Posts of 2019

Noam Wiess 31/12/2019 00:00

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




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! 



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.


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




"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!








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




Eilat is Unusual




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.


Autumn is better than spring




Last week was one of the most exciting birding times I can remember. It started at sea with a Swinhoe's Storm Petrel (now a regular summer visitor at our deep sea monitoring survey), but when we were on solid ground, we got the picture running on social media of an "odd looking Bee eater" from the Flamingo pools. 

Sarah Deutch, a volunteer of the Jerusalem Bird observatory and Shimon Shiff, a volunteer of the International Birding & Research Center in Eilat observed a Bee-eater with strange plumage and shared that beauty with the rest of the world. There was no need for much literature search; it was a textbook White throated Bee-eater. The first for Israel and the third for the WP (two records from Morocco). 


13.8.19   Photo: Shimon Shiff


In 15 minutes time, all the birders of the area where there. Some with food groceries that went bad in the sun, and with kids, pets and wives in their cars. It was exciting to see how much birding have grown in the local community, thanks to the birding course conducted faithfully for the last few years by Itay Shani. 

However, the Bee-eater was not showing. In the grilling sun, we searched and searched in vain. As in fairy tales, when the founder, Shimon Shiff and his wife Yael entered the compound to help the sweating hopeless birders, they spotted it just next to their car and took more pictures. Only the lucky ones (me!) managed to see it that evening. The next morning, over optimistic birders had to sweat for hours in the blazing sun, searching for it everywhere in a radius of 2 Km, before the Bee-eater arrived to the same spot where it was originally found… Tuvia Kahn managed to locate a female type Hypocolius, another very rare sighting (the 19th record for Israel)! In the following days, the Bee-eater and Hypocolious were hard to get, but eventually almost everyone who came for them at least twice, got to see them, even if just for brief moments. It was probably the worst ever mega twitch for the Israeli birders. 


23.8.18   Photo: Ohad Binyamini


The skulking Hypocolius and the "far too fast flying" or "having business somewhere else most of the day" Bee-eater, the fact that each time it did show up, just few birders got to see it while others were tens of meters away and failed, drove the birders insane. The intense heat (43°C) and the frequent calls from the families to come back home on the kid's last weeks of summer vacation,  drove birders crazy and made them do things they usually avoid. Some ended up with severe muscle pains, heat strokes, mental despair, broken cars or staying overnight on the saltmarsh's mud. 


24.8.19   Photo: Eran Dvir


In the last few days, things have settled and now it is easier to locate these two rare gems. Along them Hoopoe Larks were easy along the pools, some Terek's Sandpipers were seen occasionally and the long staying but "loves to hide between rocks" Red Phalarope appeared on some days. Migratory Passerines, shorebirds and waterfowl were everywhere - Lesser gray, Red backed and Masked Shrikes, Eastern Olivaceous, Olive tree, Eastern Orphean Warblers, and Blue cheeked Bee-eaters. I was lucky enough to see four species of Bee-eaters in one spot, probably a first for the Western Palearctic region...

It might have been last spring's rains in Arabia that made do for these species to arrive here, across the fertile desert. The Bee-eater from southern Arabia (or Sudan) and the Hypocolius from Iraq. August is definitely the best time for post breeding dispersal birds from the south and east, and this year the green desert brought some unexpected guests from afar.


Every birder knows that Eilat is great for birding in spring. The raptor migration is awesome, Passerines are in great numbers and diversity in every bush and the shorebirds swarm. In terms of diversity, the species richness at the morning's monitoring at the bird sanctuary can rise to 130 species of birds. Autumn is somehow slower. Raptor migration and Passerine's numbers are smaller and the species richness at the bird sanctuary would top at 110, nevertheless, some of the most interesting species of birds show up mostly in autumn. For me, autumn is the season of surprises.


At the ringing station, any day a mega rarity could show up. The only Arctic warbler for Israel, my only ever Syke's warbler, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia and Arabian Golden Sparrow and some Paddyfield Warblers seemed to prefer showing up in autumn. Probably mostly young birds who try new destinations. A striated Scops Owl is a kind of tradition to ring towards the end of the season and Common Rosefinches come in numbers. Syrian Serins, Yellow-Browed Warblers, Daurian Shrikes and Red-Breasted Flycatchers are caught annually around October, following waves of Bluethroats of all sub-species and Chiffchaffs.


