ISRAEL BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Israel: Day 1 Our Israel birding tour begins this morning at Tel Aviv airport, from where we will drive to She’ar Yashuv in the Hula valley of northernmost Israel for a two nights stay.
En route, we will pay a visit to the extensive fishponds and the sandy Mediterranean coast near Ma’agan Mikhael. The area is an important wintering area for the restricted-range Armenian Gull, the major speciality here, which is present until quite late in spring owing to the high altitude of its breeding sites in Asia Minor and the Transcaucasus. During winter there is also a major gathering of wintering Pallas’s (or Great Black-headed) Gulls, one or two of which could still be present if we are very lucky.
Although Armenian Gulls predominate, we should be able to compare them with a few Caspian Gulls from the steppes and Lesser Black-backed Gulls from northern Scandinavia. As well as the large gulls, we will encounter Black-headed Gull and perhaps a lingering Little Gull.
Many other species occur here and we can expect to see the restricted-range White-spectacled Bulbul as well as Black-crowned Night and Grey Herons, Great and Little Egrets, White and Black Storks, Eurasian Spoonbill, Mallard, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Black-winged Stilt, Spur-winged Lapwing, Little and Temminck’s Stints, Marsh and Wood Sandpipers, Eurasian Collared, European Turtle and Laughing Doves, White-throated and Pied Kingfishers, Eurasian Hoopoe, Crested Lark, Barn Swallow, Graceful Prinia, European Reed Warbler and Hooded Crow.
As we continue eastwards we will pause at a colony of Lesser Kestrels. In the late afternoon, we will start to explore the Hula Valley.
Israel: Day 2 The Galilee is quite unlike the popular image of Israel. Here the countryside is green and the desert seems as if it must be far, far away. Streams and rivers run through a beautiful landscape of orchards and fields flanked by high hills and dominated by the snow-capped dome of Mount Hermon (2814m or 9233ft).
Most of the mountain is rocky, with low scrub in places, and here we shall search in particular for the restricted-range Sombre Tit, Western Rock Nuthatch and Cretzschmar’s Bunting and in particular the very restricted-range Syrian (or Tristram’s) Serin. This latter species has a breeding distribution entirely restricted to a small area extending from Jordan and northern Israel into Lebanon and western Syria and is easy to find by mid-April when the birds have returned to the breeding grounds, whereas it can be very hard to find in March when in unpredictable transit from its desert winter quarters. Additional birds of the area include Black Redstart and Rock Bunting.
To the south lie the Golan Heights and the rocky hills surrounding the Sea of Galilee. These rolling grassy uplands are cut by deep, steep-sided ravines and at this season the whole area is a mass of wildflowers. In these habitats, we may see a few Eurasian Griffon Vultures sweeping along the cliff faces, as well as Chukar, Alpine and Little Swifts, Calandra Lark, Red-rumped Swallow, Eurasian Crag Martin, Long-billed Pipit, Black-eared Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush and Sardinian Warbler.
Lower down are cultivated areas, fishponds and the famous Hula marshlands – the latter a peaceful wilderness of waving papyrus fronds, slow-moving channels and large areas of open water. Amongst the more interesting birds that we should see in these habitats are Pygmy Cormorant, Great White Pelican (often soaring over the wetlands in the warm midday hours), Glossy Ibis, the declining Marbled Duck, Black Francolin, Little Crake, European Scops Owl, Cetti’s and Clamorous Reed Warblers, and Eurasian Penduline Tit.
Other species we should encounter in the Galilee include Little Grebe, Great Cormorant, Squacco and Purple Herons, Western Cattle Egret, Common Shelduck, Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Garganey, Northern Shoveler, Osprey, Western Marsh Harrier, Common Kestrel, Common Quail, Little Ringed Plover, Ruff, Common Snipe, Green and Common Sandpipers, Common Kingfisher, Sand Martin (or Bank Swallow), Common House Martin, White Wagtail, Common Blackbird, Zitting Cisticola, Sedge Warbler, Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Blackcap, Common Chiffchaff, Great Tit, Eurasian Jay, Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, European Goldfinch, Common Linnet and Corn Bunting.
Israel: Day 3 After some final birding in northern Israel we will drive southwards through increasingly arid country to the Dead Sea, where we will stay for two nights (divided between two locations).
