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True to form, southern Israel was full of surprises once again this year. Birdfinders ran two completely full tours, perhaps testament to the sustained interest in this remarkable birding country. Despite having near identical itineraries, the two weeks could not have been more contrasting. The first week was unseasonably hot until the last couple of days when it suddenly became unseasonably cold! The second week was more stable weather-wise, but we did encounter an infamous Red Sea low pressure system, which brought sand-storm conditions and a host of exciting birds to the North Beach and Eilat.

It has to be said that common migrants were in short supply this year. We all felt it, locals and visitors alike. The southern desert was exceptionally green, a result of an uncharacteristically wet winter. It’s probable that many migrants utilized abundant green patches in the Sinai Peninsula and had little need to drop into the traditional migration hotspots of southern Israel. Such events are quite rare in our experience, perhaps happening once in every ten or fifteen years. Hopefully the migration will find its way back to Eilat next spring with birds filling up the oases as we have seen in years past. But this by no means cast a shadow over two brilliant weeks in Israel. Indeed, we did very well for many of the scarcer residents and winterers including what we often regard as the ‘big five’ – Macqueen’s Bustard, Desert Owl, Nubian Nightjar, Arabian Warbler and Syrian Serin. All of these range-restricted species are ‘top draw’ species for any visit to Israel.

Rarities form much of the attraction of Israel in spring and this year was the best for several years. Both tours had stunning views of White-tailed Lapwing and Black Bush Robin, the latter our first on a tour since 2010. We also had Bimaculated Larks on both trips though in general larks were hard to come by. It also proved to be an incursion year for Pale Rock Sparrow and both trips connected nicely with this curious finch. Eilat’s North Beach proved its worth once more with stunning views of a foraging Striated Heron on the first tour and an exceptionally-early White-cheeked Tern on the second. The latter bird was closely associated with a southern storm and may prove to be the earliest documented spring record in Israel. Hot on its heels was a fine male Caspian Plover but way more mysterious was a putative Sooty Gull seen from the North Beach on the morning of 22nd March and then found totally independently by a top Israeli birder later on the same afternoon. It remains to be seen whether the details submitted will be enough to satisfy the Israel Rare Birds Committee but if deemed acceptable it will furnish the 6th national record of Sooty Gull and the first in Eilat since 1993.

It’s impossible to list the many elements of the Israel tour that we find so enjoyable – the mass migration of raptors and storks, a Wolf relaxing on a high look-out above Wadi Mishmar, the strident song of a Striolated Bunting by the Dead Sea and the thrilling ethereal calls of Desert Owls in remote desert canyons at night. It remains a very special place and a unique tour which will always have the potential to produce some of the very best birding in the West Palearctic region. We do it all from a comfortable hotel in Eilat and a charming Kibbutz Guesthouse in the Western Negev. We’re already taking bookings for March 2014!

Gracious thanks to all the guests who joined us and contributed (in so many ways) to two great tours. Special thanks also go to Peter Lansdown for his excellent co-leadership throughout.

See you in Israel next spring

James P. Smith, Gill, MA, USA

Egyptian Geese Sand Partridge
Chukar and Nubian Ibex at Nizzana
White Storks
Striated Heron Black-crowned Night-herons
Steppe Eagle Little Crake
White-tailed Lapwing Greater Sand-plover
Caspian Plover Cream-coloured Courser
Gull-billed Terns Namaqua Dove
Pharaoh Eagle-owl Little Owl (<em>lilith</em>)
Green Bee-eater Eurasian Hoopoe
Woodchat Shrike
Fan-tailed Raven Bimaculated Lark (left) and Greater Short-toed Lark
Crested Lark Great Reed Warbler
Black Scrub-robin Siberian Stonechat
Hooded Wheatear Western Yellow (Black-headed) Wagtail)
Tawny Pipit Cretzschmar's Bunting
Striolated Bunting Desert Finch
Syrian Serin Pale Rockfinch
Ein Netaphim
Yahel Plains
Birdfinders Group
Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse

Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse