It was the morning before the race and our intention was to scout the immediate Eilat area and formulate the final part of our route. We started at Ofira Park in town where we could check the potential and look for the White-throated Kingfisher that had been reported here, while also grabbing some well needed coffee. The coffee was a success at least! Then on to Holland Park where we trudged around in a mostly exhausted state looking at the numerous „Sylvia“ warblers here. We’d see many Lesser Whitethroats, Eastern Orphean & Rueppell’s Warblers here, but we’d been working the area for 15 minutes and still had to reverse course to get to the car. On race day, we have limited time to spend here, so we decided despite it’s great reputation as a local birding park, we’d gamble and not bird this site on race day. We’d planned on more scouting but we were all exhausted and dragging, so as a team we decided to accept that we knew the area well enough and drove up hill to the Mount Yoash hawk watch where we’d just relax and enjoy some of Eilat’s fabled migration.
In a few relaxing hours on the watch, we saw thousands of Steppe Buzzards, hundreds of Steppe Eagles and Black Kites, and I saw my first Booted Eagle, a beautiful rufous-morph bird. But, like everything else on this marvelous trip, time flew by and we soon found ourselves with less than an hour before we had to convene at the hotel. We drove down the mountain and decided to swing through the K-20 plantations one last time. We ran into the Birding Ecotours team from South Africa here: Chris Lotz, Trevor Hardaker, and Jason Boyce. So we joined forces & tripped around the plantation together re-finding the locally rare Redwing which had been in the area and some migrant Nightingales and a Wryneck. Our South African friends spotted and called a Pallid Harrier sailing well above us. Just a speck of a bird in a deep blue sky, the male harrier was a first for me and was amazingly distinctive even at great distance with very slim wings and a sliver of black just inside the wing tip. It was one of the last birds I’d enjoy before race day, as we headed from here back to the hotel for the scheduled swap meet.
All the teams convened on the back deck at the insanely lovely Agamim Hotel in Eilat for the swap meet where the official 2015 Champions of the Flyway bird checklist was reviewed and teams shared locations of birds they had scouted & seen. We benefited greatly from the swap meet, but realized we’d likely be tweaking our route one last time based on some of this new information we’d ascertained. It was 2:30 PM on the 24th and the American Dippers gathered in a small alcove in the lounge. There were two couches in here with a large coffee table which we had covered completely with maps, laptops, 2 pizzas and Gold Star lagers. Sadly, a lot of this new intel required some additional information, so (with great apologies and thanks) we subjected both Jonathan Meyrev & Itai Shanni with a long string of questions on varying species and asking for assistance with locations on the maps. They were most kind and provided excellent details to all of our questions. With their input, we were finally able to complete our spreadsheet, outlining each stop; when we should arrive and how much time we’d allot for each location. It was after 5:30 PM when we finally retired to our rooms. I took a quick shower, shaved and attempted to get some sleep.
By 11 PM I was up organizing and packing my gear: Binoculars, & Spotting Scope cleaned and ready… Camera, check… empty memory card & fully charged battery in place, back ups for each packed… map and field guides in place… phone charged with route downloaded… By 11:30, I was downstairs where the Dippers and other teams were milling about, picking up their ordered box lunches and receiving their copies of the official 2015 COTF checklist. It included all of the birds known to be in the playing field or probable as migrants given the date and scouting reports. Certain species that were highlighted would require photo documentation or they would be removed from a team’s list and any additional „write on“ species required photos or sharing with another team for verification. Midnight struck and we were off!
We were fortunate, in that we really were in no great hurry until sunrise. We had over 5 hours to search for night birds around Eilat, so were able to take a relaxed pace at first. Our first stop actually was at a local gas station to fuel up – gas for the car, coffee and snacks for us. Once it was light enough to see though, we would not stop for anything but birds. By comparison, teams starting at Yeruham or even Nitzana, had a great deal of pressure though. They would have to quickly check a spot or two near Eilat or en route as they dashed North. They would have to drive up to three hours to reach their starting points leaving maybe only an hour and a half to track down their night birds up north. Those going to Nitzana could begin with Little Owl, a bird we would not have an opportunity to see on our route. Plus, at sunrise, those teams could find four species of Sandgrouse (Pin-tailed, Crowned, Spotted, & Black-bellied), numerous desert Lark species and McQueen’s Bustard; an amazingly cool bird. We would have long shots at only 2 Sandgrouse at HaMeishar Plains and no hope at the Bustard. That was already 6 species we wouldn’t see and since Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse was an evening bird in Eilat only we were at a 7 species disadvantage. We’d have fun and do our best but our route had far fewer potential species it seemed than the more experienced teams‘ routes going from Nitzana to Yeruham Lake and then working south throughout the day. Even as we were still shopping, the first reports began coming in on „Whatsapp,“ the group messaging phone app teams were using to share sightings – Striped Hyenas and Jackals seen at roadside, and Pallas‘ Gull in the flock in Eilat’s southern salt pans! It was a planned stop in our 5.5 hours of night birding and we’d actually passed the team glassing these birds as we went to the gas station for our „morning“ coffee, so it should be easy to find.
