After spending a weekend in Helsinki in Bongariliitto (Twitchers association) 30 year parties and BirdLife Finland meeting, I still did a morning bird-trip to Hanko before in the late afternoon I was heading towards Helsinki-Vantaa airport.
I was going to Israel for 2 weeks and in the mid part of the trip there would be Champions of the Flyway bird-race. Our team Tarsiger – Northern Lights (Mika Bruun, Jan “Jände” Nordblad, Erkki “Eva” Valsta and me) was participating this second international race that collected this year money to stop trapping of migrant birds in Cyprus. We had also managed to collect money pretty well.
I was at the airport after 6 p.m. and I walked almost straight to the gate and soon Mika and Jände arrived too. Eva was coming to Israel a few days later. At 8:05 p.m. our plane left to Tel Aviv. After I had fallen asleep and awaken several times, we finally landed at 00:30 a.m. We found our luggage pretty soon but Europcar office was missing. People in the other offices weren’t really helping neither was angry looking maid in the tourist information. After some more searching Mika called to a number that was found in his papers and a girl that hardly spoke English told us that the car was soon coming to the main doors of the airport. After some waiting a van came and drove us to the office that was about 10 minutes from the airport.
We got finally our came that was a big Mitsubishi Outlander – so much better than VW Passat that we had booked. Finally at 1:30 a.m. we packed our luggage to the trunk while a Stone Curlew was calling on the background, and started to drive towards south. Luckily Mika remembered to put the place of the office to his navigator-app, so we could find back after 2 weeks.
We stopped at a couple of service on the way but they couldn’t or just didn’t understand to sell us anything to eat or drink. It was a long drive before we finally were at Nizzana just before 5 a.m. After some waiting the first larks started to sing even though it was still pretty dark. We were happy that we had come so early before the race as we had no idea what the birds that were singing were.
It was once again really cold in the desert! I was wearing a hat, gloves and long underwear and so on. Luckily it started to get warmer very quickly once the sun rose. We were scanning the desert with our scopes and soon Mika found what were searching for – a Macqueen’s Bustard was displaying on a sand-dune very far on the horizon. Soon a couple of Cream-colored Courser flew over us and a couple of Chukars were found, so we started to get to the right mood. It was good to be back in Israel!
It was already very warm when we headed to the village of Ezuz, where we had planned to try to find sandgrouses from the desert behind the village. There was a terrace from where we had planned to scan the desert, but before we got there we saw first a Common Mynah flying over us and then a local woman came to tell us that she had nowadays a bird-watching company in the village and even a hide with a pool where the sandgrouses came to drink. We were starving so we asked if she could offer some breakfast too, and soon we were having really good omelettes and tea on the terrace. When we saw a distant flock of sandgrouses in flight we decided to go into the hide with Mika to wait.
We were in the hide for an hour but only Spanish Sparrows were coming to drink. Also a Black Redstart was seen, but unfortunately we had no more time to spend and wait for the sandgrouses. We still had a long day before we were in Eilat.
We still walked in on bushy desert-area and found some Scrub Warblers, Trumpeter Finches and of course some other trip-ticks before started to drive towards East. We stopped several times to tick some birds and also to photograph some that were close to the road like a nice Little Owl and one of the Southern Grey Shrikes. We decided to drive until Lake Jerokham that unfortunately was full of local people.
Because of too many people but also the hottest time of the day there weren’t many birds to find. We were also pretty tired already, so all better birds we found were a Great White Egret, a Syrian Woodpecker and a Cetti’s Warbler. Of course quite a few trip-ticks were also ticked.
Once we were back on the road again we drove until Mizpe Ramon to photograph the Arava Valley that was opening in front of us. There we saw also a Blue Rock Thrush. It was already late evening when we finally arrived at Eilat. We dropped Mika to Isrotel Agamim hotel that was the main place of the Champions of the Flyway, but it was too expensive for me, so with Jände we continued to a small and very cheap Little Prince motel that looked really bad from outside but was luckily pretty comfortable inside. Our room was sure big enough so we were pretty happy to make it home and soon go to sleep after a long day.
