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Israel December 2018 (1 Viewer)

opisska

Jan Ebr
Poland
As we do not celebrate Christmas and New Year in any form or shape, the holiday season provides convenient "free" vacation days, which we have for the last two years dedicated to WP birding (Morocco in 2016, Kuwait in 2017). This idea seemed to be running out of steam because a lot of our remaining WP targets aren't available in winter (and Christmas tickets to Cape Verde were insanely expensive) - until we noticed that Israel still probably has a lot to offer and swiftly booked plane tickets. Only afterwards we researched possible targets and realized that this was indeed a pretty good idea.

Our main source of inspiration was the amazing report by Ben MacDonald supported by several other reports (some from Czech birders) and up-to-date information that started popping up in my originally Desert-owl-focused thread; particular recognition goes to wolfbirder who has compiled a very useful list of recent tips with some very specific sites and continued providing "ground support" for us during the time in the field. Ben MacDonald himself also gave me some tips on the owls - his reply was purposefully cryptic to make it more fun, which worked quite well and I did appreciate it in retrospect.

We went in the usual party of me and my wife, took flights to/from Poland with Ryanair and Wizzair and rented a small car with CalAuto - a company I can't really recommend due to the dirty car, rude staff and them charging me for "not enough fuel" on return after spending it by needlessly idling the engine on the parking. The trip cost us roughly 650 EUR per person for the 12-day adventure; a lot of the money was spent on gas needed to cover the 3500 kms that we drove around - maybe a little surprisingly in such a small country, but some of it was forced by weather and second attempts on species.

We have been to Israel three times already (twice including Jordan), including one birding-focused trip during spring migration in 2016, thus we have had a lot of local specialties already under our belts. From the rest we made a list of 18 target species - 5 "sure", from which we missed one (Vinous-breasted Starling), 5 "likely" where we also found all but one (Syrian Serin) and 8 remotely possible rarities, from which we got only Black Scrub-robin. Additionally during the trip, reports of two unplanned birds appeared and we twitched them (Hume's warbler and African Swamphen). At this point, 11 WP ticks is a huge success for us and the trip brought me just 6 species shy of 1st place among Czech WP listers! Moreover, with 140 species overall, this was the second richest WP trip we have ever done (topped only by 152 species in Morocco) and was even better than the previous Israel migration trip (which was however much shorter in duration and did not include the opulent waterbird sites in the north). The number is the more impressive when you consider that we are terrible birders overall, we can't distinguish most of the calls being totally tone deaf and we did not really go out of our way to see any birds that we already had on our lists, so most non-target birds are just accidental observations.

Instead of giving a boring diary of us driving there and back across the Holy Land, I will provide accounts for the individual target species in order of appearance in the trip:

Desert Owl - during my pre-trip research, the owls went from "ha ha you wish" to the main target of the trip. I was honestly willing to forgo doing anything else and look for them for as long as it would have proven necessary. After 8 hours of alternating waiting and hiking in the first night, it indeed seemed that it would be the case, but the second night brought us a very clear, if brief, contact with the extremely typical call. Overall, we have spent 15 hours looking for the owls over the two nights and hiked around 25 kilometers. That experience alone was fantastic, because the full Moon turned the already amazing landscapes of the Mishmar and Ze'elim wadis into something beyond my grasp of the English language. We have found the owls in neither of these obvious sites and were only successful in the area suggested by Ben MacDonald, which I am not going to disclose out of respect to the privacy of his advice. Ironically, the only site where we heard the owls is next to a tarmac road and thus all the hiking turned out to be just a good exercise. That also allowed us to easily re-visit the site a week later, only to once again be met with several hours of deafening silence. The conclusion is that the Desert Owl is indeed possible to locate independently but it is definitely not easy! It however also needs to be said that this activity is not strictly legal, or at least not encouraged by the authorities, as there are signs at each of the wadis asking people to not move around at night. As we never met any other birders (or nobody at all, during the night) in the area, I believe the pressure here isn't too high yet, but we will probably never be coming back in another attempt to actually see the owls out of respect for their peace. In this regard, it might be even a good idea to publicize the site where we heard them, because there they can be listen for directly from a road that gets nighttime traffic anyway.

