On a warm, sandy beach, small numbers of Great Black-headed and Slender-billed Gulls rub shoulders with hundreds of Armenian Gulls, while dozens of Great White Egrets brave the surf on an offshore reef. A Citrine Wagtail hunts insects with Water Pipits and Bluethroats around the muddy bases of reeds in a nearby pool, and a Clamorous Reed Warbler chaks loudly from an overgrown ditch behind me. This is Ma'agan Michael, a coastal fish-pond complex between Tel Aviv and Haifa on Israel's Mediterranean coast, where I found myself birding at the end of November 2007.
Wadi Mishmar, south of Jerusalem, produced a local resident in the dapper form of a White-crowned Black Wheatear Oenanthe leucopyga (René Pop)
With 500 million birds passing through each spring and autumn, Israel is renowned as a migration hot-spot, funneling as it does hugely impressive numbers of raptors, storks and White Pelicans between Africa and Eurasia, as well as producing scarce passerines and vagrants for the Western Palearctic. It is not, however, usually recognised as a major winter birding destination.
After meeting Jonathan Meyrav, one of the country's top birders and expert tour guide, I'd maintain that it is in fact an excellent winter location. Jonathan led a small group of European and American birders and photographers, including myself, for a week of intensive birding. At the end of our first morning at Ma'agan Michael we met for a mid-afternoon lunch with Dan Alon, Director of the Israel Ornithological Centre based in Tel Aviv. Dan has been actively involved in many of Israel's conservation programmes and is instrumental in managing the wintering Common Crane population in the Hula Valley, which was to be our next destination.
A coastal fish pond between Tel Aviv and Haifa was thronging with different gull species, including Armenian Gull Larus armenicus (René Pop)
We arrived at Hula late in the afternoon, stopping at a reedbed site south of Kfar Blum where, in the setting sun, we witnessed the wonderful sight and sounds of many hundreds of cranes calling as they flew to roost, framed by the hills and mountains of Lebanon. Several hundred Black Kites were coming down to roost nearby, while the reedbed immediately in front of us began to attract other roosting raptors: Marsh and Hen Harriers dropped in and, at one point, up to 10 Merlins perched together in a single bush!
Black Kite Milvus migrans roosts featured on several occassions at dusk, notably at Gevulot's Daya rubbish tip (René Pop)
After spending the night at Kfar Blum kibbutz hotel, a dawn visit to the Hula Nature Reserve enabled us to watch the gradual build up of 15,000 Common Cranes returning from their roost to feed on the reserve and surrounding fields.
The mid-1990s saw the introduction of a peanut crop to the Hula Valley, which has attracted cranes from the Eastern European population to winter in the area, resulting in a shortening of their migration route and a northward shift in their wintering range. This wintering population caused massive annual crop losses so, in 1999, a management regime was established to minimise damage. This includes the provision of a feeding station, at which three tonnes of grain are distributed daily. Cranes encouraged to feed at it after being flushed from adjacent agricultural land by vehicles fitted with sirens.
With the cranes a major attraction and concentrated in one area, the reserve receives more than 200,000 human visitors a year. It has introduced tractor-towed mobile hides which seat up to 50 people each and allow them to get close to the feeding birds.
Three tonnes of grain are provided daily for Common Cranes Grus grus at a feeding station in the Hula Valley (René Pop)
In the shallow, reed-fringed lakes nearby we found around 200 White Pelicans and several Greater Flamingos, as well as a handful of Ferruginous Ducks among the larger numbers of more commoner wintering wildfowl. Two Black Francolins on a nearby dusty track were the only ones we saw before they vanished into the vegetation. Raptors stole the show, however, with up to 10 Greater Spotted Eagles on display, as well as more than 20 Marsh Harriers, four or five Ospreys and Long-legged Buzzards, and a pale-morph Booted Eagle, the last being a scarce regional winterer. A pristine male Caspian Stonechat performed well in reeds at close quarters and we discovered Israel's first-ever inland Kittiwake, a first-winter, at nearby Kfar Giladi fish ponds. These ponds also held a 500-strong flock of Great White Egrets and 70-80 Glossy Ibises.
