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A Brief Dip in the Drizzle in Israel - 6th to 10th February 2020 (1 Viewer)

Paul Chapman

Well-known member
With a few local birders, I have a May trip in the diary but had nothing else fixed for the year.

Cafebirder had been scoping a northern owl weekend but hadn’t quite pulled the logistics together successfully. Similarly, I had wanted to pull together a short Dutch trip with a plethora of WP ticks originally available to push my WP list up from a stagnating 791 closer to 800 (Little Whimbrel, Bar-headed Goose, Black Swan, Alexandrine Parakeet & Vinous-throated Parrotbill). But again nothing had fallen in line mainly as my thoughts were dwelling on non bird-related things against a background of stories of distant views and then the main prize had departed as my mind cleared.

So with patch birding seeming grey and wet, when news came through of Pharaoh Eagle Owl and Egyptian Nightjar at Yotvata on 10th January, Cafebirder suggested a short break in Israel to get some sun and see some birds. I fancied the break but with three previous trips to Israel – between 14th February and 29th March – and a cumulative 235 species from those trips, there were plenty of good birds to relish but little new to target. This was a holiday not a trip for WP additions.

My three possible new birds were:-

Pharaoh Eagle Owl – a bogey species now missed from Kuwait, Israel, Morocco & Western Sahara. By the time of departure, ebird showed sightings from the southern date palms at Eilat on 24th (two) and 30th January (one). However, there had also been several stories of dips from Yotvata in poor weather.

Basalt Wheatear (dark morph Mourning Wheatear) – there had been seven individuals seen in the Uvda valley in January but as with last winter, there appeared to have been a bit of a clearout from mid January onwards.

Cyprus Warbler – there had been several sightings from the southern wadis but sightings were generally relatively thin on the ground. I am told that they occur on Cyprus and I now needed to go there for an owl in any event.…….. That seemed a better plan.
 

Paul Chapman

Well-known member
We had a combined small window available from 6th to 10th February. Too small perhaps? But Cafebirder was keen, agreed the dates and kindly sorted the flight and car hire details. We ruled out getting across to the Dead Sea or Nizzana in such a short window and instead concentrated on fitting some birding around arriving mid afternoon on 6th February and departing on the evening of 10th February. We decided on a first night at Beer Sheeva, two nights at Eilat and a final night to be fixed probably back at Beer Sheeva.

In preparation, I had finished my trip report from February 2019 and been carefully reviewing ebird in addition to a brief exchange with Yoav Perlman. Ebird had revealed various checklists from Steve Arlow but most helpful was a kind 2020 update from him on last year’s trip report thread on 6th February and a direct message from him that evening with various GPS co-ordinates.

Thursday 6th February – having left Luton Airport early in the morning, we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport mid-afternoon. I’ve had swift exits from airports but I’ve also had slow ones. This was the latter. A change of work shift in immigration, delays on car hire, etc sucked the time out of the day. We had hoped to make Urim by dusk – about one and a quarter hour’s travelling away – but as we did not get away from the airport until after 4.30pm this became a vain hope. We had hired a local phone through the car hire and intended to use the SatNav app Waze but as the passenger with responsibility, I was making an absolute fist of its operation despite using it last year successfully. Cut a long story short, we switched to Google Maps shortly after going through an automatic unmanned electronic barrier on a side road drifting down the coast in the inevitable direction of the Gaza strip…… We concluded simply trusting technology without knowing where we were no longer seemed sensible.

The settings of no toll roads and no freeways (which I had finally found and turned off) had turned the difficult into the unlikely into the comedy into the chaotic and finally into the worrying……..

In short, day none finished with a trip list of ten with roadside Laughing Dove, Hooded Crow & Common Myna the only reminders that the urban landscape was actually somewhere exotic. This was always in reality a four day trip and that was now definitely the case with day none having evaporated. We had booked a hotel in Beer Sheva. The exchange rates over the years have made Israel a destination which is about twice as expensive as only seven years ago and this was a nice urban hotel on the expensive side. It was found relatively smoothly by Google Maps and Cafebirder’s driving. It was made more economic by picking up a buffet dinner for free. I like to think that being polite to the staff meant that our room number didn’t find the list to reception when we checked out.
 
