Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Israel Trip Report (15/03/13 - 24/03/13)

The team consisted of myself, Josh Jones, Dan Pointon and Will Soar. Both Dan and Josh had visited Israel on previous occasions, and Will had done various trips to neighbouring countries including Egypt and Kuwait. But for me this was a completely new experience that offered a lot of new species as well as the opportunity to firm-up on species that I had only previously seen once or twice in the UK before. Having never been on a trip fully dedicated to birding in the past (I usually have to settle with what I can see/find on family holidays), needless to say I was very much looking forward to the next 10 days!!

15th March 2013

Our flight left Luton Airport on time mid-morning but due to the two hour time difference we didn't land in Tel Aviv till late afternoon. The expected questioning/interrogation ensued shortly after arrival, thankfully nothing too major and we were all let into the country. Once we had collected our luggage and hire car it was already dusk so no time to visit any sites. However we did manage the first of many Spur-winged Plovers of the trip, Yellow-vented Bulbul and Cat. C Common Mynas from the airport.

Our immediate priority was food. We eventually found somewhere suitable and pulled up alongside a car park. Here we found the first mammals of the trip; a few Egyptian Fruit Bats flying around the car park. We had our meal and returned to the car park and was surprised to find the Bats still frequenting this area. Dan got his torch out and we started to mess around photographing them. They were very good value and sometimes allowed us to get very close.
Egyptian Fruit Bat
Egyptian Fruit Bat
16th March 2013

Our first morning began targeting Category C Birds around Tel Aviv for the big Western Palearctic lister in our group (Josh). Unfortunately our trip didn't start as successfully as we had hoped as we couldn't locate any Nanday Parakeets around Pardes Khana Karkur. Although we did find a likely contender for a hybrid Nanday x Ring-necked Parakeet; we wondered whether this was all that remained of the population? It was nonetheless a nice gentle introduction for me as I got to grips with the calls and songs of many common Israeli birds such as Palestine Sunbirds, Graceful Prinias and White-throated Kingfishers. An adult Great Spotted Cuckoo in a garden was notable and this was also the only place we recorded Syrian Woodpecker on the trip.
Red-rumped Swallow
White-throated Kingfisher
Our next port of call was the pools at Ma'agan Michael where the trip list immediately took off. There was a fine assortment on offer with 14 Black Storks feeding amongst the Herons and Egrets. Pied Kingfishers were common and amongst the numerous Gulls - mainly Black-headed, Slender-billed, Baltic, Caspian and Armenian were at least 5 Pallas's Gulls.
Graceful Prinia
Pied Kingfisher

More Cat. C action was next with a short visit to Hayakon Park. Our main target here was Vinous-breasted Starling. Fortunately these were much easier to find than expected and allowed great close views albeit through a fence. We pretty much cleared up here with Monk Parakeet and the first Masked Shrike of the trip.
Vinous-breasted Starling
Common Myna
Cattle Egret
Ring-necked Parakeet
Monk Parakeet
From here we travelled eastwards towards the Dead Sea. First stopping at OG reservoir for Indian Silverbills and then Wadi Salvadori for Mountain Buntings. Between the two sites we noted the first Fan-tailed and Brown-necked Ravens of the trip,  in addition to White-crowned Black Wheatears, Little Green Bee-eaters, Rock Martins, Blackstarts, Tristram's Grackles, Sand Partridge and Desert Larks. A herd of 20+ Nubian Ibex were also close to the road.
Indian Silverbill
Tristram's Grackle
Nubian Ibex
What we had planned for the evening was something I was particularly looking forward to and really expected it to be the highlight of the 10 days. We visited Lot Reservoir at Neve Zohar beforehand as this was only a short distance from where we were meeting our guide. Several Clamorous Reed Warblers were singing from the reeds whilst on the edge were good numbers of Black-winged Stilt and Black-headed Wagtails.
Black-winged Stilt
We met our guide at Ne'ot Hakkhikar who we then followed to an undisclosed site close to the Jordanian border to search for Nubian Nightjars. We drove around the likely areas searching by spot light looking for eye-shine, it was immediately clear the birds were not being their usual cooperative selves and were very unsettled. This wasn't helped by a noisy large tour group intruding and taking over. In the end we probably saw 2-3 birds, mostly inflight but one individual was seen 100yds away sat on a sandy track. Nice, but it was far from enjoyable.
Fortunately the tour group did not join us for the second-leg of the evening as we searched for Hume's Owls in various wadis. At the first site a male distantly responded to the guide's tape but nothing came of it. At the second site we were taken to a road side location, apparently the first time this site had been visited this year so nobody had any idea whether a Hume's Owl still occupied this wadi. Either way we saw nothing, we finished the evening feeling very disappointed and felt the guide had taken an extremely half-hearted approach; certainly not what we were expecting for £80 each!

