Friday 6 March 2015

10-17 January Trip Report

Israel Trip Report 10-17 January 2015

text by Rod Standing

For our annual birding trip round Israel, my brother Dom and I wanted to fill in a major gap this year: the winter.  We have previously been in March, April, May and October so January seemed a good choice.  Once again we focused just on the north and the centre so as to minimise travelling time and make the most of the short winter days (sunrise at 6.45 am, sunset at 4.45 pm).

A big advantage of this time of year is that we were never roasted and heat-haze was not an issue at all.  In fact, the weather was generally cold and wet, even foggy and snowy at times.  If you want to visit Israel in January, which is the peak month for rainfall, you will find it much of it covered in lush green vegetation but you will probably also encounter a great deal of mud.  Bring warm waterproof clothes and wellies and ideally hire a 4-wheel drive!

The best wintering birds were Black Vulture, Saker, Sociable Plover and Isabelline Shrike, as well as a nice selection of winter larks in the Negev.  The sheer numbers of some common wintering species was a constant eye-opener – Common Crane and Coot (yes!) come to mind.  It was also good to see textbook examples of Caspian and Siberian Stonechats along with their European cousins. A Kashmir Black Redstart in the Beit She’an Valley was an unexpected bonus. 

It wasn’t the rarities that made this trip special though.  It was the combination of northern palearctic birds like Fieldfare, Brambling, Hawfinch, Siskin and Reed Bunting and southern species on the northern limit of their winter ranges like Booted Eagle, Little Crake and Little Swift that made this trip one of our most memorable yet. 

Summary Itinerary

11 Jan
North-West Negev (Gevulot, Urim Fields, Re’im Reservoir)
12 Jan
Carmel Coast (Ma’agen Michael), Jezreel Valley (Kfar Baruch Reservoir), Mount Gilboa (Wadi Zviya)
13 Jan
Beit She’an Valley (Beit HaShitta, Tel Harod, Wadi Zviya, Maoz Haim, Kfar Ruppin, Beit HaShitta)
14 Jan
Beit She’an Valley (Kfar Ruppin, Maoz Haim, Neve Eitan, Beit HaShitta)
15 Jan
Golan Heights (El Rom, Gamla Gorge, Wadi Meitzar), Jordan Delta
16 Jan
Hula Valley (Hula Reserve, Hula Agamon Lake), Jezreel Valley (Ginegar Reservoirs)
17 Jan
Central Negev (Meishar Plateau)

Detailed Itinerary

Sunday 11 January – North-West Negev

We started at Gevulot in the rain and in search of a Hume’s Warbler which had been around for a while.  It wasn’t there but a Lesser Whitethroat was – very surprising in the middle of winter.  The presence of what we thought were passage migrants in January became one of the themes of the trip.

Next to Urim fields, which had been inundated with rain in the preceding days and so the farm tracks were mired in glutinous mud.  We parked at the end of the metalled road and walked about 8 miles along the line of electricity pylons which bisects this prairie-like landscape.   The pylons provide perfect perches for raptors and it didn't take long to find two Eastern Imperial Eagles.

In the surrounding fields were hundreds of Common Cranes, many Corn Buntings and Skylarks, a Barn Owl,

two Peregrines, two Hen Harriers, two Pallid Harriers and several each of Sparrowhawk, Kestrel, Marsh Harrier and Long-legged Buzzard.  We couldn’t immediately confirm the ID of two immature Saker Falcons on the pylons as they wouldn't allow us to get closer than about half a mile, so we took the best photos that we could and confirmed the ID subsequently.

An Isabelline Wheatear was also a nice find.

After all that exertion we ended the day on the bank surrounding Re'im Reservoir.  The water contained large numbers of the usual water-birds, including hundreds of Shoveler and Pochard.  Eight flyover Golden Plover and a male Siberian Stonechat were also nice. 

Back in Kibbutz Nir Oz several Long-eared Owls and a Stone Curlew became active as darkness fell.

Monday 12 January – Carmel Coast, Jezreel Valley, Mount Gilboa

The next day we headed north and made our usual error of stopping at Ma'agen Michael.  I say usual error because the list of birds we could see there is always tantalising but we usually end up seeing only the same common water birds.  To be fair we did find a flock of 60 Pallas's Gulls, 5 Temminck's Stints and a Greater Spotted Eagle but even so we resolved to try Nahsholim instead next time.  Are we getting too blasé?

Our next stop was Kfar Baruch Reservoir in search of the Lesser White-fronted Goose that had been there many weeks but it had gone either temporarily or permanently.  Over 50 White Pelicans and 2 more Greater Spotted Eagles were good alternatives.  I think the difference in our reactions is that we expect to be amazed at Ma'agen Michael and it is not a very attractive place in its own right so we are generally disappointed.

