus
Houbara Bustard Ne Chlamydotis undulata
Black-winged Stilt MM DS EA Himantopus himantopus
Eurasian Thick-knee MM EA Burhinus oedicnemus
Cream-colored Courser Ne Cursorius cursor
Little Ringed Plover EA Charadrius dubius
Common Ringed Plover MM EA Charadrius hiaticula
Kentish Plover MM EA Charadrius alexandrinus
Greater Sand Plover EA Charadrius leschenaultii
Caspian Plover EA Charadrius asiaticus
Spur-winged Lapwing MM No DS EA Vanellus spinosus
White-tailed Lapwing EA Vanellus leucurus
Sanderling MM Calidris alba
Little Stint No EA Calidris minuta
Temminck's Stint EA Calidris temminckii
Dunlin MM Calidris alpina
Ruff No EA Philomachus pugnax
Common Snipe No EA Gallinago gallinago
Common Redshank MM No EA Tringa totanus
Marsh Sandpiper EA Tringa stagnatilis
Common Greenshank DS EA Tringa nebularia
Green Sandpiper MM No EA Ne Tringa ochropus
Common Sandpiper MM Tringa hypoleucos
White-eyed Gull EA Larus leucophthalmus
Little Gull EA Larus minutus
Common Black-headed Gull MM No EA Larus ridibundus
Slender-billed Gull MM EA Larus genei
Lesser Black-backed Gull MM EA Larus fuscus
Siberian/Heuglin's Gull EA Larus heuglini
Yellow-legged Gull MM EA Larus cachinnans
Armenian Gull MM Larus armenicus
Great Black-headed Gull EA Larus ichthyaetus
Caspian Tern EA Sterna caspia
Sandwich Tern EA Sterna sandvicensis
Common Tern EA Sterna hirundo
Bridled Tern EA Sterna anaethetus
Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse EA Pterocles lichtensteinii
Crowned Sandgrouse EA Pterocles coronatus
Spotted Sandgrouse Ne Pterocles senegallus
Black-bellied Sandgrouse Ne Pterocles orientalis
Pin-tailed Sandgrouse Ne Pterocles alchata
Rock Pigeon MM No DS Columba livia
Eurasian Collared-Dove MM No Ne Streptopelia decaocto
European Turtle-Dove DS Streptopelia turtur
Palm (Laughing) Dove MM No DS EA Ne Streptopelia senegalensis
Namaqua Dove EA Oena capensis
Rose-ringed Parakeet EA Psittacula krameri
Common Cuckoo No Cuculus canorus
Striated Scops-Owl EA Otus brucei
Common Scops-Owl DS Otus scops
Little Owl Ne Athene noctua
Common Swift MM DS Ne Apus apus
Pallid Swift DS EA Apus pallidus
Alpine Swift No DS Ne Tachymarptis melba
Little Swift No Apus affinis
White-throated Kingfisher No DS Halcyon smyrnensis
Common Kingfisher No Alcedo atthis
Pied Kingfisher MM No EA Ceryle rudis
Little Green Bee-eater DS EA Merops orientalis
European Bee-eater EA Ne Merops apiaster
Eurasian Hoopoe MM No EA Upupa epops
Eurasian Wryneck No EA Jynx torquilla
Syrian Woodpecker No Dendrocopos syriacus
Bar-tailed Lark DS Ne A MMomanes cincturus
Desert Lark DS EA Ammomanes deserti
Greater Hoopoe-Lark EA Alaemon alaudipes
Bimaculated Lark EA Melanocorypha bimaculata
(Greater) Short-toed Lark EA Ne Calandrella brachydactyla
Crested Lark MM No DS EA Ne Galerida cristata
Temminck's Lark Ne Eremophila bilopha
Sand Martin DS EA Riparia riparia
Rock Martin DS Ne Hirundo fuligula
Eurasian Crag-Martin DS Hirundo rupestris
Barn Swallow MM DS EA Hirundo rustica
Red-rumped Swallow No EA Ne Hirundo daurica
Northern House-Martin MM Ne Delichon urbica
Tawny Pipit EA Anthus campestris
Olive-backed Pipit EA Anthus hodgsoni
Tree Pipit EA Anthus trivialis
Meadow Pipit MM Anthus pratensis
Red-throated Pipit EA Anthus cervinus
Water Pipit No EA Anthus spinoletta
Buff-bellied Pipit EA Anthus rubescens
Yellow Wagtail DS EA Motacilla flava
Citrine Wagtail EA Motacilla citreola
White Wagtail MM DS EA Motacilla alba
Yellow-vented Bulbul MM No DS EA Ne Pycnonotus xanthopygos
Winter Wren No Troglodytes troglodytes
Rufous Bush-Robin EA Cercotrichas galactotes
Common Nightingale EA Luscinia megarhynchos
Bluethroat No DS EA Luscinia svecica
White-throated Robin EA Irania gutturalis
Common Redstart No DS EA Phoenicurus phoenicurus
Blackstart DS EA Cercomela melanura
Stonechat MM Saxicola torquata
Isabelline Wheatear Ne Oenanthe isabellina
Northern Wheatear No DS EA Oenanthe oenanthe
Eastern Black-eared Wheatear No DS EA Oenanthe hispanica
Desert Wheatear Ne Oenanthe deserti
Mourning Wheatear DS Ne Oenanthe lugens
White-crowned Wheatear DS EA Oenanthe leucopygra
(Rufous-tailed) Rock-Thrush EA Monticola saxatilis
Blue Rock-Thrush No EA Monticola solitarius
Eurasian Blackbird MM No DS Turdus merula
Song Thrush No Turdus philomelos
Cetti's Warbler MM No Cettia cetti
Zitting Cisticola No Cisticola juncidis
Graceful Prinia MM No EA Prinia gracilis
(Streaked) Scrub-Warbler DS EA Ne Scotocerca inquieta
Savi's Warbler No Locustella luscinioides
Sedge Warbler No DS EA Acrocephalus schoenobaenus
Eurasian Reed-Warbler MM No DS Acrocephalus scirpaceus
Clamorous Reed-Warbler MM No DS Acrocephalus stentoreus
Olivaceous Warbler No DS EA Hippolais pallida
Sardinian Warbler MM No Sylvia melanocephala
Rüppell's Warbler MM EA Sylvia rueppelli
Arabian Warbler EA Sylvia leucomelaena
Orphean Warbler No Ne Sylvia hortensis
Lesser Whitethroat MM No DS EA Ne Sylvia curruca
Common Whitethroat No DS Ne Sylvia communis
Blackcap MM No DS EA Ne Sylvia atricapilla
Bonelli's Warbler EA Ne Phylloscopus bonelli
Common Chiffchaff MM No DS EA Phylloscopus collybita
Willow Warbler DS Phylloscopus trochilus
Semicollared Flycatcher Ne Ficedula semitorquata
Arabian Babbler DS EA Ne Turdoides squamiceps
Sombre Tit No Parus lugubris
Great Tit MM No Parus major
Eurasian Penduline-Tit MM Remiz pendulinus
Palestine Sunbird MM No DS EA Nectarinia osea
Great grey (Northern) Shrike No DS Ne Lanius excubitor
Woodchat Shrike No DS EA Lanius senator
Masked Shrike EA Lanius nubicus
Eurasian Jay MM Garrulus glandarius
Eurasian Jackdaw MM Corvus monedula
House Crow EA Corvus splendens
Hooded Crow MM No Ne Corvus corone
Brown-necked Raven DS EA Corvus ruficollis
Fan-tailed Raven DS Corvus rhipidurus
Tristram's Grackle (Starling) DS EA Onychognathus tristramii
House Sparrow MM No DS EA Passer domesticus
Spanish Sparrow MM DS EA Passer hispaniolensis
Dead Sea Sparrow EA Passer moabiticus
Pale Rock-Sparrow EA Carpospiza brachydactyla
Indian Silverbill DS EA Lonchura malabarica
Chaffinch No Fringilla coelebs
Syrian Serin EA Serinus syriacus
European Greenfinch MM No Carduelis chloris
European Goldfinch MM No DS Carduelis carduelis
Eurasian Linnet No Carduelis cannabina
Trumpeter Finch EA Rhodopechys githaginea
House Bunting EA Emberiza striolata
Cinereous Bunting EA Emberiza cineracea
Ortolan Bunting DS EA Emberiza hortulana
Cretzschmar's Bunting MM No EA Emberiza caesia
Corn Bunting MM No Miliaria calandra