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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
Friday 7th February – we had breakfast with our booking and the previous day had been a long one so a substantial buffet breakfast at 6.30am was the order of the day. I was on holiday. The first Cattle Egrets reminded us of home and Somerset. Ok. Not quite. No Cattle Egret colonies in the trees in central Taunton just yet but it can only be a matter of time.

We headed south towards Sde Boker and picked up the first Black Kites of the trip and once we were on Route 40 proper, the first group of Tristram’s Grackles. We got to Sde Boker shortly before 8.00am. We spent a little while around the Kibbutz itself and then took the turning off the approach road towards the cemetery to check the north fields. The kibbutz produced the first Spur-winged Plovers, White-spectacled Bulbuls and Palestine Sunbirds as well as more Tristram’s Grackles. A single Blackcap, Robin and Blackbird reminded us that it was quite overcast, damp and distinctly windy…… The fields yielded the first Crested Larks and a Great Grey Shrike.

We moved to check the fields to the south. We took the turning alongside the garage and a track south. A male European Stonechat was the first of many for the trip. At no point did I pause to check any of them having got the feel of a Siberian Stonechat but that may have simply been carelessness on my part. A group of Spanish Sparrows were joined by three Desert Finches including a newly fledged bird that appeared to be being fed. The fields seemed dusty and barren so we decided to go back to the main road and see if we could find a way to get close to the sewage ponds and slightly better looking fields.

After a couple of hundred metres having driven past the sewage ponds on the left, we managed to bump down onto a track which bent back round to the sewage ponds. A few common waterbirds were added and the bushes, fence line and nearest fields provided a group of five Desert Finches with Linnets and Sparrows as well as our first Rock Martins, Scrub Warbler and Arabian Babbler. Additionally, Hoopoe, Bluethroat and Graceful Prinia were seen. Two Brown-necked Ravens over the fields drew my attention to our first two Golden Jackals of the trip. This was pleasing for Cafebirder as Golden Jackals had managed to elude him until our last day in Georgia.

Pics attached – Palestine Sunbird x 2; Desert Finches x 2; & Tristram’s Starling
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
More pics attached – Spur-winged Plover; White-spectacled Bulbul; Great Grey Shrike; Crested Lark; & Linnet
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
We had spent a productive couple of hours in the area so headed south to stop for a coffee and a wander at the Ben Gurion Memorial Park. In short, it was mainly pretty quiet. The weather was still pretty miserable and windy. Our first Sardinian Warbler proved not to be its Cypriot cousin but that was a theme with which I was already very familiar from earlier trips. A couple of Bramblings matched the weather as did supporting trip additions of Raven, Chiffchaff and Greenfinch. The park always guarantees the showiest Blackstarts and they didn’t disappoint but sadly, we could not find any Syrian Serins.

Pics attached – view from Ben Gurion Memorial Park; Blackstart x 3; & Brambling
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
More pics attached – Brown-necked Raven; Laughing Dove; Common Myna; Hooded Crow; & White Wagtail
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
The weather had deteriorated even further by a lunch stop at Mitzpe Ramon when the heavens opened. A flyover group of Tristram’s Grackles is the only thing that should have made my notebook. We pressed on to Hameishar Plains where our main target of the day was to look for the Thick-billed Larks for which Steve Arlow had kindly provided GPS co-ordinates. This was a firing range to which there was be strictly no access outside Friday or Saturday.

It was about 1.00pm as we pulled up at the nearest point on the road to the co-ordinates. We then noticed a group of about twenty birders walking across the area with bins and scopes and a coach slowly moving along the road to meet them in a layby. We drove up and pulled alongside as they arrived. The customary greeting – ‘Anything about?’ – led me to be directed to their leader. Perhaps I should have said – ‘Take me to your leader.’ You live and learn.