Our final destination for the day also illustrated this point.  A Kurdish Wheatear had been reported for several weeks in Wadi Zviya on Mount Gilboa overlooking the Beit She'an valley.  We walked about a third of the way down the wadi from the top of the mountain and saw 'only' about 6 Black Redstarts, 3 Finsch's Wheatears, 55 Corn Buntings and our first Southern Grey Shrike.  But the scenery was so beautiful and the winter flowers so plentiful (and literally growing out of the rocks)  that we forgave the lack of the Kurdish Wheatear.

Tuesday 13 January – Beit Shean Valley

That night we stayed at Kfar Ruppin where at dawn the following day the temperature was 2C.  By the time we got to the Tel Harod fish ponds the air had warmed up enough in the sun for us to wear just two layers.  The main pond and its surroundings were quite productive with 3 more Greater Spotted Eagles, 6 Pygmy Cormorants, 40 Tufted Ducks, 12 Shelduck, 2 Water Pipits, 2 Desert Finches, a Citrine Wagtail heard as it flew over us and several smart adult Pallas's Gulls flying around.

We then tried again for the Kurdish Wheatear, this time from the bottom of the mountain.  After about 30 minutes trying to find the right access we started walking/climbing up the rocky bottom of the wadi.  Again, our enjoyment of the climb over-rode our disappointment at not finding the wheatear.  A female Blue Rock Thrush, 2 Long-billed Pipits, 2 more Finsch's Wheatear and another very smart Siberian Stonechat were reward enough.

We had been told that a Sociable Plover had been seen at Maoz Haim fish pond just north of the road to the Jordanian border.  We headed over there and drove up on to the bank.  As I started eating lunch Dom trained his scope on the gathering of several hundred Lapwings and Spur-winged Plovers on the far shore.  Literally the first bird he saw as he focused was the Sociable Plover.  Within 5 seconds it had taken flight and disappeared to the south.  What an amazing bit of luck!

For our penultimate visit of the day, we toured the Kfar Ruppin fish ponds, which contained a good selection of water birds including over 100 Spoonbills and 50 Black Stork.  It was great to see a large flock of Dead Sea Sparrows dust bathing next to the track. 

Finally we went to Bet HaShitta up Route 71 to see the Kashmir Back Redstart that was wintering there.  Right on cue it appeared on the expected perch at 4 p.m. and gave views down to 10 metres, a great end to the day.

Wednesday 14 January – Beit Shean Valley

Wednesday started with another visit to the Kfar Ruppin fish ponds which were bustling with birds.  The early morning sun shone brightly as the mist swirled in the Jordan valley.  A Merlin repeatedly stooped like a Peregrine over the fish ponds and a Purple Heron stood like a sentry on a post posing for photos.  

Little Ringed and Ringed plovers, Little Stints, Black-tailed Godwits, Marsh Sandpipers, Redshanks and a Greenshank bumped up the wader count.

We then drove to a small patch of scrub near the entrance to the kibbutz and found the Isabelline Shrike which had been there for several weeks performing beautifully in the sunshine.  

A 2-hour beating of the kibbutz's alfalfa fields (near the Ringing Station) yielded enormous numbers of Skylarks (well over 2,000) but not the hoped-for Oriental Skylarks or Buff bellied Pipits.  We did turn up two more flocks of Dead Sea Sparrows, 2 Little Swift hawking over the fields with the Swallows, 2 Zitting Cisticolas, 2 more Greater Spotted Eagles and a female Caspian Stonechat.

Leaving the kibbutz we dropped in again at Maoz Haim fish pond and quickly found 2 Sociable Plovers with the Vanellus flock.  After a little while they all took off and headed south.  It was amazing how easily the Sociable Plovers disappeared in the flying flock.  

Our real destination though was the Neve Eitan fish ponds, which held over 2,000 coot (including around 1,000 in one tightly-packed flock - an amazing sight), 10 Osprey, 8 Whiskered Tern, another Purple Heron, a Peregrine and 3 Reed Buntings.  The latter were in some overgrown ponds furthest from the road and these look like excellent habitat for wintering or migrant passerines.

We finished the day as we had the previous one with a visit to Bet HaShitta.  Once again the Kashmir Black Redstart appeared right on time at 4 p.m. but this time a female Common Redstart (triple ringed!) also appeared on exactly the same perch a few minutes later.  This was strange because Common Redstart is a very rare find in Israel in January.  The chances of two such vagrants appearing on the same piece of wood a few minutes apart must be very small indeed.  Another bizarre piece of luck.

We then drove to Qatsrin on the Golan Heights which was to be our base for the next two days.

Thursday 15 January – Golan Heights

Our plan for the day was to cover as much of the Golan Heights as possible given the snowy conditions.  In the event we got as far as El Rom and then turned back, not because of the 30cm of snow lying on the ground (the snow ploughs had done a great job of clearing even the minor roads) but because the fog and rain made birding impossible.  Before heading south again we managed an hour’s birding in the snow near El Rom and saw 6 Brambling, 15 Siskin and 50 Fieldfares.  It was strange and wonderful to see birds so evocative of northern Europe and Asia in a snowy Middle Eastern landscape.
We got as far south as Gamla Gorge before the rain stopped.  Five Griffon Vultures and a single Black Vulture wheeled around the viewing point in the gloom,

as did 10 Woodlarks and 100 Serin.  A male Black Redstart posed beautifully for photos by the car park

along with another wintering Lesser Whitethroat.

We headed further south to escape the cloudy skies and decided to try Wadi Meitzar.  Getting down into it required us to navigate a series of huge muddy puddles in the hire car which was entertaining!  Somehow we got through and even more importantly we got back out again to our immense relief.  The wadi itself was surprisingly devoid of birds apart from a few Crag Martins at the bottom but another Brambling and a few Hawfinches posing on tree tops as we went past were nice.
We finished the day at the Jordan Delta by Lake Tiberias.  15 Little Swift were hunting above the road where it runs along the shore of the Lake.    
The sewage ponds held some squealing Water Rails and we heard Penduline Tits but could not see them.

Friday 16 January – Hula Valley, Jezreel Valley

Our Hula day started like the two previous ones with an early visit to the former fish ponds outside the entrance to the Hula Reserve while we waited for it to open at 8 a.m.  As we stood on the boundary bank in the mist we heard again the calls of Penduline Tits in a thin strip of reeds below us and with patience we gained good views of two birds as they flitted amongst bottom of the stems.  Perched above us in the customary tree was an adult White-tailed Eagle, like us waiting for the mist to clear.
Our entrance to the reserve was delayed somewhat while the staff rounded up an escaped water buffalo but when we did get in we were again surprised by birds we thought were ‘passage migrants’ – this time a pale-phase Booted Eagle and an amazingly obliging Little Crake scampering about on the floating stems in full view at a few metres range for 30 minutes.  

A Water Rail made a brief cameo appearance, flying over the Little Crake.  Yet again we heard Penduline Tits but were not surprised that we didn’t see them in the profusion of vegetation.
A Pygmy Cormorant on a Cormorant tree.

A five minute drive north took us to the Hula Reflooded Area, which contained around 37,000 Common Cranes – a truly spectacular wildlife experience.  

As we scooted round on our golf buggy (an expensive essential at this site) we notched up 3 more Greater Spotted Eagles, 3 more Booted Eagles, a Black-shouldered Kite and two more Hawfinch.
Last stop of the day was Ginnegar Reservoir an hour’s drive to the south west, our target being White-headed Duck.  None were present, but through the scope we picked out three Marbled Duck on the far side of the reservoir and two Black Francolins on the bank.  The latter were feeding quietly in the long grass and amused us by their habit of alternately sticking their heads up out of the vegetation, presumably a mechanism to combine maximum feeding time and security. 
This was our last visit of the day and we headed for Route 6 for the long drive south.

Saturday 17 January – Central Negev

An evening flight meant that we had half a day available and so an early start saw us arriving at the Meishar Plateau in the High Negev at dawn.  An angry sunrise pierced the rain clouds on the eastern horizon but the rain held off.  

As we drove slowly across the plain towards the monument in the gathering light a Stonechat flitted across the road in front of us and drew our attention to four Lesser-short Toed Larks at the roadside giving very close views from the car.  What a start!
We parked a bit north of the monument and started carefully working the strip of vegetation just west of the road.  Bar-tailed Larks were calling further to the west out in the desert and 13 Temminck’s Larks were feeding quietly in the short grass by the road giving wonderful views.  

In the next couple of hours as the sun appeared and the temperatures rose we saw in addition 8 Desert Larks,

50 Skylarks, 20 Corn Buntings, 50 Spanish Sparrows, 3 Tawny Pipits, 4 Mourning Wheatears, 6 Desert Wheatears (characteristically defending their winter territories), 2 Isabelline Wheatears, 3+ Desert Warblers, a Sardinian Warbler and a Southern Grey Shrike.

We also heard the calls of a large flock of Crowned Sandgrouse and saw c. 200 Spotted Sandgrouse. Two Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over, rare at this site.