On the 18th of March we started from the North Beach where Pied Kingfishers and a Western Reed Heron were fishing, some Armenian Gulls flying and 2 Pochards flying around the bay trying to find courage to start flying inland.
Mika went to have breakfast to Agamim while we rested in our room before we continued to Holland Park where a Black Bush Robin had been for a couple of days and even on this morning. On the parking place we met a few birders that told us that the bird had been missing for at least an hour, so we decided to start walking slowly up along the wadi to find as many birds as possible, maybe the missing one too?
There were lots of birds in the bushes! Lesser Whitethroat was the most numerous but also plenty of Chiffchaffs and Eastern Bonelli’s Warblers, but also about 10 Rueppell’s Warblers, Blackcaps, Common Whitethroats, Sardinian Warblers, a couple of Eastern Orphean Warblers and even a Subalpine Warbler. Also Little Green Bee-eaters, Sand Partridges, Arabian Babblers, some Penduline Tits, a couple of Bluethroats and a Rufous Bush Robin were found but the black one was missing. The bird had used to be in the last bushes of the wadi, but there I met Hadoram Shirihai who had been photographing warblers there for some time already and he hadn’t seen the bird. Anyway I checked all the bushes very well, but after some time I had to start walking back towards the car. It was already very hot and I was extremely thirsty!
In the afternoon we drove to the pools. We started at k19 and then continued to k20 -pools. Many common waders and so on were seen but also 11 Shelducks, a Tufted Duck, a Spoonbill, a Grey Plover and the best bird was a Greater Sand Plover!
It was already getting dark when I got an idea to drive back to k-19 pool to see if the Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouses would come to drink to the pool. Once we got there an extremely small Barbary Falcon was hunting there but soon after it left and it came dark, the sandgrouses started to arrive. It was very dark already but I counted 7 different birds visiting the pool. Many egrets and herons were seen and a couple of Egyptian Geese landed to the pool too.
Mika was still participating to a couple of presentation in Agamim and updating Tarsiger blog and so on, when were already sleeping in our motel.
On the 19th of March the morning was cloudy while we headed towards Yotvata to check the famous fields. On the way we saw probably the same Barbary Falcon perched on the electric pole. Soon the clouds moved away and the sun started to burn very hot. Soon raptors were soaring on the sky and we counted 2500 Steppe Buzzards, with 15 Steppe Eagles, 7 Booted Eagles, a couple of Greater Spotted Eagles and Short-toed Eagles, a Long-legged Buzzard and a few Black Storks. From the fields we found a couple of Desert Finches, some Bimaculated Larks that were in a flock of Short-toed Larks and many wheatears that included a few Siberian Stonechats, a Caspian Stonechat and a stunning Cyprus Wheatear. We used our car as a hide and managed to get good pictures of the last one.
We continued to the traditional Arabian Warbler place and even though the day was very hot, we managed to find a couple very easily. The birds were very elusive and hiding really well inside the bushes, so we couldn’t get almost any pictures. Also the first Masked Shrike was seen and while driving back towards Eilat, we saw an Eastern Imperial Eagle perched on an acacia next to the road but unfortunately it left too soon so I couldn’t get any pictures.
In the afternoon we visited the pools again but all new we saw were 6 migrating Cranes. Then we ended the day at the North Beach, where some local fishermen had got lots of fish, so gulls were flying very close to the shore and we managed to get some good shots of White-eyed Gulls.
On the 20th of March we left early, while it was still completely dark, towards Ovda. Anyway we were a little bit late as the sun rose before we got there. It was cold again but birds were already active when we started walking through the first bushy area. Scrub Warblers, a Chukar, lots of White-crowned Black Wheatears, Trumpeter Finches and also a couple of Mourning Wheatears were found, but we had hoped to find a little bit more as we had planned to visit this area during the race.
Before the mid-day we walked in the different part of Ovda and saw a very distant flock of two species of sandgrouses, but I could only identify Spotted Sandgrouses from the calls. We walked a lot before we found the next good birds. I flushed a flock of birds but I couldn’t see them, I just heard them and I had no idea what they were. Mika who was walking about 100 meters from me saw me staring at the sky and then he looked up and saw the birds – they were 3 Thick-billed Larks! Unfortunately they flew as far as he could follow them.