Spotted Sandgrouse - when I first read in Hadoram Shirihai et. al's Guide to Birding Hotspots of Southern Israel about the activity of "sandgrouse sitting", that is, spending the mornings watching mostly pigeons drink sewage, it seemed silly, but it since became a somewhat favorite pastime of ours. Thus I was a little nostalgic when it came to a conclusion of sorts on this trip, as the Spotted Sandgrouse was the final missing of the 5 WP species. First, we tried for them in Iddan, a places everyone raves about, but with no success - a situation that repeated itself later in Mitzpe Ramon (the sewage pool several kms beyond the football pitch). Even the cold, foggy and birdless morning in Ovda didn't look very promising at first and given it was the morning of day 6 and we were still sitting at just one new species (no matter how great of a catch Desert Owl is), we felt a little demotivated - but a little behind the famous "black hills", we noticed the obvious call and after climbing out of the valley, we located a flock on the ground quite close to us. As it happens, once a species that has eluded for a long time appears at one location, it starts popping up everywhere - indeed, we have seen another flock later overhead when looking for Asian Desert Warbler several kilometers from there and another came to drink to the sewage Nizzana pools - a site where we went only to look for the African Swamphen in the early morning and only stayed long enough for the Sandgrouse because we had a serious couple's fight.

Asian Desert Warbler - first we tried around km 94/95 of road 90, which looked nice, but produced nothing. We knew from eBird that those were seen in Ovda valley recently, but without specific sites, we tried our luck in the greenish wadi south of the side road to the campsites. There we, frustratingly, located a small warbler, but the views and photos were not enough to really exclude Spectacled. Unsure how to proceed, Ivana suggested to explore an area of lower vegetation closer to the Shaharut road and there a very confiding individual turned up quickly.

Cyprus warbler were searched for on MacDonald sites in Wadi Mishmar and km 94 fruitlessly and then several somewhat surprisingly showed in Wadi Shlomo, just upwards of road 12. Surely one of the most striking warblers of WP, a fully-plumaged male has caught my attention despite hiding very well at first in an Acacia tree, because it just looked too large for a Sardinian warbler and later some more flew around us as we searched the trees for roosting owls.

Pallid Scops Owl (At the time of writing, I still have an ID request up, but I lean towards accepting this is really Pallid, not Eurasian; worst case I will edit it out.) - If not having to sit for Sandgrouse any more made me nostalgic, not having to browse acacias for those little buggers makes me rather relieved, as this activity gets daunting quite fast. We first thoroughly searched the "hippy village" of Shittim, which was really cool even without much birds to see, then tried our luck in Wadi Shlomo before we went to search Nahal Shahmon at the outskirts of Eilat. We weren't really expecting much as the owls haven't been reported here for years, so I was not sure at first what my wife is trying to tell me with her confusing hand signals - but there it was, an owl roosting at the edge of one acacia tree, in quite the plain sight. We then did not even have to try to figure how to get into the Hatzeva Field School which was given to us as the most reliable site for the species.

Arabian Warbler - after four great ticks in one day, we felt on a winning streak and decided to revisit the Hatzeva area again on the morning of day 7 after a failure to connect with the Arabian Warblers on day 2 on both the MacDonald site in Nahal Gidron and the wolfbirder's site 1 km east off road 90 at km 152. This time, we drove a bit further the same km-152 track to reach an area of more acacias right below several hills and walked a bit north. We first saw a suspicious warbler, but the bad views were inconclusive - shorted thereafter, a clear song from a completely invisible bird inside a thick acacia bush made us believe we are on the right track. Speaking of tracks, though, suddenly a caravan of 4x4 buggies raced through the wadi with some of the tourist drivers having no regard to our presence at all. Isn't this supposed to be a bloody nature reserve? Luckily, the warblers don't seem to mind this too much and several has shown very nicely soon after the adventurers left.

Long-billed Pipit - being mostly satisfied with our performance in the South, we drove to Galillee for the two classic targets. We were greeted with a generally lousy weather with occasional rain showers. After each shower, sun came out and birds (mostly Corn Buntings) started signing around the km -4.3 parking on the aptly-numbered road 6666, but no pipit was found - a situation that repeated the following morning as well as around the upper path from the bend at km 2. We finally moved towards another MacDonald site, Wadi Tzvyia, where we found a single pair spot on on the coordinates from the report. They flew in from distance, showed for a while on ground and flew off, making a call that I did not have downloaded and thus confusing us deeply. Ivana then saw probably the same pair a bit later during ascent back to the road. The whole area around Wadi Tzvyia looks like prime Long-billed Pipit habitat and is generally quite pleasant to walk around.

Black Francolin - after reading several reports, we expected those to be easy to hear and hard to see. Instead, in four sessions (evening-morning-evening-morning) we heard absolutely nothing, but Ivana managed to pick one out in her binoculars as it emerged from a small reed to feed on the surrounding grassland and another one then run in front of our car. Both of these encounters happened on the dirt track that goes along the eastern bank of Jordan directly opposite to the Agamon-HaHula reserve. You can't cross the river here, but you get very nice views into the SE corner of the reserve where the Francolins are most reported without being limited by reserve's opening hours. We also visited the reserve itself - as the weather was threatening rain and time was short, we shelled out the incredible 149 NIS for a golf cart, but saw no Francolins; we also had to be out before 5 p.m., which makes the "backdoor" approach so much better. We first searched extensively around Kfar Rupin/Tirat Tsvi but found nothing.

Hume's leaf Warbler - with this and Black Scrub Robins both reported, Kibbutz Samar became quite the hotspot of southern Israel. On the first south visit, we paid only a short 2-hour visit and found nothing, so after we were "done" with the North (especially considering the forecast of two days of heavy rain there), we went back south and Samar was the obvious first stop. After another 2-hour walk, we stopped by the car parked near the main traffic circle and I noticed a free wifi and typed a reply to wolfbirder about not having found anything yet - when suddenly Ivana found the bird. It moved around a bit with some Chiffchaffs, but behaved differently and wasn't that difficult to relocated. However we are both completely tone deaf and thus only the ears of a seasoned BF user in an ID thread could make us sure it's really Hume's (as the plumage differences are very subtle).

Black Scrub-Robin - the free wifi allowed me to re-check eBird for this species and notice that there is a second hotspot within the perimeter, the "Samar Jungle" which has some observations on record. It is quite an interesting site, a deeply shady palm groove creating an unusual environment in the desert. A single Black Scrub-Robin showed up after about half an hour on a nearby bush - it has probably been hiding inside the whole time. I must say that even after all the other highlights of the trip, the sight of such a mystic bird really made my day!

African Swamphen - before one popped up in the daily summary on eBird, I was completely unaware of this species' presence in Israel. The site was quite along our way near the Dead Sea Works, so we immediately tried it, but it turned out to be tricky - a large reedy swamp surrounded from one site with industrial activity and from the other with a a minefield allowed only distant views that showed no Swamphen. Knowing about the species though made us search for it and we quickly saw that it is being reported from Nizzana, where it showed at daybreak immediately upon our arrival - then run away and was never found again.

What about the species we did not see?

We have searched high and low for Syrian Serins, twice waiting into the evening at the roosting site near the radar hill north of Mitze Ramon, searching through many sites in the general Nizzana-Sde Boker-Ramon area as well as around El Rom and the Valley of Tears on the North to no avail. Even more surprisingly, we failed to locate Vinous-breasted Starlings in the HaYarkon park in Tel Aviv despite dedicating almost a full day and 15 kms of walking to it.

We tried a bit for Oriental Skylark in Yotvata and near Kfar Ruppin, but we deemed the activity silly, because there is no way we can tell the call and just looking at an endless stream of Skylarks is just ... silly. Moreover, the southern circular field in Yotvata is now seeded with small olive trees and thus probably lost as a good lark site for who knows how long. In a similar vein, we gave up quickly on the idea to locate the Demoiselle Crane among the 50000 Common Cranes in Hula. Just ... no.

Some planned birds were not reported for a while and probably not present. We tried two evenings for the Egyptian Nightjar in Yotvata, but neither saw nor heard anything suspicious. The Lesser White-fronted Goose from km 19 probably left a week before us; we even saw a pair of Egyptian Goose, maybe the same one it hung out with before. The Oriental Honey Buzzards frequent a large area and we weren't lucky enough, the Little Swifts were just a general possibility - they move around a bit and the weather was probably too rainy for much activity from them. Finally, both Pine Buntings reported in Jerusalem - at JBO and in Zurim Valley just decided to hide from us for no reason.

