As well as a lot of familar species we also encounter some exciting new birds, such as this Tristram’s Grackle, on Paul French’s tour to Israel. Photo: Jon Feenstra
Due to its geographical position at the fulcrum of Africa, Asia and Europe, this tiny but fascinating country has been at the centre of world history for millennia. The Romans, Ottomans, Crusaders, Egyptians, and even the British have held sway here at one point or another, with such historical characters as Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Saladin and Richard the Lionheart all playing their part, not to mention the regions spiritual significance to three of the world’s major religions.
Its deserts, wadis, mountains, wetlands and fields are home to a wide range of species, and for many it is their only foothold in the Western Palearctic. As if this was not enough, Israel lies on the main migration route for millions of birds moving from Africa to Asia and Europe, and is justly famous for the number and diversity of species that can be observed in a short time in a small area. Nowhere else in the Western Palearctic is quite the same.
This tour will take in the entire length of the country from Mount Hermon in the north for such uncommon species as the near endemic Syrian Serin and Crimson-winged Finch, to the famous wetland of the Hula Valley and then down to the Dead Sea for some highly localised specialities such as Dead Sea Sparrow and Nubian Nightjar. From there we travel south following the line of the Rift Valley to the world-famous migration centre of Eilat to experience the thrill of migration in full swing and where exciting Palearctic vagrants are a possibility, before ending our tour in the western Negev Desert for such exciting species as Macqueen’s Bustard, larks, wheatears and sandgrouse.
Day 1: The tour starts with a flight from London to Tel Aviv. We then depart for the Hula Valley, encountering our first birds as we go. Night near Hula Valley.
Day 2: Our first full day in Israel will be spent exploring the Hula Valley, mainly the Agamon Lake reserve and its surrounding area. This site is a regular stop off for thousands of migrating Common Cranes, White Storks and White Pelicans while some raptors such as Greater Spotted, Lesser Spotted and Imperial Eagles are more regular here in spring than they are in the south. Israel’s only pair of Black-shouldered Kites breed here, while the Purple Swamp-hens that haunt the reeds may be joined by Spotted Crakes. Among the thousands of wildfowl we should be able to find several Marbled Ducks. The resident Black Francolins usually give themselves away with their loud, distinctive calls, likewise so do the otherwise elusive Clamorous Reed and Cetti’s Warblers. This area is also a stronghold for Jungle Cat, a medium sized cat that can sometimes be seen stalking prey out in the open. Night near Hula Valley.
Day 3: We start our day by driving up to the lower slopes of Mount Hermon, the highest point in Israel. On the drive we’ll make stops to look for Western Rock Nuthatch and Sombre Tit, while on the higher slopes Crimson-winged Finch is a speciality and, weather permitting, we’ll make an effort to find them, along with the local race of Shorelark. Leaving Mount Hermon we head into the impressive scenery of the Judean Hills, where the boulder strewn but flower-filled meadows are a haven for Long-billed Pipit, Calandra Lark, Serin, and Corn and Cretzschmar’s Buntings. These hills are also the only site for Mountain Gazelle, and careful scanning should reveal one or two of these elegant animals. Night near Dead Sea.
Day 4: Today, we explore the cliffs and wadis on the edge of the Dead Sea - the lowest point of dry land on Earth. Here, on the edge of the Judean Desert, some very special species can be found including Sand Partridge, Scrub Warbler, Striated Bunting and Fan-tailed Raven. Other birds could include raptors such as Barbary Falcon or Bonelli’s Eagle, and with some luck we may even find Sinai Rosefinch at a drinking pool or a late wintering Cyprus Warbler. Raptor migration can be much in evidence here, and we shall keep one eye on the skies in case it’s a good day for the thousands of birds that may pass by. We’ll then visit some wetlands at the southern end of the Dead Sea in search of the highly localised Dead Sea Sparrow before making our way south along the Arava valley to Eilat. Night in Eilat.
‘Paul French is a consummate professional. He worked tirelessly on our behalf and was good-natured, decisive, and considerate of our needs throughout the tour. His skills as a birder and his field knowledge are world class.’ M. Mueller, Israel 2014.
Days 5-8: Eilat is a perfect base with easy access to wonderful habitats including desert, mountains, wadis, parks, plantations, agricultural fields and wetlands that are home to a range of resident and migrant birds. Common residents include Arabian Babbler, Palestine Sunbird, Tristram’s Starling, Laughing Dove, Indian House Crow and Yellow-vented Bulbul. However for many, Eilat is synonymous with migration, and this wonder of nature will be something we hope to experience. The exact daily itinerary will depend on the prevailing wind. In strong southerlies, seabirds are pushed north into the Gulf of Aqaba, and Eilat’s famous North Beach is an excellent place to observe such rare Palearctic species as Brown Booby, White-eyed Gull, Western Reef and Striated Herons while flocks of commoner migrants flying north along the Gulf should include flocks of Baltic Gulls along with herons, egrets and skuas. In addition, large flocks of ducks can often be seen at dusk heading inland after resting in the Gulf during the day.
Eilat is justly famous for its raptor passage, and in the right conditions we’ll be perfectly positioned to witness thousands of Steppe Eagles, Steppe Buzzards and Black Kites, along with smaller numbers of Short-toed, Booted, Eastern Imperial and perhaps Greater Spotted Eagles, plus other diurnal migrants such as White and Black Storks, swifts and bee-eaters. As with any migration hotspot almost anything can turn up and over the years some amazing birds have been found around Eilat, not least of which is the striking Verreaux’s Eagle. They have become decidedly rarer since a breeding pair in Sinai disappeared, but birds still occasionally wander. Other species present in the mountains and wadis around Eilat include the highly local Hooded Wheatear, while White-crowned Wheatear and Trumpeter Finch are more widespread.
The fields and plantations to the north of Eilat are a regular haunt of larks, pipits and wagtails. Cyprus Wheatear is often found in this area, along with increasing numbers of Namaqua Doves, and this diminutive dove should be a feature of several sites along the Arava valley. Much of our time will be spent exploring the parks and small vegetated areas around Eilat itself, and in the acacia scrub and wetland at the International Birding and Research Centre. Situated on a reclaimed landfill site on the northern edge of Eilat and resplendent with a freshwater lagoon, the IBRCE is an outstanding attraction for migrants. The list of species possible here is too long to name, but some of the highlights could include Corncrake, Quail, Wryneck, European and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Red-throated Pipit, Yellow Wagtails of at least four races, Collared and Semi-collared Flycatchers, Rufous Bush Chat, Common and Thrush Nightingales, Common Redstart of the distinctive Caucasian race samamisicus, Siberian Stonechat of up to three races, Isabelline and Eastern Black-eared Wheatears, up to 20 species of warbler including Great Reed, Rüppell’s and Eastern Orphean; Golden Oriole, Lesser Grey, Woodchat and Masked Shrikes, Cretzschmar’s and Ortolan Buntings, plus regular scarcities such as White-throated Robin or Ménétries’s Warbler.
Moving north along the valley, we’ll visit the excellent habitat around the settlements at Yotvata and Kibbutz Lotan. The tall acacias in this area are one of the last strongholds for the highly localised Red Sea form of Arabian Warbler, and vibrant Little Green Bee-eaters are often very confiding here. The large circular fields are a magnet for open country migrants, and we’ll be looking for species such as Pallid Harrier, Bimaculated Lark and Oriental Skylark and perhaps even a Caspian Plover or two. Also just north of Eilat are a series of reservoirs where a selection of wetland species will be found, including some scarcer birds such as Greater Sand Plover, Broad-billed, Marsh and possibly Terek Sandpipers, Greater Flamingo and perhaps a Great Black-headed Gull among the numerous Slender-billed Gulls. On at least one evening during our stay in Eilat, we’ll visit a local spot to see Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse coming to drink as dusk falls. Throughout our stay we will be we placed to react if and when news of a rarity breaks. Nights in Eilat.
Day 9: An early start sees us visit an area of the Negev where Striped Hyena is often seen, along with occasional sightings of Wolf, Asian Wild Ass and Dorcas Gazelle. Israel’s mammal fauna is nearly as impressive as it bird life, but we would be lucky indeed to come across one of the few Caracals that are left here. We shall then spend the day birding around the kibbutz of the central Negev. These areas prove attractive to both regular and rare migrants, with previous highlights here including Black Bush Robin, Pied Bush Chat and Syrian Serin, plus more regular species such as Desert Finch, Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Mourning Wheatear. We will also be able to concentrate on any species that may have eluded us so far. Night in Mitzpe Ramon.
Day 10: We’ll leave early today for a full day birding in the Negev, concentrating on the exciting border area of Nizzana. Here resides a population of MacQueen’s Bustards that we’ll make a special effort to see, and with luck we may even find a male in full display when their heads disappear into the exploding snowball of their white neck plumes. Larks are a feature of the Negev although their nomadic lifestyle can make them difficult to track down. Nonetheless we’ll aim to find Temminck’s Horned and perhaps Thick-billed or even Dunn’s Larks during the day. Other regular species of the Negev that we shall search for include Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouse, Cream-coloured Courser, Mourning, Isabelline and Desert Wheatears, Scrub Warbler and Desert Finch. Night at Mitzpe Ramon.
Day 11: After a final morning birding locally we’ll drive back to Tel Aviv to connect with our flight back to London where the tour ends later the same day. Depending on flight times, there may be time for some final birding in the hills north of Be’er Sheva.
Updated: 31 August 2016