Israel birding trip  24 March - 5 April 2000

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

John van der Woude - 

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 (see map), 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 entrance road.
The northern entrance road is blocked off now so we walked a while there, and this produced a group of 55 Black Storks (photo). 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 (see map), where we had a close encounter with a pair of Black Francolin, one of the best 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 (photo), for a splendid view on a Bonelli's Eagle nest (female + 2 chicks). The male flew around in the gorge, as did Little 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 (see photo), but we found no pipits, and we should have tried at similar sites 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 (see map). 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 recommended side road of the 90 half a kilometer more to the North (see the map). 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 seen again afterwards on this trip. The crake stepped all along the left (Northern) reed fringe of the lake with the long hide (see photo). 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 kibbutz 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 (see map). 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 (see photo). 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 just 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 (see map), in order 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 Pallid 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 (see map and photo). 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 visit 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 cemented 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.