Return of the Nubian Nightjar

The Nubian Nightjar is one of Israel’s rarest breeding birds.

Until the late 1980’s it was found breeding in suitable saltmarsh habitat along the Rift Valley, from Eilat in the south to Bet Shean valley in the north. The local subspecies, tamaricis, is specific to unique Tamarix and Suedea saltmarsh.

In recent decades, agricultural development expanded rapidly along the Rift Valley in Israel, following the development of advanced water technologies that utilized underground water reserves. Saltmarsh habitat depends on high levels of underground water, so it is clear why saltmarshes were favoured for agricultural development.

 

 

 

 

All saltmarshes but one, Sdom saltmarsh south of the Dead Sea, were converted to cultivation during the 1990’s and 2000’s. The once-flourishing saltmarshes of Eilat, Yotvata, Hazeva and many more were lost to tomatoes and peppers. With the disappearance of the saltmarsh, the Nubian Nightjar lost almost all of its habitat in Israel, and currently is regarded as Critically Endangered in Israel.

 

In the late 1990’s little was known about the ecology of this enigmatic night bird, and in his 1996 book ‘The Birds of Israel’, Hadoram Shirihai estimated their population size at three or four pairs only, all at Sdom saltmarsh. However, with developed knowledge and improved field methods, it was established that the population size at Sdom saltmarsh is about 60 pairs. It is extremely difficult to find nests of Nubian Nightjars, but throughout the spring males are very vocal. Data collected from tagged individuals showed that they sing very close the core of their territory. Therefore, number of singing males is used as a proxy for number of breeding pairs.

 

 

The conservation status of Sdom saltmarsh, Israel’s stronghold of Nubian Nightjar, is worrying. Already 80% of the saltmarsh had been lost to construction of huge evaporation ponds for mineral production, and for cultivated land of the two communities there - Neot Hakikar and Ein Tamar. With increasing populations of these communities, and changes in global markets, the need for more cultivated land increases, and the remaining habitat in Sdom is threatened with further development.

Over the last decade or so, the Israeli Ornithological Centre has been leading a conservation effort, in collaboration with the local authority, local communities and Nature and Parks Authority, to protect the remaining saltmarsh. It is a long and arduous process, but it is likely that almost all the remaining habitat will become protected under statutory regulations in the near future.

 

Away from Sdom saltmarsh there have been some recent developments.

Intensive searches in the 2000’s found only a couple of pairs away from Sdom, also in the southern Dead Sea region. However, in recent years, with the rehabilitation and protection of some small patches of saltmarsh, Nubian Nightjars have started a welcome come-back process to other sites along the Rift Valley. In Hazeva area in the northern Arava, several pairs have recently colonized, and it is estimated that up to 10 pairs breed there, in small pockets of remaining habitat.

After decades of absence, recently Nubian Nightjars have been refound in two more regions. In summer 2016 breeding was documented in the northern Dead Sea region - possibly a handful of pairs in two sites.

 

 

 

 

One of the more dramatic events happened near Eilat.

The Eilat saltmarsh is long gone and with it a variety of breeding and migratory birds was lost, including the iconic Nubian Nightjars that used to roam the wet and densely vegetated habitat.

 

In the last few months the IBRCE team attempted to restore a small saltmarsh in Eilat area. Very soon the team realized that drip irrigation of saltmarsh vegetation did not create the hoped-for change. The irrigation method was changed to local flooding with saline water, similar to natural conditions.

The change was evident in few months only: millions of insects followed by squadrons of insectivorous bats, Spanish Sparrows breeding in the bushes, and Painted Saw-scaled Viper whispering lurking under the vegetation.

 

 

 

 

Since the 18/06/16 two, probably adult Nubian Nightjars, are regularly seen in our small restored saltmarsh. We can't be sure if they breed here and if they are going to stay permanently, but they look happy with their new home and are seen foraging and heard calling their sweet ‘kaw-kaw!’ call every evening. We are so pleased that careful habitat restoration brought almost instant results - nature rules!

 

Now we hope that Nubian Nightjars will return to more sites that they had been lost from, and Sdom saltmarsh receives adequate protection. Perhaps in the future Nubian Nightjar can be downlisted from Critically Endangered – wishful thinking, but that’s what conservation is all about, isn’t it?

 

 

 

 

It must be stressed that near Eilat the Nubian Nightjars have settled for the time being in an extremely sensitive site that is off-limits to independent visitors. The site holds an exceptionally dense population of the venomous Painted Saw-scaled Vipers . IBRCE will start operating guided tours to view the nightjars if they stay there till spring, and in due time will publish terms and conditions for these sensitive tours. In any case, it is forbidden to enter the site without IBRCE staff.

 

 

 

land marks