All fueled up, we leisurely made our way back to get our first birds at the salt pans. There were 5 gull species in this gull flock. The image through the scopes were challenging given the distance and poor lighting (ambient aided with flashlights) and the attempt at a digiscoped image even worse, however you can see the large black-headed gull at right with the light bill. This is the Pallas‘ Gull, the flock also contained small Black-headed Gulls, and Slender-billed Gulls, plus two species of large „white-headed gulls.“ An Eurasian Thick-knee flew over calling here as well – a distinctive Curlew-esque call. From the Eilat Birdwatching Center we’d add more species looking back on these same salt ponds backlit by the city lights of Eilat – Greater Flamingos, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Common Greenshank, Black-winged Stilts, Ruff, Coot, Moorhen…
We were able to appreciate the superior light delivery of the larger and heavier 82 mm spotting scope over those with the smaller 65 mm objective lenses while scanning in near complete darkness, this is something near imperceptible in most daylight conditions though. My fellow Dippers had a rule that they were adamant about (approaching superstitious or even paranoid) – NO counting during the day. Kind of like Kenny Rogers lyrics from The Gambler, „You never count your money while your sitting at the table…“ However, for the benefit of this recap the species list was at 13 species by 2 AM.
We didn’t get to see any Striped Hyenas as a couple of the other teams, but as we were leaving the Birdwatching Center we were extremely fortunate to have a Desert Hedgehog at roadside. Elated, we all sprang from the car and rattled off numerous images of this remarkable creature. Again, we were in no great hurry so the first evening was comparatively slow-paced and relaxed (somewhere after 5 AM though this would change in a hurry). So we took our time, thoroughly enjoying this oh-so-cute desert denizen, and then continued on to Eilat’s North Beach. Here we would live up to our name by „dipping“ (in British birding vernacular – to miss seeing a target bird) on the White-eyed Gull. It was a species that could only be found here on the Gulf of Aqaba along Eilat’s waterfront. There were typically some sitting on buoys near the waterfront here but despite as many as 40 minutes of searching we came up empty – perhaps at first light!
Next we went to the Yotvada agricultural fields where we had shots at Barn Owl (likely) and Egyptian Nightjar & Pharaoh Eagle-Owl (long shots). As we drove toward our first stop, we were surprised to see a Common Quail in the headlights running up the dirt road here along the grassy edge. Given it was night, we’d expected this to be a Crake (hoped even) but alas it was a Quail. Who knew?!?… We stopped and listened and almost immediately heard Barn Owls calling at our first stop. We watched them through our binoculars bounding over the fields here criss-crossing in our lights. Packs of Jackals were howling all around and we saw these and small foxes, desert hares, and an odd species of desert Gecko with a herky-jerky, bow-legged gait, that was missing its tail from some past close encounter. We’d see Thick-knees on the ground here and would add Little Ringed Plover, but true to the name dipped on Eagle-Owl & the Nightjar – the count (which was uncounted) was at 16 species.
It was after 4:30 AM and we were heading back south toward Eilat. The sky was already showing a hint of light on the horizon to the East and the teams up north were texting new reports, more Hyenas & a Wolf sighting. Little Owls near Nitzana (an area we wouldn’t hit), birds we staked out 2 nights before, Long-eared Owls from Yeruham Lake, and one we hadn’t staked out that WAS on our route, a Scops Owl in Sde Boker! We’d remember to check that 10 and a half hours from now. We had actually misjudged our drive time and lingered a bit too long at Yotvada so stopped first at the Eliat Bird Watching center. At one of the hides here we looked for Bitterns and crakes (dip/dip) but did add many others. Two Egyptian Geese were here and Savi’s Warbler was in the reeds. Swifts & Swallows were flying overhead. We stopped along the dyke south of the center and saw Shovelers, Teal, Pintails, Herons, Egrets, Glossy Ibis and Spoonbills in the salt pans here, plus White Wagtails & Red-throated Pipits flew overhead along with our only Eurasian Wigeon of the trip crossing into Jordan. As is typical with any good migration spot at first light, bird activity was frenetic & fast-paced with many new birds popping all around. Sparrowhawks were dashing all around!
