Winter Birding with Friends

Frank Moffatt 20/01/2016 00:00

Day 1: Arrived Tel Aviv 02:45hrs.

Drove straight down to the NW Negev to Urim. Latched on to 7 Sociable Plovers early morning and by late evening there were 9 together. Two incredible adult, or near adult, Eastern Imperial Eagles. A cracking Merlin - grey as hell.

2-3 Long-legged Buzzards and several Kestrels. Packed with White Wagtails, Skylarks, Red-throated Pipits, Bluethroats. Clouds of Black Kites.

Really nice start. Weather beautiful.





Day 2: Drove south from Urim and finished off in the Arava at Ketura. Tried but failed in my attempt to see the Dotterels. It's a firing zone and they were firing so I left the area. Will try again later.


Had plenty more Bluethroats today. Clearly a big winter population this time around. Also a few nice wheatears including White-crowned and Mourning. Several decent flocks of Skylarks and Corn Buntings, Stonechats and White Wagtails.

Shittim was the hotspot, however, with Striated Scops Owl and Hume's Warbler the pick. The Humes was fairly quiet until a cat went after it and that sent it crazy. Once again I couldn't manage a decent shot of Hume's as it fed in a shadowy treetop.


Day 3: Wandered around Ketura for starters then over to km76.

First bird almost was Desert Warbler. Nice start. Also Stonechats, Black Redstart, Chiffchaff, Blackstart, lots of Water and Red-throated Pipits plus the odd Tawny Pipit.


kestrels hovering overhead, Southern Grey Shrike lurking and Hen Harrier quartering meant birds had to be careful. Loads of Bluethroats ... again. Crested Larks singing and Sardinian Warblers rattling. White Wagtails aplenty.



Yotvata fields held more of the above, another male Hen Harrier, Black Kites, Common Cranes, Sparrowhawk, Little Green Bee-eater.

Had a listen for the Yellow-browed Warbler at Lotan but no sign. Several Chiffs, Black Redstart. Just nice birding all round.


Day 4: Was going dotty over Dotterels so arranged to meet Barak at Urim 06:15hrs and Lior was also going to be around prepping for his weekend tour. And so up and away from Lotan 04:15hrs arriving Urim 06:30ish.

Straight to the Dotterels - all 110 of them! Fantastic. An Israel 'tick' and an incredible sight on this remote sandy plateau. Also nearby were c.30 Kentish Plovers which was nice. Mission accomplished. Now it was down to some steady birding.



The place was full of birds: c.1,400 Lapwings (minimum) which is exceptional; 10 Sociable Plovers; a single flock containing an impressive c.2,000 Spanish Sparrows; thousands of Skylarks and several Calandra's mixed in; hundreds of Corn Buntings, Water, Red-throated and Meadow Pipits, White Wagtails and the odd greenfinch here and there.

Also many C. Stonechats, several Isabelline Wheatears and single female Finsch's. Throw in two foxes for good measure. Bugling Common Cranes added even more atmosphere. So what was the pick? Surely the plovers took the chequered flag but raptors, only few in number, were real quality: 5-6 Eastern Imperial Eagles inc. 4 ads and a juv, 3 male Pallid Harriers and a female/imm type, 4 male Hen Harriers and two ring-tails, single Merlin, 1-2 Peregrines, 4-5 Common Buzzards, 6-7 Long-legged Buzzards, good numbers of Common Kestrels and three Saker Falcons. Wow!!


What a day. And then it was back to Lotan for a rest. Great to meet up with my good friends Rony at the Dotts and to see Lior again and many thanks to Barak for a great day in the field. His car might need a clean afterwards though. Well worth it..


Day 5: Firstly, Can I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas.

Enjoy that corking Christmas meal. Just Yotvata yogurt for me and no stuffing. Will also spare a thought for all those people going through difficult times as others enjoy the festive period. Thinking of you all.


Began with a good wander around the superb organic gardens at Kibbutz Lotan & Center for Creative Ecology for the first couple of hours. Lots of impressive changes underway. Several Chiffs and Bluethroats again plus White Wags, Red-throated Pipit over.


