3rd – 13th January 2011
Mike Duckham, Mark Breaks and I decide to book a last minute trip to Israel from Manchester for some winter sunshine with temperatures ranging between 3 – 22 degrees Celsius. (A visit to a snow capped Mount Hermon accounts for the low temp.) Knowing that it wasn’t the best time for a birding visit didn’t deter from the fact that there was still many resident and wintering birds of interest even though two of the group had visited neighbouring Jordan just last year. We were able to find lots of birding information from the web but we ended up regretting not finding more precise directions to specific locations which we struggled to find at times. Everyone we met were very welcoming and food & accommodation was good, we had booked some accommodation prior to travel with the later part of the trip organised out there, prices very similar to the UK. Roads were very good as we clocked up the kilometres travelling around the country and the car was fine except for the annoying security keypad. Military personal were everywhere in the south desert areas carrying out training exercises but this had little impact on our birding except for ‘firing zone’ areas that are only accessible on Saturdays.
We arrived in Tel Aviv just after dark on the 3rd January, after passing through passport control with ease and picking up the hire car we headed south and found our way to Ezuz.
We headed off first thing from our accommodation to Nizzana for our first Bustard scanning session. Although, we did not find the Bustards on our first attempt we did pick up plenty of Mourning Wheatears, Stonechats, Southern Grey Shrikes, Chukars and a couple of Hen Harriers.
As we arrived back at Ezuz for breakfast our first Sandgrouse dropped in just behind the toilet block and turned out to be a stunning pair of Crowned Sandgrouse that gave amazingly good views. Shortly afterwards, a lone Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over towards Egypt. The campground held many more common species including Black Redstart and Crested Lark. More unidentified, probably Crowned Sandgrouse flew overhead.
Crowned Sandgrouse Blackstart
A second attempt at the Bustards along the road to Nizzana was not successful. However, we did get more Black-bellied Sandgrouse, our first of many flocks of Sand Partridge and a cracking male Pallid Harrier and Arabian Babblers.
At the end of the Nizzana road was a sewage works type place that had a nice Black-winged Kite sitting in a tree at the far end. The water itself held many wintering ducks including Shelduck, Teal and Shoveler as well as waders such as Ruff, Greenshank and Black-winged Stilts.
Our next stop was Urim to look for Saker Falcon and any wintering Eagles. We got neither of these. However, we did get plenty of Black Kites, Steppe Buzzards and Peregrines around the fields and power lines. At a reserve in the Urim area we added species like Stone Curlew, Sparrowhawk and Marsh Harrier to the trip list. Shortly before leaving the reserve back to the main Urim road we found 2 Egyptian Geese sitting on a small building.
On the way back south we had one last check of the Nizzana area again for the Bustards. On the road corner turning to Ezuz is a military looking building that had 2 Namaqua Doves sitting on the wires outside. After dipping the Bustards again we headed south in the dark to Eilat but did achieve great views of a pair of Little Owls.
As soon as we woke up House Crows were all around the hostel. First stop was North Beach. A Caspian Tern patrolled the beach (apparently the first one of the winter). We picked out another distant Tern sp on the floating pontoon that we failed to identify. It looked like a winter plumage adult Common Tern or White-cheeked Tern. Common is supposed to be the most likely but both are very rare at this time of year in Israel. White-eyed Gulls were numerous along with a couple of larger Gulls on the beach which were barabensis Steppe Gulls. As we were looking through the Gulls a Brown Booby flew in and landed on the pontoon, shortly joined by a second bird. They spent their time loafing around tugging on the pontoon ropes. A lone Grey Plover walked along the sand. Behind the beach on the ‘land mine’ stream were a Western Reef Heron, several Spur-winged Plovers, Ringed Plovers, Dunlins, Little Stints and Common Sandpipers. A Citrine Wagtail was a nice surprise as we later found out to be the first in the south, this winter. Our first of many Pied Kingfishers sat on a wire nearby as Rock Martins flew overhead.
White-eyed Gull Western Reef Heron
The road towards the reserve itself produced very little apart from our only Indian Silverbills of the trip as was a flock of 20 Desert Finches and a few Red-throated Pipits around the fields. The reserve had many common waders including Marsh Sandpipers and a handful of Greater Flamingos. Here we bumped into Yea a local ringer, who provided us with plenty of useful information and joined us on a couple of birding trips.
After leaving the reserve we headed up the Eilat mountains to Wadi Shlomo. Trip ticks here included White-crowned Black Wheatear, Blackstarts and a lone Hooded Wheatear. Apparently it has been a bumper year for Hooded Wheatears, however this particular bird only showed to just one member of the group. There was also a fine group of Nubian Ibex that were relatively tame as continued dryer weather conditions means food supply in the mountains is becoming harder to find.
We then went back to the reserve to pick up Rea and head off to Yotvata. Upon arrival at Yotvata circular fields, Red-throated and Water Pipits, White Wagtails and various species of Lark could be heard everywhere. Our target here was Oriental Skylark which we got after a patient search through the large Skylark flocks. We ended up seeing at least five of which 2 showed extremely well on the soil away from the main Skylark flock.
