Meet the birds of Eilat

Noam Weiss 03/07/2017 00:00




South Africa - Where migration ends




My wife said last week that my birding and bird conservation attitude became an obsession.  I'm happy I managed to keep it hidden for so many years… I study birds, fight for them and watch them because they fascinate me. To look into a bird's eye, like a channel into its inner world, and realize how special it is, what capabilities it carries to migrate from so far places and overcome tremendous challenges, how much knowledge it saves and how sensitive its senses are to be able to survive and migrate, is my daily wonder. The bird's eye is like a door to places that we can only begin to understand, it’s a door into a mystery. The longer I look and study, the more I know and understand, but it’s a drop in the sea. They are just amazing.

One of the things that always puzzled me is why do they migrate so far? Why did they develop all these supernatural capabilities and invest all this epic effort just to arrive to a place? What is so special about this place that justifies the determination of a 5 grams bird to fly as far as South Africa?



Yawn of the Lioness


... So following a disappointment of not going to fund raise in America because of lack of funds… It became very clear to me how I compensate myself…. And the flight that was always so expensive was now cheap. 550$ and I can be in Johannesburg! Where migration ends! Where the birds go! So I took my lovely wife, who always wanted to go on a safari trip and after troublesome Ethiopia, I had to change her mind about Africa and we were off, flying on the flyway of birds.

We fueled ourselves on the Mediterranean fertile shores, crossed the Sahara desert (without food at all), and arrived safely to the first sub-Saharan forests and great lakes (breakfast served), crossed over the rain forests and jungles (fantastic lunch) and only through the winter clouds that surrounded Johannesburg, it was all there.


Lilac-breasted Roller


At a glance, South Africa looked like home. Modernity was everywhere, fields and powerlines and the same nature conservation problems, nothing like Africa I know. But slowly the birds started revealing themselves, lush habitats between the fields and miles of wild grassland filled me with excitement. This is how the birds feel down here. It's new, fresh, beautiful and inviting. Birds where everywhere and diversity changed fast as habitats changed - Urban, farmland, hilly grassland, forests and alpine meadows. It was winter here, but birds were singing! And yes, they seemed happier. I guess that having the journey of migration over makes birds happy. They have made it! But it's also the spirit here. The birds were joyful. They played with the air with their wings, with water with their bills and with song using their throats. I always teach that its food that moves the birds to Africa, but from here it looked like happiness and joy were the reasons for migration.




Magpie Shrike


Our first real stop (I was stopping for every bird on the way until my wife woke up) was cloudy and rainy Dullstroom, located in a high plateau. Callan's book "Bird Finder of Southern Africa" sent us to a dirt track that soon became rocky with healthy grassland surrounding it. The landscape looked very much like the Golan Heights back home.

"Lifers" were jumping from every rock and it was difficult to decide who to look at first - Buff-streaked Chat on a big stone, and a Mountain Wheatear replacing it elegantly on the same stone without any complain. Yellow breasted Pipits, Jackal Buzzards, a Long-crested Eagle and two Rock Kestrels were hovering and watching the scene without any judgmental looks. They rain disturbed no one. Its winter and the migratory birds are far in Europe, but it's easy to imagine the Lesser Kestrels, Yellow Wagtails and Barn Swallows roaming the site bringing cosmopolitan taste to the local life.


The night in Thaba Tzweni  - an isolated tiny lodge, was all full of African joy feeling. I couldn't wait for the first light (and I had no idea when it shows) so I left our room still at dark. I knew it was near as the Cape Rock Thrush was already singing and the weird call I heard at dawn actually belonged to the Gurney's Sugarbird that was quite busy drinking nectar from the giant Aloe plant in the garden.



Blyde Canyon


We were at the gate of the great Blyde Canyon and it was obvious from the surrounding mountains that it is going to be spectacular. Waterfalls, South African Cliff Swallow, dense forests on the edge of the cliffs, Malachite Sunbird and Cape Vultures, deep water streams and canyons, Baboons and Vervet Monkeys, were a fantastic mountainous gateway to the lower, world famous Kruger Park.


Kruger Park truly surprised me. I expected the wild safari with lots of grass eaters and tens of cars around them as in Eastern Africa.

But maybe the park's giant size (As big as all Israel) puts you into private and intimate encounters with all sorts of wildlife.

Nature conservation is the best I ever saw with few trails and zero off-trail movement, active car's speed control, no unguided movement of humans at night and very good management of habitats such as water-holes and dams, forests and bushland.

The night camps are few and friendly with excellent birding and wildlife watching opportunities.

We had just 2 hours to make the 50 km stretch between Phalaborwa gate and the Letaba camp.


Saddle-billed Stork - nesting


The first birds we saw were a Saddle billed Stork nesting on a tree and a Long tailed Shrike just below it. We were in a different territory where wildlife is on the upper hand. A bark from the grass, we thought was some mammal, was actually a Red crested Korahan (a beautiful kind of Bustard) and Elephants, Impala, Springbuck, Jackals and Spotted Hyenas were easy to see on the way.



Red-creasted Korahan (left) and a Creasted Francolin


The Letaba camp was fenced as if we were in a cage, while the wildlife was free surrounding us. The rangers guiding the night special drive made it very clear that we are not to step out of the car. This wasn't our place. Everywhere else we surround nature with reserves and we are proud of the conservation we do; here it was nature's kingdom and we were the ones to be behind fences and restrictions. We were just observers. Humanity was unfelt here.

It was a special feeling, especially at night when the wilderness was even more pronounced by the elephant's roars in the darkness and the fear from a Lion or violent Baboons that might not spare us. It was not a nature reserve, it was nature itself.



Southern Red-billed Hornbill


I have no space to write about every great bird out of the probably 200 species I saw in the Kruger Park. But I just can't go around not talking about Hornbills. They are amazing – curious, smart, funny, playful, beautiful and noisy like no other bird. Self-confident but not arrogant. They know how to take care of themselves but not selfish.  Southern Yellow billed, Southern red billed, African grey, Trumpeter and even Southern ground Hornbills are quite everywhere you go. If I wasn’t a keen birder who needs to find the next species, I would have spent a week just watching them play seek and hide with themselves and me.

How did the birding go with my non birder wife? You just need to find Lions, Elephants, Giraffes, Zebras, Hyenas, Buffalos and Rhinos here and there and she is happy. The Cheetah family with 3 cubs and 3 cubs and a super confiding female Leopard were the cream.  It was fabulous.

To be continued….



Eyes... of the Leopard





A love story




This is going to get sticky, so if you are not into pink kind of romance, just move on now. If you are still here, I must share this with you.  

I don't know if it is the climate, the habitat or the joy of the work here, but love flourishes between people who come here. If you think I'm just making it up to get more volunteers at the bird sanctuary, just have a look at this graph:





Some of the stories are stickier than others and some may raise some questions but it's a fact. Every migration season we have at least one new couple falling in love. No. it's not our Jewish culture trying and getting everyone married and with kids, it just happens.


When I choose my volunteers for the next season, I'm always worried. What if they have a girlfriend or a boyfriend (or both - we saw it all) and they fall in love here with someone else? One of our most famous success stories (It's famous because I can't stop talking about them and I know it's wrong…) involved two love birds who came engaged with someone else but the flame of love between the migratory birds just hit them in the Bonie M' show in Eilat (the real band..).


It was fast and strong and involved a lot of alcohol. We were all amazed from the unexpected turn in the story and though it will just be something light, but hey, they are getting married…

We had gay couples, inter religious couples, weird ones and also the cool kind. It usually spices up the season and the work in the station, but can also cause some complications, but who am I to complain…

guess where I met my lovely wife….






How does one make a corridor through a concrete wall?




The border between Israel and the Palestinian Territories is well marked by the famous walls and fences. At the same time, this area is one of the most important wildlife corridors between the sea and the river.

This wall separates not only habitats and wildlife, but also two different realities, cultures, levels of awareness to nature and different capabilities in conserving nature. The conflict and the wall have made a gap that we now need to close. We need to create an effective corridor for wildlife and simultaneously a corridor for exchanging knowledge and cooperation to work together for the sake of our environment.




Facing reality - Mountain Gazelle - Jerusalm


Why are these corridors so important?

It's because nature doesn't stay the same (with our help…) and wildlife needs to move freely between habitats in order to enhance genetic diversity. This mobility is the key to evolution and survival of our biodiversity.


The SPNI, the Palestine Wildlife Society, the Hanns Seidel Foundation, and the European Union’s Partnership for Peace program have joined force for the last three years to make a change. We conducted monitoring and data analysis workshops, surveyed the fauna and flora in key sites along the corridor, wrote masterplans of how to maintain three nature sites in Palestine (Wadi Quff, Beitilu and Um at-Tut), and made those sites more accessible to visitors. We also marked trails, put informative signs, made communal events for thousands of people, trained eco-tourism guides and involved decision makers.


Palestinian Eco-tourism guide


Without doubt, the impact of this project went far beyond the scope of its implemented activities.

