ABOVE: Nubian Ibex are a common sight in the mountains. This impressive male is grazing on a roundabout. Photo by Callan Cohen.
ABOVE: This female Eurasian Blackcap had a royal time cavorting in the aloes at Sde Boker Kibbutz. Photo by Dominic Rollinson.
ABOVE: Male Ruppell’s Warblers, with their white moustaches, are stunning creatures, and quite abundant too. Photo by Callan Cohen.
ABOVE: The charming Blackstart becomes remarkably habitated at popular tourist spots. Photo by Faansie Peacock.
ABOVE: The complex social systems of Arabian Babblers have been studied in incredible detail. Photo by Dominic Rollinson.
ABOVE: Most of the Yellow Wagtails were of the race feldegg, but this looks like a flava. Photo by Dominic Rollinson.
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.