After seeing an advert in the ringers bulletin last autumn, I couldn’t resist signing up for a ringing trip to Israel this spring. I had heard lots about birding in Eilat from the amazing spectacle of bird migration through to the difficulties faced by foreign visitors getting in and out of the country.
Fast forward to early April this year and we were on our way to Heathrow to meet up with the rest of the group. Only knowing Gary, our leader, I wasn’t sure what the rest of the group would be like but I didn’t really need to worry and the group were brilliant. There was a group of 4 from the Stour Ringing Group in Dorset, and then individuals from Norfolk, Wiltshire and Derbyshire. We didn’t have to wait long for the first taste of security. Before boarding could start, the armed airport police arrived with sniffer dogs to check the area for explosives before the seemingly endless questions could start from the paranoid security staff. Thankfully Rachael and I got away lightly but poor Terry and Mike seemed to catch securities eye and got stopped at every checkpoint!!! After a long flight and a fairly painless transfer in Tel Aviv, we made it to Eilat early on April 7th. After collecting our hire cars, we headed ca50km north to Kibbutz Lotan, our base for the next week.
Rather than do a full trip report, I am going to give an idea of some of the sites we visited and the key species we saw.
The two main sites we visited in this area was the sewage farm (a recurring theme on this trip) and the irrigated pivot fields. Our main targets at these sites were a pair on Caspian plover on the fields and the wintering black bush robin around the sewage farm.
Male Caspian plover
It was very windy on our first visit and it was very difficult viewing conditions around the fields due to all the dust in the air but thankfully the plovers showed so close to the cars that it didn’t really matter. There wasn’t much else here apart from a few crested larks and a wheatear. The sewage farm was much better and produced loads of birds. The highlight was 2 black bush robins on our first visit but on our 2nd visit we had blackstart, masked shrike and wryneck sat on a fence in the same scope view! The site produced a fantastic selection of yellow wagtail races including many stunning male black headed wags. This was the only site that I saw woodchat shrike.
Pivot fields and sewage farm
Ketura sewage farm
Only a tiny little site but they don’t have to be much to attract birds. They are not the best place to spend much time as the smell can be overpowering but if you want to see good birds then you have to take the rough with the smooth. Ketura produced out only Arabian babbler, a rather distant pair, ortolan bunting, masked shrike, namaqua dove and 6 little stints.
Neot Semadar sewage farm
A small which we dropped into a couple of times during the week. Although it has been largely redeveloped and landscaped there were still 3 sewage pools. Rufous bush chat, male trumpeter finch and a male collared flycatcher on our first visit showed the site had promise. The 2nd visit produced a cracking male hooded wheatear on the rocky hills behind the sewage works and 4 little stint, wood sand, squacco heron and a pair of trumpeter finches within the site.
Kibbutz Neot Semadar
The last time a group had visited the area ringing in 2009, they visited this very productive site. We had heard that the irrigation lake on the site was particularly productive but on our first visit we couldn’t find the lake and to be honest we were not really supposed to be there! We managed to find out how to get in through the ‘back gate’ and paid another visit. It was well worth the effort as the site was fantastic. Although plastic lined, the lake was well vegetated around the edges, had a large island in the middle and was great for birds. The first birds around the edge were great reed and sedge warblers in the reeds and several cattle egrets. While I was mooching away from the group I missed a little crake feeding out in the open but I did manage to see it feeding later with a little bittern and squacco heron! As we were watching the crake and herons, Paul casually said ‘I have got a blue cheeked beeeater’ Sure enough, sat in the top of the reeds was a cracking adult! Great views were had of the bird hawking over the pool and even some dodgy digiscope photos managed. I a small patch of reeds on the far side of the lake another small crake was seen. After a short wait the bird came out, our 2nd crake of the day, a fine Baillon’s crake. The bird fed out in the open completely unfazed by our presence and showed down to 10 feet. A fantastic little bird. By the end of the walk round we had built up a good heron list. Purple heron, 2+ little bittern, cattle egret, squacco heron and 2 roosting night herons
We also checked out an olive groves on the edge of the kibbutz that had recently been good for flycatchers. Its proved to be the case with 4 male collared, male semi collared, 2 male pied and a spotted plus nightingale and a calling male sand partridge from the hillside.
