Carpets of migrants
It's early January, Christmas is but an overweight memory that has left an after-taste of chocolate and the birding (at least locally) is hard work. The light has hardly brightened all day and I'm missing those spring migrants, even though it will be a good three months before they will really start to arrive in earnest. So, let's dust down the notebooks and go to Eilat in Israel for the day - a day chosen at random...
We were up early and left the camp site at first light. By the time we reached the northern fields the light was good and it was apparent that the number of migrants had increased. Hirundines were swarming over the area, the number being swollen as the morning went by. At least 600 Swallows, 200 Sand Martins and 50 Red-rumped Swallows were involved, but no House Martins at all – in fact we had so far only seen six in Israel. The alfalfa was also leaping with birds. The fact that we actually saw 40 Quail suggests that hundreds must have been present. This ace skulker was easily flushed from the field edges but had to compete for our attention with numerous larks and pipits. Most obvious were at least 150 Red-throated Pipits, whose wheezy call could be heard every few steps, some birds exhibiting a stunning deep brick-red summer plumage - smart for a pipit. Up to 200 flava wagtails added colour to the proceedings, although the drab Short-toed Larks (21), Crested Larks (45), Richard’s Pipits (5) and Tawny Pipits (2) were scoped with more conviction and interest. The Richard’s Pipits were silent, with only one being heard to call, as they quietly went about feeding. It was a memorable sight with the flava wagtails, Red-throated Pipits, assorted larks and over 100 Wheatears spaced out across the fields - a kaleidoscope of moving colour on a green carpet. Spanish Sparrows left roosts and flew noisily overhead, at least 200 being counted out and on their way to whatever they wished with the day. And of course there were raptors – a steady passage that resulted in Black Kite (53), Egyptian Vulture (1), Marsh Harrier (1), Pallid Harrier (1), Montagu’s Harrier (1), Steppe Buzzard (170), Long-legged Buzzard (1), Steppe Eagle (4), Booted Eagle (1) and Barbary Falcon (1).
The morning soon passed as we were spellbound by the number of migrants on show. We barely registered the small numbers of Little Green Bee-eaters, Hoopoes, Masked and Woodchat Shrikes. We had lunch on the beach – no movement out to sea – although a bit of time spent looking over towards the Jordanian port of Aqaba resulted in an adult Great Black-headed Gull being watched arriving in off the sea and heading inland up the valley. Three Brown-necked Ravens kept firmly in Jordan. We could clearly see the national boundary further down the beach, a checkpoint with the figures of soldiers shimmering in the heat haze. Aqaba looked exotic from this distance. One last look out to sea revealed that a vast raft of duck were offshore and that some of these were close enough to identify. For us from the UK the 300 Garganey that were before us were rather special, the 60 Shoveler not so.
Turnover at the saltpans was not that impressive as our Collared Pratincole was still in the same spot (I had seen it move, so it wasn’t dead) and the wader composition was much the same, although the Redshank flock had built to 80 and at least 16 Green Sandpipers had now gathered. The vegetation alongside the sewage canal held a few Reed and Sedge Warblers, but try as we might we couldn’t conjure up any crakes which had been regularly seen scuttling along the muddy fringes.
A return to the date palms as the afternoon wound down was worthwhile with at least seven Bluethroats haunting the bases of the trees and a small selection of warblers feeding in the fronds. A casual look over the fields revealed that much had moved on from the morning, although an Isabelline Wheatear and an Ortolan Bunting were new. We then heard rumour that an Egyptian Nightjar had been seen in this area the evening before. The Israeli Field centre that sponsored the ringing operation at Eilat had gained permission from the Israeli army to remain on site after dark to try and find it. Because we were so close to the Jordanian border (you couldn’t be any closer) the area was sensitive – in fact it was remarkable that us birders were tolerated wandering unaccompanied along the border wadi and fields at all. Most of those birders still present were allowed to join in the search, so we awaited dusk with more than a little excitement and expectation. In the meantime three Desert Finches and a Dead Sea Sparrow were found in that cooler part of the afternoon just before the daylight started to fade.
As darkness fell we joined the birders who had gathered by the ringing hut and then spread ourselves out over the immediate area and walked slowly northward. We could see the lights of an army vehicle up ahead, the soldiers taking little notice of us. Two Stone Curlews called, unseen in the stony wastes to our left. Not a nightjar stirred. After half an hour and with the light having gone we gave up and retired to our chosen places of rest, be they the beach, a tent by the coral reef, or Hadoram’s crowded floor.