17–24 March 2014
Israel is one of the world's finest migration hotspots with northbound migrants finding the vegetation around Eilat and in the Arava Valley irresistible. Many Middle Eastern specialities reach the edges of their ranges here and overlap with some African species, including Namaqua Dove. Extralimital vagrants are discovered with some regularity and the comfortable conditions and favourable climate add to Israel's popularity as a top birding destination.
Day 1 We will take an early-morning flight from London (or, if desired, from Manchester) to Tel Aviv, where we will collect our minibus(es) and make the two-hour transfer to Kibbutz Gevulot in the Negev, where we will be based for the next two nights.
Day 2 This morning we will make an early start on the 55-minute drive to Nizzana. We will arrive soon after dawn to look for Macqueen's Bustard, Cream-coloured Courser, Desert Wheatear and Southern Grey Shrike. Other regular species include Chukar, (Desert) Little Owl, Spectacled Warbler, Lesser Short-toed Lark, Black-bellied, Spotted and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Isabelline Wheatear. Raptors often feature here: Golden Eagles are rare residents and Long-legged Buzzard, Lesser Spotted Eagle and all four species of harrier pass through the area. Returning to the kibbutz, we will bird around the grounds which host Eurasian Thick-knee, Barn and Long-eared Owls, Syrian Woodpeckers and, occasionally, White-breasted Kingfisher. Graceful Prinia is abundant here. Other breeding species not present in the southern desert include Great Spotted Cuckoo, Eurasian Blackbird, Great Tit, European Greenfinch and European Goldfinch! In recent years Common Myna has become an established exotic. The mature wooded grounds can hold some very good migrants including Blue Rock-thrush, Common and Thrush Nightingales, Eastern Orphean Warbler and Collared Flycatcher. We will also explore a nearby wadi which can hold Purple Swamphen and Little and Spotted Crakes and take a look at some vast agricultural fields which act as a staging area for huge numbers of White Storks and Common Cranes.
Day 3 After early-morning local birding and breakfast, we will pack up and leave southeast, via the Central Negev desert, bound for Eilat. En route we will visit a number of sites including Mitzpe Ramon, Sde Boker and the vast plains at Ha'Meishar looking for larks, including the unpredictable Dunn's, Thick-billed and Temminck's Larks, Trumpeter Finch and, with luck, some remaining wintering Syrian Serins. Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse can also be found with patience. After stopping for lunch en route, we will arrive in Eilat late afternoon and check into our comfortable hotel for the next five nights.
Day 4 An introductory pre-breakfast walk is the norm for the first hours of daylight. We will not be disappointed: one can expect to see White-spectacled Bulbul, Laughing Dove, House Crow, Rüppell's, Eastern Olivaceous and Eastern Bonelli's Warblers, White and Yellow (Black-headed) Wagtails, Woodchat and Masked Shrikes, Tree Pipit, Bluethroat, Eurasian Wryneck and many other migrants. After breakfast we will explore a variety of habitats within a short driving distance of Eilat. We should see our first Green Bee-eaters hawking for insects and Spur-winged Lapwings are common. As the day warms up, Black Kites, Common (Steppe) Buzzards and Lesser Black-backed (Baltic) Gulls may start passing overhead, some of them quite low. On a good day we will see thousands of them accompanied by Steppe Eagles and an occasional Short-toed Eagle or Booted, Imperial or Greater Spotted Eagle thrown in for good measure! The Date Palms may hold more migrants which could include Semicollared Flycatcher, Common Redstart (samamisicus) and, surprisingly, in the small irrigation puddles, Little Ringed Plover, Wood Sandpiper or Squacco Heron. There are also Namaqua Doves nearby. On one evening we will try a very special drinking-spot at dusk for Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse before returning to our hotel for dinner.
