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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2016 Narrative

Our first half day in Israel saw a gentle introduction to some of the commoner birds and we encountered several Tree Pipits along with Sardinian Warbler and had good views of Short-toed Eagle and Chukar. From our first base at the Kibbutz Gonen, the Hula valley stretched out beneath and it was possible to gain some idea of what migration was taking place. Our full day around the Agamon Hula Reserve was rewarded with excellent and prolonged views of Black Francolin, Little and Spotted Crakes, plus Greater Spotted Eagle, several Black-winged Kites, 200 Common Cranes, 250 White Pelicans, 1000 White Storks, 22 Black Storks, 500 Black Kites, Marbled Duck, a flock of gaudy European Bee-eaters and a surprise Merlin, all joining a host of waders to provide some great birding. Following this was never going to be easy, but on Mt Hermon the weather was kind and the main target, Syrian Serin, eventually gave great views. In the same area a Rock Nuthatch called loudly and showed itself to us, while a pair of Eastern Orphean Warblers were uncharacteristically showy in low scrub. Sombre Tit came to investigate us, and several Black Redstarts were also on the roadside, along with Rock Bunting, Blue Rock Thrush and our first Black-eared Wheatear. Moving south through the Jordan valley, we looked for birds on a hillside area where we found Southern Grey Shrike, before we continued to our accommodation at Kibbutz Almog at the northern end of the Dead Sea. 

Our first day in the Judean desert proved a good one, and from the viewpoint at Metzoke Dragot we found a pair of Bonelli’s Eagles as Pallid Swifts treated us to close flybys and our first Nubian Ibex paraded for us. Sand Partridges, Tristram’s Starlings and Fan-tailed Ravens were also present, but the hoped for raptor migration had been pushed a long way to the west by an almost imperceptibly light easterly breeze. Nonetheless, around 30 Lesser Spotted Eagles were picked up in the distance, along with about 200 Steppe Buzzards. The afternoon’s entertainment exceeded expectations, when a pair of rather distant Sinai Rosefinches decided to fly down the mountain to see us, giving us excellent views of this highly localised and difficult species. Several Striolated Buntings sang around us, and the local Tristram’s Starlings were so enamoured they even landed on our tripods! A brief Trumpeter Finch was a taster for a few days hence, and the unexpected appearance of a brood of Scrub Warblers delighted many. Joining our local guide at dusk, we ventured to the edge of a canyon in search of the enigmatic and rare Desert Tawny Owl. Despite hearing two pairs, we couldn’t entice them out. However, after a little effort we managed to find a Nubian Nightjar hawking insects over a melon field. With about 30 pairs left, this endemic subspecies is an incredibly rare bird in Israel. 

In Eilat, our options increased dramatically. Our five day’s exploration of the Kibbutz in the Arava Valley, the desert areas near to Eilat and around Eilat itself yielded many great species. Desert birding was hard, as the heavy winter rains had caused a greening of the desert and a subsequent scattering of birds into new areas. Despite this we managed to find and get great views on the ground of Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouse, while the Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse continue to perform well at their favoured drinking spot. Larks took a few days to get right, but eventually we had ‘walkaway’ views of Hoopoe Lark perched up right in front of us, while Bar-tailed and Desert Larks were found in a couple of sites. Temminck’s Horned Lark was a great bird for us, but while we were looking for it we discovered a brood of Thick-billed Larks being fed by their parents. 

This year has been a good one for this often elusive bird with several early breeding attempts, although this one was unknown to the local birders. Trumpeter Finches were in plentiful supply at one site and strangely difficult elsewhere, while Cream-coloured Coursers evaded us until our drive north through the Negev, where we located a pair with a chick in a remote area of the HaMeshar. Wheatears also eventually all came good, and two Hooded Wheatears vied with many Mourning’s and White-crowned for ‘black & white’ bird of the trip. One of the iconic birds of the spring migration in Eilat is Black Bush Robin, as this species is becoming more and more regular in the southern Arava Valley although it remains almost unknown elsewhere in the region. It was with some delight then, having seen one of these at dusk in Central Park, that we went on to find another two! The second one in particular was a showy and charismatic individual, waving its tail around and bounding from bush to ground in excessive fly-catching sallies. While Scrub Warblers have had an excellent year, (we found pairs and even another brood in a few places) Arabian Warbler remained a difficult species to get good views of.  Seawatching off the North Beach produced a couple of Brown Boobies and the usual Western Reef Heron in its ditch, but the flock of 200 Garganey whirling around offshore were more impressive. A visit to the northern end of the Arava rewarded us with a Red-billed Teal, probably the second record for Israel. Wader migration was good, and we found a flock of Collared Pratincoles on the saltpans among the more usual shorebirds. Elsewhere we managed to see a nice flock of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Hoopoes, Yellow Wagtails of various head colours, Citrine Wagtail, Masked and Woodchat Shrikes, Ortolan Buntings, a variety of warblers and Pied and Collared Flycatchers. 

Moving away from Eilat, we drove up into the Negev desert and the area to the north of Mitzpe Ramon. This is Macqueen’s Bustard country, especially the area around Nizzana near the Egyptian border, and we found one male strutting his flamboyant stuff for us - all white plumes and legs. Also here was a stunning male Collared Flycatcher and flocks of Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse coming to drink. That afternoon saw a change in the weather when the thick cloud finally delivered the rain it had promised while we sheltered at Ben Gurion’s tomb. The Pallid and Alpine Swifts made the most of it by having an aerial shower and spruce up, but we were not expecting to see the Zin River in full flow and flooding the road! 

Our final morning saw us heading back to the Dead Sea to catch a key species we had missed so far - Dead Sea Sparrow. An increasingly difficult species to locate, we were delighted to find about 30 of them in the tamarisks before we started the journey back to the airport, via a final stroll near Lahav where some nice White Stork and raptor passage reminded us that migration through Israel was still in full swing.

Created: 02 May 2016