Stars of the Desert night

Jonathan Meyrav 01/01/2017 00:00


1.1.16 - Queen of the Night





For ages she has lived in the desert, rarely seen by man. Her pale almost ghostlike color blending in perfectly with the cliffs, she is shy and mysterious. The first time she was mentioned was more than 2500 years ago by the prophet Isaiah that mentions a pale Owl (Lilith in Hebrew) from the Judean Desert. This is supported by archeological artifacts from the Judean desert depicting a Strix like Owl. Over the centuries the Owl mystery only grew. From Father Schmitz to Israel Aharoni, many of the biggest zoologists in the region misidentified the Owl as something it was not.


In recent years much work has been done by several research teams to try and finally solve the mystery of the desert queen. In the past 3 years alone several groundbreaking discoveries were made using a combination of extensive fieldwork, elaborate analysis of the available skins from throughout the region and top notch genetical research.

The result of the studies determined that the Owls of the holy land are NOT what they were presumed. Actually the recently classified Desert Tawny Owl - Strix hadorami is very different than Hume's Tawny Owl - Strix butleri, so different that it differs by a whopping 9%. According to the latest DNA analysis Desert Tawny Owl is actually closer to the African Wood Owls than to other Eurasian Strix Owls.


To the Owl itself none of these discoveries matter much. She is still just as shy and hard to find as ever. Recent surveys carried out by the Society for the Protection of nature in Israel and the Nature and Parks Authority (NPA) revealed that the Owl population is stable at around 80 pairs in Israel, all in rather hard reach desert canyons.





All Tawny Desert Images courtesy of Aviam Atar and Erez Baruchi

 Israel Nature and Parks Authority



During 2015 a team of birders managed to find an Owl nest in early stages in the Judean desert. For the first time ever nearly the whole nesting season was documented and fascinating things were found by the group. The research revealed new things about the diet and behavior of this shy desert phantom, and the results will be implemented in future conservation measures to protect the Desert Tawny Owl and the beautiful habitat it calls home.

Check out the amazing footage from the 1st nest ever documented in the wild:




During spring 2016 The Israel Ornithological Center we will be hosting several tours to see the majestic Desert Tawny Owl. The tours will leave Eilat and head up the Judean Desert for a date with the Lilith.

Besides the "regular" night tour that is part of the Eilat Birds Festival week ( we will be offering several dates for Owl tours in March and April 2016 stay tuned for more details.







29.2.16 - This is a story of anticipation, of mystery and of love


Every year she arrives, usually with the warm southern winds of late March. For years she was a mystery, a hard to see and elusive bird of the shadows. Ever since she was first spotted in the Southern Arava Valley she was always a prized bird to see, the rare African princess.


Black Bush Robin - Cercotrichas podobe is a true icon of birding Eilat, a vagrant that is nearly annual but still hard to pin down, a bird that is always rewarding to see. To me, Black Bush Robin is a species that symbolizes birding in Eilat, where you never know what might pop out from behind the next bush.

Ever since I first met her as a young boy I was struck by her graceful beauty. Like a true princess, Black Bush Robin is a master of her domain, a dark flower in the driest and harshest of habitats. Foraging around in the shadow of the Acacias she holds temporary territory, running back and forth, cocking that majestic tail as she forays through the thorny leaf litter.





Black Bush Robin has a wide breeding range and can be found in dry Acacia habitats from East Africa, up the Red Sea and east to the Arabian Peninsula. It was first recorded in Israel in the early 1980's and now several birds show up (almost) every spring. Most sightings are from March-May from the Eilat and Southern Arava Valley with a handful of records elsewhere in southern Israel, as far north as Beer-Sheva.


Over the years Black Bush Robins were suspected to breed in Israel especially with increasing late spring and early summer observations. Breeding in Israel was finally confirmed in spring 2015 when at least 1 pair (probably 2) bred in the Yotvata area (Only a few kilometers from where they were first seen over 30 years ago).





As of Jan 2016 at least 6 birds are still present in the Yotvata area and for the first time ever there are "twitchable" Black Bush Robins in the West Palearctic region!

Black Bush Robins will of course receive special attention at the up and coming Eilat Birds Festival (March 20-27 2016, Book NOW).  



Join us in Eilat and get a chance at an intimate encounter with the Dark African princess. I guarantee that you too will fall captive to her unbelievable allure and forever be in love.


Jonathan Meyrav



NINJAS! 25.9.16


Israel is well known for it's migration spectacles, around 40 species of soaring birds pass through Israel twice a year on migration, making their way from the Northern breeding grounds to Africa and back again. One of the most amazing migrants that pass through is the enigmatic Levant Sparrowhawk - Accipiter brevipes.




With a wingspan of around 70 cm the Levant Sparrowhawk is one of the smallest raptors that migrate through Israel but don't let their small size fool you, it is one of the most powerful and aggressive diurnal raptors to grace our skies. Despite being very common on migration very little is actually known about Levants. Because of the regular passage through Israel and rather large breeding range, Birdlife International still classifies Levant Sparrowhawk as a species of least concern with a stable population, but the fact is that we just don't know enough about them to get a clear picture.


Levant Sparrowhawk breeds in scattered numbers through a rather large range in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan with small numbers in Romania and Bulgaria and a healthy number of pairs in Greece. Despite this rather large range there are very few thorough studies about Levants and we know that at least in some of these places the breeding populations have declined seriously in the past 10-15 years.





Every autumn the whole world population of Levant Sparrowhawks migrates through Israel on their way to their sub Saharan wintering grounds. Despite being rather solitary or moving in pairs during the breeding season, these amazing Accipiters are the only ones that form truly large flocks on migration. During late September flocks of 500 - 1,000 birds are recorded daily over Israel, and true swarms of 2,500+ birds are recorded every year… seeing such a flock is a highlight that birders will never forget.

These small and agile raptors migrate in a tight formation, thermalling very efficiently and at great speed. In the heat of early autumn Levants can climb to dazzling elevations with most birds passing at over 500 meters above ground.

When scanning the pale blue skies of early autumn in Israel Levant Sparrowhawk flocks can be incredibly difficult to find and are usually picked up when spiraling in thermals. These flocks appear almost like swarms of bugs, spinning with great speed and shooting out of the thermals like true Ninjas, hence the nickname.




Migration counts in Israel record anywhere between 30 and 60 thousand Levant Sparrowhawks every autumn. The fluctuation in numbers has a lot to do with the difficulty of finding the flocks and the fact that even when found it is a true challenge to accurately count them. Even the most experienced raptor surveyors in Israel will all testify to missing flocks or to picking them up too late, after they have already passed your post, making counting almost impossible.

Because Levant Sparrowhawks are such powerful flyers they start migrating very early in the day, well before efficient thermals start and can push till last light. Using active wing beats they do not rely on thermals of hot air and there are even observations of small flocks migrating at night!

Even on migration many Levants hunt actively during dusk and dawn, silently snatching songbirds before they realize what hit them.


We are very fortunate to have the whole world population of Levant Sparrowhawk migrate through Israel but with this comes great responsibility. Since not much is known about these birds, the migration counts in Israel are essentially the only method of assessing the true size and trends of the world population. In the upcoming years The Israel Ornithological Center will conduct specific research and upgrade the counts in order to focus on Levants. Together with other Birdlife International partners and with a detailed plan we aim to shed new light on this fantastic raptor, in hope of protecting it for many years to come.



Jonathan Meyrav






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