I also know that many people on this forums are interested in mammals and as we saw quite a few interesting ones, I thought I should mention them:

- Golden Jackals are in fact very easy in Israel. Ubiquitous in the Galilee, impossible to miss in the night but also during the day. However, the real shocker is the easily seen population in the HaYarkon in Tel Aviv. It's like watching feral dogs ...

- Jungle Cat was quite easy from the car on the eastern bank of Jordan across from HaHula. One only reluctantly moved away from the road and then just sat there in full view, showing all the perfect ID signs.

- Seeing Gazelles is also easy, the hard part is to ID Dorcas vs. Mountain. According to a response to an ID request on a relevant FB group, we saw Dorcas by spotlight in Ovda valley and by day near Hatzeva and a relatively abundant numbers of Mountain in Galillee.

- Speaking of spotlighting in Ovda, that's the only time we saw an Asiatic Wild Ass

- Indian Porcupine is supposed to show just after dark in front of the Jerusalem Birding Observatory. Indeed, it did exactly that on our visit.

- The desert race of Red Fox was ubiquitous during all spotlighting sessions in the South, the Nubian Ibex (not Oryx) is common by day in rocky wadis and by night in streets of Mitzpe Ramon, the Rock Hyrax shows up in various habitats that have at least some ... rock.

- In the morning in HaYarkon park I saw a bat and we found it roosting in a tree, it was clearly Egyptian Fruit Bat a strikingly large and different species.

- Agamon HaHula is full to the brim of introduced Nutria and also has Wild Boar just wandering among the cranes.

- Yotvata Circular Fields (and some other areas) produced Cape Hare

Before the trip, I head various opinions about spotlighting for mammals in Israel - from great success reports on mammalwatching.org to statements that it is outright illegal. The reality seems to be a combination of both. There is a lot of military areas, especially in the Negev, where one should not enter - those aren't even always clearly marked in the terrain but it seems that maps.me has them pretty well covered. The important thing to realize is that these boundaries are often really sharp and the land immediately outside the firing ranges is perfectly publicly accessible, as evidenced by the various tourist installations in those areas. However a lot of such land is nature reserves that either prohibit vehicular access or simply any access during the night and a lot of the remaining land is open-pit quarries and similar stuff. Even with all those limitations, there are still plenty of roads and tracks in the Negev with little traffic where you can drive 20 km/h and look around for the telltale shining eyes. Just avoid the main roads where the maniacal Israeli drivers would hit you speeding at 110 km/h and never look back (really, I mean it, I live in bloody Poland, yet I consider Israel drivers insane, go figure).

Finally, I would like to mention some camping tips: We were never really shy about wild camping in Israel, but on this trip we realized that it is actually mostly not necessary because there is an abundance of designated campgrounds, usually in or around nature reserves. Here I am talking about the "lonely piece of land with a few metal signposts around" kind of a natural reserve, not the bustling fee-collecting national parks with visitor centers, and thus the campgrounds are similarly "no-frills" - no water, not even a pit toilet, just a clearly marked place to sleep. Now Israelis aren't the most respectful people to their surroundings (they for example often play loud music in nature), but those campgrounds are pretty neat and clean, including no human waste, so any foreign visitor should try to keep this up as well - that means either using toilets on gas stations etc. or at least carrying a small trowel to burrow everything deep in the ground.

We actually found our first example of such campground in 2016 in Wadi Shizaf near Hatzeva, but we were there only during the day - on the current trip, we have spent a total of three nights there and while the environment is nice, the stray dog that came twice to chew on our sleeping mats (that we were sleeping on at that moment!) was a little annoying. Further nice campsites are at entrances to both Mishmar and Ze'elim wadis, in the Ovda Valley just east of the Shaharut road, 300 m downstream from Ammram's Pillars, north of Beer Milka near Nizzana and directly in the valley below Ezuz village, in Negev at the junction of roads 206 and 225 and in the Nitzanim reserve on the coast. We also camped on a site near Mt. Bargan close to Mt. Gilboa but it was terribly muddy (and once "wild" across Jordan from Agamon HaHula). A lot of these campsites are shown on maps.me when you zoom in, but the app is quite reluctant to show them in search.
 
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wolfbirder

Well-known member
Great report Jan and boy did you work hard for what you saw!! A very enjoyable read and I can closely relate with your frustrations about certain species like Oriental Skylark, OHB, and Desert Owl. I don't feel like I will ever see them!

But that is what makes it so good and makes it a place to return to again.

Finally Jan, apologies as none of my tips actually helped :)-
 

dantheman

Bah humbug
Good stuff!

KInd of intrigued as to what your WP total would be though ... what other places have you yet to get to? ;-)
 

opisska

Jan Ebr
Poland
Finally Jan, apologies as none of my tips actually helped :)-


Technically, we did not need the Ovda site, but it was great and we would have never found the Arabian Warblers without the km 152 suggestion from you!

Good stuff!

KInd of intrigued as to what your WP total would be though ... what other places have you yet to get to? ;-)

Well, the total is in my signature, but I admit I updated it only now. 531 isn't huge, but the Czech competition is small. Granted, I could compete in the Polish one, but there are some crazy people with 600+ species there, why would I make it harder for me.... :)

I basically need to visit Caucasus, Ural mountains and Cape Verde to have covered most of the major areas geographically, but I also need to re-visit a lot of places for missed species and a great deal of WP species are restricted to some random small island, so that adds a lot of travel opportunities as well.

We actually have a google sheet with "planned" birds and their possible locations, but it's mostly in Czech - but the location names aren't that hard to understand so you can see that besides the areas I named, re-visiting Morocco and Egypt is high on the list of priorities.
 

opisska

Jan Ebr
Poland
Jan, finally may I ask where you saw Thick-billed Larks?

In Western Sahara. Several times, around the road that goes south to the Mauritania border, mainly just flying over the road. The views were brief, but their pattern in flight is very prominent. Sadly, the area is one large minefield and thus it is not safe to stop and pursue birds even meters off the tarmac, so we got no photos.
 

dantheman

Bah humbug
Well, the total is in my signature, but I admit I updated it only now. 531 isn't huge, but the Czech competition is small. Granted, I could compete in the Polish one, but there are some crazy people with 600+ species there, why would I make it harder for me.... :)

I basically need to visit Caucasus, Ural mountains and Cape Verde to have covered most of the major areas geographically, but I also need to re-visit a lot of places for missed species and a great deal of WP species are restricted to some random small island, so that adds a lot of travel opportunities as well.

We actually have a google sheet with "planned" birds and their possible locations, but it's mostly in Czech - but the location names aren't that hard to understand so you can see that besides the areas I named, re-visiting Morocco and Egypt is high on the list of priorities.

Ha, I see it now. Think you'll struggle with No. 22 on your Czechlist ( ;) )...

If you want to really depress yourself you can see how you rank on bubo listing (and easily see the commonest target birds others have seen).
 

opisska

Jan Ebr
Poland
Ha, I see it now. Think you'll struggle with No. 22 on your Czechlist ( ;) )...

If you want to really depress yourself you can see how you rank on bubo listing (and easily see the commonest target birds others have seen).


The no 22. comment flew a bit over my head, you may or may not elaborate, depenedning on whether it is interesting :)

Bubo listing seems fun, I would be #209 in world lists out of 1053, which doesn't look all that bad!
 

dantheman

Bah humbug
The no 22. comment flew a bit over my head, you may or may not elaborate, depenedning on whether it is interesting :)

Bubo listing seems fun, I would be #209 in world lists out of 1053, which doesn't look all that bad!

Sorry, my mistake - I assumed 'ostříž arabský' would be Ostrich :-O (I see now it's Sooty Falcon).

(The bubo thing is good, yes - note there are the 3 different authorities, some of which give you more species/different rankings.)


On topic - I spent one night camping/exploring a wadi when I was in Isreal, rather wish I'd spent more time actively night birding/tried spotlighting tbh ...
 

opisska

Jan Ebr
Poland
Sorry, my mistake - I assumed 'ostříž arabský' would be Ostrich :-O (I see now it's Sooty Falcon).

(The bubo thing is good, yes - note there are the 3 different authorities, some of which give you more species/different rankings.)


On topic - I spent one night camping/exploring a wadi when I was in Isreal, rather wish I'd spent more time actively night birding/tried spotlighting tbh ...

Well, Ostrich si getting cat. C in Germany in 2025, right? So I should put it in :)

Czech nomenclature can be confusing, as our language generally is to other people, but to give it justice, it is also extremely systematic and thorough - there is a Czech systematic name for every bird on the planet! The only drawback is that while it uses binomial genus/species language, the genera do not correspond 1:1 to Latin ones in any system, so sometimes it adds more confusion than clarity.

Israel wadis are awesome, can recommend. The only thing to really watch out for is flash flooding - as many signboards are always trying to rightfully warn you! I always remember the interesting observation that more people die in Wadi Rum (nearby Jordan) from drowning than from thirst ...
 

Steve Arlow

Well-known member
United Kingdom
The Flash Flooding in Wadi's is not to be ignored. Birders may often think there's little danger in walking a dry desert wadi whilst birding but the dangers are real.

In late April last year we arrived in Israel to major weather disruption, both main roads down to Eilat were closed, down from Ramon Crater and down from the Dead Sea, due to rock slides blocking the road. We also saw the road up to the raptor watchpoint in the Eilat Mountains completely covered in boulders washed down from Mt. Yoash, road was impassible. Wadi Schlomo in Eilat was actually a proper river for a day or so.

The Road closure down from the Dead Sea was actually more serious than just a rock slide across the road as, if I can recall correctly, about 11 or 12 teenagers out of a group of about 20 that were being led through a wadi were killed when the storm came up and turned the wadi into a raging torrent.

We had to drive pass the incident tents where every emergency service you could think of was present in large numbers and multiple IDF helicopters searching the area, in the dark.

It was the first time I had experienced such weather in Israel where one would be driving along and suddenly the main road would have water pooring across it, difficult driving in the dark.

During the week we birding the wadi at Yahel and found much of the low vegetation had been stripped out by a flash flood from a week or so earlier which also showed the strength of these floods.

If it rains and you are birding a wadi the suggestion is leave, even if the rain is miles away a torrent could be upon you in minutes and it could be game over. It is true that it is an uncommon event but one that is serious enough to be a risk to life.
 

opisska

Jan Ebr
Poland
I can't edit the report anymore, but I would like to post an update that folks from Birding Israel have confirmed that the Scops Owl was indeed Pallid.

Also an interesting thing I forgot to mention is the return of the legendary "black flamingo", the only almost fully leucistic (EDIT: melanistic, damn it!) Greater Flamingo ever observed that we have seen at km20.
 

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wolfbirder

Well-known member
Interesting stuff.

Good job you didn't go to Sayarim for those Thick-billed Larks, as Noam Weiss has emailed a response to me to say they have only been reported by a soldier, they ought to report that this area is out of bounds to Jo public.

Whereabouts exactly was your Pallid Scops Owl Jan? Can you provide an OS reference? Its another species that has always eluded me. I'm booked to go for 4 nights on 9th Feb.
 

opisska

Jan Ebr
Poland
Interesting stuff.

Good job you didn't go to Sayarim for those Thick-billed Larks, as Noam Weiss has emailed a response to me to say they have only been reported by a soldier, they ought to report that this area is out of bounds to Jo public.

Whereabouts exactly was your Pallid Scops Owl Jan? Can you provide an OS reference? Its another species that has always eluded me. I'm booked to go for 4 nights on 9th Feb.

I think the bush is this one on satelite image: https://www.google.com/maps/place/29%C2%B033'32.8%22N+34%C2%B055'36.5%22E/@29.5589355,34.9270408,298m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m6!3m5!1s0x0:0x0!7e2!8m2!3d29.5591099!4d34.9268148

However as a more sure clue, I am attaching the image of the bush. Can't guarantee it choosing the same one every day though :) Also, the homeless guy shits in random spots, watch you steps!
 

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wolfbirder

Well-known member
I think the bush is this one on satelite image: https://www.google.com/maps/place/29%C2%B033'32.8%22N+34%C2%B055'36.5%22E/@29.5589355,34.9270408,298m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m6!3m5!1s0x0:0x0!7e2!8m2!3d29.5591099!4d34.9268148

However as a more sure clue, I am attaching the image of the bush. Can't guarantee it choosing the same one every day though :) Also, the homeless guy shits in random spots, watch you steps!


Many thanks Jan. Appreciate the warning too!! :t:

It may indeed have moved on by the time I get there, but one can only try.
 

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