In the field, the end of august is time for sub Saharan and Arabian species to disperse after their breeding season to Eilat. Just like the White-throated Bee-eater and the Hypocolius. Sea birds that finished breeding on the islands of the Red Sea, such as White-cheeked, Bridled and Lesser Crested Terns are common visitors at the north beach and early migrants such as Olive tree and Upcher's Warblers, or Hill Sparrows and Black-Headed Buntings a  well until late October.


January 2019

Photo: Felix Timmermann


Late autumn is the best time to observe the Oriental Skylarks and Buff bellied Pipits in Yotvata, and your best chances to see the rare Basalt Wheatear are in late autumn and winter, as they have the habit to leave very early in spring. Winter birds such as Sinai Rosefinch, Dead Sea Sparrows, and Mustached Warbler and the new winterer, the Oriental Honey Buzzard, are easily observed already from November.


If spring is great and busy, but rather expected, autumn brings its surprises and birding excitement. The birders are few but the birds are many. If you add to it the cheap and direct flights to Eilat by Wizzair and Ryanair and other low cost airlines from Berlin, Frankfurt (Lufthanza), Amsterdam, Helsinki (Finnair), Paris (transavia), Prague, Vienna, Milano, Sofia, Budapest, Bucharest, Riga, Kaunas, Bratislava, Moscow, St. Petersburg (Ural airlines) and a few destinations in Poland, you already understand what I'm suggesting.

The birders mostly come in spring and it is much easier to get good volunteers for spring, but autumn birding here is just as awesome and inspiring.

We are waiting for you.


Club Tropicana



It has been more than a month, but the embers are still glowing under the cover of the intense and tiresome Eilati heat and the trials of everyday life. Something inside me still moves and echoes. We got so used to being indifferent, if not apathetic. Life goes by us, next, above or below us. This is how we are. We sometimes experience difficult or unpleasant things, but we know to escape to all kinds of refuges.


It is not just the smartphone. It is also being too busy, too tired or in pain from a new small injury in the leg from a stupid barb fence while surveying Sandgrouse in Eilat mountains (twice from the same fence!). Anything but being, everything but feeling. However, something in Panama shook me intensely enough to get connected, and the intensity of that connection still vibrates from within.


Photo: Jessi Shackermann


It might have been the earthquake that we were fortunate, or unfortunate, to be just 6km beyond - 6.4 on Richter's, and twenty seconds of horror, plus some perturbing reminders in the following few hours. No, it wasn't that. Maybe it was the frustration from the massive and awful deforestation that chews off the forests and takes species after species into the extinct birds closet (or until Hadoram turns up in a boat…); Domi Alvero, a fantastic birder, guide and friend who took us for a few days into the Darien, knew to draw the map of disappearance of the forest birds, species by species - first by distribution, and then to total extinction.


I don't even think it was that, however. Tourism in Panama is powerful. The San Blas islands in the Caribbean sea of Panama look like a perfect travel agency poster (I guess it's because this is where those photos were taken). The Pacific side is just as beautiful and inspiring with fascinating tropical islands. Above and below the water, everything sways with colour and rhythm, a bit too fast for the comfortable vibration I know from my desert. An intense vibration; hard to follow. Overwhelming.

Cloud forests, wild jungles, and 'mini Amazonas' rivers, forest peoples of all kinds of tribes, bearing weird names, who don't aspire to be 'like all the others'. They are there too, and they touch your soul. Nevertheless, it was not what made the difference.


Before I set off to Panama, I called Hadoram Shirihai. The film he made moving through the tropical jungle accompanied by commando troops and machete knives inspired us all to get to the last wildernesses and discover. I forgot to ask him where he filmed it, but in my mind, it was the Darien gap forest anyway. I had to get there. The wildest forest of all. All that Hadoram said to me was “welcome to the world of 4000 neo-tropic species”! I must say that back then his words seemed out of place. Not very relevant, as we are not on a birding trip and chasing species is the last thing I had in mind for this trip. I only imagined humidity and sweat, a constant halo of mosquitos, creepy crawlies everywhere, and leaches (we did not encounter them) and Piranha fish (neither).


I imagined swimming in mud with snakes and a constant war against foliage and vegetation, but not the 4000 neo-tropic birds. However, he was right. It was just that. The diversity of life shook my soul back there in Panama. The diversity of birds (360 species in just three weeks, and we didn't really try hard), the mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, iguanas and other reptiles. But mainly the birds. It was the difference from place to place and bird to bird, the discovery made behind every corner, the excitement on every branch. I found the "little twitcher" that sets me in motion.


Black and White Owl                            Green and black Poison Dart Frog

Photos: Dominiciano Alvero


Every new species of bird is a treasure to me. A real treasure. A new revelation in every bird, which I did not imagine to exist in the reality, painted in the bird's field guide. One can just not see it in pictures or field guides. The immense size of the feet of the Harpy Eagle can only go into your soul through the shiny light spot of a telescope (preferably Zeiss!). You cannot understand the deepness of the blue skin around the eye of the Ocelatted Antbird from a picture. The secretive Little Tinamou, that almost no one can find as it is the champion of hiding, revealed itself to me probably unintentionally. Our eyes met for a long moment of grace that my heart will cherish forever, before his tropical highness dove into the deep lush lost forest.


Orange-bellied Trogon

Photo: Jenn Sinasac


A Trogon, which didn't move for hours, on a canopy twig, showing a red belly, a shiny green head and black and white tail - how can one miss it? About 30 species of forest Wrens, each one of them with its unique song. Probably 50 species of colorful Tanagers and the same number of flycatchers, Tyrants and Kingbirds, and my childhood bird....


When I was small, our family followed my father to a business trip to some Caribbean island. We went for a week but stayed two. I was not birding yet but the hummingbirds were so amazing I couldn't set my eyes off them. Every tropical breakfast, a small yellow bird arrived to my table. Yellow belly, black head and a white stripe above the eye. The curved bill looked unique and interesting. I did not forget this bird until one day, in a used books store in Jerusalem, I came across the Field Guide to Caribbean Birds by James Bond (he probably wrote it with a cocktail in one hand and a beautiful girl on the other). I bought it instantly and already on the way, in a crowded bus I could put a name to it – Bananaquit! And here it is again, in Panama! I swear I could even recognize its calls!


Purple-crowned Fairy     Photo: Dominiciano Alvero


And so many hummingbirds - Tens of species, colours and shapes! Most of them I only heard buzzing centimeters away from my nose, performing a curiosity check on me. However, some sat ten centimetres from my eyes on a twig, staring; many more around feeders. It's a size of a bee! The only bird which gave me guilty feelings was the Quetzal. I found it quite easily on a high branch, while climbing a volcano to see a waterfall. I think it is the National Bird of maybe five countries around here and it is also the 'difficult' bird for the visiting and local birders. Domi said he spent three years before seeing it and we got it in two hours (including time my wife spent extracting a mosquito from my eye). I don't like an arrogant twitch, but it is amazing, the Quetzal – its giant size, colors and mainly the way it flies with all this tail, nimbly from branch to branch.


It wasn't a birding trip, I kept explaining to my dearest wife Jessica again and again. It's a wildlife watching trip. We have seen some amazing stuff. Howler and Spider, Night, Capuchins and Tamarin Monkeys. Two species of Sloths (wow, what a weird creature!), black and white Tamandua (I think it's an ant bear), Opossum, Squirrels, all kinds of bats who specialize on eating certain kinds of birds, frogs and more, and even a Whale! We saw all kinds of frogs and toads – a new world of shapes, patterns and poison. Iguanas, Monitors, Caymans, Snakes and lizards of all kinds of species and marvelous habitats. But in this kind of crazy diversity, when there is a birder, it's a birding trip. The most exciting kind of birding. It gives you a completely different dimension of appreciation to the nature of this country.


