Israel's Good Name

Eilat: Spring Birding

In Eilat, Israel on May 13, 2019 at 8:55 AM

Back in the end of February, during semester break, I took a two day trip to the south with my friend Adam Ota. This post covers the first day, which was spent nearly entirely in the resort city of Eilat. Our primary objective was to engage in birding, all over Eilat and the southern end of the Arava. February isn’t the best time to go birding in that region, but it was the only window we had factoring in classes and work, so we made the most of it.

Azrieli Towers of Tel Aviv

Our journey began several hours after Shabbat ended, Saturday night, and we made our way to the train station in Tel Aviv. We had some food, did some shopping for food supplies and waited for our train to Beer Sheva. Several hours later we were in Beer Sheva’s central bus station, settling in for the long wait for our bus to Eilat. Again, several hours later, we were en route to Eilat, driving through the moonlit desert on a long, lonely road.

On the road with Eilat behind me

We arrived at our bus stop outside Kibbutz Eilot at 4:30am and immediately began mapping our way to the nearby International Birdwatching and Research Center of Eilat, also known as IBRCE. Our plan was to spend the first hours of the early morning there, so it made sense to get there as soon as possible. We crossed Road 90 and made our way through the dark desert landscape until we reached a drainage canal, which we followed all the way to the IBRCE.

Daybreak over the mountains of Jordan

Strangers in a strange land, we sat in the dark on a bench within the park’s confines and enjoyed cookies and a can of stuffed grape leaves. The sounds of the marsh and the calls of the muezzin in neighbouring Aqaba, Jordan were the only things that broke the silence until shortly before daybreak. Cars approached and staff members and volunteers of the IBRCE arrived to get the day started.

Redshank perched on a handrail

Sunlight painted the skies over the Jordanian mountain to the east and the birds started stirring. Adam and I moved from blind to blind, trying to see what early risers we could find. Various waders started moving about in the salt pools just south of the IBRCE, including redshanks, black-winged stilts and great flamingos. Before long there were birds all over, including our very first Indian house crow and a juvenile marsh harrier trying to eat some carrion. Over at Lake Anita, the centre of the IBRCE, there were handful of great cormorants, sedge warblers and a single gull-billed tern all getting into action.

Grey heron in Lake Anita

It’d take hours to write about all the birds we saw, so to put it short we spent the next couple hours of the morning basking in the joys of oasis birding. We moved all around the park’s nucleus, spending time at the different blinds and taking it all in. Some of the highlights were: our first penduline tits in the reeds, scores of house martins circling over the lake and of course the flamingos.

Flamingos and a redshank

We had received excellent instructions where and when to bird locally from IBRCE’s director Noam Weiss, and some expert field guidance by local staffer Rei Segali, when we encountered a pair of Swiss birders on the canal banks outside. We made birding chit chat with Michael and Martin and then settled in for a joint mission, to spot a crested honey buzzard. There were a few of these locally rare birds spending the winter in and around Eilat, and we wanted to see one too. It took a while, but at least we spotted one of them flying over the date palm trees at the Israel-Jordan border. Not the best sighting, but at least we saw one!

IBRCE from afar

Feeling a bit antsy to explore Eilat a bit more, we gathered up our belongs and walked on over to Holland Park, located at the northern end of Eilat. Unfortunately, it was already getting pretty hot out and we had a bit of a walk ahead of us. Looping around the northern end of the IBRCE, we spotted a little green bee-eater and a few Egyptian mastigures sunbathing on the rocky ground.

Relaxing Egyptian mastigure

We arrived at Holland Park and began walking the western trail, somewhat seeking shade and somewhat seeking birds. At last we found both: blackstarts, warblers and a passing long-legged buzzard as we sat in the partial shade of an African thorn tree.

Within Holland Park

Even with the handful of birds, we felt like better birding could be found elsewhere and made our way back to the IBRCE. Coming from the southwest corner of the park, we approached the salt pools slowly, spotting more and more waders – mostly redshanks, but including a ringed plover and more flamingos.

