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Golan and North Israel, February 2019 (1 Viewer)

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
With a duration of just two-and-a-days, this proved to be an extraordinarily productive trip. The basic idea was to visit the Hula Valley for the amazing concentrations of wintering Cranes and other waterbirds, then travel up into the occupied Golan Heights, before dropping down to the Beit She'an area to look for birds around the superb fishpond systems.

This short trip truly exceeded expectations - not only seeing the impressive 50,000 Cranes at Hula, but also a whole bunch of other highlights, including Black Francolin, Dead Sea Sparrows, Great Spotted Cuckoo and no less than 19 Pallas's Gulls. Also saw Eastern Imperial, Steppe, Bonelli's and Great Spotted Eagles, plus a number of other targets, such as Vinous-breasted Starlings in the Tel Aviv area and False Apollo butterfly in the Golan Heights.

16 February. Tel Aviv and Ma'agan Micheal fishponds.

Flying into Tel Aviv mid-morning, thunderstorms either side, a sudden bang and the plane momentarily shuddered, lights flickering ...we had been hit by lightning, an eventful start to the trip! An hour later, Israeli immigration and car rental sorted, I was weaving my way through the city to Yarkon Park. In the shadow of gleaming office blocks, this patch of greenery has plonked itself on the birding itinerary primary for an exotic interloper - Vinous-breasted Starling. With an established population in the Tel Aviv area, Yarkon Park is supposed to be one of the most reliable localities for the species.

And so it was, a mere 15 minutes after leaving the airport, I was wandering through this park, city folk enjoying the Sabbath sunshine, me enjoying a surprising wealth of birds - a Syrian Woodpecker, several White-throated Kingfishers, a couple of White-spectacled Bulbuls, a Night Heron, umpteen ultra tame Hoopoes, these latter birds happily feeding mere metres from stomping feet. And then there were the exotica ... introduced species all, hordes of Common Mynas, flocks of Ring-necked Parakeets, quite a few Monk Parakeets, Egyptian Geese by a stream - exotica capital of the Middle East! As for the Vinous-breasted Starlings however, not a single one did I see in the hour I allotted to my search. Wishing to get up to Ma'agan Micheal fishponds, an hour north, I decided to call it quits and perhaps call in on Yarkon again on the way back to the airport.

Up at Ma'agan Micheal, the weather turned a little for the worst - a few rain squalls passing through, interspersed by periods of warm sunshine. Did make for some slippery tracks around the pools, but not bad birding - couldn't find any Pallas's Gulls, but ample compensation with quite a few Slender-billed Gulls, as well as a pretty impressive mixed flock of at least 70 Black Storks and 30 Spoonbills. Plenty more to keep me busy too, a few Pygmy Cormorants, three Water Pipits, several Pied Kingfishers, etc etc. Late afternoon however, with the weather looking even more iffy, we decided Ma'agan Micheal was not going to produce much more - time to drive 120 km to the north-east to the Hula Valley. Arrived after dark, stayed in a hotel just south of Agamon Hahula.

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
City park ...


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Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
That Golden Jackal.... flippin' 'eck, we only had distant views, obviously looking for them in the wilderness is doing it completely wrong

Quite a few in Yarkon Park, and not very timid at all, just slink off into the undergrowth if they realise you have seen them.

I like this shot of one watching me


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Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
17 February. Agamon Hahula and the Golan Heights.

Heavy rain overnight, clear skies at dawn, but a pretty thick fog cloaking the River Jordan. Two Egyptian Mongooses in the pre-dawn, though the lack of visibility scuppered any real hope of Jungle Cat, a mammal that is supposedly common around Hula. The sun broke through a little before 8.00 am, the day could begin! With Hula only opening an hour later, I started at fishponds just a few kilometres to the north - not a bad move, White Storks roosting on roadside pylons, two Ferruginous Ducks among mixed Pochard and Tufted Ducks, one Buff-bellied Pipit and, on the raptor front, one Long-legged Buzzard and one Great Spotted Eagle. An easy way to pass an hour, then it was time to head for the main venue for the day - Agamon Hahula.

Agamon Hahula is simply fantastic. An assault on the senses, a wall of sound hits you as you walk the kilometre or so from the entrance, a rising yodel of tens of thousands of Cranes ahead. And then you round the corner and the spectacle is complete, the greatest mass gathering of Common Cranes on planet earth. Attracted to the Jordan Valley by the advent of irrigation in the 1950s, the numbers have steadily risen ever since, the wintering population climbing into the tens of thousands. In order to prevent trampling of agricultural fields, effectively the biggest bird table in the world was established at Hula to attract the birds and avoid conflict with landowners. The result, the feast for the eyes and ears that now lay before me - a seething mass of 50,000 Cranes packed into a foraging area stretching a kilometre or so in each direction.