Photo: Jenn Sinasac


Just like any story about nature in our generation, the dream forest of Panama is being consumed and the magic is not forever. The giant trees are transformed into logs and eventually to endless paper work that nobody really needs. To print a letter or save a Keel-billed Toucan with an enormous green bill - our priorities will be set right only after everyone will see the forest for themselves.


   Panamian Night Monkey                                           Harpy Eagle 

Photos: Dominiciano Alevro


I have so much more to tell about Panama. How they attract the North American birding tourist market through special birding hotels in nature.  About some truly amazing places on islands, mountains and forests. About the wild Darien gap – a jungle that connects Panama and Colombia, accessible only with river canoes, high clearance vehicles, hikes with local Embara Indian guides and the hospitality of native people's villages. About these incredible native tribes, fascinating and hospitable people. About great and tasty food (my wife can tell you about great cocktails for the price of a water bottle at home). You'll have to come and see me at Eilat's Bird Sanctuary if you wish to hear more about it....


Brown Booby   Photo: Jessi Shackermann


I wrote this blogpost to take off the load of emotions from my chest, and maybe to go back there with more birders to check a few more corners and to reconnect. So if you are in, talk to me.

Anyone who does good deserves (at least in one of his lives) a wife like mine!




The Desert Bird Bars - Open All Hours



Walking in our barren desert, watching birds, always makes wonder. I would not survive out here more than a few days without supplies or air-conditioning. Even the local Bedouins, who used to nomad through here with their livestock, only come here now to recycle metals or for the sake of good old days. We are drying up fast; 20 mm of rain a year is all we get. The little humidity in the air bounces immediately off the boiling ground in a haze that blurs everything into false fata morgana of endless lakes. I live in this desert, but in a well-equipped box that I call my home.


The desert birds find their ways to cope with this extreme habitat. Many of them have adapted to a nomadic way of life. There are always spots in the desert that received more rain and humidity than other areas - and this is where the birds would go. They will breed at lightning-fast speed and move on to the next fertile spot for another breeding attempt, or for another energy-consuming activity like moulting or preparing for longer-range movements.


Hooded Wheatear - Cozy and Fresh plumage - October 2016 Eilat

Photo: Shimon Shiff


Other species migrate and show up here just in wintertime, and some are sedentary and find a niche that can support them year-round. White-crowned Wheatears choose shaded territories and the Hooded Wheatears depend on flying insects for food, so they occupy large territories with some vegetation, or even better, sewage ponds. Insectivorous species cope well, as there is always something crawling around.


White-crowned Wheatear - May 2018 Mount Yoash

Photo: Shimon Shiff


What about the seedeaters, however? Their food is so dry, that they must find water daily to digest and survive. In a desert imagined by biologists, the seedeaters here would be small, even very small. However, the sandgrouse are not small at all. They eat seeds out in the most barren desert and to compensate their need to drink a lot of water, they fly fast and strong, sometimes tens of kilometres every morning, just for their daily compulsory drink. For their chicks, they dip their specially designed chest feathers into the water so at the nest, the chicks can suck it out like if they were breast-feeding. Every morning, an hour after sunrise, the desert skies are lined with noisy sandgrouse flocks on the way to the extremely busy drinking spots.


Spotted Sandgrouse - "Sandgrouse Count" Sept 2019        Photo: Shachar Shalev


Like the busiest oriental market you can imagine, out in the middle of a desolate desert the few drinking spots are crawling with birdlife. It is the place to stock up with water, but also to socialise and probably exchange ideas about where to go next. The Sandgrouse drink fast, but are in no hurry to fly away back to their lonely desert life. I can only imagine what they say to each other; where is the best food, when is it time to move on and where, what do people do and how to avoid trouble from them, and probably plenty of gossip! If you are a territorial Hooded Wheatear, this is where you can probably relax your senses a little, and maybe even find a spouse. If you are an Arabian Babbler who had enough of its flock, this is where you might find a new welcoming pack. Moreover, this is probably the best place to hear crazy stories from some seriously adventurous migratory birds.


