Eilat is Unusual

Noam Weiss 23/07/2019 00:00




On the only land bridge connecting three continents and on the edge of the Sahara desert some unusual encounter happen. Our famous stop over site is temporary home for birds that otherwise would have never met. 

Where on earth an arctic bird like Curlew Sandpiper sits tail to tail with a Spotted Sandgrouse or a Hooded Wheatear? An Asian Desert Warbler in the same bush with a British Lesser Whitethroat? Or even a German PhD student with an Israeli birdwatcher?  All these unusual encounter lead to some odd results we cannot keep to ourselves anymore. 


Asian Desert Warbler    Photo: Shimon Shiff


The Eilati birders already know what I am going to talk about. Our couple of the year, the Lesser White Fronted Goose and his long-term relationship with his lovely Egyptian Goose. Any first year student of psychology (and my neighbor) would tell you that with such names to bird species as "Lesser White Fronted Goose" one could expect some issues and abnormalities. 

It arrived to Eilat's Bird Sanctuary somewhere in late autumn 2017, from somewhere in Siberia. He was eating the reeds and occasionally swimming in the lake all alone, watching the last flocks of migratory Teals playing together in the water, the noisy Gulls playing joyfully with dead fish and the complicated family life of the Water Rails (screaming at each other and beating their offsprings). He was watching and learning but kept to himself. 


One day, while scaring away some unwanted migratory ducks from the pool, an Egyptian Goose named "Latifa" (Gentleness in Arabic), noticed our Lesser Goose. For a moment, his white forehead blinded her judgment and his short pink bill seemed so cute. His young age did not alter her feelings for him and she showed him her heart shaped belly patch. 


 Love is in the Air    Photo: Johan Fjellstrom


The other Egyptians did not like it. "It's clearly a goose chase!", "He will not stay" they said, "He will run with the first heat wave of spring". However, Latifa was never the kind of girl that would listen to such a goose talk or reason. 

The differences between the sweethearts were obvious from day one - He will not let the kids jump off cliffs and she will not migrate to crazy places. But Love was in the air. Always together, flying together, sleeping together (not what you have in mind, its winter for god's sake). "Ei" is her call, and "Ou" is his, but its harmony.


So now, it is time for goodbyes. Our Lesser is preparing for Siberia, fattening, and Latifa will loyally wait for him down here. Nevertheless, the spirit of the couple of the year of the bird sanctuary inspired us all. The Pygmy Cormorant (first time in Eilat) brakes twigs all day long having love in mind. There is no female around so it's only a speculation who he builds the nest for. Shachar thinks he has the Purple Heron in mind. A handsome creature, no doubt, but probably not his type (catching fish without getting dirty…).


Purple Horny...   Photo: Aviv Etzion


The latest love story in the lake, belongs to a pintail and a Mallard sitting all day together on the island. Yes, they are both males. But hey, Everything is possible, it's Eilat.



Colorful Wings



A few months ago, on a far too sunny autumn day, three people emerged out of the thicket of the "birds only" part of the Eilat Bird Sanctuary. The first was a not so young and not so thin man, with a once upon a time nice button shirt. This same shirt had now some holes around the arms, probably made by acacia tree thorns some time ago, while crawling through the thicket. His hiking shoes, the kind that was trendy in the happy 80's, had lost their colors and one of the shoelaces. They were broken in the front, ready to swallow ground while walking, just like an earthworm. His undisciplined hair was dotted with dry leaves and he had a glazed gaze that seem to be stuck on short-range focus only.

Behind him was his wife, baring the look of "I love him anyways". Not far behind was Benny, with red eyes and a happy smile that did not seem to have a connection to anything obvious. They are the butterfly people. Polite would not be the right word to describe them. "Avutilon is what you need" they shot at me "it will change everything". Apparently, "Avutilon" is a rare local plant, known to attract a specific kind of butterfly. I did not dare to ask which butterfly, since I did not want to reveal my lack of knowledge about this seemingly obvious revelation.


They were desperate about it and promised to bring the plant themselves. I was in no position to say no. The desperate looks in their faces and the general feel of the scene were the right combination to get a yes from me. Luckily, they just wanted to bring a plant! Operation Avutilon was on!

The plant grew to surprising heights in overwhelming speed. It was probably the location next to a bigger bush, which made it illusive to the butterflies and hence they did not arrive.  However, these people know no despair. They made us plant a full-scale butterfly garden at the entrance to the bird sanctuary!


