Southern Israel has been long renowned for its spectacular bird migration, which reaches a climax in late March when huge numbers of passage birds occupy the land, sea and skies surrounding Eilat. To celebrate this, the Israel Ornithological Centre and the IBRCE (International Birding and Research Centre Eilat) have successfully held the Eilat Bird Festival for the last three years. Many birdwatchers will have witnessed this migration at least once in their lifetime although if you are in the camp yet to do so, the following words will hopefully give you a feel of what all the fuss is about.
I visited Israel for the third time this spring and, although there are almost endless foreign holiday possibilities, something about the place makes you want to come back for more and more. The nature of the migration, and sheer scale, allows variety year-on-year while there is always immense quality in Israel's resident birdlife — take for example the line-up of Macqueen's Bustard, Liechtenstein's Sandgrouse, Hume's Owl, Nubian Nightjar, Hooded Wheatear, Arabian Warbler, Sinai Rosefinch that are all realistic possibilities. And, to make things ideal for the family-tied birder, the offering of year-round sunshine and quality resort hotels helps aid the proposition.
The resort of Eilat, Israel's southernmost city, sits at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. Surrounded by mountains on either side, it is ideally placed to funnel migrants as they make first landfall up the Arava Valley towards their European or Asian breeding grounds. Green areas, especially city parks, arable land and date-palm groves, provide attractive feeding grounds in what is otherwise a barren rock and desert landscape. Situated on both African and Asian flyways, the species diversity can be bewildering and on 'big days' thousands of birds pass through, providing a truly exhilarating experience. To put it in perspective, a total of 237 species were logged in the last week of March 2008.
As you wake up on your first morning, the ubiquitous Yellow-vented Bulbuls and Laughing Doves will probably be your first taste of the exotic — their calls are likely to provide the background sound in almost any habitat that you visit. The town parks and their watered, lush grass provide a feeding frenzy for all sorts of varieties of flava wagtail (Black-headed being the commonest) as well as migrant Hoopoes, Red-throated and Tree Pipits, and Cretzschmar's and Ortolan Buntings. The continual tacking from the parched trees will largely comprise Lesser Whitethroats and Blackcaps though with a bit of diligence Eastern Olivaceous, Eastern Orphean and Rüppell's Warblers may be found.
Eilat North Beach, located just east of the resort and at the northern tip of the Gulf of Eilat, is the best site for seabirds and also a good vantage point to look out for migrant ducks and terns. It is also the place where birders meet and exchange information each evening and, given that it is so well watched, spring oddities such as Bridled Tern and Brown Booby are recorded on a near-annual basis. Large rafts of Garganey, resting on the sea before migrating north, are a feature of early spring and with all of the eastern European population of White-winged Black Terns heading through the area in late April, seeing thousands of them in their full summer kit must be phenomenal. The lagoon behind the beach is a good spot to locate resting Caspian Terns and Pied Kingfishers as well as the occasional Western Reef-egret while, with the removal of the fish cages from North Beach, the marina is your best bet to see Striated Heron.
Wherever you are in southern Israel, be sure to keep your eyes to the skies. One of the most obvious migrations is that of soaring birds — eagles, buzzards, harriers, storks and cranes — moving north in their thousands. The best hours for passage are from shortly after sunrise until mid-morning while, on some days, late afternoon can also produce good numbers. Wind direction is also an important influence and days with northerly or westerly winds tend to be the best in Eilat; southerly and easterly winds deflect the passage north and west to areas such as the Dead Sea and Nizzana.
To get the best of this when staying in Eilat, head the short distance up into the mountains to Mount Yoash and be ready to strain your neck looking into the sky as hundreds, often thousands, of raptors get up from their overnight perches in Sinai and, enticed by the first thermals of the day, start kettling and then drifting off north. The composition of species changes throughout the spring, starting in earnest from mid-March and continuing until mid-May. Lesser Spotted and Steppe Eagles, Cranes and White Storks are typically early migrants then by mid-April huge numbers of Levant Sparrowhawks start to move through while early May has occasionally produced over 100,000 Honey Buzzards moving through in a single day! Add to all this, dependent on the week you visit, the prospect of Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Pallid Harrier, Sooty, Eleonora's and Red-footed Falcons then it is easy to see how the area has carved its reputation for raptors.