We now have a Palestinian website, , summarizing the knowledge about wildlife in Palestine.  


We have a growing interest in birdwatching and wildlife watching activities in Palestine, and now decision makers are far more aware of the importance of the environment.

We created friendships and a network of experts who are willing to work together and to whom nature conservation is more important than political conflict.

We have made this corridor.


Now there is both a physical corridor through four nature sites we promoted and a "human ecological corridor" that had built nature conservation capabilities on both sides of the wall.

We have an understanding to work together despite our differences and political difficulties.




Deep sea watch station - we have learned something new




Every month, I join the marine biologists of the Inter University Institute (IUI) on their monthly trip to collect water samples from the depths of the sea. We sail to the deepest point, just next to the marine border of Israel, Egypt and Jordan and I try my luck with the seabirds. The fact that no systematic survey of this kind was ever done before excited me, and I promised to myself that I would complete a full year, no matter what the results were.


September was very dull. I saw just a few wild Dolphins that I later found out were pretty rare, but October was fantastic with Wilson and Swinhoe's Storm-Petrels waking over the water; a great find. November, December, January and February left us lonely on the deck, with almost zero bird activity at sea so when the March sail was canceled it was kind of a relief.

Yesterday the wind went crazy and the sea angry with 1.5 meters tall waves, but we went anyway. Our small research boat usually rules the sea easily, but this time felt so small, being violently shaken from side to side. We did not get to see any rare bird, but the harsh trip made us closer to having some understanding about some of our migration mysteries.  

Some assumptions we had proved to be wrong but some were right. What really bugs me now is that it was all quite logical in retrospect.



European Honey Buzzard - taking a shortcut


The first mystery that was always on our minds was where the raptors pass around noon when we don't see them in our raptor count stations. In Eilat, raptor passage is easy to see in the mornings and afternoons. Therefore we assumed that around noon the Raptors must be passing so high that we can't see them, or they drift westward.  Hadoram Shirihai and David Christie, in their article in British birds from 1992 did point out that in strong northern wind you get a passage over the sea that bypasses our observers in Eilat, but where and how - we could not confirm for many years.


Passage above the northern tip of the bay with a short part over water is commonly seen in afternoons with northern winds, but yesterday at sea it became obvious that the raptors actually cross the sea around noon very far south of Eilat. As the wind gets stronger, the birds can take a shortcut above the bay between areas south of Taba, Egypt and Aqaba, Jordan, bypassing Israeli soil. Thermals that start above the north beach or somewhere in Jordan, are pushed south above the sea, giving the Honey Buzzards an opportunity for a lift even far into the bay. We always thought it was too dangerous for them to fly so far over the water, but they obviously think differently. We need to extend our survey to Jordan if we want to have the full picture of migration here. It will not be easy, but I'll try to have it happen. (Thank you Barak for your comment).



We also always knew that seabirds are abundant at the north beach and stay there for some time. Being at sea revealed the active passage of the terns (Common, Little, Sandwich and Gull-billed) in the center of the bay towards the north beach where they accumulate until the evening and prepare to cross overland to the Mediterranean when it gets dark.



Common Terns and Collard Pratincoles - waiting for the night...


Another exciting find was an Eleonora's Falcon, something that we very rarely see in Eilat. They are probably just hunting deep at sea, just like at their breeding areas. At least that was how it looked like from the boat.

So the deep sea monitoring proved to be fruitful again. Despite the difficulties, we will continue to collect data and get better understanding of migration and seabirds in our corner of the world.




saving the birds of Eilat from the blades of wind turbines.




Nature conservation is no job for people with soft skin. But that's who we are, aren’t we? The nature lovers are too optimistic people who can see the beauty in every small thing. So we have to wear our shields and on to work. Here is one story that gives some hope.


There was a proposal by the French electric company EDF, and Kibbutz Eilot to build a wind farm between the International Birding Research Center Eilat, the freshwater reservoir and the Flamingo Saltpans. These are probably the three most important stopover sites for migratory birds in hundreds of kilometers. Even more concerning, this proposed wind farm, 13 turbines 120 meters high, was planned to be built under one of the busiest intercontinental flyways on the globe.

Due to the danger of wind turbines to these migrating birds, we made our utmost effort to stop this development. I think we can safely say that we "turned every stone" looking for ways to stop the wind farm. BirdLife International staff sent letters, we published articles in local, national and European media, we created public awareness in local and national level events, went to every discussion in the planning committees and we even made it to the Knesset.  We also closely monitored the investor's surveyors and conducted a shadow survey to prove their negligence and we created a coalition against the wind farm with local organizations, NGO's and ministries. Nevertheless, the planning went forward and it seemed unstoppable.