Time was forcing us to head back north and we stopped off at Wadi Terashim, following the white track to the east of the road on the northern rim of the plateau.  Note that access to the Meishar Plateau is limited only to Saturdays – military activities close it on other days.  We found some more wheatears, a Blackstart, several Scrub Warblers and a nice flock of 20 Trumpeter Finches.  

As we climbed the northern rim of the plateau in the car we passed a Peregrine perched on a prominent rock surveying the plain below.
We drove north back to Nir Oz through the showers, and picked up 5 more Black-bellied Sandgrouse flying over the road and a pair of White-crowned Black Wheatears at the petrol station outside Mitzpe Ramon.  As we crossed the Ramon Crater after a particularly heavy rain storm we saw watercourses running with water, a rare sight in this parched land.

Systematic List

Egyptian Goose
Widespread in small numbers in the North-West Negev
12 Tel Harod 13/1; common Hula Valley 16/1
Common in suitable habitat
Abundant in the Hula Valley 16/1
Common in suitable habitat
Widespread in small numbers
Common in suitable habitat
Abundant in suitable habitat
Marbled Duck
3 Ginegar Reservoir 16/1
Tufted Duck
Widespread in small numbers
Widespread in small numbers
Ferruginous Duck
2 Golan Heights 15/1
Widespread in small numbers
Black Francolin
3 Ginegar Reservoir 16/1
Black-necked Grebe
3 Kfar Ruppin 14/1
Little Grebe
Common on fresh water, abundant Hula Valley 16/1
Black Stork
Common in northern lowlands
White Pelican
Common in northern lowlands
Pygmy Cormorant
Small numbers in northern lowlands
Grey Heron
Night Heron
4 Azuz 11/10; 6 K19 reservoir 14/10
Purple Heron
1 Kfar Ruppin 14/1, 1 Neve Eitan 14/1
Little Egret
Cattle Egret
Great White Egret
Glossy Ibis
Widespread in small numbers, 100 Kfar Ruppin 13-14/1
Griffon Vulture
5 Gamla Gorge 15/1
Black Vulture
1 Gamla Gorge 15/1
Common Beit She’an Valley
White-tailed Eagle
Ad. Hula Reserve 16/1
Greater Spotted Eagle
Widespread in small numbers in northern lowlands
Eastern Imperial Eagle
2 Urim Fields 11/1
Booted Eagle
4 Hula Valley 16/1
Black-shouldered Kite
1 Agamon Hula Reserve 16/1
Black Kite
Marsh Harrier
Common in lowlands
Hen Harrier
2 Urim Fields 11/1
Pallid Harrier
1 Wadi Besor NW Negev 11/1, 2 Urim Fields 11/1
Long-legged Buzzard
Small numbers in North-West Negev
Common Buzzard
Widespread in small numbers