A chap who I later learned was Jonathan Meyrav (from the ebird checklist posted) told us stories of sandgrouse, larks and even a Macqueen’s Bustard. (I still so want to write Houbara…..) But they had found no Thick-billed Larks. He suggested that we take the turning, park up and walk back from there. He said that they had been hampered by the weather. The wind was now absolutely whistling.

We drove the first bit of the road and it produced a male Desert Wheatear, two Mourning Wheatears and the briefest of brief Bar-tailed Larks. We parked up and headed out. I carried on endeavouring to zoom in on Steve’s GPS co-ordinates. Another Great Grey Shrike, Spectacled Warbler, Blackstarts and Stonechats followed but they were meagre pickings. Only one Skylark and several Cresteds was the lark return. Were we ignoring birds or were we suffering from arriving just too late after an area had just been covered thoroughly or was it the weather?

Cafebirder and I were only fifty yards apart when I picked up the first Thick-billed Larks. I shouted at the top of my voice. Cafebirder has some of the sharpest ears in birding I know just one rank down from the absolute best. Indeed, he has the initials to prove it with a first for Britain to his name picked up on call. But the wind was defeating us. He could not hear me. Eventually, he thought he heard me bellowing and turned around. I stopped bellowing and gestured which he didn’t see and as the bellowing had stopped, he turned around again. I started bellowing again. This continued. After a comedy routine that Laurel and Hardy would have been proud of, we eventually got ourselves in the same place together watching the Thick-billed Larks.

We tried to get ahead of the larks as they worked their way feeding in a loose flock in the strong winds but our first attempt failed. The larks wheeled around and then dropped down again. On the second effort, the plan worked perfectly. They carried on walking towards us until as we were sat on the stony ground, the birds bisected us and carried on their way feeding as they went. A fantastic experience. I was now very glad that I had made the trip despite yesterday’s navigational incompetence and the weather trying to do an impersonation of the Kingston Seymour seawall on an unpleasant winter’s day.

In slightly over two hours, in addition to the birds, we had seen at least three Gazelles.

Pics attached – Thick-billed Lark x 5
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
A few more pics attached – Mourning Wheatear; Desert Wheatear; Great Grey Shrike; European Stonehat; & Gazelle
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
The next site was a wadi at the south end of the Uvda valley to look for Basalt Wheatear. On the way, a quick stop took in a Long-legged Buzzard alongside Route 40. Again, the GPS co-ordinates for the wadi were from Steve and absolutely spot on. We arrived at 4.00pm. The conditions however were horrible. The same comedy routine of birding with a friend in high winds ensued. I had an Asian Desert Warbler and a couple of Mourning Wheatears but we could not find a Basalt. Communication was pretty much impossible more than a few yards apart.

We wanted to try that night for Pharaoh Eagle Owl at Yotvata on our way to Eilat and pulled up at the services just after 5.00pm. It was the Sabbath but even then, I was surprised that the services were shut. We drove on to have a quick look at the north circular fields (where I had previously seen Egyptian Nightjar in 2013). A few Swallows were the first of the trip. Whether it was the weather or the fact that we were a week earlier, this struck home that it seemed far less birdy than last year’s trip when so many hirundines and swifts were in evidence. A male Hen Harrier was a nice sight. We parked up and waited till dusk.

It is fair to say that Cafebirder and I have had limited success with spotlighting. Probably our lowlight was in the Western Sahara. Time spent spotlighting when camping at Oued Jenna revealed what we could only identify as a domestic cat and a bunny. We thought that we had hit rock bottom that night but then the next night, I was sitting outside my tent at Gleib Jidane as I looked out in front of me to see Cafebirder criss-crrossing the area with his spotlight sweeping backwards and forwards. At one point, a domestic dog appeared from the bushes. It trotted across the plain, sniffed Cafebirder’s backside from what looked like five feet away and then turned round and disappeared back into the bushes. When Cafebirder returned to camp, I asked him whether he was concerned about the dog. The answer? He hadn’t seen it. But time to move from reminiscences of past dips to more recent ones.