Soon picked a vocal Yellow-browed Warbler near the tea room. Was found a couple of days back by Noam and Yoram. Really tough to get any photos as it was being harrassed constantly by a Chiff.

Couple of poor quality photos posted but they do show some nice features plus it was giving the classic call. Late afternoon I was back there with resident birder David Schoneveld who played YBW call. Bang! In it came. Only question was: could there have been two? Never heard simultaneous calls so perhaps not but wouldn't rule out the possibility.


After breakfast paid a short visit to a wadi north of Lotan which yielded more Chiffs and Bluethroats, Blackstarts, Little Green Bee-eater, Brown-necked Ravens, Graceful Prinia and noisy Scrub Warblers and a Eurasian Sparrowhawk carrying prey. In fact I've seen sprawks at almost every site I've been to, which suggests there must be ample prey around.


The Ovda Valley Wadi complex is impressive at any time and at the moment it's a damp, hugely extensive green carpet of vegetation. Birds appeared thin on the ground but I'm assuming this is because they're spoilt for choice. A really pale Siberian Stonechat attracted my attention but escaped before I could study it in detail unfortunately.


Neot Smadar entrance fields held c.35 Corn Buntings and the sewage ponds had a couple of Green Sands. White Wags were numerous and Pale Crag Martins were hawking overhead.

Finished off back at the Yellow-browed Warbler with David in control of things. Nice leisurely day. Heading north tomorrow up to the Beit Shean Valley. Kfar Ruppin awaits.


Day 6: Pre breakfast walk around the organic gardens at Kibbutz Lotan & Center for Creative Ecology with David confirmed our suspicions: 2 Yellow-browed Warblers both calling simultaneously. Wow! Good start. Now for brekky.


Left Kibbutz Lotan around 09:00hrs and began my journey north. Great to see everybody there again and a shame I didn't have more time there. I was accompanied by David Schoneveld to 30 mins north of Lotan and I reckon he summed things up pretty nicely in his post earlier.


Considering there weren't too many birds around we did exceptionally well. There were 4-5 Spectacled Warblers in the area but they were keeping low to say the least.

Dunn's Lark: the tail pattern looked good and we both saw it well but it's a real shame we couldn't pin it down to see other features. Unless of course it's something really obscure!!! It's there to be refound if you fancy it.





I've seen 3 Asian Desert Warblers this trip and one of the 2 birds today actually behaved quite well. It's rare for me to get a decent photo of one but one or two just about came out okay.

Also a few good birds on the road north including 2 sightings of Black-winged Kite a few kms south of the Beit Shean checkpoint.


The wetlands just south of the Dead Sea held hundreds of Little Grebes, Coot and Teal and a handful of Tufted Ducks plus 2 Marsh Harriers. Almost certainly much more tucked away in the vegetation but I pressed on.

Just settled into my accommodation at Kfar Ruppin and looking forward to my stay.


Day 7: Kfar Ruppin. Pre-breakfast wander to pick out the hot spots.This Daurian Shrike jumped out at me just SW of the fish processing plant near the large red & white mast and adjacent barn.


Took it nice and easy. Roamed around Kfar Ruppin and then made my way a little south to Tirat Tsvi. Had an Asian Buff-bellied Pipit at Tirats and saw the Red-crested Pochards there. Also had a group of c.600 Glossy Ibis plus several hundred more so close to 1,000 I would have thought.




Black Kites everywhere. Black Storks numerous. Nice group of Little Stints plus a few Dunlins mixed in and Common, Green, Wood Sandpiper, Ruff, Ringed Plover, Curlew, Black-winged Stilt and C. Snipe all noted. Had at least three Citrine Wags over the day.


Finished off at Neve Etan with a few Pallas's Gulls among the hundreds of Armenian and Black-headed. So along with the early morning Izzy Shrike not a bad way to start. More tomorrow.


(PM - Tirats Tsvi). This was the large, empty fish pond immediately NW of the three southernmost ponds at Tirat Tsvi. The NW corner had a few small pools of water which proved to be a magnet for bathing Water Pipits and probably two Asian Buff-bellied Pipits. And these Starlings certainly made a splash.




