Israel Trip Report
24 March – 5 April 2000
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.
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|
|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|
|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|
|Little Stint||No EA||Calidris minuta|
|Temminck’s Stint||EA||Calidris temminckii|
|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|
|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|
|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|
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, email@example.com
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