17th March 2013

We travelled south over night, our first Golden Jackal and Desert Red Foxes were seen enroute and then we slept in the car. We woke to perfectly blue skies at Shizafon sewage works. Despite the smell, it was genuinely pleasant. Dan very promptly located our query; a 1st summer male Black Bush Robin. One of our main targets for the week. It offered superb views in the early morning light as it fed around the small plantations around the works. Little Green Bee-eaters and Blackstarts also performed well in near perfect light.
Black Bush Robin
Black Bush Robin
Little Green Bee-eater
Still early we visited KM76-77 for the first time. I probably enjoyed this place the most throughout our stay as it seemed to hold the largest number of migrants despite a howling northerly wind that evidently halted most passerine migration. A wander down the strips of green grass and small shrubs were masses of Wheatears - Black-eared, Northern and Isabelline; Tawny Pipits, Short-toed Larks, and Cretzschmar's Buntings. Two Asian Desert Warblers were tagging onto the feeding Wheatears as they do. Two Ehrenberg's-type Redstarts, a male Ruppell's Warbler, Nightingale, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Trumpeter Finch, 8 Black Storks and a flock of over 20 Pale Rock Sparrows were also seen.
Three more of our target species were seen relatively quickly at Shazef Nature Reserve at lunchtime as the midday sun started to take affect. A fine male Arabian Warbler frequented Acacias allowing fantastic views but very frustratingly mobile in terms of photography. Scrub Warblers were common and an active family group of Arabian Babblers were good value.
Arabian Warbler
Scrub Warbler
Arabian Babbler
Arabian Babbler
 We made our way back north again to the Dead Sea where we spent more time exploring Lot Reservoir at Neve Zohar. I finally caught a glimpse of one of the very elusive Clamorous Reed Warblers. Around the back of the reservoir was a fine selection of migrants including male and female Citrine Wagtail, Bluethroat, Subalpine Warbler, Black-headed Wagtail, and Caspian Stonechat. A small flock of Dead Sea Sparrow made the visit exceptionally worth it as these were one of my personal targets of the trip! The males are absolutely stunning but also very elusive.
Caspian Stonechat
The afternoon was spent fruitlessly searching for Long-billed Pipit at Mount Amassa in quite windy conditions. However of note were several Black-eared and a 1st summer Pied Wheatear, 3 Spectacled Warblers, an Ehrenberg's-type Redstart and a dozen or so Chukar. We also saw no less than four Golden Jackals and a party of five Mountain Gazelles. A Woodlark was also an unexpected addition to the trip list.

18th March 2013

We started the day off early on the Egyptian border. A Long-eared Owl was outside our hotel and from a road near Nizzana we found no less than six displaying male MacQueen's Bustards strutting their stuff. A single Cream-coloured Courser flew over head, as did 12 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and 6 Pallid Harriers. Another impressive count of Pale Rock Sparrows were recorded with 47 birds. 10+ Arabian Babblers, 3 Southern Grey Shrikes, 2 Wrynecks, 2 Masked Shrike, a singing Savi's Warbler, Eastern Bonelli's Warbler, 12 Cretzschmar's Buntings and 2 Eastern Orphean Warblers made for a productive morning.
Masked Shrike
A few stops enroute to Ben Gurion's Memorial produced nothing out the ordinary except our first good counts of Black Kite with 150+ by the road side. At Ben Gurion's Memorial we scored relatively quickly with a small flock of Syrian Serin in trees around a drinking puddle that also held Hawfinch, whilst overhead was a single Long-legged Buzzard and three Lesser Spotted Eagles.
Syrian Serin
Yellow-vented Bulbul
Travelling south from Mitzpe Ramon along the Route 40, we found two pairs of Mourning Wheatear by the road side, more White-crowned Black Wheatears and a dark phase Booted Eagle.
The Ovda Valley was pretty unproductive. We couldn't find any Hooded Wheatears nor any Larks besides Crested. 3 more Pale Rock Sparrows were further up the wadi, 2 Bluethroats, a Quail and a dozen or so Cretzschmar's Buntings were recorded, including one individual that showed exceptionally well.
Cretzschmar's Bunting
Around the corner at Ne'ot Smadar the Black Bush Robin was still in situ though we only saw it briefly. In amongst Meadow Pipits in surrounding fields were at least five Red-throated, with singles of Bluethroat, Redstart and more Cretzschmar's. Spotted Redshank and Grey Wagtail at the Sewage Works were noteworthy sightings for the trip list.

