2015 Hula Valley Bird Festival summary by Jonathan Meyrav

Black winged kite. Photo Jonathan Meyrav

The 5th Hula Valley Bird Festival was a fantastic week of birds, wildlife and scenery.

A group of devoted birders spent a whole week exploring the magical Hula Valley, the Hula reserve, the Galilee and even ventured south for a quickie in the Negev.

The first 2 days of the festival were an introduction to the Hula Valley, the crown jewel of Northern Israel’s birding sites. The Hula is incredible this time of year, at the transition between fall migration and winter with many migrants still passing through but most winterers already present.  One of the iconic sights (and sounds) of the Hula are the massive numbers of common cranes. Around 40,000 cranes are present at the Hula and the sunrise tour on the mobile hide left everyone in awe.  Besides the spectacular cranes we had a nice encounter with a jungle cat which went for a long swim(!), jackals and wild boar.

Eagles, kites, buzzards and much more

The Hula is a real treat for any raptor enthusiast and a good number of wintering eagles, kites, harriers, buzzards and falcons are easy to spot. Rare species such as the greater spotted and eastern imperial eagle, pallid harrier and even several white-tailed eagles put on a show. The patchy weather was kind to us and besides a couple of aggressive though swift thunderstorms we enjoyed nice golden sunlight most of the time. The clean air, glare and rainbows against a lead grey sky just added to the drama and beauty.

 
Following 2 great days in the Hula the festival set out further afield to explore Mount Hermon and the Northern Golan Heights. Mount Hermon is always awesome and we started right up at the highest point. We slowly ascended the mountain, stopping frequently to spot birds, until we were well above the clouds.

It was quite cold and we didn’t spot too much although we did find 8 crimson winged finches and smaller numbers of woodlark, pipits and common Finches. On the lower slopes of the mountain we caught a brief views of sombre tits and western rock nuthatch.

Common cranes. Photo Jonathan Meyrav

Great food and sad politics

On our descent the way down we stopped for a traditional lunch at the Druze village of Majdal Shams, the highest village in Israel.  We made a quick stop at the Valley of Tears where we sighted Finsch's wheatear and several graceful Mountain Gazelles. 

The day ended with a history review and of course some politics; it was hard to ignore the gunfire and fighting across the Syrian Border and was a solemn way to end the day.

The following day we headed south to the Beit She’an Valley via the Sea of Galilee. We started at the Te'enim lookout in the Eastern Galilee where we stumbled upon a true raptor fest. Hundreds of black kites in plain sight and within minutes joined by both greater and lesser spotted eagles, a superb adult eastern imperial Eagle and even a late steppe eagle, what a spot!

We stopped at the Susita ruins in the Southern Golan, where we quickly scored with long-billed pipits, Finsch's wheatear, blue rock thrush and several blackstart, which are common in the desert and here is as far north as they venture. The Beit She’an Valley was incredible, boasting amazing numbers of pelicans, black storks, gulls, pygmy cormorants and more. We visited a drinking pool where we spotted a few desert finch, Siberian stonechats, Richard’s pipit and more.

Birdwatchers migrate south

For the first time this year, the last few days of the Festival were devoted to the Negev.

We migrated south through the Western Negev where we sighted several pallid harriers, golden plovers and huge numbers of skylarks on the first evening. We had to cut the session short since we had a date with Syrian serins at a roost in the Negev.

We arrived at the time site only to hear from the other group that the birds had already been and gone, oh well. That evening Meidad Goren gave an inspiring review of the work the SPNI and IOC do in the Negev, the special birds and some key projects.

Greater spotted eagle.Photo Jonathan Meyrav

It was back to the West Negev in the morning to search for some specialties. We drove along the famous Urim powerline and spotted several peregrines, buzzards and eagles. The star of the show was a cracking adult saker that dwarfed the peregrine nearby, what a beast!

We also spotted several merlin, including a nice male "Steppe" merlin, pallidus from the steppes of Kazakhstan.  

 

As we were enjoying the Falcons we noticed a large flock of northern lapwings flying nearby.

I scanned the flock and sure enough, 7 sociable plovers!

It was a fantastic day; our last stop was a bit of a gamble. Having failed with Syrian Serins I decided to try a traditional roost site which was populated years ago. I did not have high hopes but as the sun was setting I was sure we are in for another disappointment… then chirps were heard, followed by 8 beautiful serins. The birds perched on a bare tree for few long minutes before flying off into the evening.

The following morning started well before first light as we ventured to the Nitzana wilderness.

This magical area never fails and within minutes we had several Macqueen's Bustards in the scopes. We birded the area and noted common species such as mourning wheatear, little green bee-eaters, Arabian babblers and more.

For breakfast we chose a remote drinking pool near Ezuz where we enjoyed breakfast and no less than 45 crowned sandgrouse! What a magical spot.

From Nitzana we headed to the Avdat Canyon. This beautiful ravine is home to several breeding pairs of Griffon Vultures. We saw at least 5 pairs of Vultures, as well as long-legged and common Buzzards, brown necked ravens and nice herds of Nubian ibex. Just as we were leaving a pair of barbary falcons swooped in and gave the local rock doves a scare but for us a nice treat.

It was a fantastic festival full of great birds, wildlife and scenery. The fact that the festival included the Negev was universally approved by all participants and added an extra "southern flavor".

Join our next birding event , the 10th Eilat Bird Festival that will take place on March 20-27 2016 

click here for details:Eilat Bird Festival 2016