212 species

Comments on sites
Ma'agan Michael - the Northern entrance road is closed for cars so take the Southern one. Clamorous Reed Warbler was along the surfaced road which bends off to the left from that Southern entrance road. Great Black-headed Gulls have departed.

Hula marshes - Marbled Teal seen only at the fish ponds along the first dirt road from Highway 90 North of the entrance road to the national park (open at 8 a.m. now). Many Clamorous Reed Warbler in the beautiful park itself, but only 4 pelicans.

Kfar Ruppin (near Bet Shean) - Pygmy Cormorant was easy here, and the only place where we have seen it. Mainly at the first pond South of the kibbutz terrain.

Gamla (Golan) - a ver nice reserve. Take the trail to the right, towards the gorge. When you've crossed the spring area at the head of the gorge look to the left for a nest of Bonelli's Eagle. Little Swift was there too.

Dead Sea - about 10 km S of En Gedi is wadi (=nakhal) Mishmar, signposted along the highway. We followed the dirt road to the mountain rim and had a nice combination of migrating raptors and local desert birds.

Eilat & Arava valley - most productive were:
- Ofarim park just E of the main roundabout, for passerines
- raptor watch point 9 km or so along the road to Ovda airport (look for other birders), esp. between 9 and 11 a.m.
- new bird ringing station with wetland reserve: last road South before crossing border with Jordan
- Km. 20 of Highway 90 for wetland species (ignore signs restricting access - everybody does)
- Km. 33 for larks
- Km. 38 and 40 and Yotvata (campsite + acacia desert) for passerines
- seashore of Eilat closest to Jordan border - seabirds at sunset.

Seashore and raptor point were also good for getting the most recent info from other birders.

Nizzana - for Houbara Bustard and other desert specialties be there between 6 and 7 a.m., at the end of the very long fence along the road going South at about 3 km parallel to the Egypt border, and scope around. Moreover, if you follow the road for another 2 km or so, keep right at the fork and visit the picnic oasis with large trees, where we had good migrants (Semicollared Flycatcher, Orphean Warbler).

Along the road from Eilat to BerSheva we had two territorial male Mourning Wheatear exactly at km. post 111, North of Mitzpe Ramon.

The military presence in many areas was not a problem at all anymore.

Israel, esp. the South, is more and more recognized as a prime birding hotspot for the Western Palearctic in March/April. We got 22 raptor species, 7 plovers, 9 gulls, 5 sandgrouses, 4 swifts, 7 larks, 6 swallows/martins, 7 pipits, 6 subspecies of Yellow Wagtail, 6 wheatears, 19 warblers, and many other goodies, in a trip total of 212 species.

John van der Woude
Kudelstaart, The Netherlands, jvanderw@worldonline.nl


For more comprehensive details about this trip, including pgotographs and maps, please visit the following web site:-

http://home.worldonline.nl/~jvanderw to view full trip report with maps and photographs