April 12, 2014
I never got the hang of Israeli road signs. Not that I needed to; Paul French did all the driving, and he managed just fine. But I never knew where we were. It wasn’t the Hebrew that threw me off, either. It was that they seemed to announce that you had arrived in a place, when you hadn’t. My favorite road sign in southern Israel, by far, was “Beware of Camels on the Road.” I also loved the way they designated a bike path:
On the drive south from Tel Aviv, I think we passed very close to Beersheba (Hebrew Be'er, “a well,” and Sheva, "to swear an oath"), the place where Abraham made a covenant in Genesis 21. We continued on for another hour or so to Mitzpe Ramon, where we arrived at the hotel after dark. The hotel had a strange layout — sort of vertical rather than horizontal halls. So I wandered the hotel for 10 minutes or so before finding my room. (This “wandering” turned out to be a recurring theme throughout the trip.) We met for dinner at 7:30 in the hotel restaurant, and because it was the Sabbath and there was a bar mitzvah going on, it was busy with lots of people. Dinner was a buffet with loads of good, fresh food: salads, veggies, also chicken, beef and fish. No dairy, and consequently no coffee available after dinner. We almost always left too early in the morning to get coffee, so I was on continual coffee-withdrawal all week.
Paul asked us about our expectations for the trip. There were some murmurings about MacQueen’s Bustard, Black Bush Robin, Sinai Rosefinch, and Syrian Serin – endemic species that are very limited in their distribution. People come to Israel specifically to get these particular birds. Paul was confident we had a good chance to see them all. Maybe I should have kept quiet, but I confessed immediately that while I was an avid birder, I was also a pastor. I had intended to keep that fact to myself. But no, at the first opportunity I blurted it out. I think they registered mild panic at this news. I told them that I hoped the birds would be a window into an intuitive experience of the Holy Land. I also confessed that I had done very limited birding in Europe and none at all in the Middle East, so pretty much every bird we saw would be a lifer for me. Again...I detected mild panic among some in the group. A novice birder could really kill a tour. I’m certain they were wondering how much of a pain in the neck I’d be with asking about every species we saw. My must-see species, Hoopoe and Bee-eaters, were pretty much gimmes, and by admitting they were my heart’s desire, I was disclosing something about myself and my birding prowess. Paul was really good about it. I never detected panic in him. He was very gracious and professional, and he assured me we’d see my birds. The conversation was easy the first evening, but also very limited to birds and birding subjects.
After dinner, Paul delivered the bad news that our itinerary necessitated that we drive an hour before dawn, to Nizzana in the Negev. We needed to be there before sunrise to see the Bustard’s display. He told us we would reconvene at the van at 4:30 in the morning. It was then about 9:30 p.m. I was in bed by 10, but had only limited success in sleeping — again only two or three hours. At 1:00 a.m. I turned on the TV, reviewed the bird list, and did some journaling about the day:
“Long, but good day. It’s a long, long way through the desert from Bethlehem to Egypt. Why is so much of the activity of the Spirit here in this tiny country? I’m experiencing the physical Jesus — ‘his foot may have touched here.’”
I set the alarm for 3:45, but didn’t need it. I showered and was in the lobby by 4:30. Paul was there before me, collecting our box-breakfasts. The other men joined us. It was cool outside and the first bird I heard singing in Israel was a yellow-vented bulbul, which was very appropriate. Bulbuls put in frequent appearances all throughout the tour. We drove north/north west, well into the heart of the Negev, to a place called Nizzana. Oddly, there was a dense fog in the desert that first morning. I didn’t think this was possible because of low humidity, but it was so foggy it was difficult to see anything, much less birds. Our first birds were Greater Short-Toed Larks — nearly impossible to see their tiny toes! (A bit of birding humor.) They were actually flying overhead, and Paul got them on their flight call. Very early on, within the first hour, we had a Hoopoe. It was a thrill for me – a glorious bird. We also saw the bustard in the distance through the fog. He was displaying, so his head completely disappeared, tucked back into his ruff, as he strutted along. A very strange bird!
In order to allow some of the fog to burn off, Paul suggested we bird a near-by Wadi. Almost immediately we had Chuckar partridge (a contender for the quail God gave the Israelites in the wilderness.) I got a good look at him, but then he disappeared before my eyes; he just melted into the rocks and sand. I got my first good look at a bulbul and I discovered that shrikes are much more common there than in the U.S., and they’re all gorgeous. At the wadi, we got to see a singing Hoopoe...I’ll never forget it. He says his name. Over and over again.
The sun came out and the fog went away, and so we returned to Nizzana for our first “little wander” according to Paul. I quickly learned that Paul’s “little wanders” were really death marches out into the wilderness, in the blazing sun, with six men and no-where to go to the bathroom. Our first death march was long, extended by a tantalizing view of a flock of crowned sandgrouse in the distance (another candidate for the quail mentioned in Exodus). We must have walked a mile further to try and find them, but we never saw them again. Bernard was disappointed, so was Roger. I was catching on about what motivated my six gentlemen...they were die-hards. Hardcore. In between bird sightings, I entertained myself , as I always do, with other things on hand: wildflowers, insects, butterflies, reptiles, rocks. In particular, bits of brown slag caught my eye all over the desert floor. No one cared! And they seemed mystified that I did. At least Paul engaged me about it, but clearly geology was not going to be a sub-text for the trip. As it turns out, I think the slag was a vestige of copper smelting in the Negev in the tenth and ninth century b.c.e.! I am blown away by this fact! Can you imagine picking up that kind of history in your hand? I brought two bits of slag home. The history in this land is as old as civilization itself, and there is evidence of human activity everywhere.
I was surprised and delighted to find lots and lots of wildflowers in the desert. I asked, somewhat hopefully, if anyone was a botanist or even a gardener and if they knew what the flowers were. Stony silence. It was all about the birds. Bad form on my part, I guess.
Paul pointed out a cream-coloured courser. It was a wader who lives and breeds out in that desolate, dry wilderness. How could that have possibly come about? It is puzzling and a mystery of evolution I can’t resolve. While looking at the courser through Paul’s scope, I asked what the “big, blue bird in the background” was. It turned out to be another Macqueen’s bustard, displaying. By the end of first day, we had seen about sixty species; all lifers for me.