The North-Western Negev

Barak Granit 01/01/2014 00:00

 

Where to watch birds in the North-Western Negev

 

The North-Western Negev (NW Negev in short) is one of the most unique birding zones in Israel and probably in the WP. The area is known for its high concentration of vulnerable and under-threat species such as Eastern Imperial Eagle (20-35 birds), Saker Falcon (up to 9 birds), Pallid Harrier (up to 50 in the past, far less currently) and Sociable Plovers (20-30 birds), plus other raptor species that winter here, sometimes in large numbers: Long-lagged Buzzard (now common), all 4 harrier species, Merlin (including ‘Steppe’ Merlin), Peregrine, Lanner and Barbary (both scarce) and others.

 

 

 

The declining natural Steppe habitat that is giving way to an ever developing agricultural area is a home for wintering Dotterel (up to 500 birds in a good winter), but the agricultural fields themselves provide a home for Pin-tailed Sandgrouse with flocks that have reached 4,000 birds up to the early 90’s, and which are now hopefully making a comeback after many years of poor numbers.

 

Common Cranes also regularly winter here, and now the Spotted Sandgrouse has returned after a 20 year absence. At the edge of the area, Finsch’s Wheatear is relatively common together with Isabelline and in some winters great numbers (up to 1,800 birds but mostly hundreds) of Calandra Larks are mixed with the enormous Skylark numbers. Indeed, there are not many places that hold such a selection of birds.

 

 

 

 

The NW Negev stretches from the Gaza Strip in the west, road 25 at the North and north east, the town of Ofakin and Hatzerim air-force base to the east, and wadi Beer Sheva and the Halutza Sands in the south. The Bsor River divides the area into two sections. However, only a very small fraction of this vast area is known to foreigners (and even to many local birders), something that can result in a lessening of a visitors birding experience.

In this article I will provide an overview of some good birding areas within the NW Negev to enable both foreign and local birders to enrich their birding experience while visiting this superb and unique region.

 

Timing your visit and therefore your day route


 

The best birding season - the ‘hot’ season - is undoubtedly between October-February. But summer months have also proved to be highly productive such as in 2016 with Tawny Eagle plus big numbers of summering raptors not seen summering here before and large gatherings of Cream-colored Coursers that can also be found.

 

However, at this time the tracks are powdery and thus extremely dusty and anyway, most of the ‘wish-listed’ species are no longer here. From mid-February onwards, wintering species begin to leave and head north, some leaving even earlier. Also the Wheat crops are high during this period and the ‘steppe’ like agricultural habitats are no longer suitable for many of the wintering species.

 

Within the ‘hot’ season there are differences too: for example, during October to mid-December it is usually easy to find the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flocks in a small area north of Urim gas station (at Urim junction). However, afterwards in many winters, the Sandgrouse move to other areas, sometimes even out of the defined NW Negev, usually south and south-east and can be found at Revivim-retamim and Nizzana.

 

A birder visiting here during October should not expect to find all their target species as some will not have arrived yet, but they can expect to find hunting flocks of Red-footed Falcons and many other migrants, small parties of CCCs and other phenomenons that are not witnessed later on. All things considered, it seems that the ‘peak’ birding period here is mid-November to mid-December while afterwards there is a drop in certain species numbers as winter progresses.

 

 

Reim-Urim


 

This 10 km long and 3 km wide section forms part of the regularly birded area of many Israeli birders, less so of foreign birders who should definitely consider adding it to their Urim day.

The birding area covers all the fields on both sides of Reim-Urim road between the Bsor and Grar dry rivers. In general the area is just as good as the famous power line section south of Kibbutz Urim, and holds all the important species including Sociable Plovers that in some winters are found here and not around the power line.

 

 

Dotterels have also been found here. Saker and Lanner, Peregrine, Barbary and Merlin can all be seen here in the fields. Also check the ‘Tal-or’ Power line that crosses the road north of Tal-or farm as large falcons like to perch on it.

The Reim reservoir and the nearby fields usually hold many raptors including your first male Pallid Harrier of the day and it’s the only place around where you’re likely to see Greater Spotted Eagle.

There are many seed-eaters around including Desert Finch and loads of pipits in the fields including Asian Buff-bellied. Take also the scenic route along the Bsor as Eastern Imperial Eagle is usually easily seen here. The Pin-tailed Sandgrouse are usually to be found between the Tal-or farm and Urim Junction, normally on the eastern side of the road.

 

Just north east to the Urim gas station there are some eucalyptus trees scattered in the fields - this is a must place to check as Imperial Eagle, Peregrine and sometimes Saker like to use the trees as resting and watching places. It was here where a Tawny Eagle choose to build a nest in the year of 2000.

 

 

 

The famous Urim power line area


 

Commonly called ‘Urim’ the name actually refers to quite a large area extending between Kibutz Urim in the North and Kibutz Zeelim in the south, stretching on both sides of the main road from the Bsor in the west to Offakim dump in the east. It’s a large area to cover but well worth it and there are some corners that most birders simply don’t get to visit, including locals.