We stopped in once again at North Beach first thing with very similar results to the previous day, minus the two Terns. A Brown Booby was still present as was the Citrine Wagtail. A new Western Reef Heron dropped in briefly.
Brown Booby Citrine Wagtail
Next stop was the Km20 saltpans. Many Greater Flamingos wandered around the pans as did many of the common waders. 3 Avocets were a new addition to the trip list, as were a pair of Barbary Falcons sitting on the huge mast.
We then went to Yotvata again to look through the Acacia trees for Arabian Warblers. We did not see any, however we did get plenty of Sardinian Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Lesser Whitethroat, Shrub Warbler as well as Palestine Sunbirds and Hoopoe.
A trip to Lotan Kibbutz added nothing to the trip list. However, it did give us great views of Little Green Bee-eaters and Pipits on the water works. A stop at South Yotvata Acacias on the way back held more of the same species seen earlier during the day with the addition of a White-crowned Black Wheatear. A Long-legged Buzzard near the Km20 saltpans was new to our trip list.
Little Green Bee-eater
Again in the morning we checked the Gull flock at North Beach and ventured down to the Egyptian border were we found a couple of 1st winter barabensis gulls. Another stop at the wildlife reserve was productive. We had our first Dead Sea Sparrows (c6) with the Spanish and House Sparrows. A Little Ringed Plover was on the stream outside the reserve. On a quick trip to Km20 saltpans we managed to find some Kentish Plovers with the Ringed Plovers at Km20 saltpans. We picked up Yea again at noon and commenced our Lark hunt. First, stop was a breeding site in the Eilat Mountains. We were unlucky with the Larks here, but did find a flock of over 100 Trumpeter Finches which is an unusually high count in that area.
Barabensis Gull Dead Sea Sparrow
Next stop was Km49 on the route 12 road. A flock of Thick-billed Larks were present a week before we arrived but we missed them. On the other side of the road a very pale Grey Shrike sat up on the bushes. It was a good candidate for Steppe Grey Shrike but it flew off a long way down the wadi before we could get our scopes on it properly. We did find an Asiatic Wild Ass in this wadi as well as more Common Warblers.
Asiatic Wild Ass
Last stop of the day was at Har Na Azuz which just looked like a good place to stop for Larks. Our first confirmed Finch’s Wheatear was here as was a Desert Wheatear and a flock of about 20 Crested Larks. Unfortunately, light stopped play here.
A stop at Neot Smadar sewage works produced our second Hooded Wheatear of the trip. It sat up on a wire nicely for us to watch it. There were plenty of birds in that area including Bluethroats, Black Redstarts, Water Pipits, White Wagtails, a Green Sandpiper and a Trumpeter Finch.
We had a very productive stop at Meishar. First bird seen was an Asian Desert Warbler. Unfortunately, it only showed to one observer and was quickly lost. Then the first big flock of Larks was found. It held 18 Thick-billed Larks, many of which looking very smart, as well as 2 Temminck’s Larks. A flock of 5 more Larks flew over, of which 3 dropped into the low vegetation. They turned out to be Bar-tailed Larks when they emerged. Continued search produced another 12 Thick-billed Larks.
We then headed on our way to Ezuz once again, where we thought there was the opportunity for so much more. At dusk we came across a group of Mountain Gazelles that seem to be relatively numerous in the area with animals seen at several locations..
We drove slowly and scanned across the desert for our final shot at the Bustards. Sandgrouse seemed to be everywhere this morning with 150+ Pin-tailed Sandgrouse being most numerous. Crowned Sandgrouse and Black-bellied Sandgrouse were all around in smaller numbers. At one stop a Finch’s Wheatear and Desert Wheatear sat on top of the low vegetation. Then finally, our luck changes as 5 Macqueen’s Bustards strolled across the desert behind the Wheatears not far from the end of the disused airstrip.
Next stop was Shezaf Reserve, Hatzeva. Our luck was to continue as we found at least one, probably 2 Arabian Warblers in the Acacia’s north of the car park.
We met up later in the day with Yoav Perlman. He took us into the kibbutz at Neot Hakikar to look for Nubian Nightjars then to En Gedi for Hume’s Tawny Owl. We were unsuccessful at seeing both these species though we did hear at least 4 Owls in the En Gedi hills. We stayed in the En Gedi hostel that night.
We had a lone Blue Rock Thrush in the hotel grounds in the morning whilst looking for the wintering Kurdish Wheatear. 4 Fan-tailed Ravens were also a trip tick here.
Next stop was Wadi Mishmar where we had a Great Spotted Cuckoo with the more usual Scrub Warblers and Spectacled Warblers.
We headed up to the top of Wadi Salvadora near the Dead Sea where after a short wait a pair of Sinai Rosefinches dropped in for a drink, throughout our stay we were accompanied by rather inquisitive Blackstart and Tristram’s Grackles. 5 Griffon Vultures soared high over the cliffs too whilst Rock Hyrax’s looked down on us.