The Southern Arava Valley, spanning from Eilat to Lotan in the north, is filled with comparative greenery and easily entices migrants that are on their way north. The Eilat Bird Sanctuary and Ringing Station — an area of pools, reeds and scrub just north of Eilat town — is one of the first places that they will stop. The pools abound with waders, which this year included a Terek Sandpiper and a Red-necked Phalarope, while the scrub is where the annual ringing effort is concentrated. Bird ringers from far and wide visit here to help out, while it is possible to witness the ringing of some species and the centre also acts as a resource in educating local people on why Eilat is so special for its birdlife. Rufous Bush Robin, Black-eared Wheatear, Masked Shrike and Eastern Bonelli's Warbler along with large numbers of Bee-eaters and Red-rumped Swallows are just some of the species you may see here, and Black Bush Robin has been located here on several occasions. A Crested Honey Buzzard has found the date palms immediately to the north to its liking, wintering here for the last two years and lingering on both occasions until April.
One thing that Eilat does extremely well is cover a variety of extreme habitats within such a small area. Despite much of the Arava Valley being cultivated and irrigated there are still endless tracts of desert, semi-desert and bare rock that can be explored. Amram's Pillars, merely ten minutes up the road from the Bird Sanctuary, is a desolate site yet attractive geologically — although for the birdwatcher the prospect of seeing the gorgeous Sinai Rosefinch is the main reason to visit. Though this species varies in relative abundance year-on-year, the species comes down for food scraps in the two car parks and it is possible, particularly early in the morning, to gain excellent views. White-crowned Black Wheatear, Blackstart and Desert Lark are commonly seen in this dry, arid landscape.
Km20 Pools is the wader hotspot in southern Israel — you will find that sites are unimaginatively titled relative to the kilometre post along Route 90 that they are closest to! Huge numbers of Greater Flamingos are the most obvious spectacle but the hundreds of waders, gulls and terns that make this their transitory home are also very evident, with Collared and Black-winged Pratincoles, Greater Sand and White-tailed Plover, Marsh and Broad-billed Sandpipers, Red-necked Phalarope, Great Black-headed Gull, Whiskered and Gull-billed Terns often present among the commoner species. A Kittlitz's Plover, a Sociable Plover and at least a couple of Caspian Plovers made this site their temporary residence in spring 2009. A small reservoir just south of here has become the place to see the cryptically plumaged Liechtenstein's Sandgrouse — an evening visit is necessary as the birds fly in just prior to dusk to drink and, as quickly as they arrive, they return to their desert home once fuelled up.
Southern Israel is naturally a desert landscape and, although a hostile environment, some species manage to carve out a living. The Km33 lark area, as its name suggests, is the best place to search for Bar-tailed and Hoopoe Larks. The vegetation that does grow is largely limited to acacia trees and, despite the fact they initially look rather bedraggled and dry, they do provide adequate stop-offs for migrants as well as Arabian Warbler. Searching the acacia scrub to the south of Yotvata is one of the best bets to catch up with this species.
Continuing north along Route 90, any area of greenery is worth stopping at. Date-palm plantations can provide a welcome respite in the heat of the day for both birds and the birdwatcher and tricky species such as Namaqua Dove and Semi-collared Flycatcher are worth searching for in this habitat. Although a little bit pungent, dung piles and the insects they attract are a magnet food source for Black-eared, Isabelline and Northern Wheatears, Yellow Wagtails of all types and varieties, Red-throated Pipits, Short-toed Larks and are also a good place to search for the scarce but regular Bimaculated Lark.
There is a café and shop at Yotvata, a decent place for getting supplies, and it is likely this will be the first place where you encounter the distinctive 'whistle' of Tristram's Grackle. Nearby the cultivated circular fields provide a good food source for larks and pipits, with Oriental Skylark and japonicus Buff-bellied Pipits being the prizes for the meticulous observer. A little bit more obvious and colourful, Caspian Plover has had a preference for these fields during the last couple of springs. Little Bee-eaters and Yellow Wagtails add a significant splash of colour.
Slightly further north, Kibbutz Lotan has in recent years enticed some birders away from staying in Eilat as it offers a similar array of species, with birding on the doorstep, in relaxed surroundings. Spur-winged Plover, Little Bee-eater, Palestine Sunbird, Blackstart and Arabian Babbler are all easy to see here and are augmented by a continual supply of migrants. It has a growing reputation for raptor watching and, on some days, the soaring bird migration can be even more spectacular here than in the Eilat Mountains. Similarly, to the northwest, the kibbutz at Shizzafon and an adjacent sewage farm are an obvious attraction to tired migrants. This spring I was able to get to grips with a rather showy male Hooded Wheatear here along with a rather nice flock of Dead Sea Sparrows, a typically skulking Savi's Warbler and a bewildering variety of Yellow Wagtails.
Although there is plenty to keep any birdwatcher happy in the Eilat area, Israel being as small as it is allows the active birder the opportunity to day trip slightly further afield. An area of stony desert near the Egyptian border at Nizzana is one of the most popular destinations, and in early spring the undoubted highlight is displaying Macqueen's Bustards. The general birding here can also be very rewarding with Cream-coloured Courser, Southern Grey Shrike and Mourning Wheatear all possible while raptor migration can be excellent when conditions are favourable. In some years when there is little water in the surrounding desert, a visit to the sewage pools can produce hundreds of sandgrouse coming down to drink — Spotted, Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse are all regular and in some years Crowned Sandgrouse join the drinking frenzy. On the return journey to Eilat, it is worth stopping at Mitspe Ramon not only to view the spectacular crater but small numbers of Syrian Serin, a winter visitor to southern Israel, may linger here until late March as indeed they did this year.
The Dead Sea is another easy day trip, and combined with satisfying your curiosity and finding out what it feels like to float, there are some excellent avian specialities. The Dead Sea is again a place to observe raptors and storks as they hug the nearby escarpment, and the dry wadis around Ein Gedi are home to such species as Barbary Falcon, Sand Partridge, Cyprus Warbler, Trumpeter Finch and Mountain Bunting. A visit to the shops and amenities at Ein Gedi beach is certain to produce Tristram's Grackle, with several normally present in the car park, while the rather uniquely shaped Fan-tailed Ravens will be soaring overhead.
For those who are prepared to forego a little sleep, joining a trip to see the nocturnal species is one of those unforgettable experiences. Joining a specially organised group is of particular importance to reduce disturbance. These trips, led by local experts such as Yoav Perlman, Noam Weiss and Barak Granit, really do give you the opportunity to get excellent views of both Nubian Nightjar and Hume's Owl. If luck really is on your side you may also have a chance encounter with an Egyptian Nightjar or an Eagle Owl, the latter being of the desert race ascalaphus (sometimes referred to as Pharaoh Eagle Owl).
Nubian Nightjar, Israel (Photo: Richard Bonser)
Photographic opportunities are limitless in southern Israel, and with perfect light all a photographer needs to worry about is ensuring they have their back to the sun and plenty of batteries! Although a heat haze often develops early, the confiding nature of many species (particularly the waders at the salt pans) allows keen photographers to keep on going from dawn until dusk. So, whether you are an experienced birder looking to further your experience of Palearctic migrants or somebody looking for a foreign getaway with great birding on the doorstep, a spring trip to Southern Israel to witness the great migration will not disappoint.