As on our scouting day, Rock Pigeons sailed by. House Sparrows & Laughing Doves were here, Teminck’s Stints, Western Reef Herons, and Marsh Sandpipers were in the channel at North Beach as a Pied Kingfisher hovered over in search of fish. A lone Rose-ringed Parakeet shrieked as it flew over, but no sign of our White-eyed Gull… nor could we find the flocks of Ferruginous Ducks that seemed to be regular here in evening. We did manage a raft of Garganey on the water’s surface though, multiple Sandwich Terns, and a single Common Tern sitting on the floats here (we wouldn’t see any of these three anywhere else). As we passed along the north border of the Eiat’s Birdwatching Center for the fourth time since midnight, we stopped to scan an amazing flight of swallows and swifts flying just over the brush. In mere moments we spotted four species of Swallow (Barn, Red-rumped, House Martin & Sand Martin/Bank Swallow) and, more impressively, 4 species of swifts! Most were Common & Pallid Swifts but we also had 3 Alpine Swifts and a single, unexpected Little Swift (which we photo documented for our list). In the brush here we added Arabian Babbler, our first Lesser Whitethroats & Blackcaps, and another scarce migrant Penduline Tit! It was 6:50 AM and unbeknownst to us the „uncounted“ list had swollen to 66 species.
We headed next to K-19 ponds which were hot as always. A female Eurasian Marsh-Harrier sailed over as we drove up and an Eastern Imperial Eagle flew just over the road ahead of us — it may have even been perched on the dirt berm surrounding the pool. I jumped out of the car and watched as it pumped out of sight behind a feed lot there, and a flock of Dead Sea Sparrows landed in the brush in the ditch just behind us. This was my first Imperial Eagle and first good views of the Sparrows, but alas it was race day. No extra time to enjoy these. We’d already burnt extra time at North Beach hoping for more and were already slightly behind schedule. Next we were off to the top of the berm where we added Purple & Squacco Herons, Cattle Egret, and a surprise Common Snipe at the base of the reeds here, Great Cormorants swimming, and Armenian Gulls streaming by, but no Black Storks today.
On to K-20 as more raptors began to show… Common Kestrel, Buzzards, Black Kite… It was still cool and the irrigation was off in the plantation so that there were far fewer birds, but a number of our targets were readily found in a quick sweep — the rare, lingering Redwing, 2 European Blackbirds, Common Nightingale, Redstart, Siberian Stonechat, Masked & Woodchat Shrikes, Wryneck, Graceful Prinia, and Tree Pipits…
We’d made quick stops at K-19 and and the plantation so we were back ahead of schedule, but gave it all back and then some scouring the thousands of water & shore birds at K-20. We’d add Kentish Plovers, Red-necked Phalarope, Little Stint, Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Greater Short-toed Larks, Isabeline Wheatear, Tawny Pipit and our first (of many) Steppe Eagles overhead, but had to dip on the Avocet we’d seen scouting and the Collared Pratincole that almost every other group had reported from here… it was a bird I’d dearly hoped to see but would leave Israel still never seeing ANY of the world’s Pratincole species…
It was now after 8 AM and our uncounted tally had risen to 99 species!
As we raced north on Highway 90, it was evident a massive raptor migration was underway, absolutely the best we’d seen in our time in Israel thus far. Kettles of Buzzards could be seen spiraling in every direction and strings of sailing birds stretched between these. We pulled off at the entrance to Elifaz Reservoir (one of our added stops following the swap meet after mention of Aythya ducks). It was meant to be a quick 5 minute stop but we pulled over as the raptor flight was coursing directly overhead and low. We spotted an Egyptian Vulture immediately and decided we had to spend time scanning longer. We were already behind schedule and spent likely another extra 10 minutes scanning here seeing many hundreds (if not thousands) of Buzzards, MANY Steppe Eagles & Black Kites, 2 Booted Eagles, 2 Short-toed Eagles (aka Short-toed Snake-Eagle), and an Osprey here. We couldn’t know it at the time but we’d see all of these species BUT the Osprey again multiple times in the Mitzpe Ramon Crater and near Sde Boker. Still, we felt it was time well spent as we added 4 raptor species. We continued down the short driveway here and around to a higher vantage where we could scan the reservoir as instructed. We pulled out the scopes and added 3 more birds: a drake Common Pochard, 4 Ferruginous Ducks, and many Little Grebes, but dipped on the Black-necked Grebes previously reported from here. We rolled out of Elifaz near 9:25 AM heading toward Yotvada nearly 20 minutes behind schedule, our untallied list now at 106 species.