Rock Hyrax Tristram’s Grackle
We had no problem entering the West Bank. However, we were slightly held up leaving as our car and belongings were thoroughly checked for bombs etc at the checkpoint. After we got out of the West Bank we took a left to Mount Gilboa. On the second big bend in the road we instantly got a Long-billed Pipit which gave excellent views. A Little Owl called lower down the hill in the middle of the day.
After getting the Pipit we then headed to the fish ponds at Tirat Zevi for a couple of hours before dusk. Just before we got to the fish ponds we had a flock of 58 Stone Curlews on the outside of the Kibbutz. The ponds were crammed with birds. Many Pygmy Cormorants were all around the wet areas. Armenian Gulls were in big numbers here. A flock on the far end of the fishponds had with it 6 Great Black-headed Gulls and a Caspian Gull. A couple of Black Storks were on the edges of the ponds with hundreds of Herons and Egrets. A couple of Ospreys could be picked out amongst the hundreds of Black Kites. Many Night Herons flew out of their roosts in the evening.
Pygmy Cormorant Black Stork
We easily found 2 Syrian Woodpeckers outside our room in the morning drumming and calling loudly. The middle eastern race of Jay were all around the area. We started the day at Newe Ete fishponds where we had a singing Cetti’s Warbler and an impressive flock of 200+ Great Black-headed Gulls with many Armenian Gulls. The fish ponds held large flocks of waders and herons, especially nearly dried out pools with flocks of 300+ Glossy Ibis, 100’s Egrets, 200+ Little Stints, 100’s Spur-winged Plovers and the roosting gulls.
Great Black-headed Gull Armenian Gull
We then headed back to the Tirat Zevi fish ponds at the far end to where we looked for the reed bed species. It didn’t take long to see the first Clamarous Reed Warbler. They called quite frequently but were often difficult to see in the reeds. At least 6 were in the small area we walked. We also had a flock of 7 Penduline Tits in the same reeds. Bluethroats, Graceful Prinia, Zitting Cisticola and Chiffchaffs were also in the reeds. We picked out a Booted Eagle with the Black Kites. We then went back to the fish ponds where we had similar species to the previous day but with the addition of 3 Temminck’s Stint. Kingfishers were definitely abundant in the area, with these fish ponds holding at least 12 White-throated, 8 Pied and 3 Common Kingfisher.
Pied Kingfisher White-throated Kingfisher
Next stop was Tishlovet Resevoir. Well, we think we found it!?! We drove through a muddy bit of farmland to get to ‘Danger, do not enter’ gates. So, we did the right thing and climbed through the barbed wire fence to view a distant flock of c200 White-headed Ducks. We also had 3 female and a male Black Francolin around the perimeter fence.
We then drove north to Hula Reserve. This site has a massive flock of wintering Cranes. It’s a bit like an extreme WWT of Israel with golf buggies for hire and a mobile theatre that drive visitors through the middle of the Crane flock. If you decide to ignore all this you will probably see more birds. Half way to the Crane flock from the centre we had two, young Eastern Imperial Eagle and a couple of Greater Spotted Eagles feeding on a dead Crane fairly close to the path. A couple of Marsh Harriers sat next to them waiting for scraps. More Greater Spotted Eagles circled overhead. A Caspian Stonechat sat on top of the reeds before being booted by a Kestrel. A pair of Great White Pelicans sat in the middle of the far lagoon as did a flock of Black-tailed Godwits.
Eastern Imperial Eagle Greater Spotted Eagle
We headed North in the morning to Mount Hermon. At the start of the ski lifts a distant Western Rock Nuthatch called but it was too distant to see. We then drove slowly back down the hill away from the snow. The first stop was just before the Mount Hermon toll booth. Whilst discussing if we were allowed to walk the path south, a Golden Eagle soared overhead perused by a Long-legged Buzzard. We decided to walk the path which was rewarded with a Sombre Tit feeding on the ground under the acacias. As we carried on driving south Rock Nuthatches could be heard on most of the scree slopes. 2 showed particularly well half way down the mountain road by half a yellow/green missile.
Golden Eagle & Long-legged Buzzard Greater Spotted Eagle
We stopped briefly again at Hula as we picked out an Eastern Imperial Eagle by the reserve entrance driving south to Ma’agan Mikhael.
At Ma’agan Mikhael we snuck through the electric gates into the fish farm. The typical water species were present with big numbers of Night Heron on every pond, totalling at a minimum of 160. A few Common Mynas were along the water edge as many Swallows were coming into roost.
We had more time this morning to again sneak into the fish ponds. Closer inspection of the Gulls produced a few Slender-billed Gulls, 2 Yellow-legged Gulls and a few more Great Black-headed Gulls. A Citrine Wagtail walked the edges of the smelly ponds with a Grey Wagtail. There were many dead fish scattered around the ponds too manky for even the Gulls to eat.
We then dipped some Cat C stuff in Pardes Hanna before heading to the airport in good time for our flight. Security seemed quit rigorous but we seemed to give everyone a laugh as all our gear was checked. Finally we were able to relax and reflect on an amazing holiday as we spent our remaining money on beer waiting for the delayed plane.
All Images taken by Mark Breaks, Copyright - © Breaks Bird Photography