Although the fertile Hula Valley holds more birds in winter than in any other season, our tight itinerary hastened a south-bound departure to our next overnight stop at Ha'on, below the Golan Heights on the south-eastern side of the Sea of Galilee.
White Pelicans Pelecanus onocrotalus (René Pop)
On to Kfar Rupin
The next day started cool, breezy and overcast, and an early morning walk along the shoreline of this vast inland sea produced the ubiquitous Spur-winged Lapwing, a dozen or so Pygmy Cormorants and Whiskered Terns and a couple of Palestine Sunbirds, now found commonly throughout Israel.
After a healthy, filling, salad-based breakfast - the norm in Israel - we loaded up our minibus and set off north-east to Gamla Nature Reserve. The road to the reserve winds steeply up to the volcanic Syrian Plateau, high above Galilee, much of the area consisting of rough, boulder-strewn pasture with some agriculture, intersected by several steep-sided gorges, of which Gamla is the largest. The viewpoint from the gorge provided us with a tremendous vista west over Galilee as well as close views of Griffon Vultures. Although the local population consists of around 55 individuals they have been susceptible to poisoning from baits set by farmers in the region.
We were also fortunate to see one of the resident pair Bonelli's Eagles in the gorge as well as several Long-legged Buzzards, Chukars, Crag Martins, Blue Rock Thrushes, Rock Bunting and Serin.
Descending from the Golan we headed south toward our next destination, the Beit Shean Valley. A short roadside stop at Ramot produced two Southern Grey Shrikes and 5 or 6 Little Swifts before we continued our journey to the Kibbutz fields of Kefar Rupin, close to the Jordanian border.
The kibbutz here is a recognised birdwatching centre which, as well as providing food and accommodation, welcomes visitors with updates on local birds and ringing activities. The whole area is extremely fertile and much of it is below sea level with the climate more typical of the steppe zones of the lower Jordan Valley. Many of the kibbutz fields had been harvested and provided ideal feeding habitat for passerines. Alongside thousands of Skylarks we found several Spanish Sparrows and a few Desert Finches. The chief prize here, however, was a Sociable Lapwing feeding with Northern Lapwings in one of the open fields.
At nearby Tirat Zvi fish ponds, Jonathan located a superb male Daurian Shrike, while the ponds themselves were laden with birds: we counted more than 300 each of Glossy Ibis, Great White Egret, Ruff and Little Stint, and smaller numbers of Pygmy Cormorants, Night Herons, Purple Herons, Marsh Sandpipers and Black-winged Stilts.
Palestine Sunbird Nectarinia osea (male), the only representative of its family in Israel, is found in most parts of the country (René Pop)
As dusk fell we departed for Jerusalem, scattering a small pack of Golden Jackals as we left the fish-ponds. Our journey continued south and into the West Bank.
Next morning we were treated to a ringing demonstration by Yoav Perlman at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory (JBO). Located right next door to the Knesset, this is a carefully managed 'island of green' within the city, which receives over 30,000 visitors and where 10,000 birds are ringed annually. The JBO has been established for 10 years and has contributed enormously to the promotion of birdwatching and conservation both in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority. Our morning visit produced Hawfinch, Syrian Woodpecker and 'Linda', a Brown-necked Raven which has developed a taste for city life, remaining a resident for 19 years.
Wadis and desert
South of Jerusalem, the landscape changes dramatically, the fertile valleys of northern Israel having given way to desert. Half way between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, Og Reservoir is a small water-processing plant that supplies local villages, treats sewage and, along with nearby date palms, acts as a magnet for birds. A short stop here produced our first Desert Larks, Little Green Bee-eaters, a coutelli race Water Pipit and up to ten exquisite Namaqua Doves on, and around, the fence of the main storage tank.
With blue skies and climbing temperatures, we moved on to Wadi Mishmar, close to the western shore of the Dead Sea, finding Barbary Falcon and Fan-tailed Raven along the way. An excursion on foot through this steep-sided wadi, its floor densely strewn with ankle-twisting boulders and scattered Acacia and Ochradenus scrub, produced Sand Partridge, White-crowned Black Wheatear, Scrub Warbler and, after a long search, our main quarry, a fine male Cyprus Warbler.