Day 8: Avner Rinot, local Beit Shean birder, suggested a few places I might visit so off I went to Tiferet Reservoir for first light. c.50 Marsh Harriers left the roost (c.90 have been noted), c.1,000 duck including Shoveler mainly, then good numbers of C. Teal, and then a few each of Mallard, Gadwall, Wigeon and Pintail.

Also many Coot and Little Grebes, a couple of Purple Herons, hundreds of Pygmy Cormorants and less Greats, loads of Grey Herons, the odd Great Egret, thousands of Barn Swallows with a few Sand Martins mixed in, one or two White Pelicans. The pick would probably be the 6 Ferruginous Ducks tucked away in the vegetation. Very smart. Quite an impressive array I would say.





But the vegetated fringes and fields were also extremely active with good numbers of Corn Buntings and Greenfinches and plenty more. Could have spent much longer here searching through the passerines for that elusive Little Bunting.


Off to the Harod Valley to team up with good friend Tuvia Khan for a few hours. Great to see him and his wife Renana again - and their expanding family.

Eagles had been thin on the ground thus far but a meander brought up to 8 Greater Spotted. Fantastic. Also 2 Long-legged Buzzards, 1-2 Common Buzzards, Peregrine, a few Kestrels, single Hen Harrier and E. Sparrowhawk.

The pools held a few Pallas's Gulls - also a little thin on the ground this winter it would seem, so far anyway - Black Storks, White Pelicans, 2 Jack Snipe, good numbers of Marsh Sands and Ringed Plover, 3-4 Citrine Wags, Dunlin, Greenshank, Avocets, Ruffs, Redshanks, Common Sand, Water & Red-throated Pipits, C. Snipe, Penduline Tits, Sardinian Warblers and plenty more.


The impressive Gilboa cliffs held 3-4 Blue Rock Thrushes and we heard Rock Bunting, also a few Brambling, Goldfinch, Serin, Chiffchaffs. C. Stonechats, Chaffinch.

A quick coffee at Tuvia's and then to the fields near Kfar Ruppin ringing station. Loads of Skylarks, Red-throated Pipits, a few Meadow Pipits, a superb male Pallid Harrier so close that I failed miserably to capture it!! Good flocks of Dead Sea Sparrows. Loads more going on. I'll be back here tomorrow please God.


Day 9: Didn't venture far today. Just to the fields and fish ponds of Kfar Ruppin, Tirat Tsvi and Newe Etan. Good to meet David Kotter at the TT pipit hotspot where we independently saw at least 2 Asian Buff-bellied Pipits, perhaps as many as 4, among the many Water and a handful of Meadow Pipits.

Nice show and fine through the scope but just too far for decent photos. Always loads to see but I won’t list them again. Dead Sea Sparrows are little beauties and one of my favs and plenty around. Purple Herons, Spoonbills, Temminck's Stint, Spot Shank, Song Thrush and Blackbird, Chaffinches, hundreds of Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, plenty of Cetti's, Ospreys all over the shop. Skies full of birds.





Been virtually no rains all year so the fields are still being watered but the good news (?) is that rain is forecast for the weekend at least.

Might try and beat the bad weather and head up into the Golan tomorrow. Got to get my 'fix' of the Golan.


Day 10: Predicted bad weather brought my trip to the Golan forward by a day. Up to Alone Habashan to try for Pine Bunting ... again. Mist, coldish wind and poor visibility didn't help but it began to clear after about two hours.


Plenty of Chiffchaffs, Great Tits, Chaffinches and Blackbirds and several Syrian Woodpeckers and Robins. Flushed 2 Woodcock from the tree-lined hillside below the army base. No Hawfinches and just two buntings sp. that flew across the road from the base calling. Had to be Yellowhammers.


Called it a day up there and headed to Bental Reservoir. A few Shoveler, Teal, Wigeon, Redshanks, Common and Green Sands. I was just about to ring my friend Daniel at El Rom to tell him to put the kettle on when the phone rang. It was Tuvia with breaking news: Lior and his group had just found an ALPINE ACCENTOR at Mt. Arbel.

