Friday, March 31, 2023

Eilat Bird Festival and Champions of the Flyway 2023

My head us still buzzing after my return from Eilat. I spent almost a week down there, joining the Eilat Bird festival, this year led by Alen, followed by Champions of the Flyway, led by Jonathan. It was an amazing week, full of fantastic birds and birding, wonderful people from all over the world and from Israel, and conservation, friendship, diversity and collaboration. Traditionally it is one of the highlight weeks of my year, and this year was no different. The birding was really good, with intensive migration both in the River of Birds in the Sky and down on the ground. It was great to spend time with some of the best people in the world, all flocking here to Eilat. My BirdLife Israel team, Eilat Bird Festival guests, Champions of the Flyway teams - what a bunch of extraordinary people. Together we watched bird, promoted conservation and had a few beers.

I headed down to Eilat early on Thursday, March 23rd. I picked up Ugandan super-tracker and bird guide Patricia Kansiime from the airport too early, and dragged her with me to Mt. Amasa. Poor girl, she was totally exhausted after a long trip and I made her climb hills and wadis and chase after some little birds. It was a great session, wasn't it Patricia? Highlights were Cinereous Bunting, Eastern Subalpine Warbler and three Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrushes.

Cinereous Bunting

We took the scenic route down to Eilat through the Negev towards Eilat, encountering clouds of White Storks and Black Kites, pretty extreme migration to start with. I arrived in Eilat and joined the festival group that had been running already for a few days. The first afternoon session I led was to north beach that was fairly quiet but hosted this stunning, cooperative blue morph Western Reef-Heron:

I birded with the festival and independently until Saturday, including a night trip for Nubian Nightjars (sadly the Desert Owls didn't show, again...), Arabian Warbler in the northern Arava, mind-blowing raptor migration up in the mountains, Black Scrub-Robins breeding in Samar - top quality stuff! I had a great time with the festival guests, I hope they enjoyed the birding too and also the conservation context that is a part of birding in Israel with BirdLife Israel.

Then it was on to Champions of the Flyway, meeting, greeting and helping teams prepare for the Big Day, scouting sites - all great fun. With a weather change and shifting winds, Saturday and Sunday were super exciting with tons of active bird migration, birds literally dropping out of the sky and going in all directions. The sky was full of raptors, bee-eaters, Hirundines, pipits, wagtails, larks, buntings and all sorts of other active migrants. On the ground, the bushes and fields were exploding with passerines, trees dripping with Sylvia (now Curruca?) warblers. The best birding Eilat can offer.

Tree Pipits

Collared Flycatcher

Masked Shrike

Steppe Eagles

Champions of the Flyways race day and events were an enormous climax of birding and friendship, working with teams, doing media stuff, very busy but lots of fun. I spent the morning with some teams at KM76 that is the most productive site at the moment, it was absolutely exploding with birds, so much stuff on the ground there, I enjoyed it very much. Check our eBird checklist here.

Hen Harrier

Caspian Stonechat

Spanish Sparrows looking all glorious

Appreciate the habitat where this Savi's Warbler is reeling:

Back in Eilat, there were some quality birds on show, including a young Bonelli's Eagle terrorizing pigeons at the cowsheds near KM19, and a pair of Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse showing so wonderfully at the little grove by the entrance to KM20. Exquisite birds those sandgrouse are. Check those feather patterns...

The closing event was incredible, all people gathered together for conservation, solidarity and friendship. Champions of the Flyway winners were The Wrens, who scored 181 species on the big day! The team is comprised of the Zaitlin family from Jerusalem, and included Klil who grew up at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and then did a year at Eilat Birding Center. Klil is an outstanding birder and a great young man. I look forward to see him develop in the world of birding and conservation. Most importantly, COTF is about raising funds for ACBK and BSPB to protect Red-breasted Geese (still time to donate!), and bringing people together to act for conservation. The atmosphere during the closing events was truly inspiring, amplified by the shit storm Israel is going through currently, demonstrating that conservation and international solidarity and collaboration are the real thing, not this politics bullshit.

Photo by Yuval Dax - thanks Yuval for everything!

This is the place to say special thanks to my team who worked so hard on these events and made them so successful - Alen, Jonathan, Noam, Mark, you are legends. IBRCE team formed the backbone of the event. Yuval, Nadav, Meidad, Yotam and Ofri from BirdLife Israel team participated too - thank you! So many wonderful people to thank - sorry if I forgot anyone.

As an aftermath or after-party to COTF, on Thursday, still high on Adrenalin, I headed up to Kfar Ruppin. I met up with The Birders Show for some filming, talking about our restoration work there, led by Nadav. They flew in to participate in COTF, and continued to focus on our restoration work. I had a great time with the team - Chris, Julian y Santi - you guys rock! While talking and watching birds in peace, news broke of a Yellow-billed Stork nearby. We made a quick dash for it, wonderful bird!

Tuesday, March 7, 2023


This morning I visited Loess Park NR in the northern Negev, in hope of catching up with the Dotterel flock that winters there, just before they leave us to who knows where.

Eurasian Dotterel distribution map from BirdLife Datazone

This winter has been very dry in Israel. However, that section of the desert received some local downpours and looks nice and green, relatively. Good annual germination will produce arthropod abundance and likely attract more migrants this spring.

It was cold early in the morning, and the plains seemed lifeless at first. After a few minutes I spotted the dotterel flock at a distance, tucked away in one of the corners, all puffed up. As I approached them the sun rose and they looked very pretty in the golden light.

I counted 62 birds in that flock. I knew that they are quite shy and that there's no point chasing them with the car, they will fly off quickly. I noticed that they started foraging quite directionally, so I positioned myself where I predicted they would pass, and waited quietly in the car. Indeed, after a few minutes, the first birds started approaching me.

Most birds kept a safe distance away from the car. A few individuals were a bit bolder and foraged close to me. I held my breath.

The boldest individual was one the few that started to develop some breeding plumage, just few chestnut feathers on the underparts. Very gorgeous nevertheless. I felt very fortunate to get so close to these shy birds.

I think this is a 2nd-cal bird, based on the retained scapulars

After the flock walked past me and away, I backed up and looped around them. I tried the same strategy again. This time I lay on the ground behind the car, to improve the angle for photography. I noticed they were quite tense because of that. I retreated back to the car and left them in peace.

Eurasian Dotterel is a localised and rare winter visitor to Israel. Loess Park NR is the only site in Israel where they winter regularly. 

Apart for the dotterels, there were some other nice birds. Migrants included Greater Short-toed Larks and Northern Wheatears. Breeding species included many Isabelline Wheatears and a few Mediterranean Short-toed Larks. Pallid Harrier and Merlin flew by. Spotted and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew over. eBird checklist here.