A few days spent in Israel – April 2015 – immersed in spring migration at Jerusalem and Eilat, a fantastic experience. This post summarises my impressions of witnessing masses of birds at close quarters. The post first appeared as a series in my blogger site which is worth a look if you’re interested in my adventures with all things wild. Also take a look at the profile of Yoav Perlman and his blog where much interesting information about birding is Israel can be found.
We are in Israel and it is hot. We have 5 nights in Jerusalem followed by 4 nights in Eilat on the Red Sea coast. We have naturally spent some time strolling around the old town and will see several important Holy Land sights over the next day or two including Bethlehem, Masada and the Dead Sea area. We spent most of today at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, a one acre plot in the middle of a city that is expanding at the same alarming rate as my waistline. The place was thronged with birds and butterflies of all kinds which just goes to show what a few trees and bushes and a strategically positioned pond can achieve. A charming oasis set optimistically amidst never ending miles of concrete. The star of the show was undoubtedly the white-throated kingfisher that sat patiently on overhanging branches waiting for some hapless frog or in one case a baby terrapin to show itself. It really doesn’t pay to be small or tasty in this world (Kylie Minogue excepted). There were lots of migrants on show, chief amongst them lesser whitethroats and blackcaps, although we also saw chiffchaffs, spotted flycatcher and all too brief tantalising glimpses of one or two warblers that will simply have to be put down as the ones that got away. The following images give a taste of what we saw today.
The Dead Sea and Negev
Even with an intermittent cooling breeze and plenty of water, you soon feel drained whilst walking around in the heat of the desert surrounding the Dead Sea.
We spent most of today there in the company of Carmel Zitronblat, a birder based in Jerusalem, who kindly agreed at short notice to try and find some of the special birds of the area for us. One thing became quite clear, quite early: you have to work very hard to see birds in this harsh landscape. Not only are they thinly distributed but they all blend in so well with the rock-strewn landscape. No brightly blazing kingfishers here, just for the most part small birds cloaked in various pale browns and whites – the perfect camouflage. And it was hot, very hot, even early in the morning. Still we did alright. The area we visited was essentially the strip of sun scorched land between the Dead Sea to the east and the imposing Judaean mountain range to the west, thrusting up from the desert floor to dominate the horizon for tens of miles. It is in this mountain range that you will find Masada. There the Jews held out for 7 months against the Roman army that eventually built a ramp of rock and compacted sand with which to reach the gates and storm the fortress, only to find the inhabitants had committed mass suicide.
Here too are the dry caves at Qumran that held the scrolls upon which ancient tribesmen had scribed psalms and stories of events occurring in biblical times. We visited both a couple of days back as well as spending time floating in the Dead Sea itself – great fun! The mountains form a very effective rain barrier, but there are many Wadis that help carry the rains that fall around Jerusalem down towards the sea. Where these depressions occur, they form strips of green where low growing flowers and shrubs find sufficient moisture to cling on to life. As ever in such environments, what at first seems lifeless will, on closer inspection, prove to be anything but. You just have to exercise patience and have a good pair of binoculars.
Walking wearily back to our apartment after most of the day spent at the Eilat Marine Park looking at the wonderfully varied and abundant inhabitants of the Red Sea coral reef, we noticed a raptor, probably a Steppe buzzard, flying low over the street. Thinking that maybe some kind of mini-migration event was taking place, we brewed a cuppa and sat on our balcony and waited to see what would happen. Boy oh boy! Were we in for a pleasant surprise. For the next couple of hours, until the sun began to set turning the sky a deep gold, we saw streams of honey buzzards, black kites, the aforementioned Steppe buzzards and smooth, streamlined Levant sparrowhawks flying purposefully north between the mountain ranges of Israel and Jordan. Most of these birds passed at little more than rooftop level affording excellent views.
Over the next couple of days we spent quite a bit of time, early in the morning and later in the afternoon, repeating this experience (much better prepared this time with a glass or two of a mellow red wine). The passage on Sunday 26th April was simply fantastic with hundreds of raptors, including Egyptian vultures, steppe eagles, long-legged buzzards and booted eagles, gracing the cloudless skies above our dwelling. Black storks, bee-eaters, swifts and swallows joined the throng, and would you believe nobody else looked up to see the spectacle of mass migration taking place just 100 feet above their heads. Too busy sunbathing and trying to look cool to be bothered with the real wonder of Eilat. But at least a couple of Middle aged English folk had the good sense to notice.
A couple of miles north of the city, created on a site that was previously the municipal rubbish dump, lies the International Birding and Research Centre Eilat (IBRCE). Here you will find a warm welcome, several hides, an information centre and shop selling various goodies and ice creams …….. and most importantly birds, lots of birds. The site is not very big, just a few acres, but has pools of fresh and salt water as well as plenty of low bushes and a few trees which provide shelter and food for enormous numbers of migrants making their way out of Africa and northwards into central and Eastern Europe. For me it was like being in a sweet shop and not really knowing which jar of sugar laden treats to plunder first, or maybe a more suitable analogy would be visiting a beer festival and not knowing which sugar laden ale to sup first. Birds were everywhere, the scrub held warblers, buntings and shrikes; the ponds, waders, herons and gulls; the skies above buzzards, eagles and falcons. Everywhere you looked there was something new, almost too much to take in to be truthful. We visited twice, and each time logged a different cast of characters zipping around in the bushes, with a never-ending stream of tired migrants passing overhead.
The heat was quite oppressive at times, even late in the afternoon, so we sought refuge in one of hides overlooking a fresh water lagoon. Fresh water is an uncommon resource in this part of the world and acts like a magnet to all kinds of wildlife, so sitting quietly for an hour means you are likely to see all kinds of birds feeding, resting and dropping in for a much needed drink. In the latter sense we had the good fortune to see, at close quarters, a fine male honey buzzard alight on the far bank for a well-earned guzzle, and a male Levant sparrowhawk sipping the sparkling waters from the pool edge. Gull-billed and Caspian terns likewise stopped for refreshment and a quick rest, whilst herons of six species fished in the shallows. A party of spoonbills tarried for a few minutes gliding over marsh sandpipers, black-winged stilts, spur-winged plovers and ruff attempting to nap on a small island, tucking their heads under their wing and standing on a single leg. Unmoved by all the commotion, a pied kingfisher sat patiently on a post waiting for some hapless fish to swim too close to the surface. He had obviously seen it all before and didn’t flinch, not even when sparrowhawks and a booted eagle passed within striking distance causing mass panic amongst the intermittently slumbering waders.
Plans are afoot to enhance this area and make it even better for birds and people. I hope to return one day and spend a more relaxed day or two there (why not a week). Maybe next year….