As well as a lot of familar species we also encounter some exciting birds such as this Tristram’s Starling. Photo: Jon Feenstra
Due to its geographical position at the crossroads between 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 region’s 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 this afternoon at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. Once everyone has gathered we’ll make the 2½ hour drive to the Hula Valley, encountering our first birds as we go. Night in the Hula Valley.
Day 2: We’ll explore 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. Black-shouldered Kites breed here, while the Purple Swamphens 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, as 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 in the Hula Valley.
Day 3: We’ll start 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 the first returning Syrian Serins, along with resident Western Rock Nuthatches and Sombre Tits. Leaving Mount Hermon we drive south past the Sea of Galillee and 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, 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. We then continue down into the Judean desert to our accommodation in one of the kibbutz near the Dead Sea, hopefully arriving in time to look for Striated Scops Owls, recently discovered breeding in the area. Night near the Dead Sea.
Day 4: Today, we’ll 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, Striated Scrub Warbler (now in a family of its own), 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, with ‘Steppe’ Buzzard, Lesser Spotted Eagle and White Stork being the more likely species. We’ll then visit some wetlands at the southern end of the Dead Sea in search of the highly-localised Dead Sea Sparrow. As the day draws to a close, we’ll be joined by a local guide to visit some kibbutz fields next to a remnant patch of saltmarsh where we’ll search for Nubian Nightjar, followed by a visit to a wadi along the Dead Sea in search of Desert Tawny Owl. These two species are both very rare and very specialised, and the nightjar is of the race tamaricis (or ‘Tamarisk Nightjar’) which, if it represents a distinct species, immediately becomes one of the world’s rarest birds. Night near the Dead Sea.
Days 5-8: Leaving the Dead Sea behind, we’ll travel down the Arava Valley to Eilat. This town, at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba, is a perfect base with easy access to a variety of wonderful habitats including desert, mountains, wadis, parks, plantations, agricultural fields and wetlands that are home to a range of resident as well as migrant birds. Common residents here 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’ll 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 and Western Reef Herons, while flocks of commoner migrants flying north along the Gulf should include Baltic Gulls, herons, egrets and perhaps skuas. In addition, large flocks of duck can often be seen heading inland at dusk 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 and Booted 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. Other species present in the mountains and wadis of the area include the highly-local Hooded Wheatear, while Sand Partridge, White-crowned Wheatear and Trumpeter Finch are more widespread.
The wadis, 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 sadly-decreasing numbers of Namaqua Doves, but this diminutive dove should still feature in at least one site 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 full list of species possible here is too long to name, but some of the highlights could include 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 Nightingale, 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, and Cretzschmar’s and Ortolan Buntings, plus regular scarcities such as Black Bush Robin or perhaps even a 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 look 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, perhaps 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’ll be well placed to react if and when news of a rarity breaks. Nights in Eilat.
Day 9: An early start sees us venturing further north into the Negev, and we’ll explore a new kibbutz, wadis and desert plains on our journey to Mitzpe Ramon. Migrants can be very much in evidence across the desert, but we shall also be making an effort to find those desert species that may have eluded us so far. Temminck’s Horned, Desert, Bar-tailed, Hoopoe and Thick-billed Larks are all possible, although every year is different and we never know where these nomadic species will turn up. Desert and Mourning Wheatears are more reliable, and we’ll also stand a good chance of seeing such iconic dwellers of the deep desert, Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouse. One particular wadi has become reliable for Sinai Rosefinch and, if one has eluded us so far, we’ll make a special effort for it here. Once again we shall turn our eyes skywards, as raptors can be very common at some sites, while Desert Finch is also present around the kibbutz, as is Black-bellied Sandgrouse. Night in Mitzpe Ramon.
Day 10: We’ll leave early for a full day birding in the Negev, concentrating on the exciting border area of Nizzana. Here resides a population of Macqueen’s Bustards and, with luck, we may find a male in full display when its head disappears into the exploding snowball of white neck plumes! Nearby, we may see Pin-tailed Sandgrouse coming to drink at local ponds, while Cream-coloured Courser is usually reliable around the greener areas of the valley. We’ll have a further chance for Mourning, Isabelline and Desert Wheatears, Scrub Warbler and Desert Finch but, as we make our way back to Mitzpe Ramon, we’ll stop at Side Bokur and Midrashet Ben Gurion to admire the scenery and the birds that are attracted to these oases. Both Bonelli’s Eagle and Lanner sometimes breed here, but can be difficult to locate, while Griffon and Egyptian Vultures are usually found overhead, and Blue Rock Thrush and Blackstart inhabit the canyon edges. Night at Mitzpe Ramon.
Day 11: After breakfast we’ll drive back to Tel Aviv where the tour ends around midday at Ben Gurion International Airport.
Updated: 20 June 2018