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ISRAEL – SPRING 2008

This year's Israel tour was possibly our most successful in recent years with an outstanding array of bird rare and scarce birds for the West Palearctic region. These included Striated Heron, Western Reef Heron, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Barbary Falcon, Purple Swamphen, Sand Partridge, Macqueen's Bustard, Caspian Plover and Greater Sandplover, Cream-colored Courser, White-eyed Gull, Spotted and Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse, Namaqua Dove, Hume's Owl, Nubian Nightjar, Pied Kingfisher, Little Green Bee-eater, Syrian Woodpecker, Bar-tailed, Bimaculated and Thick-billed Larks, Rock Martin, Long-billed and Olive-backed Pipits, Citrine Wagtail, Blackstart, Scrub Warbler, Arabian and Ménétries's Warblers, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Arabian Babbler, Palestine Sunbird, Brown-necked and Fan-tailed Ravens, Tristram's Starling, Dead Sea Sparrow, Indian Silverbill and Desert Finch. In terms of the most memorable highlights, top of this list would have to go, once again, to Hume's Owl which gave us a fantastic evening in a remote wadi in the Southern Arava. This year we also saw an extra-ordinary over wintering Oriental Honey Buzzard in Eilat, and a single flock of five Caspian Plovers at Yotvata – not too shabby!

After more than 10 years of Israel tours new additions to our Israel checklist are hard to come by but this year we added five full species (plus five subspecies) including Eurasian Bittern, Purple Swamphen, Olive-backed Pipit, Zitting Cisticola and the Oriental Honey-buzzard.

Our two day Negev trip was especially successful picking up a previously reported male Ménétries's Warbler as we left Eilat, followed by a roosting flock of 30 Black Storks in the high plains, a male Pallid Harrier and stunning views of Thick-billed and Bimaculated Larks all before reaching Mizpe Ramon. Further west in the Negev we received a warm welcome at Kibbutz Gevulot and enjoyed Syrian Woodpeckers and Barn Owls (in the evening) on site. A productive afternoon in the local fields produced a 'Tundra' Peregrine (calidius), 'Siberian' Merlin (pallidus), several large flocks of Common Cranes, Little Crake, Great Spotted Cuckoo, a singing Zitting Cisticola, Eurasian Thick-knee and Chukar and a background of familiar species such as Eurasian Skylark and Corn Bunting. The following day was even more impressive as we tallied six Macqueen's Bustards, seven Cream-colored Coursers, over 200 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, 120 Spotted Sandgrouse, a flock of eight Lesser Kestrels, 'Desert' Little Owl, breeding Long-billed Pipits, Purple Swamphen, a surprise Eurasian Bittern, Desert Finch, Bonelli's Eagle, Eastern Mourning and White-crowned Black Wheatears.

Our traditional long day out to the Dead Sea began early with some very good birds en route including a perched Lanner Falcon, followed by excellent views of Eastern Orphean Warbler and later an Arabian Warbler. On reaching the Dead Sea region we found nest building Dead Sea Sparrows and enjoyed a light but significant passage of raptors which included at least seven Lesser Spotted Eagles. The Ein Gedi area gave us all three possible species of raven, including very close looks at Fan-tailed (as well as resident Tristram's Starlings) and also gave a few brave souls time to take a dip (or rather float) in the Dead Sea almost 400 metres below sea level – the lowest place on the planet! The end to a superb day was wrapped up in the best possible manner with excellent spotlight views of two Nubian Nightjars, courtesy of one our friendly local guides.

Although extremely high temperatures reigned for our last full day, our keen group ploughed on regardless. We were not at all deterred by the absence of Sinai Rosefinch at Ein Netaphim which had been a former regular spot for them in late March. At the third time of asking we relocated a previously reported wintering Oriental Honey-buzzard in the Eilat Date palms. Not only that, but the views were fantastic with the bird offering amazing looks both perched and soaring above the date palms. In the process of searching we also came across a couple of Indian Silverbills and a male Semi-collared Flycatcher! As our thoughts turned toward refreshment at Yotvata, we headed north which proved to be a smart decision. Bumping into several birders at the café there we learned of a flock of five Caspian Plovers in the local fields which gave wonderful views in the searing heat just after lunch. Nearby, the always productive local sewage pools gave us no less than seven Marsh Sandpipers and our only Citrine Wagtails of the trip. With the winds strengthening from the south we headed back to Eilat and the north beach where we notched up 12 Arctic Skuas and our first Gull-billed Tern. An awesome day was capped off in magnificent fashion as we heard and then saw the ultimate desert 'phantom' at a site not too far from Eilat – a Hume's Owl was seen well through scopes by each member of the group.

Due to our later than usual departure from Ovda on the final day, we had an entire morning to bird locally and hopefully fill one or two gaps in the birdlist. A short visit to the north beach produced Caspian and Armenian Gulls, both first-cycle birds, and our first Common Terns. The Southern date palms held another male Semi-collared Flycatcher and a male Grey-headed Wagtail. Further north, the large salt pans at Km 20 gave us one of nicest moments of the trip when, within just a few short minutes, we watched 10 Collared Pratincoles in front of us, an Eastern Imperial Eagle overhead and two female Namaqua Doves behind us. It's collections of birds such as this which makes the birding in Southern Israel such a unique experience. We wrapped up our tour with a relatively smooth transfer home and a near on-time arrival at Stansted. The only regret of the tour was that we couldn't stay another week!

The week was one of the hottest that we've experienced in recent years, and this combined with a long spell of light southern winds ensured that numbers of migrants were actually well down on previous visits. However, the quality of the birding remained consistently high throughout the tour with the lack of volume being adequately compensated for by high caliber birds throughout. All of these were seen extremely well.

Finally, the success of the tour wouldn't have been possible without the valuable contributions made by each and every member of our upbeat group. Grateful thanks go to Peter Lansdown for his co-leadership and to Adrian and Christine Blagden, Peter Chadd, Keith Fisher, Terry Foxton, Graig Fulcher, Ian Grindle, Allan and Aline Oliver, John Pullen, Steve Piggott, Norman Vipond, Andrew Wilson and Martin Wolinski.

This single base one week tour offers good standard accommodations with an overnight stay in equally good accommodations at a Kibbutz in the Western Negev. We firmly believe that this trip remains the best value-for-money birding experience in the near Eastern region.

James P. Smith

Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse

Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse