Zin Cliffs

Meidad Goren 29/07/2016 00:00

Flashback to 1992 - Following the discovery of the Lapped-faced Vulture roost in Ein Zik, the feeling was that nothing could match that. Then one afternoon as I was hiking at the nearby of Ein Akev I looked up and saw two Golden Eagles soaring in the sky. Golden Eagles were not such a rare sight back then, but seconds later the two approached each other, clenched their claws together and with a brilliant spin spiraled down, separating only a few meters above ground.

This was the first and only time I ever witnessed such a sight and it left me in awe.

 

Ein Zik and Ein Akev are two of a number of springs that are found in the Zin Cliffs. The biggest spring in the area, Ein Avdat is famous today for the Griffon Vultures that breed in the gorge, but very few people know that back in the 1970's even the rare Lammergeyer used to breed there.

The Zin Cliffs are the north-east boundary of the wide Avdat Plateau.

Wadi Zin which runs along the foothills of the Avdat Plateau carved the cliff outline and exposed the impressive springs. These two elements; high cliffs and fresh water in the middle of a harsh desert support a wonderful range of wildlife. Today the entire cliff range is part of the Zin Cliffs Nature Reserve and is protected by law.

 

Ten species of raptors breed in the Zin Cliffs together with three Owl species and two species of Ravens contributing to never-ending action in the sky. But there is also action on the ground; the Avdat nature reserve hosts many tourists who come to enjoy the beautiful sites and the pools of water. Many of these people are completely oblivious to the magnificent bird life around them.

The Griffon Vulture is one of the most impressive raptors in Israel. With a wingspan of 2.5 meters, this majestic bird can be seen year round in the area. About 15-20 pairs breed here and the cliffs also host tens and sometimes hundreds of Vultures, all waiting to feed in the nearby feeding station.

Egyptian Vultures are not a rare sight if you are visiting the area in January-November. They nest in deep crevices or deserted raptor nests, usually raising 1-2 chicks. The local population (as well as the global) is in decline but on a local level the Zin Cliffs are the most important breeding area for this species.  

 

 

 

Then there are the eagles, which tell a sad story. Golden Eagle and Bonnelli's Eagle were not so rare until recent years. Today we know of a single pair of Golden Eagles that attempt to breed (unsuccessfully in the last 6 years) and only one pair of Bonnelli's Eagle that breeds  in the Avdat gorge but they too have failed to raise a chick in the last 5 years. Last year the Bonnelli's Eagle pair disappeared. We don't know why, we can only guess.  

 

It was very interesting to see that as soon as the Bonnelli's Eagle pair left, a pair of Long-legged Buzzard stepped in and took its place. The Buzzards did not breed this year and time will tell whether they will return to breed next season, possibly using one of the few Eagle nests. Besides the newcomers we know of at least two more Long-legged Buzzard pairs in the cliffs.  

Falcons love this area and the Zin cliffs are the best place in Israel to look for the big 3 - Barbary Flacon, Lanner Falcon and Sooty Falcon. The Barbary Falcon is quite rare in the Zin cliffs (more common in the Judean Desert) but if you are lucky you can find yourselves watching in awe as two Lanners chase away a young petrified Barbary Falcon (like we did while leading a group recently).

 

 

 

 

At least three Lanner pairs breed in a very limited area of the cliffs while at least 7 pairs of Sooty Falcon entertain us during their breeding season (May-October). Every year the whole population of Sooty Falcons migrates to south-east Africa and Madagascar. All three falcon species feed on birds while the Common Kestrel feeds mainly on insects and small reptiles. Kestrels are not as common here as in other parts of the country where they are the commonest breeding raptor. It just doesn’t think much of the desert…

 

A surprising raptor that is regularly seen here is the Short-toed Eagle. Despite being rather conspicuous a nest has not been found in recent years. The species breeds mainly on trees in central and northern Israel but is also known from the desert region. Short-toed Eagles are summer visitors here and every fall migrate south to winter in Africa.

 

 

 

 

Not much is known about the biology of the two rather elusive owls that breed in the area, the Desert Tawny Owl and the Pharaoh Eagle-Owl. The taxonomy of both species still puzzles many ornithologists. 25 years ago one of the first nests of Desert Tawny Owl in Israel was found right here in the Zin Cliffs; Three fledglings and an adult.  Since then a rather healthy population was found in Judean Desert but the first nest in the Judean Desert was only found last year.

 

The Zin cliffs are the place where the following question rises, where does the Pharaoh Eagle end and where does the Eurasian Eagle Owl begin? This still needs to be explored further.

The desert form of the cute Little Owl (Lilith) guards the hills and the lower parts of the cliffs. They can be easily seen in the early mornings perching half-asleep in the open, unlike their larger relatives.

 

The best way to try and see as many of the species mentioned above is to come to Sde Boker and spend a few days in one of the local guest houses. Hiking is the best way to go and Mornings and afternoons hold the best chance to see various raptors. A stroll down Ein Avdat canyon or even a 4x4 trip to Ein Akev can produce exciting raptors and many other desert birds.  

 

 
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