ABOVE: My impression of a pair of Desert Finches. When I painted these after our trip, my wife asked why I would choose such a boring little bird to illustrate…and that’s a fair question. To me, these exquisite little granivores are a great metaphor of birding in Israel. At first glance the desert landscapes seem stark, featureless, grey-brown and utterly devoid of life. But the closer you look the more you discover. Just like Israel itself, Desert Finches have an understated, almost subliminal beauty. Their pinkish wings and delicately white-fringed tertials are absolutely breathtaking!
The four of us stood perfectly still, with our hands cupped behind our ears. The only sound our own excited breathing, billowing in little clouds in the frosty desert air. To any passing motorist, it must have been a very strange sight: four men, standing frozen next to the road at 02:30 am on a Tuesday morning, in the middle of the Negev Desert. However, the only cars that passed us were probably also birders, and would immediately understand what we were up to…listening intently for Eurasian Scops Owl. The owl was a no show, but a whooping Striped Hyena partly made up for it.
After months of planning, an intense week of scouting, and a few hours of fitful sleep, the 2017 Champions of the Flyway race day was finally here. So, in the very early hours of 28 March, we checked in with groggy race organizers and set off into the desert. The object is simple: try to record as many bird species (by sight or sound) as possible, within 24 hours. Species must be confirmed by three out of the four team members to count. This year, we had the added challenge that no sound playback was allowed; and neither was any spotlighting.
Our team, the Birding Africa Black Harriers, consisted of Callan Cohen, Ethan Kistler, Dominic Rollinson and myself. It was our first visit to Israel, and we had enjoyed a hectic but incredibly fulfilling week familiarizing ourselves with the birds and sites. Today, we hoped that preparation would give us a fighting chance against the other 37 birding teams running around the desert. While the race day competition is serious business, the whole Champions of the Flyway event is a noble cause – to raise awareness and funds in the battle against the illegal slaughter of millions of migratory birds using Mediterranean flyways every year.
But back to birding.
Our very first tick for the day, from somewhere in the darkness, was Spur-winged Lapwing. A major rarity in southern Africa, but a pretty trashy bird in Israel. Nevertheless, even that single tick mark on our checklist boosted our spirits. Next stop was Sde Boker Kibbutz, about 190 km north of our base at Eilat. Our very first encounter in the kibbutz was with an exceptionally cute Southern White-breasted Hedgehog, which posed for a photo or two before continuing on its way. Padding quietly into the sleeping village, we froze on the spot as a deep hoot emanated from a tall pine tree – Long-eared Owl we whispered in unison. Not long after, a Stone Curlew also voiced its presence, and a slumbering Hooded Crow cawed creepily from its nearby roost. We jogged back to the car, and sped off to our next location…
…only to come to a screeching halt a few hundred meters further on. Another team had reported a Woodcock at the same spot we just left. U-turn! Sure enough, there on the lawn next to the dining hall, a fluffy ball of feathers with an awkwardly long beak was pottering about. More birders soon responded to the Whatsapp message to come and see this rare bird for Israel. Indeed, it was not even on the official checklist. It was a rather surreal experience to be standing on the edge of the lawn, with other birders all around, communicating in whispers and gestures (no flashlights, remember). Mr. Woodcock continued probing unconcernedly, while the local village residents slept on unknowing of the little adventure playing out beside their homes. Our list was rising fast; as was the sun.
…the local village residents slept on unknowing of the little adventure playing out beside their homes. Our list was rising fast; as was the sun. Our list was rising fast; as was the sun.
With its combination of water, reedbeds and pine groves, we decided that Yeruham Lake would be the perfect spot for our dawn chorus. The choice of your starting location can make or break a big day. Not only are birds more vocal and demonstrative at dawn, but bagging a whole bunch of species right at the outset of the day is a great morale booster. On arrival at 05:45 it quickly became apparent that we were not the only team to have chosen Yeruham as the ideal starting point. Shivering, coffee-sipping teams of birders lined the lake shoreline, scopes already set up in anticipation of first light and the avian delights it would bring.
Dawn chorus started with a soft ticking from the reedbeds – the ubiquitous European Robin, now uncharacteristically secretive on passage. The loud Cetti’s Warbler greeted the dawn with glee. The aptly named Locustella luscinioides – Savi’s Warbler – poured out its endless, cricket-like reeling from the swampy edges but remained unseen, quite the opposite of the many obliging Sedge Warblers. Despite being absent on our scouting trips, a White-throated (Smyrna) Kingfisher appeared out of thin air – we took this as a good sign for the day ahead.