Can't claim I personally counted them, nor could I find a single Demoiselle Crane that was supposed to be hiding in their midst, but this was truly a moment to just pause and take on the atmosphere. Zigzagging through the middle, a tractor spreading grain, a mechanical Pied Piper with Cranes packed shoulder to shoulder behind. Added attractions, oodles of Glossy Ibises weaving between the legs of the Cranes, several Greater Spotted Eagles soaring overhead, White-throated and Common Kingfishers along an adjacent channel.

Later, I then walked the 9 km circuit around Agamon Hahula, Cranes constantly flying over, but plenty more too. Among the highlights, two Syrian Woodpeckers, one Bluethroat, a female Black Francolin and a Black-winged Kite. Also loads of Coypu (at least 40!) and quite a nice number of early season butterflies - Painted Ladies, Red Admirals and Small Whites. Rounding off this very fine visit to Hula, one Eastern Imperial Eagle appeared in the skies, a Greater Spotted Eagle also visible for nice comparison.

Ever since trips to Syria some years ago, I have wanted to visit the occupied Golan Heights. So, as mid-afternoon passed, so I crossed the River Jordan and climbed into the occupied territories, admiring some mighty fine butterfly habitat protected by means of mine fields. On the Golan, I headed for Gamla Nature Reserve, a splendid area of habitat on the edge of the escarpment, views down to the Sea of Galilee. Blue Rock Thrushes and Black Redstart around the ruins of an old Syrian village, Palestine Sunbirds just nearby, Little Swifts and Crag Martins around the cliff faces. With the sun shining, I however had wishes to look for butterflies - a few Small Whites and Painted Ladies already apparent. And then I struck it lucky, the one butterfly that I had hoped for, a very fine False Apollo. Highly mobile, but settling on warm slopes, this as a treat indeed - only my second ever encounter with this species.

Unfortunately, putting pay to anymore butterfly action, it then clouded over, an ominous storm brewing over the Sea of Galilee. This did however have an unexpected and very welcome consequence - within not very many minutes, massive birds appearing in the sky! Returning to roost on the Gamla cliffs, and flying at eyeball level, no less than 16 Griffon Vultures and three Eurasian Black Vultures, impressive! And, cherries on the cake, one Bonelli's Eagle with the vultures and a male Hen Harrier in the valley!

As rain began, we decided to depart. Adding Black-winged Kites and Southern Grey Shrikes in the process, south we went. Skirted the Syrian and Jordanian borders, cut down to the Sea of Galilee. Coffee and snacks in McDonald's in the heart of ancient biblical lands, then south to Beit She'an, arriving just as darkness fell.

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
World of Cranes


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Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
And other bits and bobs from Hula


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Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
And some big bods


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Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
18 February. Beit She'an and Tel Aviv.

Dotted around the Beit She'an area are the greatest concentrations of fishponds in Israel, all of which are superb for birds in winter. Decided to start my morning at the Kfar Ruppin fishponds, south of Beit She'an and abutting the Jordanian border. And superb it was - within minutes, I was passing through assorted pools full of birds, thousands of Teal, plenty of waders, plus several dozen Pygmy Cormorants (and Great Cormorants), a pod of 14 White Pelicans, an Osprey and a dozen Cranes sitting out on one drained pool. More, however, I was scanning the flocks of gulls. And in not much time, among Armenian Gulls, I found my targets - three Pallas's Gulls, two summer-plumaged adults, one immature. One of my main targets, and my first since a colony in Kazakhstan some years back, these were fine birds indeed.

Overhead, two Great Spotted Eagles circling at low altitude and, at the other end of the size scale, at least 15 Little Swifts consorting with Common Swifts. Egyptian Mongoose and Golden Jackals also here. As I explored wider, totalled a total of 15 species of waders, Temminck's Stints, Marsh Sandpipers and Wood Sandpiper included, plus loads of regular breeding species, highlights including Pied and White-throated Kingfishers, several Clamorous Reed Warblers and flocks of Spanish Sparrows.

