Birding in Israel – where action never ends
First of all, let me introduce myself. I am a birder since the age of 8, and all my adult life I worked in conservation, birding and research, for a large NGO in Israel, the Israeli Ornithological Center. I grew up as a birder in Israel which is one of the most extraordinary places in the Western Palearctic. From a very young age I got exposed to powerful wildlife phenomena. I can still remember vividly my first visit to the famous North Field near Eilat when I was ten – I got off the bus and was in awe – the alfalfa field was literally moving with thousands of Yellow Wagtails, Red-throated Pipits, Ortolans, Whitethroats and Quails. A couple of years later I showed the late Peter Grant his first Black Bush Robin there. Or when I was fourteen I experienced my first BIG Lesser Spotted Eagle day – I participated in the annual raptor count and one day, east of Tel Aviv, 23,000 eagles passed over my head in about four hours. At some moments the sky was black with birds. Back then Israel was so under-watched, and I started finding my own rarities when I was very young.
I am here in the UK now, doing a PhD at UEA, working on Great Bustards in Iberia. I enjoy UEA very much, and in fact it's an NGB hotspot, with several young excellent NGbirders working the university grounds daily. While here in the UK I go birding less often than I would want to, but I do enjoy what the North Norfolk coast has to offer.
So what is it that makes Israel so special to my eyes? I think that the combination of adrenalin rush of migration almost year-round, several Middle-Eastern specialties, the extremely varied habitats in such a small area, the open and easy access, and the good chances to find one's own rarities. I think Israel is a must-do birding experience for young birders, as it gets you tuned in quickly on species that are on the cards in your local patch in the UK (well, if you live in Norfolk or Yorkshire maybe) – Isabelline Wheatear, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Red-throated Pipit, Masked Shrike – all are common migrants in Israel. And after a season in Israel you should be able to tell a Honey Buzzard from a Common Buzzard two miles away, or a Lesser Spotted Eagle from a Steppe Eagle just by jizz.
So what is the best time of year to visit Israel? It’s hard to say, because year-round there are special birds to see. The most popular period is the second half of March and early April, for understandable reasons. In this season most birders head down to Eilat and the southern Arava Valley. This period offers an attractive combination of accelerating migration, peak breeding activity of desert species and lovely weather. Most birders drive up from Eilat to the Negev for a day or two to see the local specialties – MacQueen's Bustards, Cream-coloured Coursers, four sandgrouse species and some interesting larks.
Later on in spring it does become much warmer down in southern Israel, but migration doesn’t stop and in fact increases during April and into early May. For instance, this year during the May 2nd and 3rd, 450,000 Honey Buzzards were counted by the IBRCE survey team over Eilat! Now try and pick out the orientals passing through with them… Or what about a flock of 5000 White-winged terns in beautiful summer plumage roosting on the banks of the KM20 saltpans? Or just a nice stroll around Yotvata fields Caspian Plover, Olive-tree and Upcher’s Warblers, Black-headed Buntings… Another advantage of arriving later in spring is that there are far fewer birders around and you basically have the place to yourself.
Later on the summer sets in but the birding goes on strong. Some species that are difficult to see any other time of year are at their peak in summer. One very popular bird is Sooty Falcon. This globally-threatened breathtaking raptor arrives back from its wintering grounds only in June, and peak breeding season is between July and September. Seabirding in Eilat is great in summer, mainly in July and early August. Daily observations of White-cheeked, Bridled and Lesser Crested Terns make the few hours of human temperatures great fun. Lots of skuas around, Sooty and Cory's Shearwaters, and the regulars: White-eyed Gulls, Western Reef Egret and Mangrove Heron make the time there quite enjoyable.
In spring a birding trip up to Mt. Hermon, Israel’s highest peak, might be frustrating. Birds haven’t really started doing anything, there's still lots of snow on the ground, and one of the top species on birder’s list, Syrian Serin, doesn’t arrive before late April. But in summer all the local high-altitude species, including Crimson-winged Finch, Western Rock Nuthatch, Sombre Tit, Pale Rock Sparrow and the serin come to drink in huge numbers in the large pools below the lower cable station.
|Western Rock Nuthatch|
In recent years, summer months have become the most exciting for mega rarities in Israel. Only this summer produced Israel’s 1st Senegal Thick-knee and other megas such as long-staying Bateleur and Pink-backed Pelican, and in recent years also several Yellow-billed Storks, Lesser Sand-plovers, and more.