Maybe an hour and a half of spotlighting followed. Suffice to say, we dipped Pharaoh Eagle Owl at Yotvata and planned to return the next night. We headed into Eilat, secured our accommodation and headed out for dinner.

Pics attached – Long-legged Buzzard x 4; & Mourning Wheatear
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
Friday 8th February – we left the hotel at 5.30am to the sound of House Crows adding themselves to our year lists. Last year, I had finally connected with Sinai Rosefinch on my third attempt. Amram’s Pillars was a location with which I was familiar. It would be a tick for Cafebirder. We had pretty much got our timing right and as we headed in along the track from the road, we stopped to enjoy some Gazelles. We were pretty much arriving at dawn.

Pics attached – Gazelles x 5
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
As I say, I was familiar with the site but for some reason directed Cafebirder to go left at the fork. As we headed down the adjacent wadi, I realised my mistake. We were picking up most of the expected species any way – Hooded Wheatear, White-crowned Black Wheatear, Mourning Wheatear, Scrub Warbler, Blackstart, Palestine Sunbird, Desert Lark, Tristram’s Starling, etc – but we were targeting Sinai Rosefinch and dipping. We turned round and this time took the correct route.

Run the same play reel with the same species but this time sporting bird rings! As we approached the usual watering/feeding area, there were some small finches. We thought that we were in business! That feeling lasted moments as we realised that it as a good group of Trumpeter Finches. However, shortly afterwards, we picked up our first Sinai Rosefinch. Originally, I sat down and watched the very confiding birds in and around the rocks. Cafebirder took the car up to the watering/feeding area about fifty yards further on. We carried on enjoying the birds that came and went. Eventually, I ended up sitting outside in the shadow of the car with the luxury of photographing the birds at close range at 1/2000th of a second at low ISO in good light. A very pleasant hour indeed was spent.

Pics attached – Sinai Rosefinches x 5
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
A few more pics attached – Amram’s Pillars feeding area (Hooded Wheatear, Trumpeter Finch & Sinai Rosefinches); Hooded Wheatear; WCB Wheatear x 2; & Scrub Warbler
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
A few more pics attached – Trumpeter Finches x 2; Sand Partridge x 2; & Desert Lark
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
Afterwards, we headed back towards Eilat. We took a quick coffee break at the garage along Route 90 above the roundabout after the IBRCE roundabout. A pleasant period produced our first Ring-necked Parakeet of the trip but no Oriental Honey Buzzards rising out of the date palms either to cross to Jordan or to fly over our heads to the botanical gardens behind us!

We decided to have a potter around IBRCE and arrived there at 9.15am. Highlights were Marsh Sandpiper, Purple Heron and Bluethroat. Other trip additions included the likes of Greater Flamingo, Ruff, Green Sandpiper and Redshank. Getting bearings around IBRCE was very odd. The hides were missing and there were simply wooden bases in their place. This had clearly effected the birds and significantly increased the disturbance. I later found out that the hides had been promised to have been replaced by now but there were delays.

A good catch up and some advice was secured from very helpful people at the centre. The Basalt Wheatears may have cleared out, the Pharaoh Eagle Owls at the southern date palms had been seen around the fields, the Oriental Honey Buzzards could generally be seen drifting around, Kibbutz Samar was best for Black Bush Robins but they had also been seen at the entrance to the Hai Bar Reserve entrance and further, we picked up the GPS co-ordinates for a male Cyprus Warbler seen the previous day in the wadi behind Eilot. I had a vague recollection of shoving a minibus out of the sand in that wadi in 2010 in the dark. I can’t remember why. Say no more……

The plan was that Eilot wadi first. We had been warned that the track was interesting but what was so difficult was working out what was meant to be the track. There are so many dune buggies around nowadays that there were tracks everywhere. A long story short, we followed a track where the rocky sides gradually rose until they were higher than the car. They then narrowed to only just wider than the car. We stopped and I walked ahead. We simply would not get the car out the other end of the gulley. Time for reverse. During the exercise which probably cost us an hour, I picked up a couple of Green Bee-eaters.

