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.

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