The group was even more pleased to find a fine male Cyprus Warbler Sylvia melanothorax after a long search of Wadi Mishmar (René Pop)
The setting sun threw the wadi into deep shadow and began to turn the distant sandstone mountains of Jordan a rich umber as we headed back to Jerusalem for the night.
The following morning dawned showery and breezy. We visited the Latrun International Research Centre for Bird Migration, west of Jerusalem, where Centre Director Yossi Leshem explained how he has established a world-renowned bird-tracking station. A Soviet-era radar purchased from Russia provides Yossi and his team visibility of vast flocks of migrating raptors, storks and White Pelicans, acting as an early warning system for the Israeli airforce and enabling it to avoid bird-strikes. Since the station has been operating, an estimated half a billion dollars, and no doubt the lives of several pilots, have been saved. Yossi also is behind an initiative to set up a regional warning system linking the Israeli, Turkish and Jordanian Airforces which experience similar problems with migrating birds. Co-operation over this problem is viewed at high level as a catalyst for peace in the region.
Heading for the desert once again, we traveled south to Sdeh Boker, where we enjoyed tremendous views over the spectacular Wadi Zin, as well as more mountain and desert species. These included Arabian Babbler, Mourning Wheatear, Blackstart, the enigmatic Tristram's Grackle and small numbers of crag-hopping Nubian Ibex. Regardless of whether or not you are religious this area epitomises biblical 'wilderness', a vast, barren, flat-bedded valley stretching as far as the eye can see, flanked by rugged and inhospitable mountains of sandstone and basalt and scorched myriad shades of ochre and copper by the relentless sun.
Blackstart Cercomela melanura (Mike Alibone)
Leaving behind this magnificent setting we headed for Gevulot Kibbutz in the Western Negev, our base for the last part of the trip. This region consists of vast cultivated areas, natural steppe and semi desert, giving way to more sandy and stony desert in the south.
It's cold in the desert at dawn but this is the best time to look for Macqueen's Bustards, before the heat haze kicks in. Shivering on the Ezuz roadside ridge near Nizzana, after an exceptionally early start, we had to wait only about 30 minutes before we located one. Distant views followed of this flamboyant, turkey-sized species, which has been hunted almost to extinction outside Israel. Two equally distant Cream-coloured Coursers materialised, promptly melting into the desert as quickly as they had appeared.
We reached the nearby sewage ponds at Qeziot in time to witness a constant turnover of arriving and departing sandgrouse. Spotted, Black-bellied, Crowned and Pin-tailed all took part in the early morning procession and all had gone by 9 am. The surrounding sandy desert scrub was then the focus for the next couple of hours, producing Desert, Isabelline and Finsch's Wheatears, Spectacled Warbler, Desert Finch and two more distant Macqueen's Bustards.
Crowned Sandgrouse Pterocles coronatus (René Pop)
At sunset, we enjoyed the sights (but no so much the smells!) of Gevulot's Daya rubbish tip, which hosted about 3,500 roosting Black Kites and the following morning we paid a visit to Urim in search of more raptors. The power-lines here provide a number of species with elevated perches from which to hunt over the vast open cultivated areas. Eight Eastern Imperial Eagles were scattered along a 2-km length, with a supporting cast of seven Long-legged Buzzards, a Lanner, four Peregrine Falcons and three Merlins - but no sign of the hoped-for Saker, for which the site is renowned.
Our last stop was Hulda Reservoir, where we were rewarded with views of more than 500 White-headed Ducks. Some 2000 - around 20% of the world population - have been counted on the small Judean Plain reservoirs in recent winters.
Then it was off to the airport at Tel Aviv and, while we waited to go in, more than 1,000 White Pelicans soared overhead, completing a truly memorable visit to a country which is fast becoming as popular with birders in winter as it is in spring and autumn.
At Sdeh Boker the group were entertained by Arabian Babblers Turdoides squamiceps (René Pop)
Thanks to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism; Pastoral Hotel Kfar Blum, Ha'on Kibbutz Hotel, Gevulot Guest House; the Israeli Government Press and the Israel Ornithological Centre/Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
Mike Alibone (text) & René Pop (photos)
Editor's note: this story was originally published in Birdwatch, March 2008.