The turning point was an objection we submitted to the regional council regarding its approval of a wind measurement pylon held by cables that the financing bank required from the investors. We showed that the cables can be harmful to the nocturnal birds that roam the Flamingo Saltpans and we managed to get a unanimous vote to change the former decision to allow the pylon. The court appeal session that followed just made the decision to ban the pylon even stronger and final. While this alone could not stop the project, the taste of victory and the fact that the local organizations strongly opposed the project created a feeling of hope.


The big blow to the project came from our communal work. Meetings with Kibbutz members, lectures, and events at the bird sanctuary, a regional conference, local media and building a coalition against the project within the kibbutz, created an atmosphere that led to a vote taken in Kibbutz Eilot to back off from the project. Now that the investors had lost the land owner as a partner, the plan to build the wind farm looks further than ever.

We are still careful as EDF is a powerful company and they haven't lost hope, but it looks like a big step was made and the migratory birds can use the flyway safely as before.




We would like to show our gratitude to our partners: "Sababa" - the local environmental forum, NPA, the Ministry of the Protection of the Environment, the environmental unit of Eilot, Mayor Hanan Ginat, Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, our dedicated volunteers and the bird sanctuary in Eilat and mostly to the brave Kibbutz members in Eilot.




The biggest week in Israel's birding - Eilat



The 1,000 Tictacking Lesser Whitethroats on the trees at the entrance of the bird sanctuary, like an old typing machine, are a loud reminder of the last 10 days, packed with events, birders and some great birding.


Visiting birders from all over the globe started to fill the bird sanctuary's paths with excitement and expensive equipment. The birds were showing well, especially the Crakes (Little, Baillon's, Spotted and Water Rails) who were easy to see this year, and the visitors of the Spring Migration Festival were having a good time.





Seifim plain and Ovda valley were supplying the scarce desert birds as Thick-Billed, Temminck's, Hoopoe and Bar-Tailed Larks and some Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouses,

Yotvata fields were loaded with Wagtails, Pipits, Warblers and Larks of all kinds and the Saltpans waders kept all happy.  

The best birding guides of the country came down to Eilat to guide it so it was also a fantastic opportunity to meet old friends.


The next event brought some 2,000 curious elderly visitors, organized by the Ministry of Social Equality to the bird sanctuary, where they enjoyed birding and banding activities and met the migratory birds up close. Most birds went deep into the closed parts of the bird sanctuary avoiding the crowds, but my team was left speechless, after repeating the same lecture at least 10 times at the same level of excitement as their first. At least the visitors had great time and many stories to tell.





While the first participants of the "Champions of the Flyway" were already here in Eilat, "Artists for Nature" arrived and dispersed in the bird sanctuary to make their beautiful drawings of birds and landscape that we are not short of.  

We invited the community of Eilat to join, watch the artists at work, get a sketch workshop from some of the best nature artists in the world and hear about the beauty of birds and how to appreciate them. 800 visitors enjoyed this once in a lifetime opportunity and we were left rich with many smiles and a giant mural, jointly painted by the visiting and local artists. It is now on the wall of our office. You must come and see this very special piece of art.





Next day gave way to the opening ceremony of the real madness, our "birding Olympics", the Champions of the Flyway. Naturally it also happened at the bird sanctuary. In a unique and emotional event, some of the best birders in the world - 14 countries, 40 teams, joined together with two goals - to raise funds to stop illegal killing of birds in Turkey, and to get ready for the race day and see as many species as possible in 24 hours.





The race day was a thrill and full of fun and funny moments. Birds jumped from one pool to the other, and we followed… I was leading again the Palestine Sunbirders with 3 Palestinian colleagues and we had "burned" the race trail with 176 species.

When Palestinians and Israelis work together nothing can stop us, but unfortunately the Finnish team never heard of that and got the first place with the incredible score of 181 species. Anyway the prize is the participation and the money raised (we raised almost 1,400 Euros!! Thank you generous donors!)…






Having Thomas Krumenacker, the author of the new and beautiful piece of art "Birds in the Holly land", we gathered the photographers and artists community of Eilat to hear the stories behind the photos of this fantastic book, which describes the complicated story of this country and its birds.

So now, when the biggest 10 days of birding in Israel is over, when millions of birds have passed and thousands of people who watched them are gone, it's only the birds and us - the team of the IBRCE. Now it's time for bird migration madness also for us to enjoy as migration is far from over and the Sahara desert is covered with some great birds, on the way here.








