Saturday 18 April 2009

Birding trip Israel 3-12 April 2009 Itinerary

3 April

We met up at Eilot Junction on Route 90 just north of Eilat at noon and started straight away at Holland Park on the northern outskirts of Eilat. The bushes were jumping with Blackcaps and Lesser Whitethroats, and these two species remained by far the commonest birds we would see throughout the trip. We were also introduced to Blackstart, Bonnelli’s Warbler, Red-Rumped Swallow, Palestine Sunbird, Steppe Buzzard, Yellow-Vented Bulbul and Spanish Sparrow, all of which would remain faithful companions. Three Ruppell’s and two Orphean Warblers completed the hors d’ouevre.

Next we crossed Route 90 to the Eilat Bird Park, a mix of bushes and scrapes right on the migration flyway that extends from Eilat up the Arava Valley to the Dead Sea. We quickly found Terek Sandpiper and Red-Necked Phalarope on the scrapes but missed the Broad-Billed Sandpiper that we later found out was present (and which with Citrine Wagtail were to become our bogey birds of the trip). Booted Eagle, Osprey, Caspian Tern and 30 Armenian Gulls flew north over our heads and on the deck we saw at close quarters the first of many Black-Eared Wheatears and Masked Shrikes.

We rounded off the first day with a visit to Eilat Date Palms and observed hundreds of flava wagtails (of all races) and Red-Throated Pipits attracted to the grasses and other vegetation stimulated by the water provided for the palms. Several Bluethroats, of both red and white-spotted forms, and Ortolan Buntings were also present and all these birds were to be commonly seen throughout the trip. It was a satisfying reversal to spot a Tree Pipit among the teeming Red-Throated Pipits but completely unexpected was a Syrian Serin with a flock of House Sparrows.

4 April

Up before dawn to re-visit the Bird Park and North Date Palms and see the first of many Greater Sand Plovers, Marsh Sandpipers, Hoopoes and EuropeanBee-eaters.

After breakfast we drove up Route 90 to the Km19 cowsheds (the Km numbers equate to the kilometre posts on the side of Route 90, which follows the Arava Valley to the Dead Sea and beyond.) The sun was now strong enough to force scores of Short-Toed Larks and one Bimaculated Lark to feed in the narrow strips of shade thrown by the cattle fences. We added Namaqua Dove, Isabelline Wheatear and Woodchat Shrike to the list and in the sky identified a Short-Toed Eagle among the hundreds of Steppe Buzzards and White Storks that were now soaring northwards on the thermals.

Next to the famous salt pans at Km20 and they did not disappoint, with a single Collared Pratincole being seen at close range among the usual waders on the side of the bank surrounding the salt pans which we were traversing in our hire car.

Greater Flamingos and Slender-Billed and Black-Headed Gulls also made their way on to the trip list and then as the day drew to a close we headed for the Doum Palms at Km 23 for some passerine interest.

We saw the first of many Redstarts, Arabian Babblers and Tawny Pipits plus the only Thrush Nightingale of the trip.

5 April

We went first to the legendary circular fields at Yotvata where a Hen Harrier and 17 Black Storks awaited us. The latter soon took off and joined more than 100 others as they spiralled up to continue their journey northwards along the Arava in the company of hundreds of Steppe Buzzards and a solitary soaring Pallid Harrier.

Working the thickets alongside the fields revealed an Olivaceous Warbler and the only Meadow Pipit of the trip flew north overhead.

One of the local birders (Lior Kislev) was kind enough to show us the nearby Yotvata sewage farm where we found a Rufous Bush Robin and, unexpectedly, a Wigeon. A Citrine Wagtail had been reported at Ketura Sewage but when we got there it had moved on. However, a resplendent male Siberian Stonechat was ample compensation along with our first Purple Heron and Brown-Necked Raven.