Israel: Day 4 Deep but verdant wadis cut through the dramatic, towering cliffs that form the western rim of the Great Rift Valley (the same rift valley that begins far to the south in eastern Africa) before reaching the shoreline of the Dead Sea, a great soda lake with a surface no less than 400m below sea-level! Here we are at the eastern edge of the Judean Hills, a wild but starkly beautiful land of deep gorges and rugged desert mountains. Birds we may are likely to find amongst the wadis, palm groves and rocky hillsides of the area include such restricted-range specialities as Sand Partridge, Blackstart, Arabian Babbler, the curious Tristram’s Starling (or Tristram’s Grackle), Palestine Sunbird, Dead Sea Sparrow, Striolated Bunting, as well as Long-legged Buzzard, Bonelli’s Eagle, Pallid Swift, Pale Crag Martin, Desert Lark and both Brown-necked and Fan-tailed Ravens.
The greatest star of the area is, however, the superb little Sinai Rosefinch, now restricted, following on from taxonomic changes, to a very limited range in Sinai, the Negev and Dead Sea region, southern Jordan and northwestern Saudi Arabia. While you can see this bird more widely in winter, including the Eilat area, by spring the birds are back in their remote breeding fastnesses, so you need to explore one or more remote and spectacular desert gorges in order to see this pretty endemic.
Nubian Ibex are frequently seen in the area and there are some very tame Large-toothed Rock Hyraxes. Looking at these overgrown guinea pigs it is very hard to believe that their nearest relatives are the elephants!
The Dead Sea area is excellent for migrating birds of prey and in particular Lesser Spotted Eagle, a species often observed here but scarce further south at Eilat. Other raptors typical here include European Honey Buzzard, Common Buzzard, Egyptian Vulture and Short-toed Snake Eagle. We will have our first opportunity to see migrating flocks of Levant Sparrowhawk here. On some days a steady stream of northbound migrants passes along the rim of the escarpment, from where there are spectacular views over the Dead Sea.
After dark, we will visit a reliable site for the rare Nubian Nightjar. The local form, tamaricus, has been flagged as a potential split under the name Tamarisk Nightjar. We will also visit a rugged desert cliff which is reliable for the uncommon Desert Owl. This has only relatively recently been described as a new species to science, following the unexpected discovery that the genetics of the supposedly new ‘Omani Owl’ were identical to those of the original type specimen of Hume’s Owl, taken in southwestern Pakistan! So, no more Hume’s Owls in Israel, but instead they are Desert Owls!
Israel: Day 5 Leaving the Dead Sea behind, we drive southwards through the Arava, encountering an almost African landscape of scattered acacia savanna and arid, rocky mountains.
As we approach the Eilat area, where we will stay for four nights, the mountains flanking the valley increase steadily in height, the multiple hues of the rocks a testimony to their turbulent geological past.
During the journey we shall stop to look for such characteristic species of the area as the perky little Streaked Scrub Warbler (nowadays a monotypic family) and three restricted-range specialities; the lovely Arabian Green Bee-eater, Arabian Warbler (in places with large, scattered acacias) and the attractive Hooded Wheatear (which favours the dry, eroded hills and open flats that look like something from the surface of the moon). Depending on how long we take to look for these species, we may have time for some initial birding around Eilat this afternoon.
Israel: Days 6-8 Eilat is situated at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba, an arm of the Red Sea, and the surrounding area is a favoured venue for enthusiasts of bird migration. Springtime birding here is exciting for, in addition to having one of the world’s largest migrations of birds of prey, the Eilat area seems to attract almost every other kind of migrant and over the years an astonishing selection of vagrants have also turned up. There is a wide variety of habitats within a relatively small area including the waters and beaches of the Gulf of Aqaba, saltpans, brackish lagoons, kibbutz fields and palm groves, sandy and stony desert with scattered acacias, rocky wadis and the jagged mountains that loom above the town and stretch away far to the north.
Migrant birds of prey are often numerous and spectacular, but the northbound movement takes place in large pulses interspersed with much quieter periods. The commonest species at this period in spring are Common Buzzard (here represented by the strongly migratory form vulpinus, known as ‘Steppe Buzzard’, Black Kite and Short-toed Snake Eagle. We should also see small numbers of European Honey Buzzards (which are just starting to migrate through Israel at this time of year), Egyptian Vultures, Western Marsh, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, Eurasian Sparrowhawks and Booted and Steppe Eagles. We could also see Crested Honey Buzzard at the western edge of its distribution. Best of all, this is a good time for Levant Sparrowhawk migration. This is a tricky bird to see as most breeding and wintering areas are outside the scope of birding tours (Bulgaria and Georgia are probably the best bets, but even there it is by no means certain), but at this time of year in the Eilat region it is quite usual, although numbers vary greatly.