We abandoned that Cyprus Warbler plan and headed on to Kibbutz Samar where we found that the gate was shut. As a result, we popped across the road to the entrance to the Hai Bar Nature Reserve arriving at 11.20am. It seemed quite busy with Oryx and Ostrich admirers but we failed to find any Black Bush Robins though we did have a Hooded Wheatear for our efforts.

However, we had the GPS co-ordinates for a wadi in the Uvda valley where three Cyprus Warblers had been seen – though Steve had dipped. So that was our next stop. En route, we picked up another Arabian Babbler. In the wadi, in an hour from about 1.00pm, a few Crimson Speckleds, Scrub Warbler, Blackstart and a couple of White-crowned Black Wheatears including a bird with an almost fully black crown kept us entertained while we satisfied ourselves that the Cyprus Warblers if still present were not going to show in what again were very windy conditions.

We headed to the wadi that we had checked yesterday for Basalt Wheatear arriving at 2.15pm. As we drove in, we quickly picked up an all black wheatear with white undertail coverts. However, a bit of careful watching revealed that it was yet another black-crowned White-crowned Black Wheatear. So we moved on to the precise co-ordinates and walked the wadi – Scrub Warbler, Sardinian Warbler, Spectacled Warbler and Blackstarts. The wind was howling but that actually finally proved to our advantage when I finally picked up the Basalt Wheatear. It was balancing spreading its tail with a complete black tail band and spreading its wings showing its pale wing bases. It was flighty in the conditions but I secured a couple of photos – one of which showed the tail pattern. Just a colour morph but the first new bird of the trip for me.

We had chatted about where to dip Pharaoh Eagle Owl later and decided on the southern date palms so we did not have a great deal of time available. A short stop in the Uvda valley added Tawny Pipit and as we drove along Route 40, an adult Imperial Eagle added itself to the trip list. We arrived back at the southern date palms area at 4.25pm. We checked the track as far as the North Beach channel and then back to the IBRCE. Trip additions were Marsh Harrier, Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls, Grey Heron, Little Egret, Black-winged Stilt, Egyptian Goose, Sparrowhawk, Night Heron and Common Snipe. Quite birdy. As we parked outside the IBRCE, a Bluethroat hopped around under the car as it became dark.

So time for the next spotlighting attempt. Again, we put about an hour and a half in. A couple of reflections and shapes and then a pair of eyes. It was obviously a mammal and we identified it as a domestic cat in accordance with previous tradition as it disappeared. Another check of the fields and the tracks around the date palms and then back to the same location as before where we picked up eyeshine again. Parking our usual incompetence to one side, we successfully spotlighted a couple of Golden Jackals hunting the fields. This was success. We had spotlighted and identified something. In other news, of course, we dipped Pharaoh Eagle Owl of which there was no sign! Dinner, hotel and bed.

Pics attached – Basalt Wheatear; Imperial Eagle; Rock Martin; WCB Wheatear; & Caspian Gull
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
Sunday 9th February – the day started around 7.30am at Eilat North Beach. Highlight was an adult and a near-adult Western Reef Heron that showed nicely. A few trip additions with ten Slender-billed Gulls, Caspian Tern, Great White Egret, Pied Kingfisher, Common Sandpiper and Sand and House Martins.

Pics attached – Western Reef Heron x 5
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
A few more pics attached – House Crow x 2; Great White Egret; Common Sandpiper; & Yellow-legged Gull
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
We headed to the IBRCE in the hope of overflying raptors. A pleasant hour was spent with the usual cast from the day before with Marsh Sandpiper and Bluethroat the highlights but no overflying raptors for our efforts.