Back at KM76-77 we continued to rack up the species into mid-afternoon with two Temminck's Horned Larks and six Spotted Sandgrouse amongst the numerous migrants we also saw here last time. Dusk was spent at Yotvata, paying particular attention to the field by the north circular. Here we had a very enjoyable evening trying to find Egyptian Nightjar; on arrival we had a Collared Pratincole hawking the fields at dusk before we began torching. We found a single Quail that showed ridiculously well, two Stone Curlews over and a Desert Red Fox was in the pumpkin fields before we eventually found our target. We watched an Egyptian Nightjar for at least 45 minutes as it returned to the same general area to hunt. Unfortunately we were unable to photograph the bird but nonetheless this was probably one of the most memorable aspects of the trip!
19th March 2013

We finally made it to Eilat where we planned to spend four nights simply chilling and taking a more leisurely approach to the birding now most of our target species were out the way. We began at North Beach, although this was my first visit here, the general impression received from others seemed to suggest this site was no longer as productive as it once was. Despite this I still managed two new birds here, with four White-eyed Gulls offshore and 4 Greater Flamingos in-off the Red Sea. Singles of Gull-billed, Caspian and Common Tern were also seen amongst the numerous Slender-billed Gulls. 41 Black Storks migrated north as did an Osprey and Pallid Harrier.
Slender-billed Gull
A quick stop at Amram's Pillars quickly added a male Hooded Wheatear by the furthest car park, a female eventually appeared before the two flew up to the top of the wadi displaying. Raptor migration was slow but Black Kites and Steppe Buzzards were beginning to kettle with one or two Black Storks thrown in.
Desert Lark
At KM19 & 20 there was a lot of activity around the pools with the usual Slender-billed Gulls, Ruff, Spur-winged Plovers and Black-winged Stilts. In terms of additional waders there were two more Collared Pratincoles, 100+ Little Stints, Kentish Plover, Marsh Sandpiper, Avocet and Black-tailed Godwit. The three Egyptian Geese in the area were surely the real McCoy? There was also 50+ Greater Flamingos feeding including a black melanistic bird. Two Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters passed through but whilst checking the ditches we found two Citrine Wagtails, a Spotted and three Little Crakes. I also had very brief views of the currently resident White-tailed Plover before it dropped over a ridge, unfortunately it couldn't be relocated afterwards.
Slender-billed Gull
Greater Flamingo
Kentish Plover
Collared Pratincole
Collared Pratincole
At midday we passed through the Yotvata fields enroute to KM76-77. Three Namaqua Doves - a pair and a single female were amongst House Sparrows but typically mobile. At KM76-77 we intended to pay particular attention to the large Short-toed Lark flock we had seen there on our previous visit. It didn't take as long as expected to find two Bimaculated Larks amongst them, but it certainly took longer with more care to pick out the one or two Lesser Short-toed Larks amongst them. Again two Asian Desert Warblers were following the Wheatears and 28 Spotted Sandgrouse flew over.
Short-toed Lark
For the evening we managed to tag onto a tour group in search of Hume's Owl up around the Dead Sea lead by Yoav Perlman and Jonathan Meyrav. These two certainly seemed far more professional than our previous guide and knew exactly where to check and what to do to attract a response. Without a too longer wait a male responded to the tape and flew into view where it was spot lighted. A female then appeared and the two briefly interacted. Not only was it a huge relief to have seen this species but amazing to have such great scope views.

20th March 2013

Back down in Eilat we once again started the day at North Beach with pretty much the same cast of species as before. The bird observatory was quiet with that northerly wind still blowing quite predominantly. Holland Park held a few more migrants; Eastern Bonelli's, Eastern Orphean, and Ruppell's Warblers. A small party of 5 Arabian Babblers and two pairs of Sand Partridge also showed well.
Indian House Crow
Sand Partridge
As the temperature increased we headed into the Eilat mountains to see what was happening raptor wise. Steppe Buzzards were by far the most numerous, closely followed by Black Kites. At least 20 Steppe Eagles past through with singles of Lesser Spotted Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard and eight Black Storks in the space of an hour.
Steppe Eagle
We visited KM19 & 20 twice during the afternoon, with an hour or two spent snorkelling in the Red Sea in between. I had no idea what the vast majority of species that we saw were, but the undoubted highlight was a very camouflaged Octopus that had the ability to change its colour and texture depending on its surroundings. Very impressive and I'd also seriously recommend snorkelling if you've got a few hours to spare. Back to the birds, where the same cast of species were still on offer around the pools with the addition of three Curlew Sandpipers and the White-tailed Plover that finally gave itself up for everybody in the group. At dusk we wandered over to KM19 where we thought we'd give the Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse a go. By all accounts they have been very sporadic with their visits this year and so very few people had managed to see them. Dan got us into a suitable position from where he had seen them last year. It had just got dark, a few Squacco Herons were still flying around but then suddenly male and female Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse just dropped onto the shingle just 20 metres infront of us giving fantastic scope views. I managed a few poor shots with my phone before the male had a quick drink and the pair flew off again. Incredible!
Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse (phonescoped)
White-tailed Plover

21st March 2013

Another visit to the fields at Yotvata; they were relatively quiet with just a pair of Eastern Subalpine Warblers, a female Namaqua Dove and 2-3 Bluethroat. KM76-77 was once again the most productive site for passerines with a nice 1st summer male Cyprus Wheatear and a singing male Rufous Bush Chat. Amongst the usual birds noted here were five Pale Rock Sparrows, 12 Spotted Sandgrouse overhead, 2 Cream-coloured Coursers and singles of Nightingale, Eastern Orphean Warbler and Asian Desert Warbler.
Namaqua Dove
Cyprus Wheatear
Like yesterday the afternoon was spent in and around KM19 & 20. Again the White-tailed Plover was on show, and Marsh Sandpipers had increased to ten. Five Spoonbills were roosting and new in were Grey Plover, Purple Heron and two Red-necked Phaloropes. In the ditches presumably the same Little and Spotted Crakes were still in situ with two Citrine Wagtails.
White-tailed Plover
Purple Heron
Purple Heron
Little Crake
22nd March 2013

The first few hours of the day were allocated to finding the Oriental Skylarks found the previous evening at Yotvata by Chris Bell and co. Unfortunately Dan and myself managed to miss them but Will and Josh managed brief but good flight views. Today was a noticeably warmer day and the wind had switched to a southerly breeze. Red-throated Pipits, Short-toed Larks and Yellow Wagtails were all migrating northwards in numbers and it wasn't long before the raptors started to rise too. Steppe, Short-toed and Booted Eagles all passed low overhead in quick succession.
Red-throated Pipit
Short-toed Eagle
We drove up to the Dead Sea again in the afternoon where we witnessed some spectacular raptor migration before a sand storm quickly rolled in and limited our view. Nonetheless we still managed some pleasing totals with five Egyptian Vultures, four Osprey, eight Steppe Eagles, three Lesser Spotted Eagles, an adult Bonelli's Eagle and 104 Black Stork.

We reserved the remainder of the afternoon to finding Sinai Rosefinch. This species has been very hard to come by this year with many groups failing to see them, we were tipped off to visit a small spring at the top of Wadi Salvadori and just sit and wait. We waited 90 minutes whilst at least 10 Mountain Buntings, several Tristram's Grackles, Sunbirds and Bulbuls came in to drink before a female-type Sinai Rosefinch finally dropped in briefly. Again it was a relief more than anything to have seen this bird but we were still quite disappointed we hadn't seen a male. From the limited view inside the wadi we could still see raptors passing overhead, much as the same before with the addition of a Lanner Falcon passing through. We descended back to the car for another session of evening raptor watching when Will came running back down after us. He had just found a pair of Rosefinches feeding in a bush, we raced back up there to find the pair feeding on a rocky scree giving fantastic views. But because of the unstable environment photography was very hard!
Mountain Bunting (phonescoped)
Sinai Rosefinch
We ended the day on top of Metzuki Dragot, looking over the impressive gorge where there were lots of Eagles, mainly Lesser Spotted, dropping into roost. Three Bonelli's Eagles showed well at their nest site nearby.

23rd March 2013

Very frustratingly we drove back south to Eilat where an adult male Caspian Plover had been the previous evening. Unfortunately, at dawn there was no sign of the bird in the vicinity of where it was last seen. Two Pallas's Gulls headed north, whilst around the northern bushes was Desert Wheatear, Masked Shrike, Eastern Oliveaceous Warbler, Ruppell's Warbler, Desert Finch and Namaqua Dove. We also saw about 10 Dorcas Gazelles in the area.
Black-headed Wagtail (possible hybrid perhaps?)
Ruppell's Warbler
Yotvata also failed to produce the Oriental Skylarks for Dan and myself but Quail, Namaqua Dove and three Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters all passed through. Back north along Route 40 towards Mitzpe Ramon we saw no less than 5 Mourning Wheatears along the roadside and found an active nest with chicks. A brief stop to recce En Avdat gorge scored us 13 Griffon Vultures and a single Egyptian Vulture before we headed off to Lahav. The wind was again quite strong and so the Long-billed Pipits weren't singing but nonetheless we managed brief views of a single bird through the scope. A couple of Short-toed Eagles passed over, 2 or 3 Chukar were in the area and a smart male Sardinian Warbler was by the entrance track.
Mourning Wheatear
Marsh Harrier
Red-rumped Swallow
The remainder of the day was spent chilling around some agricultural fields photographing Isabelline Wheatears and Crested Larks.

Isabelline Wheatear
Isabelline Wheatear
Josh photographing an Isabelline Wheatear
Crested Lark

24th March 2013

We had reserved our final morning to visit a vulture feeding station at En Avdat gorge near Sde Boker as we had heard this site was also good for large mammals. We were in position before dawn and watched the sun rise. A few old carcasses were in view but there must have been others beyond the ridge that we couldn't see. The Egyptian Vultures appeared unsettled but we didn't know why. A Desert Red Fox surely wasn't the culprit. Perhaps something else was lurking over there. Then, still in the half-light Dan spotted a STRIPED HYENA slowly lumbering over the ridge. It was huge, absolutely dwarfing the Fox that ran past it! With probably fewer than a hundred of these beasts left in Israel we were incredibly privileged to have seen one on our first time attempt.
Striped Hyena
Also at this site were 3 Chukar, 4 Desert Finch, a singing Southern Grey Shrike and a fine adult Great Spotted Cuckoo.
Desert Finch
Desert Finch
As the wind had dropped over night we decided to give the Long-billed Pipits another chance to perform. As last time, no birds were singing but we easily located two birds on the same hill. I managed a few distant shots but they were otherwise impossible to photograph well. Singles of Long-legged Buzzard and Short-toed Eagle passed through, probably the same 3 Chukar were seen again and the male Sardinian Warbler was again in full song. Three more Mountain Gazelles were seen running over a distant ridge.
Corn Bunting
Short-toed Eagle
Gradually making our way back to Tel Aviv we stopped at Kfar Menakhem where friends had seen a White-headed Duck just a few days prior on the reservoir there. However, today there was no sign, but there must have been well over 300 Black Kites and 50 White Storks feeding on the dump. On the way out Dan noticed a huge raptor flying towards us, we expected it to be the White-tailed Eagle that our friends had seen on their visit, but Josh quickly noticed that was in fact a Black Vulture! Our trip seemed to be ending in fine fashion!
White Stork
Black Vulture
With just a few hours left before we had to be at the airport we went back to two sites we visited on our first day. Pardes khana karkur again failed to produce any Nanday Parakeets but the likely hybrid candidate was still knocking around. Other than that it was just nice to walk around and photograph some of the more common birds around here.
Graceful Prinia
Palestine Sunbird
Palestine Sunbird
Rough-tailed Rock Agama
Our final stop was Ma'agan Michael where we recorded a similar list of species to day one; the only real addition to the trip list here were three Egyptian Mongeese scampering out of a tunnel littered with fish heads and terrapin shells.

Pallas's Gull
Our evening flight left slightly delayed from Tel Aviv, probably due to the adverse weather conditions currently in Britain. The flight was horrendous with many screaming/crying children but that nonetheless detracted from what was a very enjoyable and productive 10 days. A quick count of the trip list totalled about 220 species, of which at least 60 were new species to me and that was without visiting the north of the country! I will link a full trip list and a more indepth trip report in due course.

Many thanks must go to Josh, Dan and Will for the great company and planning, but also to Yoav Perlman and Jonathan Meyrav  for being so helpful and providing us with news and sites during our stay. I thoroughly look forward to my next overseas jaunt!


  1. Some excellent stuff there Ash, and after crossing from Romania into Serbia last year, must have been a breeze!!

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