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Archive for the ‘Eilat’ Category

Southern Arava

In Eilat, Israel, Negev on June 12, 2019 at 10:02 AM

Continuing 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 adventure. The sun came up over the Arava and we felt the need to sleep in a bit. We had breakfast in the kibbutz dining room, and then packed up our belongs into our rental Audi for another adventurous day.

Morning in Kibbutz Ketura

We drove around Ketura for a bit, taking in all the sights and seeing where Adam used to work after his army service. As fun as it was in Ketura, time was ticking and we had many places to visit that day. Leaving Ketura, our first stop was the adjacent Kibbutz Grofit, built upon a lone hill in the homogenous desert landscape. We drove over to the northern end of the kibbutz and enjoyed the view of Ketura down below.

Looking down at Ketura from Grofit

When we had soaked up all of the glory of the view we got back into the car and drove south on Road 90. We turned into Kibbutz Samar, where we had received insider information from the International Birding and Research Center Eilat (IBRCE) that there were black bush robins to be found.

Our Audi A1 rental car

Locating the overgrown tree patch known locally as “The Jungle”, we set out to find the elusive black birds. It took some searching and some playing of the bird calls from the Collins bird watching app, and eventually we heard a reply.

Searching for the black bush robin

A black bush robin was calling to us from the groves outside the Jungle, and we set off to get a sighting. Unfortunately we didn’t end up getting any closer to it, and even lost the audio connection, but we did end up seeing some other nice birds. A few wheatears and blackstarts, as well as some warblers and a Tristram’s starling. There was no reason to linger, as the list of place to still be visited remained long. With that we departed, and drove side access roads in the direction of the Elifaz Sewage Ponds.

Searching for birds at the Elifaz Sewage Ponds

Most people would raise eyebrows at the idea of visiting a sewage pond, but birders know that oftentimes sewage ponds provide excellent birding. While sewage treatment primarily happens indoors and out-of-sight, there are also what is known as stabilisation pools where a more natural form of water purification occurs. These pools are outdoors and host a healthy plants and insect life, which bring the birds into the picture. Thus, some of the hottest birding sites in Israel year-round are often in and around sewage treatment centres.

Just another boring kestrel

The Elifaz Sewage Ponds proved to be relatively empty, with just a few common kestrels keeping us company. Dejected by not discouraged, we got back into our car and drove on to the next destination: Timna Park. I had visited Timna once back in 2017 with my university, but we hadn’t explored the park in its entirety. This time I was returning with wheels and an adventurous friend.

Timna Park map

We began with the short film about the site, which was very entertaining, and then we headed into the park along the main access road. Marvelling at Timna’s fascinating colour palette, we passed the first landmark, the Spiral Hill, and then turned right to a spot called The Mushroom, a natural sculpture created by wind erosion.

Timna: The Copper Road

Timna Park is a horseshoe-shaped valley located in a beautiful, craggy desert landscape, complete with a unique geological makeup that gives it its iconic look. The pink sand, and the cliffs of green- and yellow-hued fuchsia rock, complete the truly bizarre appearance. In ancient times Timna was the site of an aggressive multi-national mining operation, mostly extracting raw copper from the sandstone. Although King Solomon’s name has been tacked onto the site more than once, it was more than just the Israelites that thirsted for the valuable metal. The ancient Egyptians, with the use of Canaanite labourers, hewed giant mines out of the soft rock and even left their mark on the faces of the colourful cliffs.

Unedited photo of the “sand”

These copper mines began hundreds of years before the Jews returned from Egyptian bondage, and were actively mined on and off until the 600s CE when the copper ore started running out. Curiously enough, the modern Israeli government attempted to respark the copper mining industry starting in 1958, but that ended in 1985 due to economic reasons. The Timna Copper Mines company website is still running, due to their ventures elsewhere, but the old pictures of the mining are worth a look (see HERE).

