Israel Eilat, Israel 1st – 8th April 2001

This report gives details of the birds seen and the sites visited during a weeks holiday in Eilat, Israel with my (non-birding) wife. Details of all sites visited can be found in David Gosneys book “Finding Birds in Israel”. I also got a lot of help in planning this trip from various past trip reports accessed via the inter-net. I therefore thought it is only fair that I produce a report of our trip as it is important to keep these things up dated. 

1st April. Our flight from Luton was delayed so we arrived at Ovda airport at dusk. We travelled in darkness to Eilat. We were staying at the Moon Valley hotel on the edge of the town. This was booked as a package holiday using Co-op direct and Virgin Sun Holidays. After a meal we were walking back to our apartment when a bird started singing. It flew to land on a bush close to a light, where it proceeded to catch insects attracted to the light. It was a Spectacled Bulbul, the first lifer of the trip. 

2nd April. Up early the next morning at dawn. As I headed out of the hotel a pair of House Crows were calling from a tree in the nearby park and a short distance later I found several Laughing Doves. House Crows are very common around Eilat and Laughing Doves are found anywhere where there are a few bushes. As I headed towards North Beach I spotted a Pied Kingfisher hovering over the lagoon. It caught a fish and flew off to land on a rock by the side of the lagoon where it disposed of the fish. By the bushes down by the sewage canal many Graceful Prinias were singing and chasing each other. At North Beach I scoped the fish farm and had reasonable views of 5 Western Reef Herons, plus Little Egrets and 2 Grey Herons, whilst on the right hand edge of the farm two small dark Striated Herons sat motionless. Lots of gulls were flying about and landing on various buoys and pontoons. Many were Slender-billed Gulls and amongst them were darker White-eyed Gulls with their ridiculously long red bills. A larger gull landed on one of the pontoons. It was an immature Great Black-headed Gull. With seven lifers notched up I headed into town to find Ofira Park, a well known migrant hot spot. Lots of Lesser Whitethroats and Blackcaps were feeding on fallen dates. In addition a few Tree and Red-throated Pipits were found on the grassy areas. After a quick breakfast I headed up the Sewage canal past the saltpans to the lagoons around the ringing station. A pair of Little Green Bee-eaters and a few pairs of spectacular Spur Winged Plover gave me two more lifers. Five Black-crowned Night Heron were battling their way inland against a strong northerly wind, whilst some Steppe Buzzards and a Marsh Harrier flew overhead. Lots of ‘flava’ Wagtails and Northern and Black-eared Wheatears flitted about. On the way back I met another birder and got excellent views of a male Namaqua Dove sitting sunning itself in one of the new date plantations. I picked up the car which we had booked in advance (using at a reasonable price (by Israeli standards!). We then decided to head north up the Arava Valley. First stop was the ringing station again where at the lagoons we had excellent and close views of two Spotted Crakes (feeding on swarms of emerging insects) and a Caspian Tern. Two Bluethroats hopped around the footpaths in front of us and Spectacled Bulbuls were everywhere. A flock of 50 Steppe Buzzard thermalled over us. We then headed up to the North Reservoirs at km 20. Masses of Slender-billed Gulls gave us excellent close views. 200 Greater Flamingos were on one lagoon and many waders were dotted about along the sides of the lagoons. Highlights included a Marsh Sandpiper amongst the Ruff and Black-winged Stilts. We also got good views of a Dorcas Gazelle in the shade of an acacia tree. As we drove along the tracks round the reservoirs we saw lots of Red-throated Pipits, Black-eared and Northern Wheatears, a small flock of Short-toed Larks and a few Tawny Pipits. We then headed back into Eilat and took the bypass round the north edge of the town to the cemetery. Here a pair of Little Green Bee-eaters were courtship feeding and we had close views of our first Blackstarts and a female Common Redstart. As we walked through the cemetery we had a pair of Sand Partridge and our first White-crowned Black Wheatear. Next stop was the pumping station. As it was still quite early we drove past it following the dirt track up the wadi. We found several very confiding Nubian Ibex. An Orphean Warbler was also located in an isolated acacia bush. Little else was observed so we headed back to the pumping station. There we found our first Desert Larks, a pair inside one of the fenced enclosures. At least 3 pairs of Sand Partridge were also seen. We waited by the fenced enclosures for the sandgrouse to arrive. We were joined by more birders and a local, who said they would arrive at 6.14pm and so they did. In singles and pairs the Litchenstein’s Sandgrouse dropped down in front of us, calling, then slowly wandered towards their small drinking pool. A few gulps of water and they walked away. Perhaps 21 in all came in. Once finished they took off, calling as they headed back to the desert. Quite a fine end to an excellent days birding.