It was fantastic to see the number of young Israeli birders out and about, and without exception these energetic teams were quick to share their secret stakeouts or point out exciting birds flying around. This spirit of sharing is what sets the Champions of the Flyway race apart from other big day events, and this camaraderie persisted throughout the day. We found ourselves creeping along a hidden path through a tall reedbed, where we were invisible to all but the Red-rumped Swallows flying overhead, on urging of a crowd of twenty-something Israelis. They led us to a small opening in the swamp, where a Bluethroat was running around on the shoreline. We also added a number of widespread waterbirds such as egrets, waterfowl and waders, plus the cute Graceful Prinia.
Racing around the northern shoreline, we surprised coveys of Chukar Partridges scuttling over the road, and added a few woodland species such as Arabian Babbler, European Greenfinch, Great Tit and the restricted Syrian Woodpecker. Plus the invasive Common Myna – a tick is a tick!
Next up was a nearby expanse of flat desert scrub and agricultural fields. A caravan of camels drinking from a small ditch, with a pair of Long-legged Buzzards surveying the scene, led us to dub this area Camel Plains. Here we added a number of tough birds, including parties of Black-bellied Sandgrouse coming to drink.
Isabelline and Northern Wheatears were common, and we lucked onto an Eastern Black-eared as well. Crested and Greater Short-toed Larks were everywhere, while a single Southern Grey Shrike surveyed the ground from a roadside fence. Our stakeout for Little Owl (of the pale lilith desert race) failed to deliver, this characterful, semi-diurnal hunter being conspicuously absent from its favourite pile of boulders. A party of raucous Corn Buntings was a nice surprise.
Then it was back to Sde Boker kibbutz for the third time that morning. Our targets here were mainly Mediterranean species, which we found without difficulty by stalking through the small olive groves and gardens of the village: Eurasian Wryneck, Common Chaffinch, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Woodchat Shrike and an Eurasian Blackcap enthusiastically feeding on aloes, so that its entire face and belly were caked in bright yellow pollen. A male Collared Flycatcher was a welcome surprise, and was later seen by many of the other teams too.
We briefly popped in at the breathtaking viewpoint at the Ben Gurion Memorial at Sde Boker town, where we stood shoulder-to-shoulder with several other teams scanning the cliff faces. This strategy paid off, and we soon added distant Griffon Vultures and Egyptian Vulture to the list. Brown-necked Raven, Tristram’s Starling, Pale Crag Martin and the very trusting Blackstart were closer at hand, while just down the slopes, Desert Lark, Little Green Bee-eater and Mourning Wheatear were in evidence.
Racing south, we were tempted to stop at the imposing Nafkha Penitentiary where Jackdaw had been reported, but decided instead that discretion might be the safer option. Explaining to the guards why were studying the prison through telescopes would definitely have wasted precious minutes of birding time; the worst-case scenario could potentially involve a lot more time. Israel takes security seriously: the constant presence of military, plus daily explosions and gunfire, added to the sense of adventure of birding!
We did spend a few moments at the glorious Mitzpe Ramon viewsite in the hopes of a rock thrush, but only succeeded in adding a lone Red-throated Pipit on a football field, a Linnet flying overhead and some impressive male Nubian Ibex grazing on a roundabout. Inching down the pass, we added White-crowned Wheatear. A Common Raven was a lucky tick. By now the desert heat was searing and the birds had gone very quiet; and our Desert Wheatear spot did not deliver. We were consoled by a Short-toed Eagle sitting on a pylon though.
ABOVE: The view from Sde Boker. If you look closely you can see an Egyptian Vulture soaring above the distant cliffs (not really). Photo by Faansie Peacock.
The little cafe, Pundak Neot Smadar, at the junction of routes 12 and 40, must have done great business during the Champions of the Flyway event. This is thanks to a very scruffy Hume’s Leaf Warbler that took up residence in the gardens there. Five minutes here produced no phylloscopic joy, but a Common Nightingale bouncing around at the edge of the property was heartening. A patrol of some irrigated fields around Neot Samadar village, produced Tree Pipit, Eurasian Hoopoe and a few other odds and ends. The small sewage works just to the south were spectacular – just the sort of ten-minute stop that one needs around midday on a bird race. We quickly notched up Green Sandpiper, Sand Martin, Eastern (Siberian) Stonechat and Common Whitethroat. A skulking Eurasian Sparrowhawk eyed us from the shade.
