Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Israel - September 6th -13th 2008

Israel Trip Report – 6th-13th September 2008

A short report of a week-long trip to Israel, combining birding and archaeology. Most of my time was spent in the north, around the Hula valley and the Jordan River with a shorter time in and around En Gedi and the Dead Sea.

Accommodation was at the fantastic kibbutz at Gadot was free thanks to the Hebrew University of Israel’s Palaeolithic Archaeology Department. Many thanks guys!

6th/7th September - Jerusalem
Spent the first day and a half in Jerusalem doing the usual crazy tour of historical sites. Bird life in the crowded souks and lanes included Laughing dove, Collared dove, Spectacled bulbul, House sparrow, Hooded crow, Jackdaw and a Lovebird sp.

Bird art from past and present: Demoiselle crane mosaic from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and what appears to be a Blue-cheeked bee-eater and Grey wagtail from a mural near the Wailing Wall plaza.

The awesome Golden Dome of the Rock

7th September – Kibbutz Gadot and Jordan River
Arriving at
Kibbutz Gadot in the late afternoon, a short excursion to the famous palaeolithic site of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov and the nearby Crusader-era fort on the western bank of the Jordan yielded the first batch of quality birds. Isabelline wheatears were frequent around the fort, as were stunning Cretzchmar’s buntings. In the evening light, drifts of Cattle and Little egrets as well as Glossy ibis passed north overhead, presumably going to roost further up the Hula valley (probably Gume fishponds judging by a later visit to that site). Probably the most spectacular species on show was Pied kingfisher, with a family party of 6 birds over the river. The abundant riverside sallows and other shrubs held many tutting Olivaceous warblers. Four Spur-winged plovers were present at the Gesher site. Cetti’s warblers were abundant as were Ring-necked parakeets.

Glossy ibis over the River Jordan at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov: the Olduvai Gorge of Israel.

Bloody awful record shot of a Smyrna kingfisher - they're a pain to get near!

The kibbutz is quite lush and the abundant trees, shrubs and lawns held numerous Palestine sunbirds, flocks of noisy Ring-necked parakeets, bulbuls, Red-backed shrikes, Blackbirds and Laughing doves. As soon as the sun went down Scops owls began calling. A highlight of the first day at the kibbutz was finding a common chameleon tottering across the ground.

Spectacled bulbul pair, and a Ring-necked parakeet munching cypress cones

8th September – Jordan River near Gadot
A full day at a new excavation site on the eastern bank of the Jordan just north of the Jordan River Rafting site near Gadot. A pre-dawn start made sure I was in place for the start of activity. As the sun rose, the sallows came alive with busy Olivaceous warblers and Cetti’s warblers. Small groups of Graceful prinias moved through the bramble scrub, a Lesser whitethroat made a brief appearance and the noisy Spur-winged plovers made their presence known. Overhead, two groups of Bee-eaters headed north and Cattle and Little egrets and Glossy ibis left their roosts and moved south along the river valley. A short walk south along the riverbank yielded a stunning perched White-breasted kingfisher...an amazing bird and seen on many occasions during the remaining days. Collared, Laughing and Turtle doves were in abundance and Red-backed, Great grey and Masked shrikes hunted from any available perch. Up to 7 Pied kingfishers were present on the river, their distinctive calls giving plenty of warning of their approach.

The River Jordan - tamed, but still produces the goods

Fly-over Purple heron

Graceful prinias were all over the place - cracking birds and very obliging

The Golan in evening light

There was a definite lull in bird (and my) activity during the middle of the day – with the temperature at least 40 degrees there’s not much point in wandering aimlessly around in search of birds! By late afternoon the sun has swung around to the west and the temperature was a little more conducive to active birding. Walking along the riverbank turned up a female Golden oriole and flocks of Goldfinch. The occasional Short-toed eagle appeared overhead, and along with a few Common kestrels, these were the only raptors in evidence. Hirundine swarms overhead included Barn and Red-rumped swallows as well as House and Sand martins. Two Syrian woodpeckers were active around the papyrus stands and occasional thorn shrubs.

9th September – Afula, Nazareth and Kibbutz Gadot
A day with a difference. Managed to arrange a day out with a local ecologist undertaking the annual raptor survey in the lower Galilee. Leaving Gadot at 0800 it was not long before we saw the first groups of Honey buzzards circling up from their roosting sites – 20 here, 20 there plus many more at altitude and charging south. Our destination was Afula and we had to bomb it south in order to get there before the birds we’d seen...we just made it!