  3rd April. Another early rise at 5.15am. It was cloudy! and a strong north wind was blowing. First stop was Ofira Park. Much as yesterday with the addition of a Wryneck and two Hoopoes. Went back to the cemetery to check again for House Bunting. No sign, but excellent views of a male Palestinian Sunbird with its superb iridescent plumage. After breakfast headed down to the North Beach. Not so many herons but now 2 immature Great Black-headed Gulls and 4 Pomerine Skuas. Amongst the Common Terns was a slightly smaller immature tern, quite grey on back, rump and tail when it flew. After much discussion the birders present decided it was a White-cheeked Tern. A Common Kingfisher also flew by. A strong north wind is supposed to be good for raptor movement so we headed up to the “low observation point”  in the Eilat Mountains. On the way up we found our first Tristram’s Grackle. They are not as common as I thought they would be. Steppe Buzzards were coming through in groups of 20-50 but little else. We decided to head north along the road to Ovda.  We came across several Brown-necked Ravens and at Ovda a male Montagu’s Harrier crossed the road in front of us. We headed on to Shizafon (though this kibbutz now has a new name) where we walked through an area of fields. Lots of Barn and Red-rumped SwallowsSand Martins and two Crag Martins were moving through. About  two kms past the kibbutz is a small sewage works. There were lots of birds here. A White-crowned Black Wheatear sat on the fence alongside a Hooded Wheatear and a pair of Woodchat Shrikes. A Squacco Heron flew out of a small patch of reeds. A small group of Wood and Green Sandpipers flew off. Rock Martins dipped in and out off the pools. Northern and Black-eared Wheatears flitted about and on the adjacent flat sandy plain we saw our first (and only) Isabelline Wheatear. I then walked down a line of scrub leading away from the sewage works. Here I was greeted by a noisy family of Arabian Babblers (with young which could run but not fly) and a family of Scrub Warblers. At the same time three Black Stork soared overhead. We then proceeded on to Lotan kibbutz in the Arava valley. It had now started to rain! Two Caspian Plovers had been reported from one of the large arable fields just north of the kibbutz. Unfortunately they had left the day before. We did, however, get good views of a Barbary Falcon on the power lines and a single Osprey and Eurasian Sparrow Hawk drifted over. In the organic garden in the kibbutz proper there were lots of birds: Red-throated Pipits, flava Wagtails and Spanish Sparrows and a single female Rock Thrush by the compost heap. We headed back to Eilat and on the saltpans just north of the town had a flock of 200 Garganey and 20 Pintail

4th April. A very early start. Had to meet Hadoram Shirihai at 4.00 am for one of his trips to the Negev. Four of us went with him. It was cloudy and lightning lit the sky from time to time. There had been a bit of rain overnight. We headed quickly north and as dawn broke birds of interest seen included an Egyptian Vulture, our first Hooded Crows and some migrating Alpine Swifts. We arrived at Nizzana at 7.15 and drove down the road from the castle to Azzuz. We stopped at the end of the long fence (on the right hand side of the road) and soon got brief views of a single Houbara Bustard and a Great Grey Shrike. Time was a bit short so we headed to the sewage pools just north of the old disused military base (and just before the petrol station) to look for sandgrouse coming into drink. They were a bit late (possibly due to the cool overcast conditions) but soon arrived in small groups. First 4 Spotted Sandgrouse, then 8 Black-bellied Sandgrouse (quite wary), then 5 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew around. Other groups of all three species arrived or flew over some too wary to land whilst we were there. We headed back to the Houbara site and soon found some Cream-coloured Coursers (two briefly displayed to each other) and a pair of Desert Wheatear, whilst a massive flock of 600+ White Stork thermalled up in the distance. We headed back south to the spectacular gorge at Ein Avdat. A Mourning Wheatear was spotted as we drove down into the gorge. In and around the scrub at the entrance to the gorge we had a Scrub Warbler, a Desert Lark and we heard Trumpeter Finches. Although up to 3 Griffon Vultures and 200+ White Storks soared by, there were no sign of the Bonelli’s Eagles. After a while we decided to move on. We stopped at Mizpe Ramon for lunch and fuel. Just behind the petrol station is some woodland and a grassy park. Here we had two more Mourning Wheatears, a Woodchat and a Masked Shrike. In the trees a pair of Goldfinch were seen and a strange call led me to the only Desert Finch I saw in the entire trip. A superb male. This is quite a nice site that is not mentioned in any of the guidebooks. We headed back south. Our destination Yotvata Kibbutz back in the Arava Valley. In the acacias on the way down to the sewage pools we had a Black Bush Robin (one of a pair that had been reported). We had good views of it hopping under the bushes and singing quietly in an acacia, cocking its tail to reveal the white tips to the feathers.  We then headed down to some greenhouses where another Black Bush Robin had been reported and had good views of it as well. Many raptors were moving over. Three Steppe Eagles and 2 Booted Eagles flew low over us. The rain had resulted in a hatch of termites. Black KitesCommon Kestrels and an early Levant Sparrow Hawk were observed catching them in the air. Steppe Buzzards walked over the ground grabbing them as they emerged. As we left the kibbutz Hadoram noticed an immature Greater Spotted Eagle on a telegraph pole, which gave us good but brief views. It was then down to km 33 where a Dunn’s Lark had been reported. No sign of it but amongst a large group of Short-toed Larks we had good views of a Bimaculated Lark and 2 Tawny Pipits. We then headed back north for the final part of the trip to look for a Hume’s Tawny Owl. By now a fierce thunderstorm was raging and heavy rain was turning the desert into a wet land. Water poured off the desert and across the roads. Hadoram decided it was too hazardous to go for the owl so we headed back to Eilat. We went through torrential rain and lighting lit the sky turning night briefly to day. We arrived in Eilat to find the streets awash in water as great torrents flowed off the hills and down through the town. It was quite an experience. 