Blue-spotted Arab     Photo: Noam Weiss


Now, the garden swarms with butterflies. Just today 1,000 Blue-spotted Arabs (yes that is a butterfly), 5 Palin Tigers (also a butterfly), 7 Painted Ladies (you got it right?) and a few blue ones I dare not try and ID.

It was last week that Shachar Shalev, our best ever volunteer, photographed a Yellow Pansy!!!! At the bird sanctuary!!!! Probably the 4th record for the country! So every day, I find myself looking for this yellow wonder, but I cannot find it.  A real shame.

Yellow Pansy    Photo: Shachar Shalev


I am sure we are doing something good here. The butterfly garden is the corner we release all the hungry Corncrakes that we collect weak from town. Food and shelter is perfect for them there (Please do not tell the butterfly man!). We have also taken the biodiversity of the bird sanctuary a level higher. We educated people to love and protect wildlife (yes, even insects, or as some of you may call them bugs) and now we have a stopover site not only for migratory birds, but also for some butterflies who cross the Sahara Desert.


Paunted Lady     Photo: Noam Weiss


Butterflies stopover sites are even cooler than the bird's sites (do not tell the bird people) as butterflies do not only eat and fuel there, but also lay eggs and grow caterpillars. Migration continues with the new generations of butterflies, amazing! We know from the desert, that birds identify the sites where butterflies lay eggs and breed, so when the bird fledglings will be out of the nest, they will have plenty of food. People really do love butterflies! I dare to say even more than flamingos, and they come and visit the new lovely butterfly garden.

As you can see there are some new colorful wings in the bird sanctuary and you are all welcome to see, enjoy and help us count them.


A few Megical seconds from the Garden of Butterflies




"Summerising" spring



It is just a few days before you will burn your feet if you walk barefoot on Eilat's warm ground, and the bird migration fades into the summer. Black and Rufous Bush Robins already sing so loudly and the Namaqua Doves fledglings are due any day now. When the Eilat birds' sanctuary prepares itself for summer, it is time to remember the spring that was.


Spring is always nice in Eilat. Every garden fills up with colorful migrants, the bird sanctuary bounces with thousands of birds of tens of species every day, the birders flock to the bird sanctuary and people, who we keep nature safe with, have love in their hearts.

It is true that it was not the most brilliant spring for birding. The numbers of migrants were low and not so many rarities were found. Some species, such as Egyptian Nightjar, Yellow Wagtail, Ortolan Bunting, Barn Swallow, Masked Shrike, Olive Tree, Eastern Olivaceous and Willow Warblers came in small numbers. Other species such as Caspian Plover, European Nightjar, Eurasian Scops Owl, Menetrie's and Marsh Warblers were almost completely absent this spring.



Subalpine Warbler - Smart male - spring 2019    photo: Mark Pearsom


It was a great year for the Collared and Pied Flycatchers who came in huge numbers, for the Honey Buzzards who filled the skies here like giant clouds in a sunny day and the Ruppell's and Subalpine Warblers were everywhere. Analyzing our past data we would like to believe that these kind of years are related to good rains and a wealth of food south of us before or during the Sahara desert crossing. When the desert is in full bloom Eilat is just another stopover site of many, while in years when the desert is nothing but dry stones, Eilat shines as a must stop for the poor migrants. We see it in their fat score at the ringing station and indeed the desert south of us now is exceptionally green and the fat scores of the birds are in the sky. Painted lady butterflies arrived in unimaginable numbers and even big Locusts herds are closer than ever to invade us from the south. Therefore, it is probably good news for the birds. Is it really? We hope so.



Ruppell's Warbler - Heading north to i'ts breeding grounds in Turkey     photo: Mark Pearson


It was a good spring for nature conservation in the southern Arava. Some antennas lost their supporting net of cables because of bird's flight safety, the amazing Sasgon valley will remain an untouched desert after no less than 20 years of struggle - We have lost all the battles there but got the public on our side on the way and won the war.

The neighborhood planned next to the bird sanctuary is not expected to materialize in the next few years and we have most of our demands to protect and develop the biological carrying capacity of the bird sanctuary accepted. Our proposal to learn how birds serve as service givers (pest control) in fields was accepted, and next autumn we hope to conduct research that will change the way farmers see birds.