Day 5 Today we will explore the desert regions north of Eilat. At first sight the stony desert looks rather devoid of life, with just a few scattered Acacia trees and bushes, but these areas can be productive and, with patience, we could find Cream-coloured Courser, Bar-tailed, Greater Short-toed and Crested Larks, Desert, Northern, Isabelline and Black-eared Wheatears and possibly Asian Desert Warbler. We may also turn up one of the rarities that have been seen on recent trips: Caspian Plover, Cyprus Wheatear or Ménétries's Warbler. Mid-morning we will move on to the settlement of Yotvata which has an excellent air-conditioned restaurant! This handy location has very good birding close by and, in the Acacia trees around the complex, we will look for the elusive Red Sea (Arabian) Warbler, endemic to the Red Sea basin. In the vicinity we could also find Barbary Falcon, Eurasian Hoopoe, Blackstart, Sardinian and Rüppell's Warblers, Tristram's Starling and Brown-necked Raven. On many previous visits we have discovered rarer species: Pallid Harrier, Oriental Lark, Rufous and Black Scrub-robins and Hume's Warbler amongst others. Returning south towards Eilat, we will stop off at more Date Palm plantations which have a reputation for turning up scarce migrants including Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush, Bimaculated Lark and Cinereous Bunting. Indian Silverbill can also be found here and the Cretzschmar's and Ortolan Buntings are worth searching through as, in 2005, we saw a superb male Rustic Bunting with them. Red-throated and Tawny Pipits are often common here. A little further down the road a series of salt pools is an absolute magnet for migrants. Greater Flamingo is the most conspicuous bird here and there will be plenty to see including Common and possibly Ruddy Shelducks, Kentish Plover, Greater Sand-plover, Little Stint, Ruff and maybe even Broad-billed, Curlew or Marsh Sandpiper. Slender-billed Gulls are numerous and Little and Pallas's Gulls may also be present. Some nearby cultivation attracts more migrants and Common Quail can be quite easy to see here. The whole area is a hotspot for rarities including the Kittlitz's Plover, Demoiselle Cranes and Hypocolius recorded on previous Birdfinders tours, not forgetting the Lesser Flamingo found by Birdfinders in 2006: a first for Israel! To the west of the salt pools, the scenery will change dramatically as we drive across the desert to reach Amram's pillars. The change in bird species will be equally dramatic in this typical habitat for Sand Partridge, Hooded Wheatear, Blackstart and Desert Lark. Pale Rosefinches winter here but are unpredictable by mid-March. Returning to Eilat our last stop will be at the north beach, where birdwatchers from all over gather to exchange information. We will still be seeing new birds with Striated Heron, Western Reef-heron, White-eyed Gull and Pied Kingfisher being some of the possibilities. This is also a good place to see Pallas's, Caspian and Armenian Gulls, whilst rarities, including Brown Booby and Bridled Tern, have been seen by Birdfinders groups over the years.
Day 6 After breakfast we will head north up the Arava Valley towards the Dead Sea, birding en route. We may see Eurasian Griffon, Egyptian Vulture, Bonelli's Eagle and Lanner Falcon along the way whilst desert residents worth looking out for include Mourning Wheatear, Scrub Warbler and Arabian Babbler. By midday we will have reached the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi, where we have seen White-breasted Kingfisher and Striolated Bunting. Ein Gedi is famous for its natural springs, therapeutic minerals and bathing beach as well as the numerous spectacular gorges in the area. There will be time for an optional dip in the Dead Sea! The distinctive Fan-tailed Raven is common here and Brown-necked Raven and the rarer Common Raven also occur. After lunch we will return to the southern end of the Dead Sea where crakes are possible as well as Clamorous Reed-warbler and Dead Sea Sparrow. At sunset we will go with a local guide to a highly restricted area to look for one of the last pairs of Nubian Nightjars in the Western Palearctic. After we leave the restricted area we will head for a site for Hume's Owl, an enigmatic bird of remote desert cliffs. We will be too late for our evening meal at the hotel but will stop for refreshment on the way back to Eilat.
Day 7 Today we will keep an open agenda to look for newly-arrived migrants or raptor migration. How we proceed during the day will depend on the latest bird news. We may visit the Eilat Mountains for White-tailed Wheatear, Trumpeter Finch and Palestine Sunbird. Not far out of town are some sewage pools that are often swarming with birds. Great White Pelican, Little Crake, White-tailed Lapwing, Citrine Wagtail and American (Buff-bellied) Pipit have all been seen here on previous tours and the air can be alive with swallows and swifts including Red-rumped Swallow, Rock Martin and Pallid and Alpine Swifts. In the afternoon we may head north again to check some areas for Greater Hoopoe-lark, which has become very difficult to see in Israel in recent years. The search may also detect Thick-billed or Temminck's Larks, which are being found with increasing frequency in the southern deserts. The day will be split into two halves so that those who wish to can visit the Coral Sea Underwater Observatory or the several shopping centres. Every day is different at the peak of migration and we should be ready for virtually anything to show up. Real rarities on previous tours have included Oriental Honey-buzzard, Pallid Scops-owl, Egyptian Nightjar, Dunn's Lark, Basra Reed-warbler, Pied Bushchat, Red-tailed Wheatear and Rosy Starling whilst more regular finds have included European Scops-owl and Blue-cheeked Bee-eater.
Day 8 After a morning spent birding around Eilat, we will start on the four-hour drive back to Tel Aviv. But birding has not quite finished as we will go via a site in the Southern Judaean hills to look for Long-billed Pipit before reaching Tel Aviv and boarding our flight to London.
General Information Spring weather is unpredictable though afternoon temperatures can be hot, as high as 35°C. Early mornings can be chilly. As well as a sun hat you will need a warm layer or two. Rain is a possibility in March and mornings in the Negev can be distinctly cold. However, this is a desert climate and it is essential to drink plenty, so a water bottle is a good idea and we will stop frequently for refreshment. There are no compulsory health requirements and most of the area is pleasantly insect-free. Walking is generally easy, although in the heat of the day it can sometimes be tiring. Some walks along wadis need a little extra effort and underfoot conditions can be difficult. Visas are not required. The areas we will be visiting are entirely safe but do be prepared for extra security measures at the airport, which is perfectly normal for travel in and out of Israel. The itinerary is designed to be flexible in order to accommodate changes in weather patterns, bird migration and habitat.
Group Size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 7; maximum group size: 7 with 1 leader, 14 with 2 leaders.