"Ashalim's" (Tamarisk's)  Well - Drinking Spot      Photo: Noam Weiss



If drinking spots in the desert are so important, what do we do to conserve them? Unfortunately, most of the natural springs have dried up because of over pumping. The springs that still work are mostly protected in nature reserves. In two places we have some broken pipes that create a long term drinking spot. We keep the locations to ourselves so no one will ever think to fix it. Many years ago, the best-known Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse drinking spot near Eilat was just such a leaking tap. The day someone fixed it, the Sandgrouse had to move on to the sewage ponds…


Actually, sewage ponds at army barracks have become probably the busiest 'bird bars' in the region. We noticed that even if you create a clean and fresh water source for the birds, they would usually prefer the sewage. We do not know what bad impact does it have on the bird's health, but the hormones in the water can't be good. At least we can try to create better environment for the birds around these water and try to improve the quality of the water where we can.


For the last two years, we've counted the Sandgrouse that come to drink at the main four sites in our region every month. Together with the Nature and Parks Authority and the Eilot Regional Council, we send our volunteers to sewage ponds and record everything we see. The Sandgrouse count here was born because of the frightening drop in their numbers in the Northern and Western Negev. The rangers there reported a drop of 80% to 90% in numbers of all Sandgrouse species. Following dry years when we had very few Sandgrouse in our region, we realised that maybe some of the Sandgrouse that were lost up north were actually checking out our region.


"Magen Sayarim" military base (in the middle of nowhere)

drinking "hot" spot for Spotted Sandgrouse      Photo: Noam Weiss



Indeed the numbers here are on the rise. In our four count points, we recorded up to 1750 Spotted, 150 Crowned, plus a few Pin-tailed and Black Bellied Sandgrouse that we hadn't seen around here for years. These numbers are nothing short of amazing. Next year we will try to expand our counts to Northern Arava region, where we expect to find more of these magical birds. What happened to the sandgrouse of the Northern Negev? We do not know. If they moved south, they are doing well. However, are these the same birds? Are they being hunted In Sinai? Jordan? The few local birders there do not know or did not respond to our questions.


We're looking for an opportunity to submit a small proposal to study all the drinking spots in the desert around us - large and small, natural or manufactured. The study will map and record the use of these spots by the birds, allowing us to work on improvements and eventually optimise these metaphorical and literal oases for the birds.


We'd be more than happy to receive new insightful ideas and funds for this essential and ground-breaking endeavour. Thank you!




Booted Warbler in Eilat


Strong like a mountain, free like the wind


FEAR is a giant, glowing neon sign. It can cover the whole horizon and blind us from what's behind it. Nevertheless, it's also the best mark in life that something new is coming. A change. The FEAR sign is also a narrow, thin one that can easily be passed and left behind; whether we stay out and get used to living in its blinding light, or cross it and wait for the next sign to come, is up to us.


Last week was the Jewish holiday of Sucot. We celebrate anything that is unstable in our lives. We sleep, eat outside our homes in specially made open huts, and let go of comfortable habits. Just like migratory birds. At our ringing station, work goes on and now I am the only certified ringer, so I had to stick to work every early morning for many long weeks. I love my work and I love the ringing station's vibe, but my dearest wife got a double invitation to the local meditation festival, at the Desert Ashram, deep in my favorite desert. So every morning I went to work ringing birds and guiding and when work was done I was back to meditate and party with another 2,000 beautiful shiny people.


People who work with me here know it very well; there is nothing I hate more than finding a rare bird. Love and hate. Why do we bird, anyway? For me, and probably many others, it’s a mindfulness type of experience. It's harmonious; a sense of blending with environment; even compassion. The birder is longing to be surprised, but it is nature that does the work for us and amazes us once more, repeatedly. Nature does not fail us. It is always there for us, in every corner of the globe.


In contrast, birding is also a scientific or at least a quasi-scientific realm, that requires validation, personal and communal senses of criticism and the worst enemy of the human race (except for itself) - judgementalism. When a foreign birder rushes out of Holland Park and reports an Arabian Warbler 'with pictures' (adult male Eastern Orphean Warbler), I accept them with a smile. It's totally the wrong habitat and can't really be true, but what the heck, they bird for their good feeling, not for science, so why spoil their glorious moment. I know it's probably wrong, and you expect better of me, but I'm the manager here, so I do what I want... and I believe in feelings (within limits - don't worry. It will not go down the E Bird to our database).


We are sensitive and vulnerable and adore the softness of nature, but belong to a club, or even community of people we did not choose and an attitude we do not enjoy. I will say it clearly. I am sometimes anxious to report rare birds just because of the expected response of other birders, and I am sure many other birders feel the same sometimes, especially if the identification is difficult.

Strong as a mountain, free like the wind, a small LBJ (Little Brown Job), an Iduna warbler, was caught during our monitoring ringing session on 16th October.


Photo: Gal Marinov


First impressions led to the conclusion it was probably a Booted or maybe a Syke's Warbler coming from afar. The bird was in active moult, missing all its greater coverts and tertials on both wings and many head feathers were replaced. The feathers that were not replaced were much worn, some missing, giving the warbler a very messy and scruffy look. 


All the relevant Iduna warblers run a winter complete molt so it was probably an adult (the central tail feathers were pointed and in bad shape to confirm that).

Overall, the warbler had a brown, not gray, cap, back, coverts, rump and tail; not the 'Tahini' buff color I know from the Syke's I got a few years ago. It was deeper brown, but the feather's condition might have changed the colour a little. Its lanks were buff-washed, and the bill looked small and short with an angle going up on lower mandible towards the end. The lower mandible was yellow but about half of it was clearly marked dark. The rounded head gave it a Phylloscopus feeling at times and an Iduna feel at other angles. The supercilium was clearly well beyond the eye, becoming broader after the eye. Above the lores, a thin dark line was bordering the supercilium from above. The eye was brown (an adult feature?), the legs grey pink with darker 'boots' on the toes, and the joints on the toes were mainly dark.


Identification and measurements

Identifying the genus Iduna was straight forward by the shape on Primary 1 - long and rounded.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (ssp elaeica) is very common here, and it was clear from the first look that this wasn't one (overall colouration, head and bill shape and colour, etc.) but I was careful with the smallish Pallida ssp. that sometimes occur here. Elimination of Eastern Olivaceous was done by the long length of Primary one (P1 to PC=8mm) and the wing formula (P2=P7) and the emargination of P6. Additionally, the head and bill shape and colour were wrong.

So, the main difficulty was to decide if it was a Booted or a Syke's Warbler. Here are the main biometrics and features that supported the identification:


Photo: Noam Weiss


- Wing 63 mm (good for both). We measured 62.5 but added 0.5 mm due the worn condition of the feather.

- Tail 50 (just the overlap of the two species…).

- Tail / wing ratio = 79.5 - according to Svensonn's article[1] about the identification of Iduna warblers if the ratio is under 81 it is 95% Booted. I guess 79.5 ratio is diagnostic.

- Primary 6 emarginated, but not as strong as Primaries 2 to 5 (good for both, excludes Eastern Olivaceous).

- P1 to P2 = 24 mm (good for Booted)

- Wing formula – P2 = P7 (good for Booted, not for Sykes)

- Bill to Skull = 13.6 (diagnostic for Booted)

- Bill width at Feathers = 4.3 (I hope I took this one right - good for Booted)

- P1 to PC = 8mm (excludes Eastern Olivaceus, good for Booted and Syke's)

- P10 to wing tip =13mm (Booted)

- Tarsus =18.7 (overlaps both species).


Photo: Noam Weiss


So why Booted and not Syke's?

1. Colour and shape of mandible - the dark lower mandible patch is extensive and half the bill long.

2. Supercilium beyond the eye and gets wider beyond the eye.

3. Colour of back not so light, more brown. Buff flanks.

4. Dark 'boots' on the toes (is that a feature?).

5. Wing formula - P2=P7, P1 to PC 24mm, P10 to wing tip 13mm.

6. Tail - wing ratio 79.5.

7. Bill to scull 13.6mm.

8. Phylloscopus -like feeling of head.

9. I have seen Syke's before...


Photo: Noam Weiss