In 1986 I spent two weeks driving around Israel with my good friend Sean McMinn. We spent most of the time in the very south of the country at Eilat. On such a winter's evening - dark and damp if not chilly - it is a boost to look back on warmer and bird-filled times...
March 25th 1986
The heavy rain that fell in the early hours had stopped by dawn. Thankfully the tent had proven its claim to be waterproof. We awoke to a cloudy and cool dawn with a northerly breeze. After a brief and modest breakfast, Sean and I drove out towards the fabled km32.
Km32 literally referred to a kilometre distance marker that was to be found along the roadside that led northwards out of Eilat. There was, no doubt, also a km31 and a km33 post in existence, but for some reason lost in time, birders kept driving the 15 minutes from Eilat to km32 and km32 only, parking their cars and walking out into the desert towards the Jordanian border. It was consistently good for desert species. Nearby places had been tried but didn’t seem to produce similar results. On the surface it didn’t look any different from nearby habitat, being a flat stony desert with isolated clumps of low vegetation. It could have been that a chance stop at this spot by birders a few years previously had turned up a good selection of birds, and that, because of this success, others returned hoping to emulate them. Once it was established that you were guaranteed to see a list of desirable desert species, then the need to go elsewhere was missing.
On getting out of the car, two things immediately struck us. The first was that the air was filled with the song and striking flight displays of Hoopoe Larks. These birds performed immaculately, always in view and visually striking, flashing black and white wings and tail as they collapsed back to earth from their aerial manoeuvres. At least nine were present. Secondly was the virtual opaqueness of the light, caused by the low pearly-grey cloud which merged into the pale mono-colour of the desert, causing near ‘snow-blindness’ – maybe better termed ‘desert-blindness’. The light still maintained a luminescence that lit the birds we were watching in an ethereal light and added a certain reverence to the proceedings.
After flushing a Stone Curlew we then came across the first of seven Bar-tailed Desert Larks. These birds appeared almost finch-like rather than lark-like, having finer proportions compared to a Desert Lark. The upper parts were a warm sandy-orange and the tail exhibited a prominent and well demarcated outer band. We heard several sing – a discordant, simple sound, like an un-oiled hinge. Desert Larks were the commonest species present. At least 75 birds littered the area, a combination of small flocks and the odd single displaying bird. We were witnessing a select group of species. They were all desert specialists, and, even if it comes across as being complacent towards many species that we has so far seen in Israel, there were no ‘filler’ species in between those that were very much targets – each and every one observed a sought after bird.
An unfamiliar call overhead had us both frantically looking into the flat greyness of the sky, at first unable to see what was making the noise. Sean then picked up two Temminck’s Horned Lark’s that all too quickly flew passed us and across the road without stopping. I was quite keen to see this species much more closely, but it was all we would be allowed to see of this particular lark. We wandered further into the desert and were pleasantly surprised to find a most confiding female Spectacled Warbler perched on top of a low bush. Whilst watching it, a movement in the shade under a nearby bush revealed itself to be a Desert Warbler, the first of four. All had sandy-buff upper parts that contrasted with rusty red tails. Our last ‘new’ species for the morning was a female Desert Wheatear that flew in, paused briefly, then hurried on northwards. After a male and female Black-eared Wheatear put in an appearance we slowly strolled back to the car, drinking in the atmosphere provided by the displaying larks and the desert habitat. At this point we could have carried north a short distance to try and see a Lappet-faced Vulture, a traditional stakeout being situated in an area of mature acacia close to the road. However, it hadn’t been seen during the past week, so we assumed that would obviously mean that neither would we. How bloody defeatist.
We drove back to Eilat buoyed by a marvellous couple of hours birding and headed straight for the northern fields and the ringers tent. We had timed it just right as we were immediately shown both a Baillon’s Crake and a Spotted Crake in the hand. The bright chestnut upper parts of the former made the latter appear dowdy, but then the Spotted was still a smart, and much larger bird.
It was quite clear that there had been a fall as every bush leapt with warblers and the fields once again played host to feeding migrants. The most obvious component of the arrival were Lesser Whitethroats, with at least 100 being recorded. For the next couple of hours we were able to add Turtle Dove (11), Tree Pipit (18), Red-throated Pipit (70), Flava Wagtail (200), Sedge Warbler (30), Reed Warbler (10), Olivaceous Warbler (5), Orphean Warbler (3), Blackcap (6), Whitethroat (5), Ruppell’s Warbler (8), Willow Warbler (2), Chiffchaff (25), Bonelli’s Warbler (17), Wheatear (40), Black-eared Wheatear (4), Redstart (1) and Nightingale (1).
It was not just a case of keeping our eyes peeled to the ground as a steady raptor passage was underway. Steppe Buzzards numbered over 100, our Black Kite total reached 38 and single Steppe Eagle and Booted Eagle kept us guessing as to what was to come next. What came next was an immature eagle that flew low northwards that defied identification. We were, at the time, standing next to one of Europe’s foremost raptor experts (Dick Forsman), and even he shook his head as the bird disappeared. If he couldn’t nail it, what chance did we have? A melanistic Marsh Harrier then added interest, before the ringers trapped a Barbary Falcon, which on release was chased by a Lanner Falcon.
Hirundines were gathering over the alfalfa and for the first time since we had been in Israel we were seeing House Martins in some number, although the 16 recorded compared unfavourably with the numbers of Sand Martin (60), Swallow (200) and Red-rumped Swallow (40) also present. All of this activity was going on to the overhead calls of Bee-eaters, enjoying another day of passage, our total reaching 60, almost entirely made up of ones and twos apart from a single flock of 12.
After lunch we positioned ourselves along the reed fringed sewage canal that ran alongside the saltpans. The overhead passage was easily observed from here and we were surrounded by excellent habitat. We completed a hat-trick of crakes when a Little Crake was found feeding in the ditch, soon to be joined by another two, all three feeding unconcernedly as we sat and watched. How many more crakes had been brought down by the rain and remained unseen? A Penduline Tit then decided that this was a good moment to start giving its Reed Bunting-like call from the reeds directly in front of us. After a brief game of hide-and-seek it gave itself up, a splendid male, before a female also revealed herself nearby. From where we were standing the salt-pans were directly behind us, so we kept an eye out for what was happening there. Not a lot really if truth be told. Little Stint numbers had increased to 29 and our long-staying Collared Pratincole had been joined by five others. The 38 Slender-billed Gulls were just loafing around, slightly listless, a bit like us.
An afternoon traipse around the date palms produced the expected haul of that triumvirate of plantation dwellers: Wryneck, Bluethroat and Hoopoe. As we emerged from the trees four Cattle Egrets flew north. We then went on a brief tour of the parks of Eilat town, each oasis holding the odd warbler (normally a Lesser Whitethroat), but generally little of note until we visited a green space that also boasted a reed-fringed pool. Here we heard a further Penduline Tit that managed to elude our binoculars.
We ended the day by looking out to sea. A couple of Cormorants were offshore, sat in front of the dwindling duck raft, which numbered only 150 Garganey and 10 Shoveler. On the beach, a first-winter Great Black-headed Gull was good value and kept us amused until three Sandwich Terns and a winter-plumaged Caspian Tern came close inshore. By the end of the day we had seen 96 species, a terrific total for a small area.