Israel birding trip 24 March - 5 April 2000

Part 3. Day reports South: Eilat/Arava, Negev

John van der Woude  - 

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, many with a yellow throat because of the pollen) 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 of Yellow Wagtail from allover Europe.

We then paid a short visit to the new bird ringing station (see Eilat map), 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 (see map) where e 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 (see map) for the show of drinking Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse. 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. Citril Wagtail and Squacco Heron were other goodies. After breakfast in the hotel we sped on to Yotvata where we found Arabian Warbler immediately (see map). 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 (see map) 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 (see photo) 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 Pallid 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). Photo left is just an impression of the multitude.

Then we entered the hot mountain valley of wadi Shlomo (see Eilat map, and photo below), 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 (see map). 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 (see Arava valley map for location). 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 were 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 next morning. Photo is of Arava valley S of Lotan.

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 flight 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 minutes 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. Photo is of wadi near the fort.

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 Blackcaps, 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 (see photo), and we had good birds as well. Bonelli's Eagle nests halfway to the left, and around closing time (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 this white-stone gorge. According to the warden Eagle Owl had not been seen here a while.

On the way back to our hotel in BerSheva 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 (see photo).

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 (see photo) 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 grounds. 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 (see photo below). 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 choir of musical cheeps of those two thousand Spanish Sparrows, but soon ended up having a last beer at the terrace before our flight back home to Amsterdam.