Despite the heat, we found ourselves on the famed Ovda Plains, known as a reliable stakeout for various larks and sandgrouse. Nevertheless, we quickly located the iconic Temminck’s Lark, singing softly under the shimmering glare of the sun. This incredible species deserves a few descriptive words. Imagine a pretty standard brown lark body, but add a black chest, a wicked black bandit’s mask, and throw in two pointed black horns on the crown. One of the few larks that can give Temminck’s a run for its money, was up next. The legendary Greater Hoopoe Lark. Even its name is evocative! On the ground it is a massive, creamy grey-brown beast with an upright stance and a long, hoopoe-like bill, but in flight it unexpectedly reveals confounding black and white wings. Throw in a bizarre series of long, melancholy, accelerating whistles, and you undoubtedly have one of the world’s most striking larks. We called across some other teams to share our sighting and enjoyed some camaraderie with British, Dutch and Israeli teams who were equally crazy to spend the heat of the day on these stark, scorched desert plains. A flyby of some Spotted Sandgrouse, and a lone Tawny Pipit completed our haul at Ovda. A stop at a small wadi (a scrubby drainage line) to look for Streaked Scrub Warbler delivered a beautiful Subalpine Warbler, alongside the more common Ruppell’s Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats, and we finally caught up with the elusive Desert Wheatear.
ABOVE: Temminck’s Lark was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. Check out those cool horns above its crown! Photo by Callan Cohen.
ABOVE: Black Kites pass through Israel in large numbers, and flocks of hundreds are a regular sight. Photo by Dominic Rollinson.
ABOVE: Larking about on Ovda Plains, home of Temminck’s Lark, Desert Lark, Bar-tailed Lark and Greater Hoopoe Lark. Photo by Faansie Peacock.
The final stage of our day would see us returning to the area of Eilat, where a rich selection of sites around the mountains, coasts and wetlands of the Rift Valley could potentially add many more species of migratory birds: but how many could we fit in? A glance upwards revealed it was not a particularly productive day for raptor migration, and with the usual Black Kite, Steppe Buzzard and Steppe Eagle already on the list, we didn’t call at the raptor migration viewpoint in Eilat Mountains which had been so amazing on previous days, or at our Striolated Bunting stakeout.
The coast was essential: we headed towards South Beach, spending a few minutes at the Dolphin Reef roundabout. In the days leading up to the race, a Little Bittern had taken up residence in the tiny water feature in the middle of the roundabout. While it was nowhere to be seen, we did add a Striated (Green-backed) Heron sitting on a buoy just offshore, as well as White-eyed Gull. Driving through town, we got three easy alien ticks: House Sparrow, House Crow and Rose-ringed Parakeet.
And the warblers? Holland Park was essential, a notorious migrant trap just above the suburbs of Eilat. With little time to spare, we headed straight to a flowering bush that we had discovered during scouting. As we expected, this bush was crawling with warblers, and we immediately added Eastern Orphean Warbler, alongside a number of Sylvia warblers, Common Chiffchaff and Balkan (Eastern Bonelli’s) Warbler. Masked Shrike and Cretzschmar’s Bunting were in evidence along common residents such as Palestine Sunbird and White-spectacled Bulbul. Our last target for Holland Park, the cute little Sand Partridge, was seen scuttling along the crumbling ridges as we jogged back to the car. Unfortunately no sign of the Semi-collared Flycatcher we had found there a few days earlier.
ABOVE: The view from Holland Park, with Eilat city and the Gulf of Aqaba in the distant background. Holland Park is great for migrants, as this is one of the largest pieces of green that an aerial migrant will see after it has crossed the water. Photo by Faansie Peacock.
A few hundred meters down the road, we stopped to scope the ponds of the IBRCE Eilat Bird watching Centre. This new habitat quickly boosted our list with a number of waders and other waterbirds, highlights being Gull-billed and Caspian Terns, many Slender-billed and Black-headed Gulls and Common Redshank.
Our main waterbird site, the series of salt pans at Km 20, was crawling with both birds and birders. This is the perfect site for a big day, as you can see all the birds by simply driving along the levees and dam walls, without even having to leave the vehicle. In this fashion we added all of the standard waders – Little Stint, Ruff, Grey, Common Ringed, Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Common Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Dunlin and the like – and with a bit more scanning we found Broad-billed Sandpiper, Eurasian Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit too.
We had very clearly defined targets here, that we had found on our scouting days. Working systematically, we found Black-necked Grebes bobbing alongside two Red-necked Phalaropes, a Whiskered Tern cruising past, and a few Pied Avocets. There was a brief moment of confusion when a distant male Common Shelduck was taken for an avocet; sounds ridiculous, but I see that this confusion risk is mentioned in the Collins field guide. Even such distinctive and common birds keep you on your toes – gotta love birding! Other waterfowl were Common Shelduck, Northern Pintail and Garganey. Western Yellow Wagtails (mostly the black-headed feldegg race) and White Wagtails patrolled the shores in large numbers, but we dipped at our ostensibly reliable Water Pipit site.