We fell even further behind at Yotvada as it was impossible to ignore the raptor streams sailing over, and there was just so much habitat to cover. Still we added loads of species: Little Green Bee-eaters and a single migrant European Bee-eater, pre-scouted Corn Buntings, Wood Sandpiper, Brown-necked Raven, Bimaculated Larks, Cetti’s, Sedge, Eastern Bonelli’s, & Eastern Orphean Warblers, Bluethroats, a migrant Semi-collared Flycatcher, Common Stonechat, Black-eared Wheatear, Desert Wheatear, Tristram’s Starling, Palestine Sunbird, a beautiful Citrine Wagtail, and Water Pipits… to name a few.
Despite the slew of new species, it was near 10:45 AM and we were now well over 30 minutes behind schedule. It was a stressful time as we tried to figure where we should cut time and how many species each skipped spot might cost us. We kept coming back to the fact that the desert plains would likely be quiet midday afternoon anyway and might be the best spot to cut, even though we had chances for at least 6 scouted species here including: Temminck’s, Desert, & Bart-tailed Lark, Skylark, and our only shot at 2 Sandgrouse species. We were driving NE on Highway 40 when our decision was made for us. A text came in from event organizers, „…Military training being conducted at HaMeishar Plains, area closed…“ While this was a blessing from a time standpoint, it meant we’d lost our only known spots for those 6 species.
I was depressed for the first time and could only think of the birds we’d seen scouting or that had been reported that we’d dipped on today: Black-necked Grebe, Pied Avocet, Pratincole, Black Storks, White-eyed Gull, Namaqua Dove, Olivaceous Warbler, a staked out Pied Wheatear, and now we lost our only hope for ANY Sandgrouse, plus as many as four other desert larks. Our route and strategy was to spend more time at less spots. While helpful, as this gives us more time to compensate for our lesser experience with many of these species, it also meant far fewer total species possibilities than other teams. Our competitors on the longer routes had chances for many species we would not see, and we’d seen many texts of their sightings of these: Little Owl, Bustard, four species of Sandgrouse (and most would add another in the evening), Thick-billed, Desert, Bar-tailed, & Temminck’s Larks… We had no idea of where our species count stood, but we all felt we were doing poorly given the large numbers of missed species.
It was near 11:20 AM as we pulled into Ne’ot Smadar and we were beginning to cross paths with the first of the teams returning from up north. This also meant that for the first time all day, we were now in a position to benefit from the „Whatsapp“ bird reports. Noam Weiss, from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and leader of the 2014 Champions, the Palestinian Sunbirds team, had given us loads of helpful tips about birding Sde Boker following the opening ceremony. Now, he’d texted two bonus birds that that we’d not scouted right from Ne’ot Smadar. The first was a Gray Wagtail that we found right away and the second a very unexpected migrant Subalpine Warbler. We swept through in a hurry, added four quick species and were on the road again.
We passed HaMeishar Plains and noted there were at least two teams pulled off here & hiking around. Perhaps they hadn’t gotten the message or perhaps something had changed. Either way we were committed to not stopping as instructed so pushed past, heading toward our desert wadi stops (and finally back on schedule). Wadi Zihor, which had been so alive with migrant warblers (including the amazing Cyprus Warbler) two days prior, was extremely quiet this day. We left here ahead of schedule seeing only a handful of Lesser Whitethroats. Our next stop produced a single Ortolan Bunting (which we documented) mixed with more numerous similar Cretzchmar’s Buntings, Trumpeter Finches, and a Common Whitethroat. We added a couple White-crowned (White-tailed) Wheatears and a Mourning Wheatear at roadside as we dropped into the Mitzpe Ramon Crater. Then, at the next wadi, added Scrub Warbler & Ruepell’s Warbler, followed by a Blue Rock Thrush and a Pale Crag (Rock) Martin at Mitzpe Ramon… It was nearly 2 PM as we headed toward Sde Boker.
The uncounted species total sat now at 140 species and (not) counting.
