So we birded from dawn to dusk. When we couldn’t bird anymore (usually because of darkness) we went back to the hotel (or kibbutz), had dinner and then had the “very important meeting” (VIM). I wish I had taped a session or two of these. They were pretty funny: seven of us gathered around a table to go over the birds we saw that day. Paul laid down the rules on the first night: a bird only goes on the “official” list if he sees it. Initially, I thought he was joking, but he was very serious, and I now understand why. The birds that make it on the “official” list can’t be controversial. I’m not sure that any of the gents ever saw something that Paul didn’t see...I doubt it. But I can see why he needed to establish the rule at the beginning of the trip — no doubt out of experience in dealing with “creative” birders. On Tuesday, while at a Kibbutz called Neot Semadar near Eilat, we were looking for a shrike that a Finnish tour guide had told us about. We couldn’t find the bird as we walked along the road, so Paul went back to get the van while the rest of kept birding. I found a Linnet, a beautiful bird that was a potential lifer for me. The other five participants saw it too, but Paul didn’t. Crap. I admit that I whined a little bit about it that night at the VIM, saying my Linnet should count, since all of us BUT Paul saw it. When the “official” trip report came out several weeks after the tour, I was happy to see that Paul included the Linnet. As it turns out, it wasn’t a lifer, I had seen one on Mull in 2010.
On the second full day, we left the hotel at 5:00 am and drove to a vulture feeding station near S’de Bokur. It was cold and windy and the feeding station was a long way off, so I regretted not having my own scope. Graham and I used the van as a wind block and he was very generous in letting me share his scope. We got good looks at Griffon Vultures. They’re not related to our homely turkey vultures or black vultures in the States – these were enormous, beautiful birds with silky heads and beautiful fluffy, white ruffs. We also got a really good look at wolf who came in to feed off the cow carcasses, which were left by the people of the kibbutz for wildlife feeding. It was a very unique setting.
On our way south that day we went down into and through the largest erosion crater in the world, Mahktesh Ramon. As we began the long drive down, we encountered a baby Nubian Ibex. The wolf and the ibex were just two of some dozen wild mammals we saw. I was truly surprised by this. I thought big-game wildlife had long been killed off in that part of the world. It was a delightful surprise to find them flourishing! We saw two types of gazelle (Dorcas and Merrill Mountain), coypu, mongoose, hare, fox, jackel and a gerbil (just like the gerbils we see in a pet shop). My favorite, however were the rock hyrax. They were funny little marmot-type animals, but distinctly different from rodents. Their closest relatives are elephants. As we drove further in to the canyon, Paul told us to keep a look-out for wheatears on the rocks. It was a desolate place and I couldn’t imagine any bird living there, but he no sooner told us to watch and he spotted one. We turned the van around to have a look. It was a black-eared wheatear – stunning in black and white.
By this point in the trip, I had a raging UTI, with no satisfactory way to treat it. I was traveling with six men who didn’t appear to need “proper” rest stops - EVER. It was dry and hot during the day, so I wasn’t sweating much, but because of the restroom situation I wasn’t drinking much either. Paul stopped to pick up supplies, so I went with him into a local supermarket and convinced him to buy the only three bottles of cranberry juice in the store. He was nice about it and didn’t ask any questions. Outside, we passed by a lot of military personnel l. It was a shock to see teenagers, both girls and boys, armed with loaded machine guns. Military service at age 18 is a requirement in Israel. Machine guns were everywhere. It was unnerving and I never got used to it. In many ways, Israel is like a police-state. I guess they feel it’s necessary when the rest of the Middle East has you in their crosshairs.
We continued south on Route 90, through the Arava Valley along the border with Jordan. We stopped in the middle of a wilderness area, in clear sight of Jordanian border guard on the far side of two sets of razor wire. Bernard made the observation that “it would be good to be a fence maker here.” We started off on another of Paul’s “little wanders” toward a date palm plantation. I was in a fair amount of pain for this death-march, so I didn’t fully enjoy the warbler Paul found out there in the middle of nowhere (I think it was a spectacled warbler). There were no sizable bushes, and any potentially private spots that shielded me from the gaze of the gentlemen were in full view of the Jordanian Border Patrol. We walked forever until we finally reached the date palm plantation. Here, I was rewarded with large piles of cut-debris from the date palms that provided enough privacy for some relief. I found some dry dates that had fallen around the bottom of the trees and nibbled on a few. Three camels lived on the plantation and I tried to make friends, but they were quite shy and ran off. My final reward was a spectacular look at a little green bee-eater. On the long walk back to the van I found some very long porcupine quills. Not bad for a death-march with a UTI.
After searching for and only briefly seeing an Arabian Warbler in an old acacia grove, we drove the rest of way south on Rt. 90 to arrive in Eilat well after dark. Israelis consider Eilat and Tel Aviv to be the new Sodom and Gomorrah. Eilat was beautiful by night – reminiscent of Atlantic City, with lavish hotels lit up. We moved in to the Eilat Agamim for five luxurious nights (though I was so tired I mostly just slept whenever we were here). Dinner was an amazing buffet – four times the size of the hotel in Mitzpe Ramon. My favorite was “pudding” as Paul called it. Not really pudding at all, but a great assortment of one or two-bite desserts. They were lovely, and made up for the lack of coffee.
We settled into a routine for the next three days, exploring the areas all around Eilat.