Spectacular Sights

The whole idea of the trip was to go to Israel with a birding tour because it would take me to wild, unspoiled places where birds hang out.  That’s true.  We hit plenty of wild, unspoiled places and found great birds.  What I didn’t count on was that we would also spend a lot of time at sewage treatment ponds.   Seems birds also hang out there —  they love the enriched, smelly water.  Who knew?  Apparently this is well-known in birding circles and I have simply been in denial about it for years.  So we frequented sewage treatment sites, held our noses, and looked at birds.

Eilat is the southern-most point in Israel, at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba.  The City of Aqaba, Jordan also shares this narrow piece of low-lying land at the bottom of the Arava valley between the Eilat Mountains to the west, and an even larger mountain range to the east in Jordan.  We could easily look across to the Jordanian city, which boasts the fifth largest flagpole in the world (430 feet).  In fact, we spent most of the tour driving parallel to Jordan, which has a dramatic landscape of an enormous ridge of mountains running north to south, with small Jordanian settlements and military bases scattered along the base.  The entire border has two razor-wire fences, 50 meters or so apart; one on the Israeli side, the other on the Jordanian side.  It gave me a much greater awareness of Israel’s geographical challenges.  They’re surrounded by unfriendly neighbors on all sides, within view.

 The flagpole in Aqaba, Jordan

The flagpole in Aqaba, Jordan

Most mornings while in Eilat, we birded early before breakfast at a local city park that was a favorite of passerine migrants. Then we returned to the Agamim for my favorite meals of the trip; a huge breakfast buffet with eggs cooked to order, quiches, pancakes, cheeses, fresh bread, fruit and most importantly, an espresso bar!   The food was delicious and I ate too much, but the cappuccino was sublime.

One morning after breakfast we drove up into the Eilat mountains where we saw an amazing migration in progress — truly one of the highlights of the trip. We estimated 2000 Steppe Buzzards passing just above us as they came up and over the peaks to our south, having flown north over the Sinai peninsula.  We also saw good numbers of Steppe, Lesser Spotted and Booted Eagles and a long-legged buzzard.  It was a spectacle I’ll not soon forget – thousands of birds doing what they’ve done for eons.   The rhythms of life are astounding.  

 The migration over the Eilat Mountains. Photo by Paul French

The migration over the Eilat Mountains. Photo by Paul French

From there we drove a little higher, only to then walk down into a canyon looking for Sinai Rosefinch.  I entertained myself taking selfies while we waited.  The bird was a no-show, but it was an interesting hike.   I was getting more of a feel for wilderness wanderings of the Israelites — it’s a barren and unforgiving landscape.  Yet, it’s teeming with life everywhere: black beetles, lizards, mammals, scrubby bushes, wildflowers and lots and lots of birds.  These had something to say...something to tell me; and I tried hard to listen. 

We drove up to the Ovda  Valley specifically to look for Crowned Sandgrouse.  The night before, we had stayed out after dark (at a sewage treatment site) to watch for Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse fly in for a drink.  It was magical...on cue, just as the light was really fading fast, we saw them fly in on the far bank and make their way down the slope for a drink.  Graham told me they were wetting their breast feathers to take water back to their chicks...I’m not sure if that’s right or not, but it made a good story.  John was unhappy that he didn’t get a good look at these birds, and he let everyone know about it.  So, the next day in the Ovda Valley, we were on a mission to get good looks at the Crowned Sandgrouse.  We spotted a flock of 16 birds flying in the distance. They settled at the foot of a hill, so we headed out across the desert to get closer.  As we walked toward them, we watched as a photographer got too close and birds flushed.  John was livid.  “If I had a pound for every time a photographer flushed a bird...” He moaned and whined about how useless photographers were.  Essentially claiming they were a lower life-form than worms.  Meanwhile, we noted where the birds had landed and we got back in the van and drove the short distance.  We were rewarded with great looks.  While we were ogling the sandgrouse, another car pulled up and a young Finnish guy got out and admitted he was the photographer who flushed the birds. He apologized and gave us a good tip about another bird not far from there.  He was sincerely sorry and quite noble, I thought, for admitting it was him.  We would never have known if he hadn’t stopped.  John was stunned by his honesty and integrity.  The Finn proved John’s theory about photographers didn’t hold true.  Biases and generalizations never do.  That made me smile.

 Paul and the Honest Finnish Photographer

Paul and the Honest Finnish Photographer

We also had Oriental Skylark and Ortolan bunting in the desert of the Ovda Valley, and while we were there we heard big guns, as if at a firing range – tanks maybe.  I think we were very near a military installation, though I didn’t see it.  We ate lunch at a café run by a local Kibbutz at Shizzafon Junction.  I wish I took more pictures there...it was a lovely, peaceful place.  Lunch was good and there were a few amazing bluethroats bobbing around like robins around the outdoor tables.  Bluethroats turned out to be among my favorites.   

 Bluethroat - Photo by Paul French

Bluethroat - Photo by Paul French

It rained in the desert that afternoon.  It thundered for a long time before it let loose.  We had a good soaking, and I was completely unprepared.  I didn’t believe the pre-trip instructions that said we should bring rain gear and an umbrella.  For heaven’s sake...we were going into the desert!  But I got caught twice in the rain.  Actually, it felt good.  It was refreshing and we dried off pretty quickly.  Bernard was the only one who had an umbrella with him.   

 Roger, Bernard, Paul, Graham, John and Matt in the rain.

Roger, Bernard, Paul, Graham, John and Matt in the rain.

We ended the day at North Beach, a sandy beach for swimming in the Gulf of Aqaba.  The gents were enamored with gulls of all kinds.  I don’t have enough patience for gulls, so I mostly watched people.  They were walking on the beach, playing with their dogs, windsurfing, and there were even some who had set up a campsite.  I struck up a conversation with a local family; a young man, his son and his father.  They were very friendly and easy to talk with. I told them I thought Eilat was beautiful and they said we just happened to hit it in nice, spring weather...it gets to 100 degrees or more in the summer.  They gave me a chair to sit in instead of the sand, and I was grateful... my feet were sore and sunburned.  So much so, that I had been standing closer than normal to my gents in order to borrow their shadows for my feet.  They were not amused and moved away.  I suppose it felt like I was invading their space.  The chair my friends lent me bothered John considerably.  He essentially stopped birding to worry about when I would return the chair.  “I think they want their chair back.”  He would say.  And I’d say, “No, they don’t.”  My favorite sight of the evening was a flock of 1200 Garganey in undulating flight over the Gulf of Aqaba...a phenomenon known as murmuration - spectacular.

On the way back to the hotel after dark, Paul discovered we had lost both headlights on the van.  The next day was to be a long excursion up to the Dead Sea and back again late at night, so he had to arrange to have it repaired the next morning.  While I felt badly for Paul and this added burden,  I was glad for the opportunity to sleep in until 6:45.   I was exhausted — from jet lag, lack of sleep, physical exertion and the mental exercise of birding.  It requires a kind of hyper-vigilance and focus that’s stimulating, but also exhausting. 

That night I had a vivid dream.  It’s unusual for me to remember dreams, but this one was so intense,  I wrote it down the next morning.  In a dramatic way, it exposed a long-held conviction of mine as a myth.   Something was trying to break through; trying to tell me something important, something that perhaps I hadn’t been ready to hear before.  I didn’t fully understand it at the time, and I promptly forgot about it, as it is with dreams.