While walking in another bushy area again, I saw something moving a little inside a thick bush. I walked closer as I thought it was some kind of small mammal. But when I was a meter from it, it attacked a half of a meter towards me – it was a poisonous Palestine Saw-scaled Viper! I jumped a meter further but it followed me again for a half of a meter. Then I decided to get much further without looking back! Mika was keen to get pictures of this snake, but it wasn’t found in that bush anymore.
When we were driving again, we saw a male Rock Thrush, but Neot Smadar sewage was almost empty. We were a little bit disappointed but when we stopped at kibbutz restaurant and got the best ever cheese-cake, we were happy again. In the garden we managed to photograph well a Bluethroat, Yellow-vented Bulbuls and Laughing Doves too.
In the evening Jände fell asleep already at 7 p.m. and I followed him pretty soon.
On the 21st of March we had planned to meet Erkki Valsta that had arrived at Tel Aviv at night in k76 area, but and once we got there, “Eva” had already checked the traditional best areas and found out that they weren’t that good this spring. So we decided to move to the ponds nearby but they were also pretty bad. A Couple of samamisicus Redstarts and a Common Nightingale were seen but nothing else. So after all almost the whole morning was lost. So we decided to drive to Yotvata as there were always birds to see.
In Yotvata we found a Stone Curlew under a tree and as usual only flight-shots were got. A Masked Shrike and some Cretzschmar’s Buntings were seen.
We continued to the pools but it was pretty quiet there too. Almost all the same common birds were seen but all the better birds were gone. Only new species were a few Gull-billed Terns and finally first Dead Sea Sparrows. We also found a couple of Southern Grey Shrikes pretty close to the pools which was pretty good for the race, as we had already plans to skip Nizzana completely. Very windy and extremely hot weather didn’t really give us reason to continue birding so we headed to Eilat and were at our motel already at 4 p.m.
In the evening there were 2 presentations in Agamin that we also went. Most of the teams had arrived and it was good to see many old friends. Especially it was good to see old British RC-team friends Paul French and Micky Maher! The presentations were a bit long and after we had walked back to our motel and were finally ready to go to sleep an infernal bass-rhythm started to break the house to atoms. There was a famous disco downstairs! We finally realized why the motel was so cheap and why ear-plugs were free on the reception.
The 22nd of March. The parties continued until morning and I think the music was loudest when we were leaving towards Ha Mesar plains. Once we got there, we found out that this place was really good! In a small area where we first walked, we found a couple of Temminck’s Horned Larks that were building a nest, Desert Wheatears, Scrub Warblers, a Bar-tailed Desert Lark and a Chukar, a flock of Spotted Sandgrouses flew over us and on the next big area we found a couple of Bimaculated Larks from a flock of Short-toed Larks.
We continued to Mizpe Ramon where we saw Nubian Ibexes and in kibbutz-gardens a Cuckoo. In Sde Boker, in Ben Gurion we watched for raptors and saw Egyptian and Griffon Vultures and on the garden we found a Semi-collared Flycatcher, a Subalpine Warbler, a couple of Common Mynahs, heard a Goldfinch and got good pictures of Arabian Babblers.
On a sewage nearby we saw a couple of Blackbirds, a Reed Warbler, a Thrush Nightingale, a Chaffinch and a Common Snipe. On the big fields we found a Chukar, a couple of Black-bellied Sandgrouses, Desert Finches and so on. In the evening we still continued to Lake Yerokham, where weren’t too many people this time. We saw quite a few good species there like Sedge Warblers, Syrian Woodpeckers, Great Tits and Mika saw even a Brambling, so we started to think that it was a must place to come in the race. Tristram’s Crackles were posing well so we took some more pictures again.
Once we were back in Eilat it was soon time to head to IBRCE ringing station to the opening ceremony of the race. All the teams were there and lots of speaks were given and then all the teams had to introduce themselves. Mika had decided to skip this and was resting, so somehow I had to say something about our team. I was extremely tired so there weren’t many clever words coming out from my mouth… I hope not too many TV-channels are showing my speech.
