Monday, February 15, 2010

Birders paradise

I was well and truly knackered but try as I may I simply could not sleep, the anticipation was all consuming, this was the dawn of a seminal day in my life.

I stepped out of the front door and a small passerine flew two feet before dropping behind an ornamental pot plant on the concrete patio, a piece of fieldcraft more akin to scene from the 1970's Professionals had me eye to eye with a Savi's Warbler. In a matter of seconds I had doubled the avian tally with a stunning adult male Bluethroat, glowing jewel-like from under a taxi parked infront of the hotel.

I took one step across the road when overhead calls alerted me a group of House Crows playing tag on the street lights, a Yellow-vented Bulbul announced its presence with a call that was far from European. I walked on past an area of rubble, round a bend and came across my first view of the oasis I was seeking so badly, having read about it each night for the past month - Ofira Park or Shulamitz Gardens as it is also known.

I entered and immediately flushed a highly vocal Tree Pipit, it landed on a grass bank amongst an assortment of variously head-patterned Yellow Wagtails and sumptuous Red-throated Pipits. I wanted a closer view but my eye caught a movement close to my right, bingo! - my first ever Cretzmars Bunting and a spanker at that. Suddenly two, three, a small flock.

Focusing up from the ground I became aware of a larger movement directly ahead, a person, a birder, several birders - all staring into the canopy of a small tree. I cautiously went over, raised my bins with out speaking and looked in to the same tree, not too sure of what was going to appear. Nothing ! I lowered my Swaro's and looked up again, this time I caught a shape but no movement. Another raise of the bins and a slight turn of the focusing wheel and a small owl came to life, a Scops Owl roosting almost invisibly against the trunk, pleased with myself I involuntary repeated its name out loud, the person stood next to me, who ironically was from Filey commented "its been in that tree for two days now, there is a male Collared Fly a bit higher up".

The excitement was unmatched, over the next hour every corner and niche of the park held migrants, a Wryneck on the tyres of the kids climbing frame, several Masked Shrikes launching flycatching sallies from hidden positions within the acacia trees, a Quail roosting in the shade of a rubbish bin and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats everywhere.

Overhead the visible migration was A1, Bee-eaters passing in squadrons, eastern Swallows with wine stained underparts contouring the urban jungle of hotels and raptors by the thousands drifting high to the north-east, Steppe Buzzards being flanked by their much larger Eagled namesakes.

The global spectacle that constitutes the finest western palearctic migration is awesome - this is Eilat.

Being at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia, Eilat offers paradise to tired migrant birds that have just crossed thousands of miles of ever increasing desert in a bid to reach northern and eastern lands to breed. Marsh Warblers heading for Sweden join ranks with Blackcaps for Britain and Bonelli's Warblers for Turkey. This staging post is of global significance and every inch of suitable habitat is a niche filled by migrants, which once refuelled then urgently move north along the Arava Rift Valley.

March is Eilat, Eilat is March, its by far the best month for volume and diversity, from mid month the scale of migration is breathtaking, imagine all the birds you have ever seen in your life and then put them all in one place on one day, Eilat is like that day after day with slight twists on theme, just to add even more interest.

I have made fours trips and each has been as rewarding as the last, Black Bush Robin, Pied Stonechat and Lesser Flamingo to name but a few of the surprises. The best are the night falls of migrants when every bush, building, sewage canal, sports field and urban jungle is packed with arrivals - it does not get better than this.

The ringing station situated just inland of the town and run by the International Birding and Research Centre (IBRCE) is a must, with scores of birds caught and processed each morning, the centre truly contributing to global scientific knowledge.

If migration is your thing, Eilat is your place !

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