Pics attached – Rock Martin x 2; Marsh Sandpiper; Bluethroat; & Little Grebe
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
We decided not to head down to the Dolphin Reef so no year-ticking White-eyed Gull for us but we did want to pop into K19 and K20 on the way north. From 10.15am, K19 was bird-filled with 250 duck (40 Shoveler, 10 Pintail and 200 Teal) and 40 Great White Egret. A Marsh Harrier buzzed around and a smart looking Common Buzzard was causing havoc amongst hundreds of pigeons. We then moved on to K20 which again was birdy. Most notable were two Hooded and an Isabelline Wheatear but Shelduck, Dunlin and Little Stints were other trip additions.

Pics attached – Hooded Wheatear; Slender-billed Gull; Great White Egrets; Little Stints (& Dunlin); & Common Buzzard
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
After those stops. we arrived at Kibbutz Samar at 11.50am. The gen from Steve and also on site was that in contrast to last year, the best place to look for the Black Bush Robins was the horse field rather than the jungle. Cafebirder eventually dug out the Black Bush Robin. He got a snap - https://twitter.com/howardtaffs1/status/1226555123956113409v - but I was not quick enough on the draw. It is a species that I have photographed a couple of times before but I still kicked myself. Otherwise Black Redstarts were a trip addition and Hoopoe, Green Bee-eaters, Tristram’s Grackles, Bluethroats, Blackstart, Palestine Sunbird and Spanish Sparrows passed the time very pleasantly.

With the conditions having scuppered us a bit with larks and sandgrouse, the plan for the rest of the day was heading back to the Uvda valley and then up through the Ramon crater to finish the day back at the same hotel at Beer Sheva. It was cold and windy and most of the time it was damp. The first stop in the Uvda valley at 2.30pm provided highlights of six Arabian Babblers, Bluethroat, Sardinian Warbler, Black Redstart, Blackstart, White-crowned Black Wheatear and ten Trumpeter Finches but no more unusual larks, sandgrouse or Cyprus Warbler.

Apart from a hail storm and a couple of rainbows as the wind raged, the rest of the afternoon was pretty much spent laughing at our luck with the weather and stopping as we headed north but seeing nothing at all of note! As dusk fell, we stopped briefly at the Sde Boker Sewage Ponds where there were thirty Shoveler and presumably the same two Golden Jackals.

The journey to the same hotel in Beer Sheva went smoothly enough. On arrival this time, I mentioned dinner when paying for the room. A mistake. The price was exorbitant and as a result, simply the reaction of the look on my face led to the price immediately being halved without me saying a word. A truly bizarre experience. Any way. Dinner, beer and bed.

Pics attached – Rainbow in the Ramon crater; Green Bee-eater; Palestine Sunbird; Bluethroat; & reminiscence shot of Black Bush Robin from 2013
 

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Paul Chapman

Well-known member
Monday 10th February – we needed to be at Tel Aviv airport around 5.00pm to return our hire car and check in for our flight. Up for a buffet breakfast at 6.30am, we were away and heading for Mount Amasa. En route, White-throated Kingfisher in the outskirts of Beer Sheva and Chukar from Route 31 were trip additions for me. We arrived at Mount Amasa at 8.30am. It was cold, windy and drizzling. We checked the area near the top and then the slopes lower down. We got wet. Very wet. It was very reminiscent of the last time I had wandered along the seawall with Cafebirder at home.

That said, Chukars were common with at least twenty and trip additions included Jay, Great Tit, twenty Woodlark, a female Blue Rock Thrush, six Chaffinch and at least three Finsch’s Wheatears – a female and two males. Despite being drenched, Cafebirder likes pipits. He had got stuck in and picked up the song of a Long-billed Pipit. He came and found me and so we headed back to the spot in the hope of the weather brightening. After another twenty minutes or so with nothing, we had decided that it was madness. We started walking back to the car and instantly, Cafebirder called Long-billed Pipit as two flew over giving a distinctive ‘chupp’. Job done. Not the sunny stroll improving on my 2013 Lahav photos that I had wanted but job done nevertheless.

Pics attached – Mount Amasa; Finsch’s Wheatear; Woodlark; Blue Rock Thrush; & Chukar
 

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