Within minutes of arriving at the survey site – the edge of a dusty agricultural field on the northern outskirts of Afula – the birds began arriving. From then on, flock of birds passed overhead at varying altitudes for the next 2 hours. The vast majority were Honey buzzards, but with the occasional Lesser spotted eagle thrown in and a single juvenile Steppe eagle (I missed this bird!). Crested larks were abundant in the arable fields and Common kestrels hunted nearby. It was with an aching neck, sore eyes and some relief that the migration dried up by noon and we were moved on to a more westerly vantage point near Nazareth. Sitting beneath barely adequate shade, the Honey buzzards seen in the afternoon were all at great altitude and joined by the odd Black kite. Several Short-toed eagles hunted the large open fields, putting the frighteners up the large flocks of Cattle egrets, Little egrets and Night herons who were busy foraging amongst nearby cattle.

In lulls between counting raptors, scans of the ploughed fields yielded numerous Isabelline wheatears, flava Yellow wagtails and hawking hirundines. A lone juvenile Marsh harrier drifted through lazily, and Palestine sunbirds flitted amongst the few small trees under which we were sat.

The last hour was spent back at Afula, with very low raptor numbers. The last highlight was a Short-toed eagle being mobbed by two Peregrine-type falcons. After falling asleep at the wheel, my companion dropped me at the kibbutz where a cold beer was waiting... Quote of the day? "No polites here...this is Israel". Too right!

10th September – River Jordan near Gadot
Another day at the dig site, this time taking the odd break from birding to help with the careful excavation of some huge Bovid bones and flint tools. Thanks to the alluvial silts and high water table the finds are very well preserved – even wood has survived - the layer in which the finds are is potentially up to 250,000 years old!

A pre-breakfast stroll north along the river yielded a brown partridge-type bird pop out of the long grass – female Black francolin! – my most sought-after bird of the trip. I managed a reasonably good view as the bird skulked away into the undergrowth.

The day rolled along with the usual assemblage of birds – all three kingfishers, Syrian woodpecker, Olivaceous and Cetti’s warblers, Blackcap, Lesser whitethroat, Chiffchaff, Graceful prinias, bulbuls, shrikes etc . An evening stroll south along the river saw a spanking Purple heron fly low overhead and my first Coypu of the trip.

11th September – River Jordan near Gadot, Gamla Reserve, Hula Reserve, Agmon haHula, Gume Fishponds
A truly fantastic day, perhaps my best ever birding experience. Dawn at the dig site yielded a stunning male Black francolin right next to the vehicle – superb bird. I got a lift to the nearest bus station and made my way to Tiberias to pick up my hire car. After some faffing and my ridiculous initial attempts to drive my first automatic car, I headed north-east around the Kinneret to
Gamla Reserve, famous for its vultures. Sure enough, within two minutes of reaching the viewpoint I was watching several huge Griffon vultures effortlessly drifting around the cliff faces and riding thermals. A pair of Short-toed eagles were calling nearby, and two Egyptian vultures soared overhead. A pair of Black storks drifted slowly upwards. A short walk gave even closer views of Griffons and a Short-toed eagle, as well as a rattling Sardinian warbler and a male Blue rock thrush. Great tits – adults and noisy fledglings – were in almost every bush. The dusty track leading to the reserve gave very quick views of a probable Black-eared wheatear.

Short-toed eagle over Gamla

Next stop was the main Hula Valley Reserve. This vast lake and associated wetlands gives something of a flavour of the original Hula valley, before drainage and river realignment wreaked havoc on this ecosystem. The well-maintained footpath and boardwalk network takes you into the heart of the tall Cyperus beds. Given that I arrived at completely the wrong time of day – early afternoon – the number of birds moving about was fairly low. However, a short walk to the water buffalo viewing area saw the first of a large number of Little crakes feeding on the algae-covered margins of the numerous pools. On one pool alone I counted 8 birds! I estimate that I saw at least 15 individual birds just from the paths. Families of Moorhens were frequent, as were Spur-winged plovers. The taller vegetation held many chacking warblers – a very brief view confirmed my first Clamorous reed warbler.

Little crakes were abundant at the main Hula Reserve

Every area of slightly open water was seething with terrapins and huge catfish. At each turn in the path I managed to flush a Common, Pied or White-breasted kingfisher – no chance of a good photo with these species! A large covered boardwalk loops out over the fringes of the large lake, with views across to marginal areas to the north. I was reminded of many a day spent at Abberton Reservoir staring out across empty water! However, off to the left was a small group of a dozen White pelicans accompanied by Grey herons. A single Squacco heron did a very good job of imitating a stick and a pair of Spur-winged plovers rested on a tern raft.

After a couple of hours mooching around the reserve, wilting like a true Englishman in the full force of the sun, I headed back to my air-conditioned car and drove the short distance to the recently re-flooded area of
Agmon haHula...

