Casual Eilat birding

Barak Granit 19/04/2015 00:00

I haven't been to Eilat since the Champions of the Flyways, means I didn’t pay a visit during April until now. With all the Passover stuff when Eilat gets too hectic with Israeli tourists, it wasn't such a bad Idea to stay away. Anyway, I managed to take a day and a half off family and work and Avi Shneor and I hit the road south on the night of the 21st, arriving at Neot Smadar in first light.

We guessed it wouldn't be a brilliant trip and there were several reasons to believe it wouldn't:  A 'Hamsin' - an eastern low pressure weather system started the day before, raising the temperatures to 40° c . History tells us that usually in such weather conditions migrant passerine numbers drop down sharply. Still, a Hamsin in the last week of April means a fair chance to see one of the rarest and perhaps one of the most brilliant birding sightings possible in Israel and the WP: the arrival of tens of thousands of White-winged Terns to the North Beach in a single afternoon.


Although this 'event' must happen every year, very few birders (even locals) ever got to see it properly since it takes both luck (you need to be there on THE right early afternoon hours) and the right conditions (In most years the terns just migrate through so high and fast or at night so they are totally missed by birders). Me personally, in my whole 23 birding 'career' have witnessed this sight only once on 1.5.1999 when a flock of 14,000 birds maneuvered the Gulf of Aqaba skies (as huge a flock as starlings but far better…) for the whole afternoon. I will never forget it. Anyway, back to the present, apparently some 1000 birds had dropped down to the IBRCE the evening before we arrived, means that probably some 20,000 unseen birds migrated on that afternoon... So with that in mind, we arrived to Neot Smadar expecting few passerines only and no WWT attack later on - nothing but some casual birding.


Neot Smadar was indeed, as expected, relatively quiet and besides a few Ortolans, Tree Pipits, Masked Shrikes and Common Nightingales there was nothing much. Heading down to Yotvata, things were slightly better with 100 Yellow Wagtails, loads of Turtle Doves, a Whinchat, Tawny Pipits, 3 Lesser Kestrels, a Booted Eagle, some low-flying 20 Levant Sparrowhawks, a single migrating Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, 2 male Namaqua Doves and a peculiar moment involving two things that usually never meet: awful Israeli music and a Hoopoe Lark. I don’t know how but while terrible noisy music came from the Kibbutz (It was so loud you could hardly hear anything while birding in the southern circular field) all of a sudden a Hoopoe Lark started singing in the nearby dunes for quite some time. I was not hallucinating.




Then Noam Weiss called and informed that the IBRCE ringers suspected a Blyth's Reed Warbler 'in the hand' and wondered if I can come and check it out. It was clear to me it was going to be just one of the very small Reed Warblers with short wing that breeds here, but it started to get hot and leaving all things and drive straight down to Eilat from Yotavata did release some adrenalin into my blood. It was of course just a Reed Warbler if anyone's interested.

At the Eilat Ringing Station 3 high-flying (migrating?) Caspian Terns were the most interesting bird together with our first Honey Buzzards of the spring, but then we heard that Doug Gochfeld, the supper birder American volunteer, found a Black Bush Robin at KM 20 saltpans so we headed there just to dip on it (But I had 3 already this spring so I was fine with it).


Then Doug found a 1st-summer Kittiwake as well (a good bird for Eilat) so we could twitch something successfully. We felt we had to contribute something of our own so we counted Red-necked Phalaropes and reached 26 - good number and fantastic birds. Doug was semi-excited to hear that because he had counted only 24 some minutes before, so he went back to recount them in order to get 27 (But he didn't managed…) - these are the sort of things long-staying birders do in order to create some meaning to their life…

Anyway - KM 20 saltpans was the best site around and quite full of birds.



Apart from the phalaropes we had a Broad-billed Sandpiper, 2 Gull-billed Terns, 2 breeding plumage Whiskered Terns, 10 Collared Pratincoles, some Curlew and Marsh Sandpipers, many Little Stints, the usual setting of Greater Flamingos and Slender-billed Gulls etc. From there we went on to check the North Beach just in case the WWB Terns attack happens, but it didn't.

The recent hotspot Canada Park didn't deliver much more than Blackcaps so it was time to take a midday break.  After lunch and a siesta at the guesthouse, we went to check the IBRCE ponds which added some 17 more Red-necked Phalaropes, 3 more Gull-Billed Terns, a Black-tailed Godwit and 4 Purple Herons. Last hour at the North Beach produced 170 Common Terns, few Little Terns and about 10 White-eyed Gulls and that's it. No WWT of course so we ended the day with Taiga Bean Soup and cold beer.



If someone is still waiting for a punch-line to come or a rarity that would turn this casual birding tale into something really exciting they'd better forget about it just as we did in reality. Still it was just a fine day, and normally casual birding can get much worse. So with no complaints, we opened the next morning at the ringing station when a flock of 8 Gull-billed Terns and a flock of 20 Purple Herons were migrating over very low and very early.


Walking around the bird park we found a very late stunning adult male Ruppell's Warbler, a few Eastern Orphean Warblers, quite a few Rufous Bush Robins, a Great Read Warbler, 2 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and another Broad-billed Sandpiper. At Mt. Yoash hawkwatch we had the bird of our trip – a superb adult pale morph Eleonora's Falcon that passed low and quite close. There were very few raptors altogether and apart from 7 Steppe Eagles and some 10 Honey Buzzards we didn't see much, so we started to roll ourselves back north. Somewhere on road 40 at the Ramon Crater I managed to spot a male Hooded Wheatear from half a kilometer away. I'll try to remember the location for 2016 Champions…   


Stay tuned,



land marks