5th April.  Up a bit later than usual at 6.00am. Still overcast but it had dried up. In Ofira Park a Sedge Warbler and quite a few Olivaceous Warblers were amongst the usual migrants.  In the scrub around the sewage canal and date plantations an Orphean Warbler, several Masked Shrikes and a Wryneck were seen. Many of the tracks were very slippy and difficult to drive following the heavy rain. After breakfast we headed north again. It was now hot and sunny. At the side of the main road just north of Eilat 5 Stone Curlew flew parallel with us. We went back up to Yotvata. First we searched the acacias just SE of the park (where Gosney said to look) and soon found an Arabian Warbler, which gave us very good views. Then as we walked down through the acacias we heard Rufous Bush Robins singing. After a while we tracked one down and had good views of it hopping along the ground cocking its tail and then had it singing loudly from a bush. There were masses of common migrants around, possibly grounded by the thunderstorm: Lesser Whitethroat (the most abundant migrant everywhere), Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Black-eared and Northern Wheatears, Whinchats a Willow Warbler and a Common Whitethroat. Along with them was a Great Spotted Cuckoo. We heard that a White-tailed Plover had been seen at the sewage pools at km 18 so headed down there. Unfortunately it had gone but we got excellent views of 4 Collared Pratincoles and a Purple Heron roosting on the side of the adjacent reservoir. We went up to check out the North Reservoirs to see if it had gone there. No luck, but on the track down to the reservoirs by the greenhouses were lots of Red-throated pipits and amongst them were 2 Ortolan Buntings, a female Namaqua Dove and perched in the bush at the foot of the track were 30+ European Bee-Eaters. Lots of waders were present on the reservoirs including a Whimbrel and three Curlew

6th April. We decided to head north to the Dead Sea area. The road was busy as lots of Israelis were heading south for the Passover holiday. Our first stop was the fish ponds at Ein Tamar, just before Neot Hakikar. It was very hot and sunny. By the old pool were 9 Little Egrets, 3 Great White Egrets, a Grey Heron and a Little Bittern. A Pied and a Common Kingfisher zipped by, but no sign of the White-throated Kingfishers  (The owner said he had not seen them for the past month or more. He says he does not take fish from the old pools now, buts put some in once a month for the birds!). A Shoveler, several Moorhen and a few Coot swam about on the pond. We had good but brief views of a Moustached Warbler. A pair of Clamorous Reed Warbler flew back and forth across the pond. They obviously had a nest with young and flew in with food and out with faecal sacks giving us brief but reasonable views. We saw several nests of Dead Sea Sparrows on the bushes near the pools but no sign of the birds. Eventually as we waited a female flew in with nesting material. She was soon followed by a male. They copulated several times. He then sang briefly from the bush giving us both good views. We then headed north up to En Gedi. Got brief views of a Fan-tailed Raven as we drove along. At En Gedi we went for a float in the Dead Sea and then had a mud bath. Round the centre the birds were very tame giving excellent photo opportunities: Tristram’s Grackles, Arabian Babblers, Blackstarts, Palestinian Sunbirds and Spectacled Bulbuls. We then went up to Nahal David where we had another brief view of a Fan-tailed Raven and distant views of a Golden Eagle. Lots of Common Swifts were moving north along the escarpment. There were plenty of Rock Hyraxes and Nubian Ibex. We then headed back for Eilat. It took about three hours. Managed to accidentally drive through the Eilat Checkpoint without stopping much to the annoyance of the soldiers. 

7th April. Up at 4.30am. Dry but cool. Headed out to the lark sites at km 33. One Crested Lark was singing but little else. Very disappointing. Lots of Barn, Red-rumped Swallows and House Martins moving north. Then headed up to Shizzafon sewage pools to see if the Crowned Sandgrouse would come in to drink. They did not, probably due to the fact that there are still many pools in the desert following the thunderstorms. Had good views of an Egyptian Vulture and Booted Eagle that flew low over head. A few Whichats, a Wryneck and an Orphean Warbler were lurking around the pools. I headed back down into the Arava valley. Some big groups (up to 300) of Steppe Buzzards were drifting north , along with a Steppe Eagle and a Black Stork. Headed on down to the North Reservoirs. Lots of waders: Whimbrel, Kentish, Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers and with them 2very confiding Greater Sand Plovers. Amongst the Dunlin and Little Stint was a Broad-billed Sandpiper. A few Greenshank and Redshank fed along the water edge with the many Ruff, Black-winged Stilts, Spur-winged Plovers and a single Marsh SandpiperGreen, Wood and Common Sandpipers were also present in small numbers. By the greenhouses along the entrance track were a pair of Namaqua Doves which gave excellent views. A quick visit to the sewage works at km18 revealed little new but good views of 2 male Cretzchmar’s Buntings. Finally a visit to the lagoons at the ringing station was rewarded with a Grey Phalarope, still in winter plumage. In the late afternoon we decided to head back to km 33 for a final look for larks. We drove down to the pumping station and then about 1km along the track to the south. A Dutch couple joined us but drove along a bit further. After quite a while Dora spotted a Bar-tailed Desert Lark running about in front of us, giving us brief views. At the same time the Dutch couple whistled us. The Bar-tailed Lark took off giving its ‘squeaky swing’ song and we went along to joint the Dutch couple who had found a Hoopoe Lark. We had excellent views of it as it ran about, perched on stones, caught a scorpion and flew back and forth across the track. On the way back to Eilat we had the amazing sight of two Wolves  running parallel to each other along the road side. An excellent end to the day

8th April. The final day. Up at 5.40. Little new in Ofira Park. Went up to the wadi on Jerusalem Street for a last go for House Bunting. No luck but good views of an Ortolan Bunting, an Orphean Warbler and a Wryneck. Then down to North Beach for a last look. Quite a few Western Reef Herons at the fish farm. Still 4 Pomerine Skuas and a Corys Shearwater offshore. Lots of Common Terns, a few Little Terns and now 3 immature White-cheeked Terns. After breakfast headed up to the sewage works at km18. In the muddy pools were lots of Red-throated Pipits and with them a Water Pipit and 2 female Citrine Wagtails.  Then went up to the North Reservoirs. Lots of ducks had arrived: Shoveler, Wigeon, Pintail, Teal and Garganey. Roosting on one of the bunds were 40 Glossy Ibis. Dotted amongst the duck were some Red-necked Phalaropes. There were still large numbers of waders present, including the Broad-billed Sandpiper, but also a Black-tailed Godwit. On the bush at the end of the entrance track was an Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler, the only one of the trip. A final stop on the way back to Eilat at the ringing station revealed another Broad-billed Sandpiper with 3 Little Stint at the edge of the lagoon and a roosting Purple Heron.  Got back at mid-day to drop of the car and pack up. The final bus trip to Ovda Airport in mid-afternoon was interesting, as the courier gave us an entertaining commentary as we travelled north, but uneventful as far as birds went. Our plane was on time and we arrived back in Luton to find it pouring with rain.

So ended a memorable trip. In all we saw 166 species and I had an amazing 46 lifers. Fellow birders were very friendly and keen to offer both news and advice. Many met at the North Beach at dusk to exchange information, but as you moved around you kept meeting and re-meeting fellow birders and this also kept you aware of what was around. Hadoram informed us that due to the political situation the number of birders was well down this year. The political problems had no impact on our visit at all. We had free access virtually everywhere. We found the people very friendly, particularly at the different kibbutz that we visited, where they were more than happy to let you wander around the fields and plantations. Many birders commented that the number of migrants in the area was far lower than normal. Certainly Ofira park was often a bit disappointing. The range of species available, however, more than made up for the lack of numbers. Some visiting birders we spoke to had clocked up 180-190 species in stays lasting up to 12 days.

Bob Swan
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