This place just has to be one of the most fantastic places for birding anywhere...I haven’t travelled all over the world, but I was bowled over by the sheer number and variety of quality birds I saw without really having to try. You can no longer drive your own car around the circular perimeter track, so I splashed out and got myself an electric buggy! So like a geriatric golfer I spent the next two hours whizzing exploring the ditches and fields of Agmon.

This reserve is essentially a working arable/pasture landscape intersected by large dykes and smaller drains...and there are birds everywhere. Within a few seconds I was beside a small scrape with several Spur-winged plovers feeding at the margins. A small party of buntings turned out to be a mixed flock of Ortolans and Cretzchmar’s – a good chance to compare these species. Every ditch held hovering Pied kingfishers and every field had swarms of Little and Cattle egrets. Raptors were in evidence everywhere – mostly Marsh harriers but also a single Long-legged buzzard, Black kites, Common kestrels and a single juvenile Pallid harrier quartering amongst the hay bales. White-breasted kingfishers appeared from the small groups of trees along the route. Every patch of short vegetation held large flocks of Ortolans - groups of 50 or more were regular – and other small passerines in abundance were Crested larks and Isabelline wheatears. European rollers were frequent, even harassing the egrets. Glossy ibis were abundant, mixed in with the heron flocks.

Isabelline wheatear - a common bird at Agmon

A family group of Coypu grazed the grassy banks of the dykes whilst Marsh harriers spooked Grey herons from the reeds. The larger open water areas towards the east yielded the first ducks – Garganey – and waders – numerous Marsh sandpipers, Avocets and Bar-tailed godwits. Through the gaps in the reeds I could see that the next lake had some pelicans loafing – it wasn’t until I rounded the corner that I realised that there were hundreds of these monsters, and looking up I saw many hundreds more coming in to land. The flock must have been over 2000 strong at least. My last views of Agmon were of these magnificent birds silhouetted against the low sun...a truly amazing experience at a truly awesome location.

Squacco heron at Agmon

With only an hour or so of decent light left I headed further north still and popped in at Gume Junction fish farm. These rather grotty pools turned out to be a major roosting location for hundreds of herons – Grey, Squacco, Night, Little and Cattle egrets, plus White storks and Glossy ibis. All three kingfisher species were present as well as two juvenile Whiskered terns, Spur-winged plovers, Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed gulls. Star of the show, and something of an unexpected addition, was a full-adult White-tailed eagle swooping down on a fish! Better than the distant views I had on Rhum earlier this year!

Well, with that as a final flourish I drove back to the kibbutz a happy bunny and reflecting on a most superb day’s birdwatching. Take my advice – get to Agmon haHula!

12th September – En Gedi and surrounds
Leaving at dawn, we headed south along Route 90, through the West Bank, and down to En Gedi by the shores of the Dead Sea. We couldn’t book into our room at the Field Centre until mid-afternoon, so we headed into the nearby reserve. The car park yielded a new species – hordes of Tristram’s grackles whistling amongst the happy-clappy American and French tourists.

I think the Dead Sea is shit - the water looks and feels greasy and its full of hairy, large-breasted Russian men and New Age idiots hoping for some miracle cure for their skin disease.

A short walk to the end of David’s Ravine clocked up another two new species – Fan-tailed raven and Blackstart. There were at least 150 ravens wheeling around the cliff faces, reminding me of oversized Choughs; their dark shapes and tumbling dives forcing you to look upwards and away from the hordes of noisy tourists. Palestine sunbirds, House sparrows and a solitary Whitethroat were seen in the small acacia shrubs lining the footpaths.
Fan-tailed ravens - like massive choughs.

Another feature of En Gedi is the obvious presence of two mammal species – Nubian ibex and Rock hyrax. The ibex wander around the car park and footpaths all around the oasis, whilst the hyrax drape themselves over rocks or in patches of damp soil, occasionally climbing into the outermost branches of trees to feed on the leaves – they really are very endearing creatures and you can’t help but smile.
Hyraxes draped their nadgers over every available shady rock
Rock hyrax - does exactly the opposite of what it says on the tin.

Depressed Nubian ibex

The remainder of the day, and the morning of the next, were spent mooching around En Gedi and the Field Centre, clocking up more grackles, Blackstarts, Laughing doves, sunbirds, bulbuls and my first Arabian babblers.

Blackstart - one of my target birds and much in evidence at En Gedi
Tristram's grackle
All in all, the parts of Israel I managed to see were fantastic, especially the Golan and the Hula Valley. I am already planning a return trip next September, hoping to catch up on a few of the species I missed this time round...you should always leave something for next time!