|Lesser Sand Plover|
In autumn migration dynamics are slightly different to spring migration. While spring birding in southern Israel seems to be more attractive, in autumn the focus moves north. First of all, the massive raptor migration route passes in autumn over northern and central Israel, while over Eilat and southern Israel much smaller numbers pass (not more than several thousand raptors a day, not too busy..). Peak migration of Honey Buzzards is in early September, and in late September and early October about 100,000 Lesser Spotted Eagles and 60,000 Levant Sparrowhawks pass through. There is no other place in the world where you can see such large concentrations of these two species. Passerine migration is massive from early September. Shrikes are everywhere (Red-Backed, Lesser Grey, Woodchat and Masked), pipits, wagtails, larks, warblers, buntings, hirundines, the lot. The Bet Shean Valley is just packed with birds. From early October the Eastern flavour is better pronounced, as Citrine wagtails, Oriental Skylarks, Caspian Stonechats, Sociable Lapwings and Daurian Shrikes show in better numbers. Shorebird migration is not massive in Israel in the way of numbers, because there are no tidal mudflats in the eastern Mediterranean. However, numbers are compensated by quality- Greater Sand-plover, Marsh Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpipers and Temminck's Stints are all common migrants.
The weather in Israel in winter is actually brilliant.There are some rainy days, sometimes quite heavy rain, but then it warms up again and you get beautiful days that you'd enjoy here in the UK as summer days. There are tons of birds around and lots of interesting species as well. The Hula valley is world-known for its bloody cranes, but in fact the Agamon Hula park holds lots more than cranes. It's a real hotspot for eagles, that concentrate there mainly to feed on dead cranes. Seeing 6-7 Greater Spots and 3-4 Eastern Imperials on a dead crane is not a bad experience. In recent years Black-winged Kite had colonized Israel and is easy to see in the Agamon. And the Agamon is a hotspot for wintering Daurian Shrikes, Citrine Wagtails, Caspian Stonechats and lots more. In winter the Bet She'an valley is incredible – huge numbers of birds everywhere. Richard's and Siberian Buff-bellied Pipits and Oriental Skylarks join the huge flocks of pipits and larks in the alfalfa fields. The valley is a hotspot for Pallas's Gulls – you can find a flock of 1000 in an empty reservoir.
In the open fields of the northwestern Negev several steppe species come to winter. It's a unique combination of species that congregates every year along the famous powerline south of Urim junction: Sociable Lapwings, Sakers, Eastern Imperial Eagles, Pallid Harriers and Dotterels, among the thousands of birds from commoner species.
Israel is not a great country for waterfowl, but we do have some specialties in winter, the most notable is White-headed Duck: about 10% of the world population winters in Israel, mainly in some reservoirs in the Jizreel Valley and in central Israel, where you can have concentrations of a couple of thousands.
So how to do Israel?
Israel is a great country for independent birders. In Israel there is no such thing a private land, so basically you can go anywhere (just don't cross fences). Roads are great, car rental is rather cheap, and security is good – there are no restrictions to go anywhere. Birding information is easy. Everybody speaks good English, there's free wifi everywhere (!) and normally Israeli birders welcome foreign visitors and enjoy giving directions and showing around. A good source of information is www.birds.org.il with its linked Facebook page. You can also connect to the IMO 'RBA Israel' group and get notifications when in Israel. Most birds are easy to find yourself, apart for a couple of endangered night birds you need a guide for.
There are unique opportunities to work or volunteer in Israel. Because there are so few birders in Israel (less than 100 proper birders in the whole country) and even fewer ringers, foreign volunteers are welcome in several projects we run every year. The annual autumn raptor count takes place between late August and mid October. You can read here about the experiences of Luke Tiller who worked with us in 2014. Also in Eilat IBRCE resumed its spring raptor counts (they had an amazing year in 2015), and also do daily migrant monitoring - too much fun to be called work. Read about the experience of Doug Gochfeld here. You should ask Tim Jones about the awesome season he had in spring 2015 ringing at IBRCE – I am sure he can recommend it to any keen ringer. There are a few more ringing stations that can host foreign volunteer ringers.
I see myself as an ambassador of the Israeli birder community in the UK. For any questions, advice or comments, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Come and enjoy Israel, witness migration at its best, sharpen your ID skills with tricky species and sub-species, get a sun tan. You don't know how much I miss birding in Israel, so I'm sure you'd enjoy it massively as well.