What I wasn't finding however were Dead Sea Sparrows, another species I very much wanted to see. In attempt to remedy this, I left the main area of Kfar Ruppin fishponds and headed along dirt tracks for a couple of kilometres to the west, basically heading towards Tirat Zvi fishponds. Further small fishponds along this way, supporting both Night Herons and Purple Herons, but more importantly, a lot of tamarisk scrub, preferred habitat of the Dead Sea Sparrows. Quickly found flocks of Spanish Sparrows, and dozens of White-spectacled Bulbuls ...all was looking food. And then, after umpteen Spanish Sparrows, the much desired one - setting into the top of a dense clump, a small flock of neater more compact sparrows. Quick look with the binoculars and there they were, 13 smart Dead Sea Sparrows, a nice mix of males and females. Very flighty unfortunately, they certainly were not keen on getting in front of the camera, generally either settling on the opposite side if bushes or plunging into the depths of the tamarisk. Very nice birds however, and nicely complimented by a Wryneck appearing in the same bush.

On route to Tirat Zvi, came across a massive flock of at least 600 Black Kites, most still at roost on the arms of sprinkler systems in agriculture fields, many others rising to thermal in the morning sunshine. I presume this was an early migratory flock, but either way, abundant Black Kites remained a feature for the rest of the day. At Tirat Zvi, more Pygmy Cormorants, one Great Spotted Eagle, at least 70 Spoonbills and, among hundreds of White Wagtails, one very nice male Citrine Wagtail and several Water Pipits. The absolute highlight however was yet more Pallas's Gulls, a flock of 16 very smart summer-plumaged adults sitting amongst Black Storks and Glossy Ibises.

Perhaps equally amazing was the sheer quantity of herons and allies across the two fishpond systems - estimated minimums of 650 Grey Herons, 250 Great White Egrets, close to 100 Little Egrets and no less than 120 Black Storks! Also had about 20 White Storks.

With sunshine dominating, thought it would be the good to then check out the nearby Mount Gilboa for butterflies ...not exactly successful, I managed a grand total of three species - Small White, Orange Tip and Painted Lady - before a stubborn cloud sat itself across the mountain!! Did however see a Steppe Eagle and, better still, a fine Great Spotted Cuckoo. Also managed 12 Mountain Gazelles at this locality. With that cloud hugging the summit of Gilboa and the surrounding vistas still basking in sunshine, I rapidly decided upon a new idea - back to Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv.

And so it was, one hour later I was once again parking at Yarkon. And in total contrast to my previous visit, a mere five minutes later, I was looking at my primary target - Vinous-breasted Starling. And not just one, but a cracking flock of 14 feeding in a small orange plantation at the very west of the park. Associating with Common Mynas, these were smart birds indeed. Stayed with them a half hour or so, then explored the park again - plenty of Ring-necked and Monk Parakeets again, bit one notable addition - a Striated Heron, not a species I expected away from the Red Sea.

And so ended this mini trip to Israel, watched sunset over the Mediterranean adding Sandwich Tern and Sanderling to the trip list, then headed to a hotel.

19 February. Tel Aviv.

Early morning departure, a scatter of city birds seen en route to the airport - White-spectacled Bulbuls, Egyptian Geese, Ring-necked Parakeets, etc.

Trip over, numerous species of birds seen, the highlights being the mass of Cranes, the smart summer-plumaged Pallas's Gulls and, naturally, the much sought-after Vinous-breasted Starlings. With a nice mix of mammals also seen, plus False Apollo butterfly, a successful trip I deemed it.

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
Beit She'an area...


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Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
Bar potential Nubian Nightjar, the only species of bird in Israel that would have been new for me was the rather nice exotic that has established itself in the Tel Aviv area ...so it was, a pleasing end to the trip, the flock of Vinous-breasted Starlings


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Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
An excellent smash and grab raid. There’s a lot to be said for fishponds.

Well done on seeing the Dead Sea Sparrows. I remember dipping on them in Jordan during some training with Birdlife International. Every morning and afternoon session of the one week course we had to fill in a rather tedious feedback form:

Q. What is your main objective for the module?
A. To see Dead Sea Sparrow on the field trip

Q. How did you plan to achieve this objective?
A. Join the field trip and search for Dead Sea Sparrows

Q. Were you able to achieve this objective?
A. No. No Dead Sea Sparrows were seen

Q. What recommendation would you give for improving this learning module?
A. Easier Dead Sea Sparrows.

Thankfully the senior trainer had a sense of humour, and of proportion - No more feedback forms were distributed after that!

Still need Dead Sea Sparrow ....

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Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
Excellent Mike, nice feedback form.

I can confirm that Dead Sea Sparrows are indeed a worthy enough goal to have a training module improved for :)

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