Widespread in small numbers
Common and widespread
1 Kfar Ruppin 14/1
3 Urim Fields 11/1, 1 Neve Eitan 14/1, 1 Meishar Plateau 17/1
2 immatures Urim Fields 11/1
Little Crake
1 immature Hula Reserve 16/1
Water Rail
1 Jordan Delta 15/1, 2 Hula Valley 16/1
Widespread on fresh water
Abundant, including a flock of at least 1,000 Neve Eitan 14/1
Common Crane
Abundant, including 37,000 Hula Agamon Lake 16/1
12 Ma’agen Michael 12/1, 100 Hula Agamon Lake 16/1
Black-winged Stilt
Common on all water bodies
Stone Curlew
1 heard Nir Oz 11/1
Common in North-West Negev and northern lowlands
Sociable Plover
1-2 Maoz Haim 13-14/1
Spur-Winged Plover
Common by water and habitation
Ringed Plover
A few Kfar Ruppin 14/1
Little Ringed Plover
A few Kfar Ruppin 14/1
Golden Plover
8 Re’im Reservoir 11/1
1 Kfar Ruppin 14/1
Temminck’s Stint
5 Ma’agen Michael 12/1
Little Stint
Common by fresh water
Wood Sandpiper
A few
Green Sandpiper
A few
Common Sandpiper
A few
Common by fresh water
Spotted Redshank
12 Kfar Ruppin 14/1
1 Kfar Ruppin 14/1
Marsh Sandpiper
1 Ma’agen Michael 12/1
Black-tailed Godwit
1 Kfar Ruppin 14/1. 35 Hula Reserve 16/1
2 Kfar Ruppin 14/1
A few
Armenian Gull
Large numbers Ma’agen Michael 12/1
Black-headed Gull
A few around Eilat North Beach, K19 reservoir and K20 salt pans
Pallas’s Gull
60 Ma’agen Michael 12/1, 15 Beit She’an Valley 13/1
Caspian Gull
A few Ma’agen Michael 12/1
Whiskered Tern
10 Neve Eitan fish ponds 14/1
Black-Bellied Sandgrouse
2 Meishar Plateau, 5 near Nafcha Prison 17/1
Spotted Sandgrouse
200 Meishar Plateau 17/1
Crowned Sandgrouse
Large flock heard  Kehemin Meishar Plateau 17/1
Feral Pigeon
Collared Dove
Laughing Dove
Long-eared Owl
Several heard Nir Oz 11/1
Barn Owl
1 Urim Fields 11/1
Little Swift
2 Kfar Ruppin 14/1, 15 Jordan Delta 15/1
Several in Hula Valley 16/1
White-breasted Kingfisher
Widespread in northern lowlands
Pied Kingfisher
4 Ma’agen Michael 12/1
Syrian Woodpecker
Widespread in north
Abundant in arable fields and grasslands
Temminck’s Lark
12 Meishar Plateau 17/1
Crested Lark
Common everywhere
Lesser Short-toed Lark
4 Meishar Plateau 17/1
Desert Lark
8 Meishar Plateau 17/1
Bar-tailed Lark
1+ heard calling Meishar Plateau 17/1
10 Gamla Gorge 15/1
Barn Swallow
Birds of the Transitiva race widespread in lowlands
Crag Martin
A few Wadi Meitzar 15/1
Tawny Pipit
3 Meishar Plateau 17/1
Long-billed Pipit
2 Wadi Zviya 15/1
Meadow Pipit
Red-Throated Pipit
200+ Yotvata
Water Pipit
2 Tel Harod fish ponds 13/1
White Wagtail
Citrine Wagtail
1 heard over Tel Harod fish ponds 13/1
Common everywhere
Common everywhere
50 El Rom 13/1
Song Thrush
Widespread in the north
Common in Hula valley
f. Beit HaShitta 14/1
Black Redstart
Kashmir Black Redstart
m. Beit HaShitta 13-14/1
1 Wadi Terashim, Meishar Plateau, 17/1
Isabelline Wheatear
1 Urim Fields 11/1, 2 Meishar Plateau 17/1
Desert Wheatear
8 Meishar Plateau 17/1
White-Crowned Wheatear
2 Mitzpe Ramon 11/1
Finsch's Wheatear
5 Wadi Zviya 12-13/1
Mourning Wheatear
6 Meishar Plateau 17/1
Siberian Stonechat
m. Reim Reservoir 11/1, m Wadi Zviya 13/1
Caspian Stonechat
f. Kfar Ruppin 14/1
Blue Rock Thrush
f. Wadi Zviya 13/1
Sardinian Warbler
1 Wadi Zviya 12/1, 1 Meishar Plateau 17/1
Lesser Whitethroat
1 Gevulot 11/1, 1 Gamla Gorge 15/1
Desert Warbler
2-3 Meishar Plateau 17/1
Cetti’s Warbler
Widespread in northern lowlands
Clamorous Reed Warbler
1 Hula Reserve 16/1
Zitting Cisticola
2 Kfar Ruppin 14/1, 1 Gamla Gorge 15/1
Scrub Warbler
1 Wadi Terashim, Meishar Plateau 11/11
Graceful Prinia
Common in northern lowlands
Great Tit
Common in north
Penduline Tit
2 Hula Reserve 16/1
Southern Grey Shrike
Widespread in north
Isabelline Shrike
m. Kfar Ruppin 14/1
Widespread in north
Common in north
Hooded Crow
Brown-necked Raven
Large numbers Meishar Plateau 17/1
Mynah Bird
Common in NW Negev
Yellow-Vented Bulbul
Palestine Sunbird
Common in north, a few in NW Negev
House Sparrow
Spanish Sparrow
Flock Meishar Plateau 17/1
Dead Sea Sparrow
3 flocks Kfar Ruppin 13-14/1
5 Wadi Meitzar 15/1, 1 Hula Agamon Lake 16/1
Abundant – commonest bird
6 El Rom 15/1, 1 Wadi Meitzar 15/1
15 El Rom 15/1
100 Gamla Gorge 15/1
Desert Finch
2 Tel Harod fish ponds 13/1
Trumpeter Finch
20 Wadi Terashim, Meishar Plateau 17/1
Reed Bunting
3 Neve Eitan fish ponds 14/1
Corn Bunting
Common in suitable habitat
Ring-Necked Parakeet
Widespread in NW Negev and Hula Valley

163 species

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