Even such distinctive and common birds keep you on your toes – gotta love birding!
Southern African birders will find this hard to believe, but probably the best species of waterfowl we had on the day was Egyptian Goose at Km 19 – an uncommon bird in these parts, and causing great excitement and a mini twitch among the local race teams. We even saw a car do a rapid U-turn and head back towards us just 30 second after we put this news out on the Whatsapp group! At this productive reed-lined dam, we were a lot more impressed with the likes of Common Snipe, Eurasian Teal, Spotted Redshank and an Osprey flying over.
The IBRCE (Eilat Birdwatching Centre) is sure to be a highlight of any trip to southern Israel. This immaculate and well-maintained bird sanctuary is perfectly geared towards birding, and is simply pumping with birds. A few days earlier we had been lucky enough to be personally guided around the hides by the director of the sanctuary, Noam Weiss, who was now on one of the other teams.
At the first hide past the entrance complex we met up with some birders peering intently into some reeds who got us onto two elusive rallids at once: Little Crake and Water Rail. In terms of passerines, Indian Silverbill and Penduline Tit were good ticks, although the Citrine Wagtail we had there previously was absent.
With daylight now fading fast, we floored it down the dirt track towards North Beach, pausing only to add Pallid and Alpine Swifts to the list, and a Pied Kingfisher nesting in a bank along a small canal. The resident Western Reef Heron at North Beach, a mottled individual, was at its usual post. Far offshore a raft of Tufted Tucks were bobbing on the ocean, while Baltic and Heuglin’s Gulls (both “Lesser Black-backed”) were resting on buoys.
A Whatsapp message on the Champions of the Flyway group prompted a minor change of plans, and within minutes we had connected with a lone Mediterranean Gull, courtesy of the Arctic Redpolls team. As dusk descended in earnest, our options for new birds were dwindling fast. We sped back to the Bird Centre, and as we had hoped, heard both Little Bittern and Black-crowned Night Heron in the gloom before full darkness and a heavy fatigue settled in.
ABOVE: Can you spot the White-eyed Gull among the many Slender-billed Gulls? That was sarcasm 🙂 Photo by Faansie Peacock.
ABOVE: A Western Reef Heron at North Beach, Eilat. These come in dark and white forms, and as in this individual, somewhere in between. Photo by Faansie Peacock.
Luckily, our North to South strategy did offer one major advantage – a full buffet dinner at the Agamim Hotel! Feeling very refreshed and energized after a good meal and some strong coffee, we spread a map on the restaurant table and considered our options for the three hours remaining until midnight. First we tried Canada Park in Eilat for Eurasian Scops Owl, but no luck. Back in the car, and off to Yotvata Fields for a possible Pharaoh Eagle Owl reported by another team. Sadly, no. Egyptian Nightjar. Nope. With only minutes remaining until the midnight deadline, we finally managed to connect with that elusive Scops, and the last tick of the day.
Bleary-eyed and somewhat delirious from exhaustion, we stumbled into the hotel and surrendered our checklist to the adjudicators. What a day! Great birds, unbelievable landscapes, fantastic company, good exercise and a whole lot of fun. Can’t wait for next year!
Total tally for the Birding Africa Black Harriers: 163 species. This ranked us 7th out of all the 38 international and Israeli teams, so not bad for first-timers! Only three teams from outside the Middle East beat us – an accomplishment we feel very proud of. The overall Champions of the Flyway were the superb Arctic Redpolls, celebrating their third win of the event with a record-breaking 181 species, tied with the Israeli Wallcreepers. Well done guys!
More importantly, we also raised over $4500 to protect migrant birds in the Middle East; putting us about 4th out of the 38 teams in terms of fundraising. From all of us, thank you, thank you, thank you for all your support with the fundraising. I am sure I speak on behalf of all the migratory birds as well – next year they will be a little safer on their journey! The fundraising totals are still rising, and if you are inspired there is still time to donate. Follow this link for more: http://www.champions-of-the-flyway.com/birding-africa-black-harriers/.
Total tally for the Birding Africa Black Harriers: 163 species.
ABOVE: The Birding Africa Black Harriers. From left: Ethan Kistler, Faansie Peacock, Callan Cohen, Dominic Rollinson.