Israel - The Complete Tour
Monday 12th November – Sunday 25th November 2018
Israel boasts remarkable bird diversity throughout the year but is especially exciting in late November. The continents of Europe, Asia and Africa converge at Israel creating a natural land-bridge between the Red and Mediterranean Seas. Large soaring birds such as eagles, buzzards, storks and pelicans migrate over this narrow land mass and rely heavily on warm air thermals, but subsequently provide a true spectacle for the visiting birder. Additionally, Israel is a winter home to many species from Europe and Asia and is certainly a key location for those with a strong interest in West Palearctic birds; Macqueen’s Bustard, Desert (Hume’s) Owl, Nubian Nightjar, Arabian Warbler and Syrian Serin are arguably easier to see in Israel than anywhere else in the region. This exceptionally complete tour incorporates the shores of the Mediterranean, the uplands of the Golan Heights, the remarkable avian spectacles of the Hula Valley, raptors and sandgrouse in the Western Negev, and the bird-rich environs of Eilat. We visit in late November, the peak arrival time for many wintering species and the best period in the calendar for Asian rarities.
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We arrive in late afternoon and transfer to Nasholim Resort on the Carmel Coast for the first night of the tour.
After a traditional Israeli buffet breakfast we’ll explore the extensive network of fishponds around Ma’agan Michael. Wetland birds are abundant and key species will include Whiskered Tern, Little Crake, Clamorous Reed Warbler, Citrine Wagtail and Buff-bellied Pipit, the latter usually being found among the hordes of (Caucasian) Water Pipits and White Wagtails feeding on the mud and White-throated, Pied and Common Kingfishers are usually very visible. Eurasian and Little Bitterns are certainly possible and Ma’agan Michael has produced a number of mega-rarities over the last few years - we should be ready for the unexpected! In the mid-afternoon we head north towards the Galilee region reaching our base, a wonderfully situated Kibbutz guest house in the Hula Valley, for the next three nights. After dinner we may try our luck with owls as Barn, Long-eared and Tawny Owls can sometimes be found in the grounds of the Kibbutz, the latter being the scarcest of the three and difficult to find in Israel. Night in Hula Valley.
Day 3 Hula Valley
We will dedicate an entire day to a thorough exploration of the Hula Agamon Park and surroundings. Immense concentrations of Common Cranes stage and winter here and we should be present at the peak period with perhaps 30,000 birds in the area. Demoiselle Cranes have been discovered with increasing regularity in recent years and a diligent search could produce one or two. Numbers of Great White Pelicans should also be present and the area will be full of raptors, chief targets among them being White-tailed, Great Spotted and Eastern Imperial Eagles. Flocks of wintering waterfowl may well contain Marbled Duck and Red-crested Pochard, whilst the reed-beds support Penduline Tit, Reed and Moustached Warblers and, if we’re lucky, Purple Swamp-hen. This is guaranteed to be a magical day and we may well record over 100 species. Night in Hula Valley.
Day 4 Hula Valley - Golan Heights
A complete change of scenery today as we gain elevation and climb above the Hula Valley to explore the lower slopes of Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights. This area has a number of key species for the tour including Rock Bunting, Rock Nuthatch, Sombre Tit and Syrian Serin but it’s also a winter home to an abundance of winter thrushes, finches and buntings. With luck, we may find Radde’s Accentor, Red-fronted Serin and Pine Bunting in this area. We shall certainly visit the magnificent Gamla Nature Reserve where eye-level views of close Griffon Vultures is a treat not to be missed. Careful scrutiny of the vultures might produce Cinereous and Egyptian Vultures, whilst Bonelli’s Eagle is a somewhat reliable resident in the area. Aside from raptors, Little Swift, Crag Martin, Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Sparrow and perhaps a roosting Eagle Owl can all be found in the Gamla Gorge in winter. Night in Hula Valley.
Day 5 Hula valley - Bet Shean
Leaving the Hula Valley, we bird our way south towards the Bet Shean Valley and will likely travel south along the spine of the Golan Heights checking some of the large reservoirs that support a surprising variety of waterfowl, while the surrounding boulder fields can be good for small flocks of Little Bustard. Great Bustard has become an increasingly regular winter vagrant to northern Israel and is also worth searching for. White Storks can be found year-round in the Golan Heights, as can Calandra Larks in appropriate habitat. The southward journey will take us by the Sea of Galilee where the vast expanse of open water is worth scanning for grebes and waterfowl, as well as Pygmy Cormorant and Whiskered Tern. The day is designed to be flexible since it’s possible that we won’t have previously visited all of the key sites the area has to offer. Chukar, Black Francolin, Wallcreeper, Alpine Accentor, Long-billed Pipit, Dead Sea Sparrow and Indian Silverbill are just a handful of species present in the region that we will search for. Two nights in Bet Shean.
Day 6 Bet Shean - Jezreel Valley
We have a whole day for exploring the vast network of fishponds and agricultural fields that make up the Bet Shean Valley. The region has a long established reputation for rarities and attracts thousands of waterfowl, White and Black Storks, and gulls at this time of year. The bulk of the latter will be Armenian Gulls but Pallas’s Gulls can be found, along with Caspian, Steppe and Baltic Gulls. Raptors are plentiful with hundreds of Black Kites and the potential for three, maybe four species of harrier, as well as Black-shouldered Kite and Eastern Imperial Eagle. The area also supports healthy populations of Black Francolin and Clamorous Reed Warbler and is often productive for ‘eastern’ passerines such Oriental Skylark, Richard’s Pipit, Daurian (Isabelline) Shrike, Siberian and Caspian Stonechats. Nearby, the picturesque slopes of Mount Gilboa overlook the Bet Shean Valley and provide a fine backdrop to observe Little Owl, Southern Grey Shrike, Long-billed Pipit and Finsch’s Wheatear. Kurdish Wheatear has wintered here in recent years and could be found again. Finches should include European Serin and Goldfinch. Again, the grounds of our accommodation could provide several species of owl including the possibility of European Scops Owl. Night in Bet Shean.
Day 7 Bet Shean - Ein Bokek
Mostly a travel day, we leave Bet Shean early and head south paralleling the Jordanian border. Our first major stop will be at the northern end of the Dead Sea where the dramatic change in habitat to low lying semi-desert is favored by Sand Partridge, Pale Crag Martin, Scrub Warbler, Arabian Babbler and Trumpeter Finch. Heading further south, the spectacular scenery along the shores of Dead Sea cannot fail to impress. Lanner, Barbary Falcon and Fan-tailed Ravens inhabit the steep-sided canyons, along with Hooded Wheatear, Striolated Bunting and Sinai Rosefinch. Tristram’s Starling, Desert Lark and Little Green Bee-eaters are tame and plentiful and provide excellent photographic opportunities. The whole region is characterized by spectacular scenery and wildlife; Golden and Bonelli’s Eagles are certainly possible, whilst mammals could include Eurasian Wolf, Striped Hyena, Rock Hyrax, Nubian Ibex, and Dorcas Gazelle.
In the late afternoon we’ll meet an authorized Israeli birding guide to begin our search for two of the most difficult and range-restricted crepuscular species in the region – Nubian Nightjar and (Desert Hume’s) Owl. Being post-breeding season, our task will be especially challenging but we’re certainly prepared to have a go! Night in Ein Bokek.
Day 8 Dead Sea - Eilat
Another travel day ahead as we continue our journey south leaving the Dead Sea behind and entering the Arava Valley for the first time. The northern Arava Valley is rich in mature Acacia scrub, the preferred habitat of Arabian (Red Sea) Warbler. This large, dark-headed warbler is a low density resident and the desert surrounding Hazeva has the largest concentration of nesting pairs in the country. The area could also be good for several other warblers including Asian Desert, Spectacled, Sardinian and Cyprus Warblers. Chiffchaffs, migrant and wintering, are abundant.
Travelling south, the landscape becomes increasingly arid with expansive areas of open desert. After rain, even the slightest greening of the desert can attract several nomadic desert species including Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse, Thick-billed, Temminck’s and Bar-tailed Larks, whilst Isabelline, Northern, Mourning, White-crowned and Desert Wheatears could be present. Trumpeter Finch and numerous common migrants such as Red-throated, Tree and Meadow Pipits, White Wagtail and Eurasian Skylark should also be foraging in the green patches. We reach Eilat by early evening for a four night stay.
Days 9 - 11 Eilat – Southern Arava Valley – Eilat Mountains
Long been established as a top destination for birders, the town of Eilat lies at the head of the Red Sea and will serve as our hub for the next three days. We shall search for key residents such as Western Reef-heron, Striated Heron, White-eyed Gull, House Crow and Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse. Brown Booby is possible on the Red Sea, while Dead Sea Sparrow and Desert Finch can often be encountered just north of the beach, though Spanish Sparrows will be far more abundant. Although late in the season, some migrating raptors can still be viewed in the famous Eilat Mountains. Numbers of Steppe Eagles, along with some Steppe and Long-legged Buzzards should be passing and the mountains remain the best spot in the country to see Verreaux’s Eagle, exceedingly rare in the West Palearctic. The steep-sided Acacia wadis support several scarce species including Pallid Scops Owl, a low density winter resident in the area. In the Arava Valley, the network of plantations, fields and reservoirs harbor many sought-after species including Greater Flamingo, Namaqua Dove, Buff-bellied Pipit, and Oriental Skylark, as well as the ever-present chance of a good rarity or two such as Grey Hypocolius, Red-flanked Bluetail, Basalt Wheatear, Menetries’s Warbler, Hume’s Warbler, Rustic and Little Buntings, and Black-crowned Sparrow-lark seen in recent years. The fields are often full of wheatears and pipits in November and as many as ten species of each family is possible on this tour. The sandy fringes of the fields could well harbor Cream-coloured Courser, Greater Hoopoe-lark, Greater Short-toed and Lesser Short-toed Larks, and more rarely Dunn’s Lark. Our itinerary will be flexible for the three days allowing us to fully benefit from this exceptional region. Nights in Eilat.
