Blast from the Past

Barak Granit 29/05/2015 00:00

Eilat, Late spring, 2001

Every birder has at least one moment he will never forget.  Mine lasted for more than one month, far back in 2001, yet it still lives in my memory as if it was yesterday. Since things are beginning to slow down here, in Israel, it is a good time to evoke that late, enchanted, spring and give it all the respect it deserves.  
It started quite slow, when I joined 2 friends of mine, Stijn Brand from the Netherland and Paavo Sallinen from Finland, for another raptor survey for the IOC in the Western Negev. We were based in Kibutz Zeelim and, as expected in spring, there were not too many birds around in this time of year. We did have a mega as a starter: a female Black-Crowned Finch Lark found at Retamim, but there it stopped. Luckily I managed to convince Dan Alon to close the Survey and to shift us to the Arava, to count the Honey Buzzard migration at Eilat. A paid birding month at Eilat during late spring, Who can ask for more? 
Late April: Well, we arrived on 19.4.2001 to Lotan to join 3 other old friends: James p Smith and Trevor Ellery from the UK and William Velmala from Finland. It was great from the start! On our first day we already had a Black Bush Robin, while on the next day we had 5 Eleonora's Falcons, A Lesser Crested Tern and a Black Tern. There were plenty of common stuff too, including 1,000 Yellow Wagtails in one corn field - just as EIlat should be. 
And there were unforgettable moments such as seeing an adult male Red-Breasted Flycatchers trying to ride a bicycle inside Kibutz Lotan.
Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva, 21.4.2001, Kibbutz Lotan (Barak Granit).
׳Red-breasted׳ males are very rare in Israel.
During the next days it was clear that there was plenty of activity at the North Beach, with both Cory's and Sooty Shearwaters, 3 species of Skuas including 2-3 Long-tailed, up to 15 Arctics and up to 10 Pomarines, 2 White-cheeked Terns and about 400 Common Terns and 150 Little Terns. For the entire period, until the end of May, the notorious North Beach was not dull for a moment. 
At the mountains, we enjoyed good days of Levant Sparrowhwak migration (with almost 10,000 in one day) , Eleonora's Falcons were seen daily, the first Crested Honey Buzzard appeared on the 24th and on the 27th we had a special day with no less than 21 Long-Legged Buzzards, 11 Imperial Eagles and 4 Harrier species. Among the waders a Terek Sandpiper appeared on the 24th and several Bar-tailed Godwits and 6 Whimbrels showed up towards the month's end. At Km 33, long gone since, perhaps the last successful breeding of Hoopoe Larks were present and on the 29th, Trevor and I got a lift to the Fish cages (which are also long gone now) and were shocked to witness a Whale Shark swimming just beneath us. Told you, not a dull moment. 
Crested Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus, adult male dark morph, Eilat, 7.5.2001 (Barak Granit).
35 were noted at Eilat that spring
May - the first 10 days: Although the excuse for all of that was counting Honey Buzzards. In reality there were only a few thousands each day, at best. Still we got 1-2 Crested HB daily and we enjoyed good new birds such as Caspian Plover on the 1st, 17 Broad-billed Sandpipers on the 5th together with some 200 White-winged Terns. Olive-tree Warblers and Barred Warblers were 'common' that May, as were Upcher's Warbler, that are usually scarce. Entering the 2nd week of May we expected the end of the spring, but we had no clue that the best was yet to come.
Mid-May:  the 10th-12th brought a new Black Bush Robin, the first Sooty Falcon, a 2nd Red-breasted Flycatcher and some Black-headed Buntings. On May 13th a strong southern wind was blowing with typical overcast and James, Trevor and I enjoyed two Saunder's Terns which gave an excellent show for more than 2 hours at the north beach. It was lifer for all of us and the 3rd record for Israel. It was also one of those 'Eilat species' that you don't get in the bird guides. Seeing one gives you the feeling that the id features you learned in the field will be for the benefit of others birders. Excitement was picking.   
Crested Honey Buzzards numbers were only growing during the next few days with 3-7 a day. The next days also brought a 3rd RB Flycatcher and 10 BH Buntings. On the 18th finally a general drop in passerine numbers was felt and it sure looked as if that was that. But it wasn't. That day we had a flock of 37 Rosy Starlings feeding at km 20 vineyards and 3 Terek Sands were at the North Beach. But hang on. 
The Scream: May 21st was just another 3000 HB morning. I just took some shots of another CHB so I put the camera on the car's roof and looked north when I noticed something large arriving head-on towards us. It resembled a flat winged Griffon Vulture. It wasn't. I think what captured my eyes was the saw-like trailing edge. A glimpse of a second later the scream came roaring out of my throat, a scream that caused the people of Eilat to wonder what the hell was going on up the mountains. A Lappet Faced Vulture, that is what I was screaming. James later told me that while I shouted he was asking himself if he was really about to a see that bird within a second. He couldn't believe it too.
Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotos, Eilat, 21.5.2001 (Barak Granit).
The last Israeli record. The species got extinct from Israel in 1994.
LFW got extinct from Israel as a breeder in 1990. The last wild birds were seen in 1994, some 7 years before we went Honey Buzzard counting. James, Trevor and I never believed we were ever going to see this species in Israel. That lone bird probably came from southern Egypt or from Arabia, wondered around and passed just over our heads.
As it went on its business, we didn't know what to do with ourselves. We just cried, but it was still not the end. On the following day, May 22nd Trevor and I found on the fish cages the 3rd Lesser Sand Plover for Israel, while we were on the shore, but before we nailed the id it took off and disappeared in land.
Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius atrifrons, Eilat 22.5.2001 (Barak Granit).
The 2nd atrifrons or the 3rd 'Lesser/Mongolian Plover' for Israel
Luckily after extensive search in km 20 and k 19, we found the bird at the southern saltpans by the bird park. During the afternoon local twitch (2 birders involved, both foreigners…), James wondered for a short while why it was not just a Kentish plover, In order to piss me off I assume. And it was still not the end. On the following day, May 23rd, a breeding Plumage Pacific Golden Plover showed up at km 20. On the 24th we all left home. Who knows what we might have still missed… 
Last, I have spent some of my best birding moments with Trevor Ellery between the years of 1998-2001 including 3 autumns at Kfar Rupin and two springs at Eilat. This post is dedicated to Trevor for those happy days. 
Trevor Ellery
land marks