Many of the sites in this area either don’t have names or they are unpronounceable so the KM markers along the main road are used to name and locate them. K76, is 76km north of the Egyptian border and about 20 mins drive north of Lotan. The site is alongside the Jordanian border and you can bird right upto the border fence. If you fancy a stay in a Jordanian prison then the fence is so poor in places you can hop across the border but it is highly unrecommended!!!
As we were ringing from early morning, the desert sites were not that productive as the key birds had gone quiet and the wind had increased making hearing songs difficult. Despite that, it was a fantastic experience birding these areas. The massive area of flat, dry stony ground seemed lifeless and hard to find anything. A couple of visits produced pallid harrier, 4 long legged buzzard, desert lark, 30 Spanish sparrow, female black eared, 2 Isabelline and 3 hooded, 2 northern wheatears , tawny pipit and 2 stone curlews. We also had a Blandford’s fox and a den.
There had been a wintering hoopoe lark at this site but we only made a short stop. It did produce great views of both pallid and Montagu’s harriers, 6 short toed larks, 2 trumpeter finch, 12 black stork and 14 beeeater but I sadly dipped on bar tailed desert lark.
Desert birding with the mountains of Jordan in the background
The largest body of water we saw on the trip and being at the start of the valley heading north, it was an obvious draw for migrating waders. There was nothing special about the site, just 4 saltpans surrounded by bank which you could drive around the outside and bird from the car, simples.... The great thing about the site was how close you could get to the birds and with a big camera lens you could get some great shots, sadly I don’t. We were split up into 4 cars and decided to meet up and pass news between us. We decided to head around the southern pan and I started to count the waders. This turned out to be a thankless task when we go to the rest of the site so I could only estimate in the end. By far the commonest bird was little stint with at least 500 birds present. The waters’ edge was crawling with birds, big numbers of black winged stilt (175), ruff, greenshank, marsh sand (60+), little ringed plover and a few wood sands. A summer plumaged broad-billed sandpiper or the 9 red-necked phalaropes would have been the highlights until I spotted a wader while we were stopped. Close up to the car was a winter plumaged greater sandplover but by the time I got the camera ready it had gone. I told the other cars a little while later, Dave and Shaun found a sandplover. We all headed around to see it and to my surprise, the bird was in summer plumage, a 2nd bird! 98 greater flamingo, Caspian and 2 white-winged black tern and a large number of slender billed gulls made it a fantastic few hours birding.
Slender billed gull
Red necked phalarope
A small irrigation tank we visited for an evening sandgrouse roost but sadly no birds came in. We did get a few trip ticks with 9 grey heron, 39 shoveler, drake garganey, 4 coot, 2 cormorant, 9 night heron and 2 squacco heron.
We spent an afternoon in the area which included a visit to the International Ringing Centre for a swallow roost where we were all lucky enough to ring a process a red rumped swallow each and a trip to the beach, birding or course!
We didn’t spend much time at the ringing station but it was enough time to catch some birds. The highlight for me was a melanistic Montagu’s harrier north along with 2 marsh harrier, osprey and a barbary falcon. The overhead raptors were disturbing the gulls on a sewage farm just over the border with lots of slender billed, 10 Baltic, 2 Heuglin’s and 3 black headed gulls. 2 spoonbill, 9 greater flamingo on the saltpans and a masked shrike in the bushes.
The beach wasn’t heaving with birds but I did trip tick sandwich, common and little terns plus common kingfisher in the same ditch a 2 pied kingfishers. Offshore there was good numbers of large gulls but to be honest there is more to life than spending hours trying to do them (sorry gull fans) but my attention was grabbed by a flyby group of 5 white eyed gulls.
Birding the beach at Eilat
We were all slightly worried about the return journey having heard all about the security issues trying to get out of the country especially after the problems some had had on the way out. Our attentions were somewhat diverted when Gary had a text from the guys at Eilat to say they had caught a white throated robin and a Levant’s sparrowhawk and they would hold onto them until we got there. After a mad dash, we were watching a fine male robin in the hand followed swiftly by the sparrowhawk.
Male white throated robin
Male Levant’s sparrowhawk
The omens were good and we got out of the country without a hitch and just in the nick of time as 3 days later there was a rocket attack on Eilat that closed the airport and tightened security! Phew....