White-crowned Wheatear. it's Home - "Sasgon valley" is Safe.     Photo: Mark Pearson


We have done great with international events this spring too. The Champions of the Flyway "birders Olympics" broke some records and the spring migration festival was fully booked well in advance, and visitor birders flooded the bird sanctuary and Southern Arava birding sites equipped with our new birding map booklets.  

However, the most amazing event was the International Bird Observatories Conference that brought representatives from most of the bird observatories in the world. It is a once in a lifetime that we had such a great international recognition for what we do here, and they loved it. We promise to make the best possible use of this positive asset for nature conservation. Following that, we conducted our first Bird Observatories management international course with participants from Palestine and Egypt and we intend to make Eilat an international hub for building capabilities for community based nature conservation.



Susan Bonfield - Executive Director - World Migratory Bird Day photo: Mark Pearson


Another inspiring achievement was the participation and leadership of our volunteers and community. During the conference and the other events they were here helping and promoting. They even made a "flash mob" dance at the closing dinner of the conference and demonstrated the power of volunteers and community.

In everyday life, they help with the bird ringing, maintenance of the bird sanctuary and its habitats, rescue wounded or weak birds, guide and educate, take part in campaigns and a lot more. Our community, made it very clear to the decision makers that putting birds at risk here, is not acceptable. Birds are important and they need to safeguard their skies and stopover sites in every possible decision they take.



Caring, Involved, Concerned - The solution for plastic Pollution     Photo: Noam Weiss


Therefore, we are happy to close another good spring and look forward to our dry summer. The Red Sea is about to come to life with Lesser Crested, White cheeked and Bridled Terns, Sooty and Cory's Shearwaters, Jaegers of all kinds and maybe some Storm Petrels.

It is time to write programs and proposals, plan the coming research and education programs and continue our conservation campaigns, but mostly it is about time to have our long waited for vacation!








The International Bird Observatories Conference - in Eilat!




Bird observatories are one of the most advanced tools for contemporary nature conservation in birds. Bird observatories are located in strategic places, important for birds and their migration, but at the same time serve as a "meeting point" of people and the public with the birds. This is where people get to see the birds up-close, learn about their needs, discover their epic journeys, appreciate, love and protect birds. It is a magical place where the world of people meets nature and conservation first hand.



A Night in the Birding center - IBOC 2019     Photo: Mark James Pearson


It is not often that the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and the International Birding & Research Center in Eilat (IBRCE) host most of their respected colleagues from around the world. The inspiring attendees who arrived included the founders of the idea of a bird observatory, along with people who currently run them and people who have it on their wish list; 150 participants from 32 countries, 60 bird observatories and organizations, 11 keynote speakers, 71 lectures, 16 posters, 7 field trips, 24 volunteers, 5 days, 1 plastic pollution awareness event, many birds, 876 emails addresses of potential participants, 91 submitted abstracts on time (plus a few late!), 1 astronaut, 21 scholarships for small and developing observatories and 8 steering committee members.


On the Speaker Stand - Lusine Aghajanyan from Armenia

Photo: Mark James Pearson


We have shared exciting research with innovative technologies. We have heard about community-based nature conservation projects - what to pursue and how to make it appealing to our communities. We have learned who are the future birders and nature conservationists and how "to grow" them. We have seen how different bird observatories operate, fund and sustain their activities, and reach out for decision makers and general public opinion. We have heard about setbacks and a cry for international help and some good examples of cooperation.


However, mostly we have met each other, shared experiences, ideas, created collaborations for the future and encouraged each other to continue the good and important job we do. We have closed the conference with a joint Israeli-Palestinian led workshop about the know-how of recruiting communities to nature conservation, a festive dinner and a game, while the volunteers of the IBRCE surprised us with a "flash mob" dance that demonstrated to us all the dedication and positive energy of volunteers as our cutting edge of communal work.



It has been Awesome!     Photo: Mark James Pearson


Nature conservation changes its face and ways of conduct. In the reality we live in, nature conservation of birds' means working with people, connecting to our communities and slowly leaving the "bubble" of research or remote sites monitoring. Nothing is remote from the people's influence anymore. Therefore, bird observatories will be growing in importance as a tool for nature conservation and will change forms and methods according to the ever-changing reality.