Hard-to-see brine shrimp in the shallows

At the first blind along the way we examined the salt water closer to find that there are millions, if not billions, of tiny brine shrimp swimming around. This explained the large numbers of waders feeding in the seemingly hostile-to-life pools. Adam scooped up a bit of the sand, which contains brine shrimp eggs, and to this day he has a small colony of shrimp in a glass jar. Sample stowed safely away, we tucked ourselves into the wooden booth-blind and rested a bit on the benches inside.

Photographing flamingos in the salt pools

I spent much of the time leisurely trying to get the best photographs and video footage I could, and felt relatively pleased with the fruits of my efforts. However, we still had more to do and we needed to rouse ourselves out of our comfortable booth.

Depth of field at the IBRCE

Our next destination was Eilat’s North Beach, and we intended to walk along the drainage canal as per Noam Weiss’ recommendation. We said goodbye to the IBRCE and began the walk on the eastern side of the canal.

Eilat’s salt production

Keeping an eye out for crested honey buzzards, Dead Sea sparrows and other fun birds, we walked and walked, seeing a variety of birds but none of the above mentioned species. Interestingly enough, the two most interesting things we saw on the walk were not birds at all. The first was a squished and dried Schokari sand racer on the path, only identified with the help of experts. The second was the constant flow of pure, white salt pouring out of the machinery at the salt factory nestled among the salt pools.

Adam scanning for seabirds at North Beach

We reached the North Beach and sat down at the water’s edge, the gentle waves lapping at the sand in front of us. We kept an eye out for interesting seabirds, and ended up seeing just black-headed and slender-billed gulls. The sun settled over the mountains of Egypt as we gazed out over the Red Sea, enjoying the international view that I loved when I last visited in 2014. When the sun was hidden behind the mountains we got up and made our way through the touristy hotel area and towards the airport.

Fiery sunset over the mountains of Egypt

Having planned our trip carefully, we were scheduled to pick up a rental car at 6:00pm and made our way there with alacrity. When we arrived we were greeted with a smile and the keys to a free upgrade – a sporty Audi A1. After the necessary paperwork and photographs we zipped out and headed over to a grocery store to pick up supplies for the evening. Eilat doesn’t have the national VAT tax that the rest of the country does, so the prices are lower and shopping gets weirdly tempting. We stocked up on supplies and drove out of Eilat and into the Arava, heading for the fields of Yotvata where Pharaoh eagle owls are known to live. Driving along the dark roads made for great fun, but when we scoured the field area – going as far as we deemed logical – we found no trace of the owls.

Looking for owls in the Yotvata fields

Abandoning the mission, we got back into the car and drove on to Kibbutz Ketura where we spent the night. Adam used to work on the kibbutz, after his army service, and so he had the necessary connections to arrange a room for us. In the end we received a small house, which more than suited our minimalist needs, and we enjoyed a lovely barbecue outdoors for dinner. Thus ended the first extremely long day of our trip to Eilat, and we slept knowing that we’d be waking up early the next day for round two – this time seeing sites all over the southern Arava with the help of the zippy little Audi.

  1. If February isn’t the best time for birding in Eilat when is a good time? The Arava is a migration route between Europe and Africa. What time of year do the birds migrate? Do they stop to rest anywhere in the area?
    Also, flamingoes seem to live off of algae (spirulina) in Africa’s caustic lakes while, per your report, they eat brine shrimp in Israel.

    • The best months for spring migration are March and April, although there is some still happening in May and to a lesser degree in February too.
      Rest stop vary depending on the birds, some prefer areas like the Arava whereas other seek out wooded areas. In general the Arava and then up the centre-right side of Israel, basically the mountainous ridge, is the primary migration route.
      In regards to flamingos, they have a varied diet and eat both algae and small creatures such as brine shrimp.

  2. Wow! Great trip! I was surprised to hear of the Kibbutz there. So glad to see your pics. You do the trips that we all wish we could do, thanks for your posts. The Audi was small however must have been fun to get around in

    • Thank you Bobbie, I’m glad you enjoyed! This was quite a special trip, even for me, so stay tuned for part two which features even more of that full little Audi!

  3. […] on with the saga of the trip to Eilat, my friend Adam Ota and I spent the night in a small house in Kibbutz Ketura after a day of birding […]

Leave a Reply to Bobbie Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: