This was the first winter tour to Israel operated by Birdwatching Breaks and it proved to be a very successful one. Interesting species observed included White-headed Duck, Black Stork, Black-shouldered Kite, Pallid Harrier, Lesser and Greater Spotted Eagles, MacQueen’s Bustard, Pallas’s and Armenian Gulls, Spotted Sandgrouse, Thick-billed Lark, Clamorous Reed Warbler, Cyprus Warbler, hundreds of Bluethroats, White-tailed, Hooded, Mourning and Finsch’s Wheatears, Blackstart, Tristram’s Starling and huge concentrations of Common Cranes and wildfowl in Upper Galilee.
Despite widespread habitat destruction and the demise of a number of well-known birding areas around Eilat, many new areas have opened up. Several key sites no longer exist or are increasingly unattractive to birds as much of the southern Negev is being turned over to agriculture. This trend is also now starting to happen in the northwest Negev which is a worrying trend for desert species. In the far north the Hula Valley, Golan Heights, Mount Hermon and Jezreel Valley are opening up to birders.
Despite media opinion the country felt very safe and we were welcomed in all areas that we visited for birds. The road system, hotels and food were generally good throughout the country which is not cheap contrary to popular belief.
December 10th: Heathrow, Tel Aviv, Eilat.
Today the group met up at Heathrow Terminal 5 for the flight with British Airways to Tel Aviv. After a slight delay we landed in Israel and swiftly went through passport and customs control. We picked up a 9-seater Hyundai and made the journey south to Eilat our base for the next three nights. A few birds were seen around the airport, including Meadow Pipit, Hooded Crow and a flock of Spanish Sparrows.
December 11th: North Beach, Eilat Birdwatching Centre, Kilometre 20 Saltpans, Amrams Pillars, Yotvata Fields and Oasis.
Weather: Bright and sunny with a cool northeast wind 15 C
At 0800 hrs we made the short journey to the North Beach which is the northernmost point of an inlet of the Red Sea. Careful scanning of the water and buoys produced Black-headed, Slender-billed and up to six White-eyed Gulls and a single Great Crested Grebe. On the shore a pair of Spur-winged Lapwings and Spanish Sparrows. We then turned inland to visit the Eilat Birdwatching Centre which was formerly the city rubbish dump. Before arriving a recently planted field was attracting many birds including a reasonable flock of Desert Finch, European Greenfinch and countless Crested Larks. On the canal edge we recorded our first Bluethroats which are easy and approachable to see here during the winter months. Just around the corner a leaking pipe added a wintering Water Pipit and a Red-throated Pipit flew overhead giving its distinctive calls. Parked up at the reserve and walked slowly around this excellent spot for birds. The lagoon edges held a range of waders including Common and Spotted Redshanks, Little and Temminck’s Stints, Marsh Sandpiper, Greenshank, Kentish Plover and Black-winged Stilts. In the far lagoon three Greater Flamingo whilst overhead raptors included Black Kite, Eurasian Marsh Harrier and a juvenile Greater Spotted Eagle. Passerines were few due to the windy conditions although we managed to find more Bluethroats, Sardinian Warbler, Palestine Sunbird and a handsome male Desert Wheatear. Over the lagoons we could compare Rock and Eurasian Crag Martins plus a single Barn Swallow, Little Grebe, Common Coot and Pied Kingfisher. Next on the agenda was a visit to the large saltpan complex next to the border with Jordan. En route we were pleasantly surprised to watch a female Hooded Wheatear and a Blackstart at close range. On arrival at the salt pans I drove to the far side and we used the van as a mobile hide. Greater Flamingos in good numbers and along the water edge new waders in the form of Pied Avocet, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Curlew and Common Sandpipers. Also present were Great Cormorant, Common Shelduck, Northern Pintail and Northern Shoveler and best of all a fine adult Pallas’s Gull located by Ken. It was time for lunch which was taken at Amram’s Pillars, reached along a track through some stunning desert scenery dotted with acacia trees. Birds are few in this hostile habitat with the final parking area adding a stunning White-tailed Wheatear which was later hassled by a male Hooded Wheatear. Desert Larks and then another special from Ken inthe form of a pair of Sand Partridges which blended in well with the desert background. Headed north to visit Yotvata fields and oasis where we located a male Hen Harrier and a flock of eight Red-crested Pochards. The light was starting to fade as we embarked on a walk into the degraded habitat of Yotvata Oasis. We quickly located a Eurasian Kestrel, Eurasian Hoopoe, Arabian Babbler, Common Chiffchaff and Southern Grey Shrike and on a fence line Black Redstart and Eastern Stonechats.
December 12th: Shizzafon, Ovda Valley, Kibbutz Lotan and fields, Eilat Sewage Ponds.
Weather: Sunny with a cool northeast wind 14 C
After breakfast we headed north on road 12 towards Ovda but we had to turn around and join road 90 because of military roadblocks. The first birding stop was the renovated sewage pools near the village of Shizzafon although the cafe area at Yotvata held a flock of thirty plus Tristram’s Starlings. The first pool held a single White-throated Kingfisher, Ringed Plover, White Wagtail and Sardinian Warbler. The ‘main’ pools attracted a female Eurasian Teal, Mourning Wheatear, Bluethroat, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, and overhead an adult Greater Spotted Eagle. Further north we turned towards Ovda Airport and onto a minor road leading into a sector of the Ovda Valley which has a habitat of low scrub, bushes and many seed-bearing plants, an important source of food for desert species. A pair of Brown-necked Ravens was located by Mike. The next stop near a vegetated wadi a walk yielded Desert Lark, Trumpeter Finches and a single Southern Grey Shrike. Along the road my attention was drawn to a flock of Thick-billed Larks a highly nomadic species in winter feeding close to the highway. Excellent views were obtained of this scarce and highly sought after species. Also present in the area were Bar-tailed, Desert, Crested and Temminck’s Larks, Spotted and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and a Desert Wheatear. After lunch we headed back south to visit the Kibbutz Lotan area where the fields held wintering flocks of European Linnet, European Greenfinches and Green Bee-eaters. The kibbutz itself held little of note so we headed back towards Eilat to visit the sewage pools just north of the city. This was a magnet for birds with sightings of Great and Little Egrets, Eurasian Spoonbills, Grey Heron, White Stork, Great Cormorant, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Teal, Eurasian Wigeon, Caspian Tern, Common Snipe, Spur-winged Lapwing, Common Coot and Common Moorhen.
December 13th: Neot Shadat, Mizpe Ramon, Ben Gurions Grave, Gvulot.
Weather: Sunny with brisk northeast winds in Eilat, warmer inland 15 C
We checked out of the excellent Vista Hotel at 0800 hours. The first birding stop was the canal running towards North Beach holding Little Egret, Black-winged Stilt, Grey Heron and three Slender-billed Gulls. The light was poor as the sewage pools were approached so I decided to head on towards Neot Shadat a kibbutz located north of Shizzafon. A surprise here was a group of Woodlarks feeding by the roundabout. We parked up by the paddocks and walked by the orchards and vines searching for birds. A Common Buzzard was perched in a dead tree whilst the fields and scrub attracted Cattle Egret, Rock Martin, Black Redstart, Meadow, Red-throated and Water Pipits and a pair of Eurasian Kestrels around the highest building. We continued our journey to the town of Mizpe Ramon which is situated at the top of the impressive Ramon Crater. Near the summit a stop was made for Nubian Ibex. A short diversion to an area of pines produced little apart from Desert Larks on the adjoining rock slopes. I decided to head towards Ben Gurions Grave a noted tourist spot and birding area overlooking an impressive gorge. Walking slowly around the paths provided us with sightings of White Wagtail, Black Redstart, Blackstart, Desert Lark, Mourning and White-tailed Wheatears, European Robin, Arabian Babbler and two Sand Partridge walking along the path. A bonus here was a wintering Cyprus Warbler near the car park. It was time to head towards our accommodation for the next two nights at Kibbutz Gvulot. A diversion on the way produced large numbers of Brown-necked Ravens feeding in the crowns of date palms plus a wintering Common Redstart of the form samamisicus. Checked in at the kibbutz and walked around the grounds recording Syrian Woodpecker, Great Tit, Eurasian Blackbird, Eurasian Hoopoe and best of all at least eleven Long-eared Owls roosting in a pine tree. After dusk a Barn Owl started calling from outside our rooms before flying off into the darkness.
December 14th: Gvulot, Nizzana, Agro Research Fields, Urim.
Weather: Rather cloudy and cool early morning 14 C
An early start is essential to visit the Nizzana region which is situated on the border with Egypt. We left at 0500 hours and were by the lagoons approximately ninety minutes later. On arrival a surprise species was a Eurasian Curlew flying over the arid landscape. In the lagoons we observed good numbers of Little Grebe, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Teal, Black-winged Stilts and two Common Redshanks. In the surrounding scrub typical birds of the region; Southern Grey Shrike, Mourning Wheatear, Eastern Stonechat, Sardinian Warbler and Hooded Crow. After waiting a little while we were rewarded with excellent views of Spotted and Black-bellied Sandgrouse and a male Pallid Harrier flew by. Also present on low rocks was an adult Long-legged Buzzard. After breakfast we headed towards the small village of Ezuz and started birding along the road. Careful scanning here produced at least two Macqueen’s Bustards and a female Merlin perched low on a rock. Birding around the fortress was also good as we picked up a pair of Scrub Warblers, Blackstart, Black Redstart, Desert Lark, Palestine Sunbird and a Little Owl perched on an old barrel. Time was getting on as the party headed north with a stop at the Agro Research Fields. The grasses here were attractive to Cattle Egret, Northern and Spur-winged Lapwings, European Starling, Calandra Lark, Corn Bunting and brief views of Common Snipe. The afternoon was spent birding around the fields of Urim a vast expanse of land used for vegetable production. In one sector of fields had thousands of wintering Skylarks and numerous Black Kites following a tractor for food. A bonus came with a wintering Isabelline Wheatear showing on a low mound. Further up the road a flock of Common Cranes feeding in a dormant field. Our final stop was at the pylon line where wintering Imperial Eagles and Peregrine Falcons were observed sitting on the pylons. Returned to Gvulot where our German birders kindly showed us a roosting Barn Owl.
December 15th: Gvulot, En Gedi, Mount Gilboa, Bet Shean, Hula Valley.
Weather: Sunny and clear with a cool northeast wind 17 C.
Breakfast was taken in the kibbutz canteen at 0700 hours. Close to our rooms we finally caught up with a pair of Syrian Woodpeckers searching for food on a tree trunk. Our journey to Northern Israel took us through the West Bank and our first birding stop near the Dead Sea. The pools here were devoid of birds although the fence line attracted Blackstart, Mourning Wheatear and Black Redstart. A covey of Sand Partridge was also noted. Further north a short stop at En Gedi added up to forty Fan-tailed Ravens and some tame Tristram’s Starlings. I purchased supplies and then we travelled up Mount Gilboa which overlooks the Bet Shean Valley and Jordan. The mountain was fairly quiet for birds with Hen Harrier on the lower slopes. The more open areas attracted Southern Grey Shrikes and wintering flocks of European Greenfinches. At the picnic stop we added Chaffinch and hunting Eurasian Kestrels. Next on the agenda were the bird-rich fishponds of Bet Shean a magnet for birds. From the elevated viewing platform all the major pools could be observed. The largest had recently been drained leaving a rich source of food for waterbirds and gulls. Hundreds of birds were present including Great, Little and Cattle Egrets, Black Storks, Eurasian Spoonbills, Caspian, Armenian and Black-headed Gulls, Common Snipe, Ringed Plover, Little Stint and Common Redshank. In the water filled pools Little Grebe, Mallard, Eurasian Teal, Common, Pied and White-throated Kingfishers and Common Coot. Overhead there were thousands of Black Kites, Pallas’s Gulls and flocks of Pygmy Cormorants. It was hard to leave this wonderful place for another fishpond complex on the road to Jordan. On entering the ponds we quickly located hundreds of Glossy Ibis and similar species to the last place. In a drained pond we found wintering Common Sandpiper and Water Pipit whilst the reeds hosted a Clamorous Reed Warbler and a calling Cetti’s Warbler. Birds of prey were much in evidence with excellent views of Greater Spotted Eagles and Eurasian Marsh Harriers. On exiting the complex a party of Pied Avocets flew past and several Common Jackals showed well near the entrance. The light was starting to fade as we headed north to the Hula Valley our final base in Israel.
December 16th: Gome Fishponds, Hula Valley.
Weather: Sunny after a cold start with light southwest winds 18 C.
The hotel gardens held a few birds including parties of noisy Rose-ringed Parakeets, Black Redstart, House Sparrow, Laughing and Collared Doves. After breakfast we made the short journey south along road 90 to Gome Fishponds a complex area surrounded by orchards and farmland. A stop at the first pond produced wintering Great White Pelicans, White-throated, Pied and Common Kingfishers, White and Grey Wagtails, and an adult Greater Spotted Eagle sitting in the top of a eucalyptus tree. At the next junction I parked up and the group walked slowly along the track looking into water filled and dry fishponds. One pond in particular had emergent reeds and cover and deeper water levels than the others producing Common Pochard, Tufted Duck and Ferruginous Duck, the latter species showing well in good light conditions. In the scrub and reeds we heard the distinctive calls of Penduline Tits although on this occasion they remained out of view. In a dried out pond we located an adult White-tailed Eagle which flew into a large tree scattering birds in all directions. A bonus here was a first year Purple Heron which flew in front of us and disappeared into cover. The second last pond had recently been ploughed and attracted many birds especially along the edges. Black Francolins showed well along with a Water Rail, up to thirty Bluethroats, Water Pipit and Armenian and Caspian Gulls. Due to poor light we then retraced our steps to visit one of the first ponds which held large numbers of Northern Shoveler and Mallard. After almost three hours in this compact area of ponds we headed south again to the world famous Hula Valley. On arrival the reserve car park was packed due to the start of the Jewish weekend. After negotiating a deal for the golf buggies we set off to explore this incredible area for birds. In the first patch of trees wintering Common Chiffchaff, European Robin and European Goldfinch. Further down the route the massed flocks of Common Cranes which numbered almost 27,000 birds, with close views obtained of these majestic birds. Above us several parties of cranes were flying in a warm thermal of air and were joined by Black Stork and an adult Lesser Spotted Eagle, a rare winter species. Along the canals Coypu were common and easily seen as they grazed on vegetation. A highlight of the day and trip was to come as we visited the viewing platform which overlooks a shallow lagoon with muddy islands and a border of reeds. This area attracted large numbers of wildfowl and waders. Pied Avocet and Black-tailed Godwits were numerous along with smaller numbers of Ruff, Common and Spotted Redshanks, Common, Green and Marsh Sandpipers, Water Rail and Ruff. The usual ducks were present with the addition of Gadwall a scarce winter visitor. Three juvenile Greater Flamingos were an unusual sight within the Hula Valley. As we started to return to the reserve headquarters a Zitting Cisticola was found in a bare tree and further on two Black-shouldered Kites which have recently colonised the Hula Valley. Near the last hide several Glossy Ibis and Eurasian Wigeon feeding on the closely cropped grass. The light was starting to fade as we left the area to return to base.
December 17th: Gamla, Meron Golan, Mount Hermon.
Weather: Cloudy with a cool southwest wind 12 C.
A change of scenery and habitat today as I had planned visits to the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon, which are technically in Syria but have been controlled by Israel since 1974. Our first stop was Gamla an impressive reserve overlooking a gorge bordered by cliffs and grassland. Before arriving at Gamla a short stop produced the local subspecies of Eurasian Jay, flocks of wintering Corn Buntings, Southern Grey Shrike and a female Hen Harrier. On the entrance road to Gamla we stopped for Finsch’s Wheatears. A bonus was a perched female Pallid Harrier. On entering Gamla we embarked on a short circular walk recording Eurasian Griffon Vultures at close range before they flew off high towards the north searching for food. The usual passerines were present on the old buildings and scrub including the first European Serins of the tour. From the viewpoint Arthur located a pair of Bonelli’s Eagles hunting the cliff face, a rare and declining species within Israel. Later in the morning we headed north towards Meron Golan which is an area dominated by fruit growing and wine production. On arriving at Meron Golan, brief views of Song Thrush and many Eurasian Blackbirds feeding on fallen apples in the orchards. The weather had started to close in with low cloud and a biting wind. Our final birding stop was at Mount Hermon where the weather dictated events with the only bird of note being a Long-legged Buzzard. Visual migration included flocks of Common Chaffinch and European Goldfinch and a single Great Tit at the ski station, this species is rare at these elevations.
December 18th: Kiryat Shmona, Tishlovet Reservoir, Tel Aviv, London.
Final species total: 164.
Weather: Warm and sunny with light southwest winds 24 C.
Our final day in Israel started with us checking out at the hotel and travelling south towards Nazareth. The mist quickly lifted to reveal a fine sunny day and the highest temperatures of the tour. The main objective was to visit Tishlovet Reservoir which is situated in the Jezreel Valley. This is a large area of fields, water bodies and encroaching industrial elements offering a wide range of habitats to wintering birds. On reaching the reservoir we walked up to the main embankment to be greeted by thousands of wintering wildfowl. The vast majority were Northern Shoveler and Mallard but we were delighted to locate almost 500 White-headed Ducks, Ruddy Shelduck and groups of Black-necked Grebes. The reed edges attracted hunting Eurasian Marsh Harriers, Black Kite and a single Green Sandpiper. On recently ploughed field flocks of Calandra Larks and numerous Crested and Skylarks. A bonus came when an Osprey was found sitting on a water pipe a fitting finale to the tour. We made our way south along route 6 to the airport. Check-in and security went smoothly without any hitches. The flight back to London was slightly late where the tour concluded.
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