We ate very well but it really was too late when we left. Our day had been extremely long and I was completely knocked out when I finally got to my bed – and then the bass rhythm started again…
On the 23rd of March we got a journalist from Maaseudun tulevaisuus -newspaper called Saara to join us for the morning and we really did some too relaxed birding with her. We started at the bushy desert at k26 but saw almost nothing except some migrating birds on the Jordanian side of the border.
Soon we moved to Eilat Mountains to raptor-watching but there were almost only Steppe Buzzards on the move. Only some Steppe and Booted Eagles were seen. There were again some TV-group interviewing people and I had to give a lecture about Finn-sticks once again. The best birds were Desert Larks, White-crowned Black Wheatears and a beautiful male Hooded Wheatear that came to drink water from a small cup that birders had filled like every morning. These birds had used to photographers so also we got some good pictures.
During the day we were resting at the motel while Mika and Eva surprisingly twitched an Oriental Skylark nearby. I’d have been interested to see it too but at least it was now checked and maybe it’d stay until the race. Anyway I was happy to get some rest too!
In the evening most of the race participants gathered to Agamim and at 3 p.m. to a bus and a long drive towards the Dead Sea started. Jonathan Meyrav was leading the trip to see some owls and nightjars. Only Mika was joining the trip from my team, but there were many other friends. Jonathan and Hadoram were telling some stories and I was talking with “Frenchy” so the time was going fast and in the early evening we stopped to an area with big acacias and started to search for Arabian Warblers.
I had walked only a couple of hundreds of meters from the bus when I saw an Arabian Warbler in a bush just in front of me. It flew to the next bigger tree when some other birders saw it too. Josh Jones saw it also well but then it somehow disappeared. We were searching for it or other Arabian Warblers for half an hour, but only several Eastern Orphean Warblers were found. Jonathan still saw one Arabian Warbler very briefly but most of the birders didn’t see this species at all.
It was getting dark when we continued a long way north to our next stop where we walked along a wadi for a couple of hundreds of meters before Jonathan gave us instructions to stay still about 10 meters from the edge and Jonathan, Hadoram and a couple of other local birders went to the edge. After some waiting Jonathan played some calls of an owl and soon we could hear a bird responding! Soon we heard the bird much closer and then Jonathan started to check the cliffs with his flashlight. And when he found the owl, he told us to come to the cliff and there it was – a legendary Desert Tawny Owl! The bird was perched about 80 meters from us but soon it flew towards us and landed only 30 meters from us! I managed to get a couple of pictures through my scope before Jonathan decided that we had seen it well enough and shut the flashlight. It was of course important not to disturb the bird.
Even the locals were amazed how well we had seen the bird. Hadoram was extremely happy too. This species had been just separated from Hume’s Tawny Owl and it was named after Hadoram as Strix hadorami. And this was the first time he saw the bird after that – and we really saw it well!
We continued towards south again and after some driving we arrived at one kibbutz area where Jonathan and a few other birders continued by car along a field road and we just waited next to the bus. After some time we heard that Jonathan had found the bird that we were searching for and started to walk after them. After some walking we found them but the bird was gone. Luckily when Jonathan started to scan the field with his flashlight, we saw the bird flying above the fields. It’s eye was reflecting the light and it was a small nightjar – a Nubian Nightjar!
The bird landed soon and we walked after it and found it perched on the road. I managed to get it to my scope but when I tried to get some pictures I somehow moved my scope. I soon found it again but then it flushed! It flew behind some green-houses but we didn’t find it again. Because of the cold night moth activity was very low so this was maybe the only nightjar around. Anyway we were extremely lucky that we had seen this rare bird that was already my second lifer in a couple of hours!
On the way back to Eilat I tried to sleep, but it was impossible because of the driver was speaking quite loud. Luckily we were in Eilat already at 1 a.m. and I got a ride to my motel from my British friends. Soon I was sleeping and luckily it was quiet downstairs…
The 24th of March was the last day before the Champions of the Flyway race. We started from the North Beach where a Western Reef Heron was again with some other normal birds. Together with Mika we headed next to Holland Park where weren’t that many birds anymore but some Rueppell’s Warblers, a Rufous Bush Robin and of course many other local birds.
During the day I had to get some sleep as the next day would be 24 hours birding! In the early afternoon Jonathan was giving tips and information about the race for all the teams. Also all teams gave tips to the other which was something very different than I have used to in other bird-races.
In the afternoon with Mika we still drove to check Elifaz pools where were a few Ferruginous Ducks and a Pochard and then we continued to Yotvata where we managed to twitch a Pied Wheatear, but soon we started to feel too tired and drove back to Eilat. We still checked the gulls in IBRCE pools and then went to eat very well to Agamim. And then it was time to go to sleep.
The 25th of March – Champions of the Flyway
After a few hours sleep we were back at Agamin at 11:45 p.m. All the keenest teams were there to begin their race at midnight. Team photos were taken and we also got the species lists and somehow we managed to be the first team to get out at 00:03 a.m.
From the IBRCE pools we managed to see Armenian and Lesser Black-backed Gulls and also an adult Pallas Gull with a flashlight. Heuglin’s or Caspian Gull weren’t identified. Then we continued to k19 -pool where we saw some herons and egrets including a Purple Heron. It wasn’t aloud to go to k20 at night, so we headed towards north. When we were driving the small roads towards the main road a small car started to follow us. And when we were on the main road it came very close and we started to worry what was going on. But then we realized that it was a TV-group that was videoing us.
At Yotvata we started to scan the fields with lights. A Stone Curlew was calling. We drove around the fields but found nothing. One man from the TV-group came to our car for some time and once we had dropped him, soon after that we heard a strange phone calls under Mika’s seat. Cameraman had dropped his phone to our car. Luckily we managed to get his phone back to him pretty easily without loosing too much time.
We continued towards north but saw only some foxes, jackals and several mice. In Mizpe Ramon we finally heard a Scops Owl and in one kibbutz we heard a Long-eared Owl that some other teams had also seen. A Robin was also calling there.
Before the sun was rising we were at Lake Jerokham where we started to get lots of new species. From the reeds we heard Sedge, Reed, Cetti’s and River Warblers, several ducks and herons and egrets and 2 Kingfishers were seen and some migrants were flying over us. Syrian Woodpeckers were found easily and Great Tits were singing and the best bird was a stunning Smyrna Kingfisher that flew over us.
All the teams had wireless internet working and a COTF whatsup group was up and it was told to tell all the better observations there. Unfortunately our battery had died and we didn’t get any messages. So we missed some birds that other teams found like a Little Bittern and that Brambling.
We got plenty of species like it always happens in a good place in the beginning of the race but after all we stayed for a little bit too long on Lake Yerokham. But finally we started to drive towards Sde Boker but still stopped several times on the way and saw some shrikes and a Long-legged Buzzard and some other species.
From the big fields we found Desert Finches, Skylarks, Linnets and so on and after a long wait we saw a Black-bellied Sandgrouse in flight. On the vulture-feeder we saw Egyptian Vultures but also a Wolf!
All the race-teams were able to get to Ben Gurion Valley free and there we met several other teams. Some team had put out news about a Cyprus Warbler there and we spent some time searching for it but then we heard that it was a mistake, there had been a Cyprus Wheatear and of course it had been in completely different biotope. Anyway we saw a Bonelli’s Eagle easily but a couple of Pale Rock Sparrows that flew over me were too fast and the others didn’t see them. But the time was ticking and no other new birds were seen.
In Midreshet parks we saw some Blackbirds and Song Thrushes and several Haw Finches and so on but we had expected to find more. We spent again quite a lot of time but finally managed to see a Lanner from the view-watching place.
In Mizpe Ramon we stayed far too long time without any good species. We tried to find a Hooded Wheatear that some French birders had seen but saw only a Mourning Wheatear that was already on our list.
We were badly late from our schedule but of course we had to make several stops on the way again. A Subalpine Warbler was seen but unfortunately a Lesser Grey Shrike that Mika found managed to disappear before we saw it with Jände.
In our well prepared desert place, Ha Mesar was a war going on! Israel army had a big training there and it wasn’t aloud to get out from the main road. So we really missed several species! Luckily we managed to see the same Bimaculated Larks again, before we hurried towards Yotvata – at least we had saved some time…
In Neot Smadar we saw some new species like a Booted Eagle, Meadow Pipits and a Grey Wagtail but in Yotvata we had no surprises as only Red-throated Pipits and Little Ringed Plovers were seen. With some more time there would’ve been more species but we were in a hurry!
We had hardly left Yotvata when we got once again a whatsup message that told that something had once again been found behind us – but this time it was a Black Bush Robin and in Yotvata sewage! It was a species that really had been difficult for me. We had already tried to find one in Holland Park and I hadn’t seen it in spring 2004 either even though we were in Eilat for almost 7 weeks. It was maybe the only spring in 21st century that this species wasn’t found at all. But now our schedule was too tight – we had to hurry towards Eilat.
We checked k20 pools quickly and found many of the easiest species that we needed and at IBRCE pools we managed to get Heuglin’s Gull, Red-necked Phalarope and Collared Pratincole. It was extremely windy so some species that should have been easy weren’t found. We had to skip Oriental Skylark fields as we had no time to get there and the same happened to Holland Park.
At North Beach we did evening seawatch, but saw only some of the species we had hoped to see. We really had expected to see also Pied Kingfisher, Cormorant and some more ducks. A Temminck Stint, a Rose-ringed Parakeet, a Caspian Gull and also a Western Reef Heron were luckily seen around the canal.
When it was getting dark we headed to k19 pools like almost every other team too. There were really lots of people as there were both international and national teams. Luckily Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouses came very soon and we could really see them well this time. When it was dark, also 2 Egyptian Geese arrived.
After this we decided to go to eat very well to Agamim again. Only after that we headed towards Yotvata again and luckily saw a Quail flying through the lights of our car. Nightjars or owls weren’t found so after a couple of hours trying we had to give up and head towards Eilat again. Mika was extremely tired but managed to drive safely back to Agamim where we gave our species-list to Jonathan. We were already sure that we hadn’t done that well in the race as we had lost far too much time in the beginning and the war in Ha Mesar had really paid us several species. And we didn’t feel that we had been as lucky as sometimes in the race that has gone well.
Soon we took Eva’s car and continued soon to Little Prince to sleep.
On the 26th of March all the teams gathered to the extremely North Beach where lots of group-photos were taken. A hydro-copter was taking videos and pictures while flying over us very low. But somehow the hydro-copter was lost! Strange that nobody really watched where it was going. It was really weird to see the photographers searching for it from the mine-field.
The results of the race were told in Hotel Hilton. There were of course many speeches first and I already wanted to leave to Yotvata sewage where hardest twitchers had already visited early in the morning and confirmed that the Black Bush Robin was still there! I had also woken up at 5 a.m. but felt so bad that I had just turned and continued sleeping.
The winner of the international race wasn’t a surprise. Americans won again but not that clearly as on the first race a year before. They had got “only” 168 species. Another Finnish team – Arctic Redpolls – was the second with 167 species. We were the third together with our Catalan friends Ferran lopez, Jose Luis Copete and Rafael Armada with 164 species.
When the results were given we headed to Yotvata with Mika and Jände. Eva went to twitch a Redwing that was much better Israel-species for him. It was again worst possible time to go to twitch a black bird that likes to hide in the shadows, but once we got to the sewage we met some birders that told that the bird was still there and showing well!
There were some birders about 25 meters from a big acacia-tree waiting for the bird to show up again. And soon we could see it moving under the tree! A huge stone dropped from my shoulders when I finally managed to see this amazing species! It was my WP-tick number 699!
The bird soon flew from the bush to another and went like this around the small pool and then flew back to the same bush. Then a big Dutch group arrived and they were too noisy. I had to tell them to shut up, so the bird might show much better and after a while it came well visible to the road indeed. But then someone started to talk again and it ran back to the shadows. After some more waiting it was back on the road again and finally I managed to get a couple of more focused pictures of it. We spent there more than an hour in very hot weather but weren’t happy to the pictures we had got. So we planned to come back one morning.
Anyway I was happy but also a little bit sorry that Jände was with us and not with Eva who had seen the Redwing that was missing on Jände’s long Israel-list.