Bit of a mishap negotiating Tiberias but I was at the bird some 90 mins later. Good to see Lior, Tuvia, Meir, Giora, Galit, David, Amir, Niv, Rotem and Shachar all enjoying the great find. An Israel 'tick' for me. An unexpected surprise but it's a known occasional wintering site for them (and also for Wallcreeper - which I've seen here. One present this winter but not seen today).


Plenty of Chiffs, Black Reds, White Wags and several corking Blue Rock Thrushes singing and showing well. And that was it for the day. Brilliant place. A couple of distant records shots of the Accentor. Best I could manage. My legs felt like they'd conquered K2 by the time I'd gone up and down that dodgy route!!


Day 11: Birded the Harod Valley with Tuvia to 13:30 hrs. Plenty of birds around. Over 200 Pallas's Gulls, several GSEs, Long-legged and Common Buzzard, E. Sparrowhawk and C. Kestrel plus a distant harrier sp.


Thousands of Black-headed Gulls, 2-3 Baltic, single Slender-billed, Caspian and Yellow-legged. The drier fish ponds held c. Snipe plus single Jack, several Common, Green and Wood Sands, Black Storks, Great, Little and Cattle Egrets, Spoonbills, Glossy Ibis, single Spot Shank among the Reds, Ringed Plovers plus a few Little Stints, single Kentish, several Ruff, occasional Greenshanks and Marsh Sands and plenty of Bl-w Stilts. Numerous Marsh Harriers around and loads of Black Kites plus the odd Osprey here and there.





The fields held Lapwing, Starling, Meadow and Red-throated Pipits and a nice group of Desert Finches.Lots of other bits and bobs.

Up to the Orchards behind En Harod which wher busy in places with Chaffinches, Great Tits, Jays and 1-2 nice Bramblings.


I finished off the day in Tirat Tsvi. The pipit hot spot had c.50 Water Pipits visit and a handful of Meadows and eventually at least 3 Buff-bellied Pipits came to bathe - but I'd waited 90 mins for them to arrive. Also in the same fish pond (95% empty) were c.350 Teal and c.150 Little Stints.


The weather was much better than anticipated with just a few heavy showers and a stiffer breeze and slightly cooler temps than of late. Just a fleece was needed though.

The brunt of the storm arrives tonight so we'll try a sea watch tomorrow (hopefully) and see what that turns up.


Day 12: Wishing everyone a very HAPPY NEW YEAR.

I spent my New Years Day with Tuvia on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea at the historic Old Town of Acco. Everything should have been fine except we were in the eye of a storm that brought high winds, rough seas, heavy showers, cool temperatures and very little else.


Having said that, it was still great to be there despite the conditions. Just a few Black-headed, Armenian and Slender-billed Gulls, a distant skua sp., some Turnstones on the beach and a nice wander north along the high tide mark.

Popped my head round the old city walls near the lighthouse and paid a heavy price: drenched by a breaking wave! I did dry out eventually.


We cut our losses and headed back to the Beit Shean Valley to Tirat Tsvi to check out the Asian Buff-bellied Pipits (fish pond) of which there were definitely 2 and maybe as many as 4. This time they came slightly closer but only by 5 metres or so and as a result the phtos are slightly better. Also several Water and Meadow and the occasional Red-throated Pipit and White Wagtails alongside. The Little Stints, Dunlins, Kentish, Ringed Plover, Redshank, Green and Common Sands and Teal were all still around.


Checked for the Great Bittern but no sign among the reed fringes, Grey Herons and Great Egrets. Several Marsh Harriers overhead, a distant GSE feeding in an adjacent field and calling Desert Finches zapping past. Plenty more of 'the regulars' to occupy us before yet another squall hit us. At that point the light went and so we headed back home.


Just finished a nice evening meal at En Harod courtesy of Renana and Tuvia. Many thanks to you both. Now we've got to come up with a plan for tomorrow.

Cheers for now.


Day 13: Up and away with Tuvia to the En Gev region on the east coast of the Sea of Galilee. Felt good just being here and I was reminded of my first trip to Israel 26 years ago when me, Captain Paul Higson, Jane and Aqua Man - aka Mark Higson - camped on these shores.

Selected Highlights:

Sightings here today included: Tufted Duck, Mallard and Teal, a few Black-necked and several Great Crested Grebes, a handful of Whiskered Terns, Pygmy Cormorants, Barn Swallows hawking, Black-headed, Slender-billed, Armenian and single Pallas's Gull.


The vegetated shore held numerous 'peeping' Chiffchaffs, 1-2 Reed Buntings, several Meadow Pipits, Crested and Skylarks, White Wagtails, Zitting Cisticola, Black Redstarts, C. Stonechats, House Sparrows, Marsh Harrier and of course raucous Rose-ringed Parakeets (seemingly virtually everywhere these days along with Common Myna).


We headed up into the now snow-capped Golan Heights and superb views were had to the north. It was a little cold but thankfully it was dry and with only a light breeze. We checked out the almost dry Nov Reservoir which held: Shoveler, Teal, Mallard, Great Cormorant, Whiskered Terns, Little Grebe, Grey Heron, a few C. Cranes over and the surrounding fields which had Brambling, Chaffinch, Black Redstart, Corn Buntings, Long-legged Buzzard, E. Sparrowhawk.





Then we moved on to the area around Meitser Res.: Golden Plover, N. Lapwing, many Skylarks, single Long-legged and 1-2 Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier and quite a lot of bugling Common Cranes on the plateau and single Song Thrush.


And then it was into a picturesque Wadi south of Meitser whose slopes were covered in Corn Buntings, Goldfinches, Serins, Greenfinches, Woodlarks, more Black Redstarts and C. Stonechats, Chaffinches and a male and female Finsch's Wheatear plus another Long-legged Buzzard and E. Sparrowhawk.


We headed back to Lake Tiberias and the Jordan Valley via route 98 which is a spectacular, steeply winding road taking you past Syria and Jordan on your left side. Done this road many times and it never fails to impress.

A quick coffee stop and then back south on route 90 to Gesher Fish Ponds: c.300 Black Storks, many more Grey Herons and Great Egrets, also good numbers of Little Egrets, c.20 E. Spoonbills and several Pygmy Cormorants. Waders included Little and Temminck's Stint, C. Snipe, Redshank, Greenshank, Wood, Common and Green Sand, Ruff, Black-w Stilt, Black-tailed Godwit and single Pied Avocet. Gulls were represented by: Armenian, Black-headed, single Pallas's and 3-4 Caspian.


Also noted were many White Wags, Water Pipits, Skylarks, C. Stonechats, several Bluethroats. Ducks: 10 Shelducks, 6 Gadwall, 4 Wigeon, c.50 Teal, Shovelers and Mallards. Of note were thousands of Black-headed Gulls heading north to roost.

My thanks to Tuvia for an extremely enjoyable days birding.

Posted a record shot of the male Finsch's Wheatear. Don't know why but they never seem to come close.





Day 14: Sitting in a pleasant cafe at the Re’em junction (45 mins south of Ben Gurion Airport approx.) enjoying humous, pitta, olives and garnish all washed down with a nice cappuccino.

Said goodbye and thanks to Tuvia and Renana and thanked them for their hospitality and headed south from En Harod after breakfast towards Timorim and route 353.


Walked myself into the ground in the morning through what amounted to a quagmire thanks to the recent rains (raining now as I eat). Plenty of good birds: Marsh (several), Hen (at least 2) and Pallid Harrier (a definte ringtail), several Common Buzzards, 2 Long-legged Buzzards and loads of Kestrels and Black Kites.


Heard a strange harsh call, looked up and saw a Long-legged Buzzard being harassed by an early(?) Great Spotted Cuckoo. Nice. Loads more Skylarks and plenty of C. Stonechats and Chiffs including some that actually sounded like UK collybita rather than the regular 'peepers' out here (whatever they are).



Failed to find the Bateleur although I have distant record shots of a late flying eagle sp. that I haven't checked yet! It couldn't be? The habitat here (either side of the 353) is very different from anything I've encountered in Israel. Not sure how to describe it but I'm sure someone will help me out.

Very interesting and pleasant rolling hills with sparse trees and shrubs and scrub.

And now it's a question of what do I do? Flight isn't until 0520 tomorrow morning. Not another uncomfortable attempt at sleeping in the airport.





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