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ISRAEL

Spring

17–24 March 2015

Israel is one of the finest birding hotspots in the World. Multiple migration routes pass over this relatively narrow strip of land creating a ‘bottleneck’ effect. As a result, migrants northbound in spring find the vegetation around Eilat and in the Negev Desert irresistible, finding refuge in even the sparsest cover. Overhead, thousands of raptors and storks can be seen soaring on warm-air thermals over the mountains and desert. Many Middle Eastern and Asian specialities reach the edge of their range here and overlap with African species such as the delightful Namaqua Dove. Extralimital vagrants turn up with some regularity and the comfortable conditions and excellent infrastructure add to Israel's popularity as a top-notch birding destination.

Day 1 Following an early-morning flight from Luton (or, if desired, from Manchester) to Tel Aviv, we will collect our vehicles and make the comfortable two-hour transfer to Kibbutz Gevulot, where we will be based for the next two nights.

Day 2 We will begin with pre-breakfast birding in the grounds of the kibbutz, which host Eurasian Thick-knee, Barn and Long-eared Owls, Syrian Woodpecker, White-throated Kingfisher and Graceful Prinia. Other breeding species not to be expected further south include Great Spotted Cuckoo, Eurasian Blackbird, Great Tit, European Greenfinch and European Goldfinch. In recent years Common Myna has become an established (countable) exotic. The wooded grounds may also hold quality migrants in March including Blue Rock-thrush, Common and Thrush Nightingales, Bluethroat, Eastern Orphean Warbler and Collared and Semicollared Flycatchers. After a traditionally substantial kibbutz breakfast we will explore a local wadi which holds Chukar, Little and Spotted Crakes, Clamorous Reed-warbler and Eurasian Penduline-tit. Nearby, the vast agricultural fields of Urim act as a staging area for huge numbers of White Storks and Common Cranes, amongst which may be raptors including harriers and perhaps a late Saker Falcon. In the crops we should hear and see hordes of Common Quail and perhaps Zitting Cisticola.

Day 3 This morning we will make an early start with a packed breakfast and drive to Nizzana. Arriving soon after dawn, we will focus firstly on Macqueen's Bustard, Cream-coloured Courser, Desert Wheatear and Southern Grey Shrike. Other regularly encountered species are Chukar, (Desert) Little Owl, Spectacled Warbler, Lesser Short-toed Lark, Black-bellied, Crowned, Spotted and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Isabelline Wheatear. Raptors often feature here including migrating Lesser Spotted Eagles, Pallid Harriers and Lesser Kestrels. Around mid-morning we will leave for Eilat via the Central Negev desert. En route we will visit a number of sites including Sde Boker, Mitzpe Ramon, and the vast plains at Ha'Meishar looking for larks, including the unpredictable Thick-billed and Temminck's Larks, Trumpeter Finch and late wintering Syrian Serins. We plan to arrive in Eilat in good time to check into our comfortable hotel for a five-night stay.

Day 4 An optional pre-breakfast walk in the local park is the norm for the first hour of daylight and we should not be disappointed: during our stay we 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 an excellent buffet breakfast we will explore a variety of habitats within a short driving distance of Eilat. We should see our first Green Bee-eaters and Spur-winged Lapwings which are relatively common in the area. 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 they will be accompanied by Steppe Eagles and there may be an occasional Short-toed Snake-eagle or Booted, Imperial or Greater Spotted Eagle thrown in for good measure! The Date Palms may hold more migrants that could include Semicollared Flycatcher, Common Redstart (samamisicus) and, in the small irrigation puddles, Little Ringed Plover, Wood Sandpiper or Squacco Heron. There are often Namaqua Doves nearby. On one evening, at dusk, we will try a very special Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse drinking-spot before returning to our hotel for the legendary buffet 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 desert broom bushes, but these areas can be productive and, with patience, we could find 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 or Pied Wheatear or Ménétries's Warbler. The settlement of Kibbutz Yotvata has an excellent restaurant and provides a handy location with top-notch birding close by. In the Acacia trees around the complex we will look for the elusive Red Sea (Arabian) Warbler, endemic to the Red Sea basin, and in the immediate vicinity we could also find Barbary Falcon, Eurasian Hoopoe, Richard’s Pipit, Blackstart, Sardinian and Rüppell's Warblers and Brown-necked Raven. Many previous visits have discovered rarer species: Pallid Harrier, Oriental Skylark, Siberian Stonechat, Rufous and Black Scrub-robins and Hume's Warbler amongst others. Returning south towards Eilat, we may stop at more Date Palm plantations. Scarce migrants including Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush, Bimaculated Lark and Cinereous Bunting turn up wth some regularity and Indian Silverbill can also be found. Cretzschmar's and Ortolan Buntings are also worth searching through as, in 2005, we saw a superb male Rustic Bunting among them. Red-throated and Tawny Pipits are often common as well. A little further down the road a series of salt pools is a 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 the whole area is a hotspot for rarities including the Kittlitz's Plover, Demoiselle Cranes and Hypocolius recorded on previous tours, not forgetting the Lesser Flamingo found by Birdfinders in 2006: a first for Israel! To the west of the salt pools the scenery changes dramatically and is reflected in the change in bird species for this is typical habitat for Sand Partridge, Hooded Wheatear, Blackstart and Desert Lark. Sinai Rosefinches have wintered here but are usually unpredictable come mid-March. Returning to Eilat our last stop will be at the north beach, where birdwatchers gather to share sightings and exchange information. We will still be seeing new birds with Striated Heron, Western Reef-egret, 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 multiple Brown Boobies, Bridled and White-cheeked Terns, have been seen by Birdfinders groups in recent years.

Day 6 We will head north along the Arava Valley towards the Dead Sea, birding en route. We may see Eurasian Griffon, Egyptian Vulture 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 Ein Gedi, where we have seen White-breasted Kingfisher and Striolated Bunting on recent tours. Ein Gedi is famous for its natural springs, therapeutic minerals and bathing beach as well as the numerous spectacular gorges in the area. Swimmers should have time for an optional dip in the Dead Sea! The distinctive Fan-tailed Raven and Tristram’s Starlings are common and photogenic here and Brown-necked and Common Ravens may complete the trio of Israel’s ravens! After a late lunch we will return to the southern end of the Dead Sea where Clamorous Reed-warbler and Dead Sea Sparrow are possible but dependent on seasonal pools. At sunset we will go with a local guide to a restricted area to look for one of the few remaining 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 owl 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 As is traditional on the last full day, we will keep our agenda open looking for newly-arrived migrants and keeping up to speed with the local bird news. We may visit the Eilat Mountains for raptor migration or head for the local sewage pools that are often swarming with birds. White Pelican, Little Crake, White-tailed Lapwing, Citrine Wagtail and Asian (Buff-bellied) Pipit have all been seen here on previous tours and the air can be thick 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 Temminck's and Lesser Short-toed Larks. Every day is different at the peak of migration and we should be ready for virtually anything to show up. Real rarities seen 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 Olive-backed Pipit whilst more regular finds have included European Scops-owl, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and Rosy Starling.

Day 8 After a further morning spent birding around Eilat, we will start on the long drive back to Tel Aviv via a site in the Southern Judean hills to look for Long-billed Pipit. We plan to reach Ben Gurion airport in plenty of time for our evening flight back to Luton/Manchester.

General Information Spring weather is notoriously unpredictable though afternoon temperatures can be hot, as high as 35°C. Early-mornings can be distinctly 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.

Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse

Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse