Israel birding trip report 24 March - 5 April 2000

Part 1. Summary and logistics

John van der Woude, www.jvanderw.nl  
See also:
part 2 - North
part 3 - South
part 4 - Species list  
part 5 - all maps again  

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 originating 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. We then 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 Aviv (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 number 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 during 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 Negev). 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.

Photos above: Wadi below Masada fort, Dead Sea; Beeeaters near Eilat; Quails near Eilat.