Ancient copper producing workshop

As we drove through the valley we spotted a few birds, notably a little green bee-eater and a few brown-necked ravens. Pulling over here and there to photographically capture everything of note, we eventually made it to The Mushroom – a fungus-shaped rock. Parking, we got out and walked towards two archaeological sites beside The Mushroom: a shrine and a smelting camp, dating back to the Egyptian period thousands of years ago. Despite that the ground is mostly a dark shade of pink, every so often there’s a glint of soft green. These are bits of oxidised copper, most often still affixed to broken pieces of pink sandstone. Leaving the smelting valley, we drove on to a place called The Chariots – rock engravings left behind by the ancient Egyptians.

Raindrops in Timna Park

Much to our surprise, it began to rain as we approached the site, and rain is always surprising in the desert. Ten-fifteen minutes later the light drizzle ended and we got out of the car to examine the ancient engravings. The first was a collection of ibexes and ostriches being hunted by boomerang-wielding men. The second set of engravings were the aforementioned chariots, featuring warriors and their battle axes.

Adam searching for the wall engravings

Driving back towards the park’s centre, skipping some of the sites that I had already seen last trip, we made our way to Lake Timna. Man-made and nestled between the craggy cliffs, the tiny lake was designed to be a permanent watering-hole for animals and a fun place for humans. To my dismay, this potential paradise seemed to amount to neither of these. There was, however, a station for filling touristy bottles with coloured sand – always an interesting gift to loved ones.

Desert lark eating discarded Doritos

From there we went to Solomon’s Pillars and Hathor’s Temple, basking in the glory of the truly awe-inspiring landscape. In the parking lot, of all places, we watched a few desert birds hop about, including a few desert larks. With that, and the time ticking away, we left Timna Park and headed for the next site on our list, an old water-filled quarry hidden from plain sight.

Cerulean quarry

It took a bit of driving about till we reached the correct access road, but when we pulled up at the quarry and got our first glimpse, we were amazed. The cerulean water contrasting with the red earth/rock made for quite the visual treat. Strong winds buffeted us, threatening to send us and our belongs into the picturesque abyss below. With nothing more to do than appreciate the view, we took some photos and got back into the little white car.

KM 20

Time truly was ticking, and we had only a few hours before we had to take the car back. Our next stop was also off the beaten path, the birding hotspot of KM 20 – literally the 20th kilometre from the end of Road 90 in Eilat. If time wasn’t the only adversary on that day, an unexpected muddy puddle kept us from reaching KM 20 by means of vehicular transportation. We were forced to walk the last bit, hopelessly muddying our shoes, but knowing that it was all worth it.

Flamingo at KM 20

Arriving at the large salt pools of KM 20, we were rather pleased to see at least a hundreds birds in front of us. The majority were greater flamingos, with some black-winged stilts and other waders hugging the edges of the pools. Even a mixed flock of northern shoveler and pintail ducks was spotted hunkering down on the far bank. While I engaged in photographic pursuits, Adam scanned for the famous black flamingo and successfully located the melanistic creature on the farther end of the closest pool.

The melanistic flamingo far, far away

Hurrying back to our car, we made our way to another birding hotspot a kilometre further south – KM 19. More of the bird-friendly sewage ponds, KM 19 didn’t deliver as much as we were hoping for. A flushed marsh harrier, a handful of waders and a bunch of flocks of waterfowl filled the few reed-lined ponds. It was fun scanning the water’s edge to try and find a small wader here and there, adding up the species as we found more and more. Next time, we’d need to revisit this site at a better hour of the day, and during a better time of year.

Climbing the banks of KM 19’s ponds

Alas, this was our last fun stop with the car and we drove back to Eilat feeling pleased with our efforts. We filled up the tank, went shopping and drove to the lodgings that we had booked in advance. With budgeting a priority we went with a relatively inexpensive hotel located in the residential part of Eilat. Our expectations were low, but we were pleasantly surprised with our lot at Rich Luxury Suites.

Getting the barbecue started

Zipping over to the car rental we gave back the beloved Audi with a few minutes to spare, and walked back to the hotel to settle in and have dinner. The evening continued into night, we filled our bellies with delicious foods cooked on a disposable grill and got a good night’s sleep.

Heading back home…

Early the following morning we gathered up all our belongings and made our way to Eilat’s central bus station for the long ride back to Givat Shmuel. Thus ended our exciting excursion to the southern tip of Israel this past February.

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.