We would like to heartily thank the participants that made it to our desert from afar, to our dear sponsors and partners, Cellular Tracking, The Hoopoe Foundation, KKL Wings, Lotek, Ecotone, QLF, Eilat municipal tourism corporation, to the IBOC steering committee, organizers,  partners, volunteers and staff from Eilat, the rest of Israel and many friends. It has been awesome!


Dan Alon and Noam Weiss

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel

The International Birding & Research Center, Eilat



The story of the Steppe Eagles




Today is the peak migration day of the Steppe Eagles in Eilat. Thousands of Eagles will peacefully cross our skies. No sound and no rush will be heard and most people would probably not notice them, but they have a story to be told.




Steppe Eagle in Lake Anita - IBRCE spring 2019   Photo: Noam Weiss


Being a Steppe Eagle has its dangers attached. A very large and vulnerable bird, desired by its predators - falconers, who breeds on the open Asian steppe, on the ground, where dogs search for easy prey, perched on the endless electric power lines, where any wrong movement will end it up fried, might survive. However, the extremely long migration routes, between central and eastern Asia, all the way to South Africa and India, are probably the added risk that leaves very little space to luck. Long migration routes have been a great strategy when nature was there, in its glory. However, we live in a time of changes, too many changes, and nothing is perfect anymore.



Steppe Eagles preparing for take off  - Eilat mountains      Photo: Thomas Krumenacker


Last September, all the people who deeply care for these eagles and know most about them, gathered in Altai (Siberia). It was astonishing to see the Russian speaking community of eagle researchers and nature conservationists, who live in a parallel scientific world to ours, share the same love and concern. I felt at home. The Russian style parties at night, which involved a lot of vodka, dancing and the community's most highly respected professors making fun of themselves with their students, gave their way to bad news from the field during the day. Kazakhstan, which holds most of the breeding eagles, is losing 10% of them every year. The same is true for European Russia, eastern Siberia and Mongolia. Only in Altai and Sayan regions, some stability is maintained. The numbers of eagles counted going south to Southern Asia are dropping and hundreds are being victims of the same veterinary medicine used in cows in India, which killed the vultures there.


The natural habitats that used to feed the eagles during winter are slowly being replaced by rubbish dumps in India, Arabia and even in the Asian Steppe. Another worry comes from the Eastern Imperial Eagle who is actually doing great and grow in numbers and distribution all along its Steppe Eagle's parallel range. The new "imperialists", who use trees for nests, migrate much shorter distances and adapt to feed in winter in fields, might take this empire down to dust.

Down here in Eilat, a small spark of hope. The numbers of Steppe Eagle's we count every year in our yearly raptor count probably declines but not as fast as the general population. If at all (not statistically significant), the eagle's numbers have dropped 20% in 30 years. GPS transmitter's data showed that Kazakh eagles could go to either India or Africa, even if they originate from the same breeding region. They are flexible. Our flyway and probably Africa, is still a safe haven for the eagles, but I wonder for how much




Steppe Eagle global population is less then 37,000 breeiding Pairs. A young Steppe Eagle passing over Eilat.

Photo: Noam Weiss 


Hovering over the world's worst war, hunger and famine zones, they keep hopeful and continue, try new ways to survive and adapt. Biologists will argue that we can still save them and they will find the way, but any historian will tell you, this empire has fallen.




Birding site's booklet, Eilat & Arava


How can we help you find birds in Eilat and stay safe?





The life of a birder in a foreign country is not easy. We are often misunderstood for what we do in someone's backyard or in a military zone with camouflaged clothes and state of the art optics (preferably Zeiss).

This is why we have produced for you the ultimate booklet of "where to watch birds in Eilat and southern Arava" you can show any security muscleman or an angry husband. Their place is now a "kind of official" birding site.


The booklet is great also for birders who actually want to find birds in our region. We have gathered our experience and knowledge of the birding sites in Eilat and Southern Arava and created a booklet with updated maps of the best birding hotspots of our region, some information about what interesting birds are expected there and some logistics and red tape. The booklet will be a sufficient tool to plan your way around here and take better use of your time, but our best advice is to come with it, or just buy it at the bird sanctuary and ask us to mark on it the latest up-to-date localities of the birds on your wish list.


Click on the Map to enlarge


We will also advice you about the best strategy to find your bird and a "plan B" for the chronically unlucky birders. Our information center is located at the Eilat Bird Sanctuary and it's open when the office is open, Sunday to Thursday 08:00 to 15:30 and Friday until 12:00 or if we over work (happens often).


Click on the Info page for better view


Creating such a booklet for the use of the independent birder was our dream for many years. We used to draw some "not very understandable" sketches of maps on paper and point people to good birding spots. However, we knew we could give a better service.

However, we had no funds to make it happen. It all changed when I described the idea to Itai Shanni, the ecologist of the regional council of Southern Arava and a fantastic birder and guide and former IBRCE director. He immediately said: “we don't need money, just partners!”


Therefore, we called our partners of the bird sanctuary and they all said YES! The tourism corporation of the regional council of southern Arava (Hevel Eilat in Hebrew), the environmental unit of Eilat and Eilot, The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, KKL (Jewish national fund), National parks authority and the tourism corporation of Eilat all gave their share and now we have it ready for you.

We have decided to sell it cheap for only 20 ILS (5 Euros) so you will not think twice if to take it or not. You can get it at nature reserves, tourism sites of the area and at the bird sanctuary.

We are sure you will like it, just please ignore the terrible spelling mistake on the first word of the booklet and don't trust Google's automatic correction…


See you in Eilat, birding is already great, before spring have even began.

Noam Weiss, Itai Shanni and Re'a Shaish




A Blackstart is a Great start! 



A sweet story from Eilat




Birders remember Eilat as warm and welcoming, but January mornings can be bitterly cold (10°C). So, here is a sweet story from Eilat - just what we needed here to make our lives better.



Oriental Honey Buzzard - Adult male 5.1.19 North beach of Eilat    Photo: Shuki Cheled


Oriental beauty was always one of the main attractions here in Eilat. However, this year is overwhelming. No less than 6 Oriental Honey Buzzards drive the birders crazy. Two adult males, two adult females and two second calendar year beasts are roaming the skies of the bird sanctuary on a daily base, sitting on the trees or hiding in the adjacent date plantation.

Oriental Honey Buzzards made history in Eilat. The first record for the Western Palearctic region was found here in May 1994 during migration. No one was aware back then, of a population of this special raptor, that does not winter in Southern Asia, so their appearance year after year every spring in Eilat and later on in autumns in the rest of Israel, was a sign of change. May and September were their times to show up between the endless streams of hundreds of thousands of European Honey Buzzards. Since these records, Oriental Honey Buzzards showed up also in Batumi, Georgia, Greece and many other places in Europe and Arabia.



Oriental Honey Buzzard - Adult male  12.1.19    Photo: Lior Kislev

Visit Lior's website - "Tatzpit"


The first winter record here came in a shape of a young female who was mostly enjoying the date plantation in 2008. This dark female has returned winter after winter, growing into an adult's plumage as the years went by. However, something unusual happened in 2018. Oriental Honeys' started showing up in numbers from March into the spring and the following summer. This winter will probably be written in the Honey Buzzard's history as the year when the species has really settled in Eilat. It started with a suspiciously moving tree during the daily monitoring at the bird sanctuary. Foxes do not climb trees here, so when a tree was wildly shaking last November we could only think of an escape monkey. It took a few seconds before a giant raptor had burst into the sky leaving the tree and myself in shock.


A close look inside the tree reviled a completely shattered Oriental Pygmy Bee hive. Since that day, the IBRCE team documented no less than six different individuals at the bird sanctuary. Most of the time they stick together as a pack. We see them feeding on the beehives, digging holes in the ground for all kinds of larvae but they might also feed on dates and even raisins.   



Oriental Honey Buzzard - Juvenile 21.1.19   Photo: Rei Segali


Oriental Honey Buzzards are known now to over winter also in the rest of Arabia. Our own explanation for the change of status in Eilat is the massive invasion of the Oriental Pygmy Bee (Apis florea). Since 2007 it is here and spreading in numbers, but just 20 KM north of Eilat (Beer Ora). And yes, you got it right - this is where and when we started having these Oriental beauties in winter here.

The land of milk and honey.



Oriental Pygmy Bee in Southrn Arava valley Photo: Ilan Biel







See you in Eilat


Spring is just around the corner















Little Green Bee-eater. Photo - Shlomi Bachar


Eilat - birders HOTSPOT

land marks