There were other birds around the sewage too. A male Citrine Wagtail, Cretzschmar’s Buntings and Eastern Imperial Eagle were seen and a Bluethroat and a Great Reed Warbler were singing.
We drove around Yotvata fields too but saw almost nothing new. I saw a Namaqua Dove in flight but very briefly. Anyway we took lots of pictures of local birds that were showing very well like Black-headed Yellow Wagtail and a Kestrel
In the evening we were at the North Beach again and after that we went to eat together with Arctic Redpolls and BBRC Vagrants. It was a really fun evening and it was very late when we went to sleep.
On the 27th of March we were extremely tired but once we woke up we sent SMS to Eva and Mika – we wanted to go birding! Eva came pretty soon and we headed to Eilat Mountains.
It was pretty good migration and altogether 15000 Steppe Buzzards were counted during the morning. There weren’t many eagles but some of the Steppe Eagles came a little bit closer so I took some pictures of them. The same Hooded Wheatear was still showing well too. Somehow we had managed to drive cross with Mika and even though he was also raptor-watching, we didn’t see him at all – he was somewhere higher on the mountain.
It was an extremely hot day, even +39 degrees, so when Mika and Eva went to a late breakfast we fell asleep in our motel – and of course we slept too long! Luckily Mika was ready to pick us up soon after we finally woke up and we headed to the pools. We even tried to find the Redwing for Jände but only a unidentified small thrush was seen and once a promising call heard but it wasn’t enough. An Eastern Imperial Eagle was showing well at the pool and we got good pictures of Cattle Egrets and a Bushchat Shrike.
At k19 pool we found a dark Squacco Heron looking heron again. We had seen it only in flight before but this time we managed to get some pictures too. It is probably a strange looking Squacco but a pond heron could look something similar too… A flock of Night Herons was flying around and finally we managed to photograph Dead Sea Sparrows too. There were about 60 of them in one flock.
In the evening we were at the North Beach again. It was so quiet that we tried to twitch a Caspian Plover from IBRCE pools but we were some minutes late. It had already headed towards north. Later I went to eat with my British friends and it was very fun evening again.
On the morning of 28th of March we started from the North Beach where nothing new was seen. We continued to the pools and saw a couple of Namaqua Doves at IBRCE pools. At k20 more Marsh Sandpipers than before were seen and also 4 Red-necked Phalaropes and a Broad-billed Sandpiper. At k19 we managed to get pictures of those 2 Egyptian Geese.
Then we headed to twitch Striolated Buntings and Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouses that had been seen nearby. We managed to find the sandgrouses and photograph them pretty well from the car without disturbing them at all.
After a short break we continued to Neot Smadar where we checked the pools again but it was very quiet. It was once again very hot day so birds weren’t really showing. At Yotvata we saw plenty of harriers hanging towards north in a heavy northern wind. We counted more than 20 Marsh Harriers and saw the first Montagu’s Harrier of the trip in a half an hour. It was +34 degrees and sand on the air because of the wind so birding was really hard.
In the evening we met a group of Finnish birders at the North Beach. It was a good evening with a 2nd c-y White-cheeked Tern and a Little Tern.
On the 29th of March we woke up very early and headed to IBRCE ringing station before the sun was rising. Noam Weiss had asked us to come to visit there and it was a nice possibility to see how much the place had changed in 11 years since I had been there. Unfortunately the weather was really bad. It was windy again but also raining so we opened only a handful of mist-nets. And soon it started to rain more, so when we did the first round, we closed the nets right away. We caught some Lesser Whitethroats, a Reed Warbler and then a very interesting looking Stonechat. It really looked like a female Stejneger’s, but of course none of us had any experience of them. We took lots of pictures and also DNA-samples of it. Noam also alarmed local birders to twitch it. Maybe one day we hear what it really was?
After a short break we went to leave Eva’s car to an office as it was ok to leave it here in Eilat. Then we headed to the mountains again. The migration was pretty good and this time raptors were in good light so we got more pictures than earlier. About 7000 Steppe Buzzards were seen but also even 75 Steppe Eagles and some other eagles and so on.
At midday a big storm arrived from Egypt and it was lightning even in the mountains! It was a chaos down in the valley where Rafael Armada was in big problems while birding on the pools. It was flooding there and he had only a small car.