Along the shoreline of the Gulf of Aqaba we shall look in particular for White-eyed Gull, a species that is effectively a Red Sea endemic and which is a very regular non-breeding visitor here. We will also be on the lookout for Western Reef and Striated Herons, and Caspian Tern. If we are really in luck we will encounter White-cheeked Tern, a species that breeds in the Red Sea and the Persian/Arabian Gulf which turns up regularly at Eilat in summer, with occasional records in April.
At the saltpans and brackish lagoons, we should find such species as Greater Flamingo, Kentish and perhaps Greater Sand Plovers, Slender-billed Gull and Gull-billed Tern, as well as many other species of waterbirds.
Passerine migration at Eilat fluctuates greatly but there is always something to see and on rare occasions, there are birds everywhere. Amongst the more interesting landbird migrants that are found regularly at this time of year in the kibbutz fields and date palm groves, or around the pools and lagoons, are European Bee-eater, European Roller, Eurasian Wryneck, Greater Short-toed Lark, Tawny and Red-throated Pipits, Bluethroat, Isabelline Wheatear, Savi’s, Eastern Olivaceous and Eastern Orphean Warblers, Eastern Bonelli’s (or Balkan) Warbler, Collared and Semi-collared Flycatchers, Woodchat and Masked Shrikes, Spanish Sparrow and Ortolan Bunting. There are almost always some rarer birds about as well, but these are unpredictable.
An exciting resident species of the immediate Eilat area is Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse and we may be able to see these diminutive and largely crepuscular sandgrouse coming in to drink at dusk at a favourite watering point. Other residents of the area include Barbary Falcon, Eurasian Stone-curlew, Bar-tailed and Greater Hoopoe Larks, White-crowned Wheatear, the fairly restricted-range Mourning Wheatear, House Crow (a ship-borne colonist from South Asia), and Trumpeter and Desert Finches. Furthermore, Namaqua Dove has colonized the area and Black Scrub Robin turns up fairly regularly.
Other species likely during our stay at Eilat include Pied Avocet, Common Ringed and Grey (or Black-bellied) Plovers, Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Common Tern, Western Yellow Wagtail, Tree Pipit, Common Redstart, Northern Wheatear and Willow Warbler.
Israel: Day 9 After spending part of the day around Eilat we will drive northwards through the stark and dramatic scenery of the eastern Negev Desert to Mitzpe Ramon for a two nights stay.
Israel: Day 10 The undulating desert lands of the northern Negev offer some fine birding. Army camps and training areas are scattered about the region, making a rather bizarre backdrop to one’s explorations at times, but there is free access to most areas. Grazing by goats and sheep, which has reduced the neighbouring Sinai Desert to a sorry state, has been largely halted in the Negev and the resulting recovery of the vegetation has permitted a great increase in the numbers of many desert birds. In spring, providing the winter rains have been good, the area can look positively verdant and the many colourful wildflowers are a positive treat for those used to the regimented, ‘weed-free’ farmlands of Western Europe.
This is the easiest place in its range in which to see the magnificent but endangered Macqueen’s Bustard (split from Houbara) and we may even see one displaying, seemingly almost turning itself inside out in the process. Here we shall also be looking for Cream-coloured Courser, Spotted and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and Desert Wheatear. Another species to keep a lookout for is Lanner, although this spectacular falcon is now becoming increasingly rare. Other species in the area include Little Owl (of the form lilith, a potential split as Lilith’s Owl), Lesser Short-toed Lark and Spectacled Warbler. We should also see Mountain Gazelles.
We will also visit a sandgrouse drinking pool where Crowned and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse often drink, accompanied by Sand Partridges, Trumpeter Finches and other passerines.
Occasionally Arabian (or Asian Dunn’s) Lark and Temminck’s Lark occur in the Negev, but the chances of an encounter with either is very low.
Israel: Day 11 After some final birding in the Negev we will return to Tel Aviv airport, where our Israel birding tour ends this evening.