As we rolled toward Sde Boker we found another lush grassy plain. It was not a planned stop but we got out and ran through the grasses here. Within a few steps, 3 Eurasian Skylarks launched into the air, flashing bright white-tipped secondaries and offering buzzy complaints as they winged back into the grass again. We’d saved at least one of our missed desert stakeouts! Continuing on, we spied a Southern Gray Shrike at roadside as another species we didn’t have scouting. Then we added Chukar in the Sde Boker canyons and had Griffon Vultures sailing over but again dipped on the staked out Jackdaws & Bonelli’s Eagle here. A Long-legged Buzzard left a roadside perch as we rolled up on it near the Sde Boker sewage ponds and Desert Finches teed up on the barbed wire fence here. A Sde Boker picnic area offered Common Mynas, Syrian Woodpeckers, and Hoopoes, but the scouted Great Spotted Woodpeckers were not seen. In the neighborhoods opposite we added Chaffinch & Greenfinches in the Olive groves near the Ben Gurion Desert House.
We finally rolled into Yeruham Park at 4:35 PM, March 25th. As we’d hoped, the sun was still well above the horizon, providing decent warmth and excellent bird activity (the uncounted tally was at 155 species and still not counting). Our first expected target bird came quickly as we spotted a beautiful White-throated Kingfisher perched low near eye level (and as you can see I got an un-beautiful image), then a Great Tit flashed across the path in front of our car, and moments later our first of four major surprises from Yeruham – a migrant Common Cuckoo flew up from near the ground to our left and crossed directly in front of the hood of the car from left to right (I was in the back right seat of the car and never saw this bird, but happily the other three did and all called it out almost in unison – on a four person team only 3 of 4 need to see a bird for it to count. This was perhaps one of two that everyone didn’t get on).
In the reeds at the south end of the lake Reed Warblers, Cetti’s Warblers, and a Water Rail called but the Little Bittern we’d seen on both scouting trips here that many other teams had ticked in the morning hours did not reappear or call. It was near 6 PM when we moved to the North shore of the Lake to scan the southern shore. As we were doing this, I happened to note an Eagle gliding in from the south. „Get on this bird, it doesn’t look like a Steppe Eagle!“ The others put it in the scopes while I took some distant images and watched in binoculars. They were reviewing details and talking field marks aloud. „It has the double wrist commas… looks like one of the Spotted Eagles!“ And as I glassed south I noticed a steady stream of eagles evenly spaced all streaming toward us and descending as that got closer… 1, 2, 3, 4… and before long we had 32 Aquila Eagles spiraling overhead with 10-12 more still approaching. We had Lesser & Greater Spotted-Eagles in this group. I was once again mesmerized but there was no time for appreciation it was near 6:20 PM. We were in the home stretch. Leaving the amazing eagle spectacle behind we moved to a small pond nearby. From the observation platform we had a Sedge Warbler and Eurasian Reed Warbler hopping on the stalks as a Little Crake raced around on an exposed flat.
It was near 7 PM and we were watching the crake when Doug said, „Falcon… coming at us straight out…“ it was thin-winged, slight and had a noticeably buoyant flap. I’d never seen a Lesser Kestrel before but this bird approaching sure seemed a good candidate. It sailed right overhead and cameras came up click, click, click… sure enough a male Lesser Kestrel! The images at last light were grainy but definitive, the blue mask and lack of malar stripe was easily seen. It was the final bird we’d add in daylight.
After a short drive and a few „hoots“, we were being serenaded by two previously scouted, Long-eared Owls that we detected two days before. Now with sunlight gone we stopped to take breather and for the first time actually count up our list. All of us were amazed at the final count of 166 species (I’d guessed upper 140’s). On the way back we stopped in Sde Boker for a previously reported Scops-Owl. As we were debating the best spot to whistle for it, the bird began calling without us calling. We’d make one last stop at Yotvada. As before, we’d NOT find the nightjar or the eagle-owl but did find one of our fellow Champions teams stuck axle deep in sand. Twenty minutes of digging and pushing and we’d freed the stuck vehicle. It was 10:30 PM. We’d have a final shot at one other likely species, our first dip of the day the White-eyed Gull! We pulled into a busy mall parking lot in Eilat after 11 PM, everyone was dressed to the nines, preparing for a „night on the town“ at the waterfront. All except, four guys toting binoculars and spotting scopes. Bathed in the warm glow of neon with the sounds of DJ’s spinning danceable beats, we’d spot our quarry. Four White-eyed Gulls perched on floating buoys in the harbor here.
We came into the hotel just before midnight and submitted our list. The team of reviewers questioned one after another, we had pictures of every unusual bird sighting and no species were removed from our list. We’d end our day at 168 species. We were exhausted but happy and celebrated our memorable day with a celebratory, local Gold Star lager!