We continued north up Route 90 to Lotan where a Semi-Collared Flycatcher, two Wrynecks and a Scops Owl took shelter from the by now baking heat amongst the trees and lawns of the kibbutz. Heading back south we found a White-Crowned Black Wheatear and a Barbary Falcon amongst the silence of the Eilat Mountains at Amram’s Pillars and our first Cretzschmar’s Buntings and Turtle Dove at the Samar cowsheds.

Our final stop of the day was at the Km20 salt pans where we were greeted by 37 Glossy Ibis, 12 Garganey, the bizarre (for UK birders) sight of 17 Purple Herons standing in the nearby desert and an early White-Winged Black Tern just starting to moult into summer plumage.

6 April

Again to the circular fields at first light where we saw and photographed an adult male Montagu’s harrier at close range, found our first Desert Wheatear and saw a single Bonnelli’s Eagle passing overhead.

We then headed right up to Km103 where a wadi by Route 90 was green enough to have attracted a good variety of migrants. We quickly found a flock of 40 Trumpeter Finches but further searching was curtailed by a sandstorm that was blowing up. We drove south through the swirling dust to the Bird Park where conditions had eased enough to permit us to find new a Terek Sandpiper and Red-Necked Phalarope and our first Night Heron (but the Broad-Billed Sandpiper continued to elude us).

The day ended at Eilat North Beach where a juvenile Bridled Tern was lingering and we saw our first White-Eyed Gulls of the trip. Vast flocks of Shoveler wheeled around offshore waiting for nightfall and single Osprey and Caspian Tern passed overhead.

7 April

The day dawned cloudy and cool as we bade farewell to Eilat and made our customary start at the circular fields, where we were rewarded with a female Pallid Harrier, several Quail and an Oriental Skylark. Whilst at Yotvata, we extricated our hire car successfully from some soft sand but were not so fortunate later at the Km20 salt pans where glutinous mud on the inner edge of the surrounding bank captured the car and threatened to send it and us into the water. Fortunately a kindly local farmer rescued us with his tractor and disaster was averted. (A word of advice – ensure you keep your car on the very top of the bank!) After all that excitement a flock of 13 Collared Pratincoles was very welcome, as were a summer plumaged Water Pipit and 4 Curlew Sandpipers.

By the time we resumed our northwards journey we had also bagged a singing Hoopoe Lark and so were well satisfied as we headed north through the mountains to the Egyptian border. On the way we dropped in at Neot Smadar where we found 3 more Cretzschmar’s Buntings and a Nightingale and at Mitzpe Ramon where singing Syrian Serin and Desert Finch were found along with our first Chukars.

8 April

We arrived at Nizzana as the sun rose above the desert and the next two hours produced the best birding of the trip with Houbara Bustard, 8 Cream-Coloured Coursers, Mourning Wheatear, our first Desert Larks, Scrub Warbler, 3 Southern Grey Shrikes, 2 Pallid Harriers, Lanner Falcon, 4 Black-Bellied Sandgrouse and 2 Sand Partridges.

As the heat haze kicked in we headed off towards our next stop at Arad near the Dead Sea. En route we notched up two Ferruginous Ducks and a Crossbill (heard only) at Yeroham Reservoir and 11 Lesser Kestrel hunting for insects and Blue Rock Thrush at Mount Amsa.

9 April

Time was limited by other commitments so we managed only a short visit to the southern tip of the Dead Sea and whilst the Dead Sea Sparrows were conspicuous by their absence the Clamorous Reed Warblers thankfully were not. Careful searching of the huge flocks of hirundines and swifts revealed 8 species, including Pallid and Alpine Swifts, and Kingfisher and Fan-Tailed Raven also found their way on to the list.

Whilst our trajectory at this point was northwards, we had received reports of Blue-Cheeked Bee-eaters at Km20 we decided to take a long shot and start the following day with a backwards step to Hatzeva down Route 90.

10 April

We arrived at Hatzeva at dawn and despite several hours of searching found nothing new, although several Desert Larks, Arabian Babblers (including one that hopped to within 3 feet) and Desert Finches were some recompense. Our final port of call was the reservoir and the heat was by now intense. Working our way along the west side we were cheered slightly by finding a Moustached Warbler and it was evident that there were good numbers of birds at the shallow end hidden by vegetation. Whilst negotiating the apparently dried mud in an attempt to get better visibility one of us fell backwards and emerged covered in thick slime. This was the final straw and on the way back to the car in disgust we made one last scan and were astonished to discover that 10 Blue-Cheeked Bee-eaters had dropped in unnoticed and were resting and feeding amongst the bushes in the middle of the reservoir. It’s never over until it’s over!

As we finally got underway later we also had Arabian Warbler under our belt and made the long drive up Route 90 to Kfar Ruppin in northern Israel in excellent spirits. We were amazed by the transition from desert to lush greenery in a few kilometres and counted up to 6 Southern Grey Shrikes on roadside wires as we went. A drive-buy flock of European Bee-eaters made it three species of Bee-eater in one day.

There was no accommodation at Kfar Ruppin (which was a shame because thousands of White Storks were dropping out of the sky to roost for the night), so we continued north to a campsite near Lake Tiberias, where we were lulled to sleep by the sound of Scops and Tawny owls.

11 April

We split our last full day between the Hula Valley and the slopes of Mount Hermon. Disturbance from leisure use of the countryside in this part of Israel is intense and so we were first round the Hula Reserve when it opened at 08:00, having already bagged Pygmy Cormorant and hundreds of European Bee-eaters outside. As a result we had great views of Spotted and Little Crakes, Great Reed Warbler, Clamorous Reed Warbler, Marbled Teal and Syrian Woodpecker.

By the time we got to the Hula re-flooded area, the place was crawling with families and we limited ourselves to quick views of Great White Egret and Spoonbill before heading to Mount Hermon. As we drove the countryside made another extraordinary transition to mountain scenery and we could see the snow on the higher slopes. After two hours of searching the rocky terrain around Neve Atif we eventually discovered a pair of Sombre Tits and three Lesser Spotted Eagles, and as we drove away we had brief views of a Rock Bunting on a roadside fence. Bizarrely, we noticed the only Ruppell’s Warbler of the trip after the ones on the first day as we scoped the bush containing the Sombre Tits.

12 April

We had a few hours available between leaving Lake Tiberias and getting to Ben Gurion Airport, which we decided to use by visiting Ma’agan Michael on the Mediterranean coast. Broad-Billed Sandpiper and Citrine Wagtail were sadly not to be, but 4 Temminck’s Stints and a Whinchat were welcome additions to the list and almost the last bird was a Stone Curlew found in the sand dunes, a great way to end an amazing (if somewhat gruelling) trip.

Birding trip Israel 3-12 April 2009 notes and comments

· We notched up 194 species, not bad for an un-guided party of two. This could be increased by going with more observers and using the services of the excellent local guides.

· The first two hours of daylight are critical as the birds are far more active and the heat haze has not yet started so being on site at dawn (6:30 a.m. for us) is essential.

· In the desert (such as the Arava Valley), any area of green vegetation or body of water however small is attractive to migrants. Sewage ponds (if you can find them and can stand the smell) can be particularly good and every significant desert settlement has one. Cowsheds and compost-heaps are also good for buntings, larks and other species.

· Heed the advice re water intake in the desert (up to 8 litres per day). You will suffer if you don’t. And wear a hat!

· If possible, avoid birding on public holidays and Shabbat (Saturday) as disturbance from four-wheel drives and other users of the countryside can be intense.

· The current guides to the hot-spots of northern and southern Israel are now rather out of date so be aware of the need to check key facts independently (for example, the road to the ski-lift car park in Mount Hermon now closes at 3:30 not 5:00 p.m.).

· We used a hire car ( are very good value) and drove approximately 1600 km. Road quality and signage in Israel is generally excellent. Driving in the south was straightforward but take care not to exceed the speed limit – Route 90 is heavily policed and I gather that fines are heavy. Despite this, it doesn’t seem possible to drive at the speed limit for more than 2 minutes without a car arriving on your back bumper – tailgating is prevalent which is frustrating if you need to stop suddenly for passing birds. Driving in the north was a more exciting affair so defensive driving tactics are required.

· Camping sites were generally good, in that showers and toilets were available, but the ground can be impervious to tent pegs (not really surprising). Water and snacks were bought at 24/7 stores and the numerous petrol stations. Evening meals were taken at restaurants. The food was always excellent and came in large portions!

We’re already planning a return trip.

Roderick Standing

Dominic Standing

Friday 17 April 2009

Bird pics from Israel (March April) 2009

Here are a few more of the birds we saw in Israel this Spring. I'm not putting them in systematic order yet - probably will later.

This is En Boqeq - a magical wadi that runs into the Dead Sea. It's amazing to see fresh water and green papyrus surounded by some of the most arid environment in the World.

I used a Nikon D80 with a Sigma 150-500 OS lens. I'm sure it can cope with the light in Israel - all photographic defects are down to me and lack of experience combined with a surfeit of excitement. As always though, maximum zoom is no substitute for proximity.

Scops owl - roosting at Lotan. A contender for bird of the trip.

Collared pratincole - another contender - very pleased to find this (and 12 others).

Cream coloured courser - we saw many at Nizzana. As luck would have it they were not phased by our car (unfortunately though, despite the close range, I was shooting into the morning sun).

White stork - sometimes we saw many hundreds circling upwards on thermals

Booted eagle - magnificent raptor!

Steppe buzzard

Pallid harrier - several seen at Yotvata over 3 days

Montague's harrier - a truly superb male!

Marsh harrier - commonest harrier on the trip

Lesser kestrel hunting for insects on Mt Amasa, Arad. This was part of a flock of 9.

Pied kingfisher


Palestine sunbird
- widespread throughout Israel

Bee-eaters - some trees were full of them.

Red-throated pipit - numerous


Bluethroat - we saw mainly red spotted forms and only 1 or 2 white spotteds.

Siberian Stonechat - stunner!

Semi-collared flycatcher at Lotan

Yellow wagtail (beema race). The majority of yellow wagtails were blue- and black-headed races.

Blue rockthrush on Mt Amasa near Arad - the hillside was covered in flowers and herbs - a wonderful setting.

Sombre tit - strong contender for bird of the trip - we found a pair on the hill slopes near Neve Atif, near Mt Hermon. This is a poor record shot of a cracking little bird. The mist was descending and evening was drawing in - after 2 hrs of searching we were delighted to find these.

Masked shrike

Woodchat shrike


Cretzschmar's bunting

Trumpeter finches gathered in a shrub as a sand storm was starting,

and at Nizzana in the morning sun.

Bird pics from Israel (March April) 2009 desert and semi-desert birds

Fat sand rat - a type of gerbil that lives off (and burrows under) the roots of salt bush.

Black bellied sandgrouse, Arad.

Chukar walking - with attitude - across carpark in Mitze Ramon

Namaqua dove - female and male at Yotvata

Pale rock martin on nest

Crested lark - numerous and widespread

Desert lark

Bimaculated lark - record shot of a fantastic bird.

White crowned wheatear - a true desert bird.


Black-eared wheatear

Isabelline wheatear

Arabian babbler - some individuals are incredibly confiding and approach to within 1 m.

Tristram's grackles - red wing flashes and a distinctive, fluting call

Raven at Nizzana

Brown-necked raven - a common sight around the Dead Sea

Fantailed raven (poor pic but inlcuded for completeness)

NW India - 9th to 22nd February 2020 (Kosi River, Corbett NP, Haripur Dam, Pangot, Sattal, Chopta, Walterre)

If you look through the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent (Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp, 2011) you cannot help noticing the huge range of s...