When the rain stopped we went to see if there were new birds on the pools. The roads were extremely slippery and it was really flooding by the pool, but luckily we had a good car. We found a nice flock of 85 Collared Pratincoles but not many other new birds.
After we had checked also IBRCE pools we ended the day at the North Beach.
On the 30th of March we started a long day very early. We packed our luggage to the trunk and drove to Ha Mesar plains. The place that we had missed in the race was a little bit quieter than we had expected but still we found easily a Bar-tailed Desert Lark, Scrub Warblers and a flock of Spotted Sandgrouses. The nest of Temminck’s Horned Larks was now ready and there were 3 eggs, but the birds had probably escaped when we arrived. We also saw a big brown falcon, but too far in the desert. Also a Wild Ass was found from the desert while scanning with the scope.
In Mizpe Ramon we tried to find an Eastern Black Redstart that had stayed around small football stadium for 6 years. Mika and Eva had seen it shortly in the race, but not third of us. We were checking every corner of the stadium but couldn’t find it. 2 Semi-collared Flycatchers were found on the park nearby.
In Wadi Negarot we found a drinking place for birds after some searching. We stayed there for some time but saw Sinai Rosefinches only in flight. They didn’t land to drink, but at least we saw a couple of these rare birds.
In Sde Boker we headed to Ben Gurion Valley with Mika while Jände and Eva stayed raptor-watching up on the view-watching place. With Mika we paid the ticket and drove down to the bottom of the valley and then walked along the valley and once we found the right place we stopped to wait. After a half of an hour a Bonelli’s Eagle arrived and soared in perfect light over us. Then it landed to its nest. We waited for some time to another bird to arrive. After we had got pictures of a Gyps Vulture too, we had to give up and start walking back to our car. Of course soon after that another bird arrived. Luckily the pair didn’t fly together so we didn’t miss amazing pictures.
Eva and Jände had already stopped raptor-watching and were waiting for us on the cafeteria. Soon we were on the road again and headed towards Ashkelon that was along the sea. We found pretty easily to Ashkelon National Park where we bought the tickets to get inside and soon found some birders there. The bird we were searching for had just flight down to the bigger trees that were inaccessible from where we were. So we just had to wait. Soon a local birder saw the bird in flight and coming towards us and landing to the bush right in front of us. Almost immediately we could hear strange whistling song from the bush – a Grey Hypocolius was singing actively! With Mika we managed to see the bird inside the bush and soon it jumped very well visible and I managed to get first pictures of it. Jände and Eva were on the wrong side of the bush so they still missed it but luckily after some waiting hypocolius perched to the top of the tree and everyone saw it very well. It was the first Israel-tick for Jände during the trip – but Eva had seen also this species earlier!
We stayed in the park for more than an hour and met a couple of local birder friends and helped them to see the bird too. Then we packed everything ready and left the park right after 6 p.m. The park was just closing and we were lucky to meet a guard on the gate that had just been locked. He let us go out. No idea what would’ve happened if we had come 5 minutes later?
Pretty soon we were closing Tel Aviv and Mika managed to get his phone-navigator work and we found easily to Europcar office. Soon we were in a van driving towards the airport. There we had hours to spend so we ate well and did some shopping and when the check in started we were queuing for a couple of hours. I don’t know why, but again I was checked in every single point extremely well, as has happened in every flight to and from Israel. And I hate to pack and unpack my back-bag that is extremely full.
Our flight left finally at 1:20 a.m. and I was sleeping almost the whole flight. In Helsinki-Vantaa we got our luggage easily and it was time to say goodbye and thanks to everyone. Soon I was sitting in my dad’s car and heading towards Kirkkonummi. And there I ate some breakfast and left birding! In the afternoon after a couple of hours sleeping, I started a long drive back home to Parikkala.
After all I had once again had amazing trip! I had seen altogether 222 species which about 20 of them were new Israel-ticks and 3 lifers – Desert Tawny Owl, Nubian Nightjar and Black Bush Robin. Thanks to Eva, Jände and Mika that you asked me to join you and to Jonathan and many other local birders that made a huge work to make everything to happen in Champions of The Flyway!