 

Starting from the western side, there are two eucalyptus avenues located north of the power line which you can drive along westwards. It is better to take the southern of the two as it is longer and puts you in the center of the area. Imperial Eagles like to rest here and in the fields between this grove and the power line.

 

 

 

 

This is also usually the best area in the NW Negev for Calandra Larks. Sociable Plovers are sometimes to be found here and Sakers can occasionally use this section of the power line.

During the 90’s up to 2,500 Stock Doves used to concentrate at the point where the Bsor crosses the Power line but only a handful are found nowadays. Dotterels are sometime to be found here as well, especially nearer the Bsor. The Bsor itself is very good place for Harriers, mainly Hen but sometimes Pallid. Rarely the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse are also found here.

 

 

The eastern Side: the most visited section is along the power line between the road and up to 2 km eastwards. Indeed, the Sociable Plovers prefer to be here in most years and usually there is at least one Saker. Merlins like to use the small tamarix grove some 2 km east of the road along the powerline track, but there is more to explore here than this.

There is a large section of fields between the power line and road 241 (Urim-Ofakim). There is also a small power line running almost all the way along it which Sakers like to use as well. The fields can hold Sociable Plovers, small parties of Dotterels and sometimes even a Mcqueen’s Bustard.

 

It’s best is to visit this area during the late afternoon for the feeding frenzy of raptors when many Hen, a few Pallids, Peregrine, Saker, Long-legged Buzzards and Merlins all go for their last meal before evening falls and when you can witness thousands, or even tens of thousands, of Skylarks getting into a real panic. This is a must experience that only very few birders are aware of.

 

 

The power line is worth checking all the way eastwards as far as Ofakim dump (and beyond). In the evenings Eastern Imperial Eagles like to perch on the power line and it is not uncommon to see 2-3 perching on the same pylon. There are good tracks that enable birders to check all the fields south to the power line as well.

The eastern tracks are most recommended. It was here, some 4-5 km south of the power line, that we had a flock of 500 Dotterels in 2010, the largest ever recorded in Israel. It was also during this year that a Lanner and Saker were observed having an aerial duel!

 

Hatzerim


 

The hills of Hatzerim border the NW Negev on the east. It is the last section of natural habitat that remains in the area and most of it is protected by law and enjoys nature reserve status. The birding area runs all along the Hatzerim Air-base that stretches to the east. The hills are covered by low shrubs and in some areas there is barren steppe.

 

 

Pallid Harriers favour this section and with them there are usually good numbers of Hen Harriers with some Merlins, Peregrines and Long-legged Buzzards. A visit at sunrise can bring an encounter with Mcqueen’s Bustard.

Finsch’s Wheatear and Spectacled Warblers are common here, Tawny Pipit is a regular winterer and sometimes even an Asian Desert Warbler can be found. In some years both Black-bellied and Spotted Sandgrouse are found here in small numbers (tens of each) and sometimes even parties of Lesser Short-toed Larks.

 

The southern section, south to the Hatzerim air-base and north to wadi Beer-Sheva, is the best and most reliable place in Israel to find Dotterels - discovered only in the mid-2000’s. It is also one of the only places to find small numbers of Kentish Plovers the winters here regularly. Some Cream Coloured Coursers can be found too and it is the best place around for Little Owls.

 

Gevulot - Zeelim


 

Located at the southern end of the area, this sections ‘contribution’ is where the Halutza Sands and the agricultural fields meet. This sector has the potential for more Dotterels, Sociable Plovers and Coursers. Both Kibuttz gardens are home to Long-eared Owls that use Pine and Cyprus trees as roosting places while Hume’s warbler was wintering here in 2015. The nearby ‘Bsor bridge’ is a great place for Purple Swamphen which probably breeds here.

 

 

 

West to the Bsor


 

At the end of the 70’s and beginning of the 80’s of the 20th century when the birding potential of the area was only discovered, the fields of Nir Oz and the other nearby Kibutzim were the main birding hot spots.

The Sociable Plover wintering site was first discovered there and Sakers were seen there too, while the first discovery of wintering Dotterels (a flock of 270 birds) was found at Kerem Shalom - at the far south-western corner of the area. During the last 2.5 decades this area was little visited but the bird news that did come out from time to time revealed that all the ‘Urim’ species could be found here too, though usually in much smaller numbers.

 

 

 

 

In the NW Negev’s vicinity: Revivim-Retamim


 

This area of agricultural fields, located some 20 km away from Zeelim, can be attractive to birders who visit Urim during January and February and who are having difficulty in finding Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. In many years, the Sandgrouse move to this area during the winter and some remain here for the spring.

Besides Pin-tailed, there are usually good numbers of both Spotted and Black-bellied, and at the edge of the fields Dotterels and Finsch’s Wheatear can be found.  A hunting Lanner is not a rare sight. If you do get here, the Revivim sewage is recommended.

 

 

 

 

Good Birding!

 

Many thanks to Olga Chagina - Israel's western Negev "Home Photographer"

 
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