Part 1. Summary and
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).
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.
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.
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.