Day 12 Eilat – Mitzpe Ramon – Gevulot
We leave early passing through the Eilat Mountains onto the southern Negev plateau. The dramatic escarpment of the Ramon Crater will be the first major landmark but we will certainly make stops for roadside birds en-route, which could include Long-legged Buzzard, Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse, Blue Rock Thrush, Hooded and Mourning Wheatears, and Brown-necked Raven. There will also be more chances for Eurasian Wolf, Nubian Ibex and Dorcas Gazelle. At almost 900m above sea level, the small town of Mitzpe Ramon is one of the highest settlements in the central Negev and provides a welcome break after the long drive from Eilat. It’s also a fine stepping stone for exploring several sites in the Negev with ‘oasis-like’ conditions, some of which can be productive for scarce migrants including Red-breasted Flycatcher, Yellow-browed Warbler and perhaps Olive-backed Pipit. Water Pipit, Bluethroat and Chiffchaff are often abundant in such spots, and Black Redstart only slightly less so. The agricultural fields will also provide the first opportunities on the tour for Black-belled Sandgrouse.
In late afternoon we will drive north-west to Kibbutz Gevulot, a lush location tucked away in the Western Negev desert. At dusk, just in time for our arrival, crepuscular species such as Stone Curlew, Barn and Long-eared Owls can be heard and seen around the Kibbutz. Two nights at Kibbutz Gevulot.
Day 13 Gevulot – Nizzana – Urim
An early start is required to reach Nizzana at sunrise. Although some of the land is retained for military training, the vast steppe like plains provide an important stronghold for Macqueen’s Bustard, our major target for the morning. The area can also be good for many other species including Pallid Harrier, Cream-coloured Courser, up to four species of sandgrouse, ‘desert’ Little Owl, Southern Grey Shrike, Asian Desert and Spectacled Warblers and good numbers of larks and wheatears. In mid-morning we return to the Western Negev region where the vast fields centered around Urim provide a traditional staging/wintering area for thousands of Eurasian Skylarks and hundreds of Calandra Larks, which in turn attract impressive concentrations of raptors; Saker, Lanner, Peregrine, Merlin (including Siberian), Eastern Imperial Eagle, Marsh, Pallid and Hen Harriers should all be seen. The agricultural fields have proven to be an important wintering site for Sociable Lapwing and as we search for them we may well find Northern Lapwing, European Golden Plover, Eurasian Dotterel, Kentish Plover and Cream-colored Courser. Huge flocks of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse can also be found in the same area with a little effort. Night at Kibbutz Gevulot.
Day 14 Kibbutz Gevulot - Tel Aviv - End of Tour - 15th Nov
We begin the day with a gentle pre-breakfast birding walk around the lush grounds of Kibbutz Gevulot. Species such as Syrian Woodpecker, Hoopoe, Graceful Prinia and Common Myna are common here, whilst the early winter season will provide us with opportunities for irruptive ‘northern’ finches including Hawfinch, Brambling and Eurasian Siskin. Blue Rock Thrush often winters around the Kibbutz dwellings.
After a final Kibbutz breakfast we begin the journey north towards Tel-Aviv, perhaps passing through Wadi Ha’Basor and the Urim fields once more. Exceptionally rare raptors, including Tawny Eagle and Bateleur have been photographed in this area in recent years and we shall certainly pay close attention to the local grapevine before we leave. Further birding may be possible on the drive towards Tel-Aviv where we will arrive in good time for an early evening flight to the UK and conclusion of the tour.
Group size: Limited to 7 for one vehicle, 12 for two vehicles.
Included in cost: Accommodation in twin/single rooms en-suite throughout, breakfasts and evening meals, transport, all reserve entrance fees, and services of local guides.
Not included: International airfare, insurance, lunches, drinks, tips and items of a personal nature.
Accommodation: Good to very good throughout, all in well-appointed hotels and guesthouses with private facilities.
Tour Code: A standard birding tour with a moderate degree of fitness required. We may walk for 2 – 3 miles over fairly rugged terrain in the desert to find the species that we need. A few early morning starts and one or two late finishes will also be required.The weather is expected to be warm and dry in the desert regions but potentially much cooler in the north, especially at higher elevation. A fleece and raincoat are certainly recommend for the north, but shorts and sandals may been worn in desert regions. Biting insects are not expected to be a problem at this time of year but mosquitoes may be present around wetland areas in the north where a good insect repellent might be useful. Expect about 235 bird species on this tour.
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