North Beach's Blues

Barak Granit 31/07/2014 00:00

Every foreign or local birder that ever spent time at Eilat's North Beach knows that feeling: waiting hours for something and leaving with very little.

If they’re unlucky that frustrating routine might repeat itself evening after evening through the entire birding vacation. Is this place, now surrounded by huge hotels, marinas and car parks, really the same location that was crowned, many years ago, one of the best 'rarity magnets' in the Western Palearctic?  

 

Yet, the records don't lie. Ever since the very first days a young Hadoram Shirihai set foot on the North Beach, sometime in July 1980, an impressive number of rarities have steadily accumulated. A selection of highlights, in chronological order, include: Sooty Tern, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Shy Albatross, Atlantic Petrel, Sooty Gull, Wilson's Petrel, South Polar Skua, Madeira Petrel, Roseate Tern, Brown-headed Gull, Saunder's Tern, Sabine's Gull, Grey-headed Gull, Streaked Shearwater, Tropical Shearwater (Puffinus bailloni), Soft-plumaged Petrel, Lesser Frigatebird, Swinhoe's Petrel, Franklin's Gull and very recently, if accepted, Manx Shearwater.

 

Some of these sightings were ‘firsts’ and some remain the sole Western Palearctic records. It's even more impressive that some species in this list have appeared at Eilat's north beach more than once.

Glancing at the list of rarities, one might get the impression that gold lies between the sea-shells, simply waiting to be picked-up by the fame-hungry birder. The truth is that these ‘shining nuggets’ were gathered between endless hours spent seeing very little of interest at all. Nothing different, just a few White-eyed Gulls, some Common Terns and an occasional Caspian Tern for example. Although it’s still nice to perch oneself on the sand and enjoy the sea breeze and views on most days a ‘mega’ rarity is nowhere to be found. This is the side of Eilat’s North Beach we are most familiar with.

 

It can also be an incredibly frustrating place. For example on 6 May 1999 we ‘dipped’ the 2nd Lesser Frigatebird for Israel by a mere thirty minutes without even knowing it had been seen there earlier. Probably my worst moment, however, happened quite recently. On the 1st of May 2011, I spotted what was probably the first Brown Noddy for Israel flying directly towards me and Shachar Alterman.

A few seconds later it made abrupt U-turn and waved 'bye-bye' just before we could ‘nail’ the id. The bird disappeared into the haze never to be seen again.

 

Then there’s the legendary Southerly Winds! Many foreign and local birders have tried to optimize their chances by synchronizing their North-Beach-sea-watch with the presence of a southern wind. Unfortunately it’s almost guaranteed to bring nothing more than a small increase in regular skuas and perhaps a Sooty Shearwater or two. Many have spent countless disappointing evenings staring into a warm southerly ‘blow’. The Southern Wind effect is now considered to be nothing more than wishful thinking. Despite this we still give it a chance … over and over again!

 

 

 

 

The North Beach is far from bleak during all seasons, however, and from mid March onwards skuas can be seen almost daily, while April brings Sooty Shearwaters and increasing numbers of sternas and basically any other common migrant is possible. Although not a true vagrant, a less than annual Swift Tern can bring great happiness and I don’t know any birder who’d skip the sight of 10,000-20,000 White-winged Black Terns weaving their way up the Gulf at the end of April. Unfortunately, on most days the chances are you're going to leave the beach tired and empty-handed.  

 

But miracles do happen: while cruising in the Gulf on 19 April 2003, trying to locate the 3rd Tropical Shearwater we saw the evening before, we couldn't believe our luck when we plucked a starving Swinhoe's Storm-petrel (J.P.Smith, R. Mizrachi, N. Sapir, A. Tzairi, B. Granit) - the 2nd for Israel - from the water’s surface using a fisherman’s hand-net!

 

 

 

Knowing the above all too well, last Saturday evening, 26 July 2014, two friends and I (Avi Shneor and Ron Zinger) headed down to Eilat once again. We arrived at 01:00 am. and slept on the beach like a bunch of 18 year olds. We had no great expectations as the previous weeks had been horrible for even the regular Red-Sea goodies like Bridled and Lesser Crested Terns.

 

At first light we were encouraged to find a feeding flock of 12 White-cheeked Terns including many adults. 15 minutes later - ‘bingo’, I spotted a juvenile Red-billed Tropicbird on the Jordanian side of the Gulf and I watched as it headed away from us towards Saudi Arabia. Red-billed Tropicbirds, although scarce, are but seen almost annually from the north beach by a handful of lucky birders.

 

 

 

Not a mega by the high standards of previous records, but when you finally let go of all expectations and bias, seeing an impressive, elegant, white bird flapping high above the bay's waters, in the still, (relatively) cool morning air, absolutely makes the trip worthwhile.

As an addict who got his fix this time, I know I'm going to return soon, waiting for God knows what, myth or no myth. What about you?

 
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