Interesting visitors to the bird sanctuary, Eilat




Birders look at birds and write so much about them. But what do the birds see when they look at us? I'm sure that there are many kinds of bird - human interactions and many other things that birds can see in humans other than danger, like with any other creatures around them.

Do they try to figure out who are the rare human visitors to the birds’ sanctuary, in what seasons they come, and what kind of special behavior they show?




What the birds surely hear very often is the rolling laughter of our secretary Liby. When she laughs, you needn't be an owl to hear it from a mile. When birds hear other birds sing, it gives them confidence. I wonder if her laughter has the same impact on them.

When we guide groups it seems like the birds come and listen rather than fly away. Do they listen to the tone of speech or are they just inquisitive to see who came into their territory?

Bluethroats are very much like that and often run between the visitors, while Chiffchaffs gather on the branches above. When I guide and show recently ringed birds in my hand, they seem totally relaxed, and sometimes when I release them, they wait on my hand and may even grab a fly from the air and still not fly away. What do these birds see and feel?


Winter is especially interesting as the birds stay longer and have more interactions. A curious Bluethroat by Anita's Lake likes the photographers and shows them it’s shiny chest when they come. The Little Grebes dive, show up next to the person and dive away again.

Photographers and birders are probably interesting as they seem to want to get close, don't try to steal their food and never harm them. So why not discover who we are? Does it make them happy?




The visiting groups are not used to birding. They don't really know what to look at and where. So the Pale Rock Martins and jumpy Chiffchaffs surprise people at very close range, as if just for a second to make them aware of their presence. It reminds me of the days when I used to guide people to see the Desert Tawny Owls, deep in the desert. The owls were the ones to choose whether to call and thereby expose themselves or to stay quiet and hidden.  It was very clear to me that relaxed visitors always got to see the owl while arrogant or stressed birders did not. These owls could tell the new energy in their territory and react to it just like a Chiffchaff that comes to another singing Chiffchaff yet doesn't come near the ever-stressed Arabian Babbler.




Last week we had an interesting group of blind visitors come to the bird sanctuary. We let them feel the birds just ringed at the ringing station and release them. For the first time they could really tell what a bird was and why it is so special. The crazy thing was that when we went birding with them, all the birds were calling around them instead of just a few. Black winged Stilts were flying around noisily and the Bluethroats and Chiffchaffs were singing to give them the full experience, and I think they all loved it.





You need to come to the bird sanctuary in Eilat to really understand the magic and wonder of this experience.





Annual yet incredible - spring migration is on again




Winter died slowly. The stability we got used to is no longer valid. It felt good to know that a Greenshank and a Bluethroat would greet you every morning entering the office and the Dead Sea Sparrows and the Long-eared Owls would wait at the same spot on my morning monitoring rounds.

We had some good birds in the bird sanctuary this winter - a Redwing that stayed most of the season, a visiting Black Bush Robin and an exceptional number of up to 60 Dead Sea Sparrows.



It was also a great winter for the desert. Following autumn rains we had an "influx" of 5 of the extremely rare Basalt Wheatear and the gathering of Larks in Ovda Valley was the best ever with well over 500 Temminck's Larks, over 100 Bar-tailed Larks and some Hoopoe and Thick-billed Larks. Additionally, the concentration of Desert Warblers around Evrona was unprecedented. Now, stability makes room for change and surprise and the monitoring team finds new exciting stuff every morning.



It's always the beautiful House Martins that give it away first that spring is here. Pallid and Common Swifts followed and the skies fill up with tens of Steppe Eagles daily. Scops Owls are seen here and there and the reed beds sounds like Sedge and Savi's Warblers. The first Syrian Serin has made the morning a happy one for most of us and you can feel that something really good is on the way.





There is no way to know what kind of spring it is going to be, but I can tell beyond doubt that the desert will be full of birds this year. Hoopoe Larks are already preparing to nest and the numbers the Temminck's, Bar-tailed and Thick-billed Larks indicate a great year for them here.

The bird sanctuary in Eilat is ready fruity and in full bloom for the new arrivals and the IBRCE team armed with state of the art optics given to us by Zeiss optics and strengthened by our volunteers from Israel, Latvia, UK, Spain, France, Belgium and the US, are ready to support and monitor the wonder and excitement that flies just now over the Sahara Desert on the way to us.




As every year, the bird sanctuary will function as a hub for information about the location of interesting birds. You can come to our office and get coffee, smiles and advice (free) or you can book a tour to see some cool birds.




See you in Eilat


Spring is just around the corner















Little Green Bee-eater. Photo - Shlomi Bachar


Eilat - birders HOTSPOT