Above Armash

Quick Geography Lesson

Another early start with a packed breakfast saw us heading North from Areni. Our destination was the the range of arid hills that lie East of and above Armash. Previous reports are inconsistent in the way they name the three principle sites. The poor positioning of the eBird hotspot pins further confuses matters. The table below along with my annotated map and the subheadings in this post may offer some clarity.

Vedi Springs

I used a combination of eBird and Google Maps to navigate us to this site. However, in turns out that the eBird coordinates are at the entrance to the wadi, by a settlement with some running water. We walked across a stony plain either side of the water course but frankly saw very little in breezy overcast conditions. Just a few Isabelline Wheatears and Greater Short-toed Larks. Turns out that we should of started much further up the wadi – see Armash revisited.

Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe)

As we returned to the car Graham picked up a large falcon terrorising a distant flock of Rosy Starlings. No time to get images but good enought views to determine it was a Saker (WP #74x). We hung around for a bit, but it did not reappear. Driving out of the wadi a monochrome wheatear with a complete back tail-bar flew across the road – Finsch’s Wheatear

Finsch’s Wheatear

With the warming sun raptors became more active and a mixed flock of vultures; Lammergier, Egyptian and Black appeared overhead. My ebird checklist is here.

Vedi Hills

It was getting on for mid-morning by the time we reached this steep sided gorge with running water. Here we found many more Finsch’s Wheatear and Eastern Rock Nuthatch – both species with recently fledged young. Other than that the only obviously new species was Little Ringed Plover. Moreover as the morning wore on the canyon was filling up with day trippers. May 9th is Victory Day in Armenia, a national holiday, and we were birding a popular picnic spot!

Finsch’s Wheatear

Leaving the gorge there were a number of Black-headed Buntings singing in the field margins. All in all somewhat underwhelming ,and not a hint of Grey-necked Bunting or Upcher’s Warbler. My eBird checklist is here.

It is easy to see why there are historic records of Mongolian Finch from both this site and Vedi Springs. A combination of accessible drinking water in high altitude desert. There are plenty of recent records from nearby Türkiye, but the species has not been seen in the Vedi area since 2015. Interestingly Duncan Bulling (see Birding The Silk Road) had drinking Desert Finches a few days later. Again we should almost of certainly of continued deeper into the habitat.

Oorts Gorge

This site lies a little further South and directly overlooks Armash Fish Ponds. It is altogether rougher and more remote . Once we had figured out the 4WD settting the Toyota handled the difficult, and at times steep, track with ease. We drove as far as Surb Nshan Church (a cave) which is a traditional site for Pale Rock Sparrow. The drive Continuing on foot we checked out a Persian Wheatear site. Sadly we saw neither species – it was that kind of day. Special mention goes to a hepatic phase Cuckoo that Graham found. This is a form neither of us had seen before and one of the highlights of the trip.

Rufous phase Cuckoo (Cucuclus cuculus)

The drive back to the main road gave us views that allowed us to appreciate the scale Armash Fish Ponds. As we dropped down to

The Areni Region

A White Knuckle Ride

Next morning our alarms went off a stupid o’clock and we crept downstairs to collect packed breakfasts from Anna’s kitchen. At 6 am, bang on cue, a white Lada Niva pulled up outside the B&B. By arrangement out stepped two camo clad rangers from the Arpa Protected Landscape. They would take us up nearby Mount Gdnasar in search ofCaspian Snowcock. This is one of several species found in Armenia that I had not seen since an epic trip around Türkyie in 1986. Other hold outs from that tour include Bimaculated Lark, Grey-necked Bunting, Radde’s Accentor and Eastern Rock Nuthatch.

Driving North out of the village we stayed on the main road for a few km before turning East towards the mountains. The initial ascent was on tarmac, but we soon turned off onto a dirt road. One that inevitably got rougher and steeper as we gained height.

The drive

After 30 minutes or so our driver veered sharply off piste to crest a grassy ridge facing some vertical crags. We had arrived on-site!


Our guides proved not only to be excellent drivers, but also top observers. It was cool when we arrived, but as the sun got up a Snowcock started to call. We were struggling but the guides soon located it and got all our scopes on it. Way too distant for conventional photography I recorded some dodgy video.

Caspian Snowcock

There was not much else going birdwise and sadly we saw neither Brown Bear or Bezoar. Leopard, and a few do persist in this wild and remote landscape, was never really on the cards. So happy with our Snowcock we decided to return to Areni. The lower slopes were warming up and appeared quite birdy but our time with the rangers was up. Returning to Areni we paid the agreed fee and despite the lack of common language thanked them for a wonderful experience.

Snowcock safely UTB!
Noravank Monastery

Back at the B&B we took a quick break and loaded our gear into the Toyota. Our next destination, Noravank Monastery, is a newish site for Persian Wheatear. Although not rare globally this species is tricky to see in the WP. Many catch up with it wintering in Kuwait. Alternatively small numbers breed in southern Armenia or in neighbouring Nakhchivan, a landlocked enclave of Azerbaijan. The latter is hard to access and most Armenian records of Persian Wheatear are from the southern border with Iran. Hence a reliable site in the Areni region, where acccording to eBird they were already present in 2023, was very welcome.

Noravank lies at the head of a steep sided gorge just a short drive on good roads from our accomodation . There is ample car-parking, but like Khor Virap it is on the main tourist circuit and gets busy. We made two visits, mid-morning and late-afternoon; both had their moments! Of interest to the toursits are the well preserved monastery buildings which date back to the 13th century. From a birding perspective most of the action is on the stony slopes beyond the perimeter wall.

There we easily found several pairs of Eastern Black-eared Wheatear and some flightly flocks of Red-fronted Serin.

Eastern Black-eared Wheatear (Oenanthe melanoleuca)
Red-fronted Serin (Serinus pusillus)
A Mad Scramble!

Overhead were Red-billed Choughs and Crag Martins which appeared to be nesting in the monestary buidings.

Crag Martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris)

Calling from the slopes we heard, and eventually saw, Blue Rock Thrush and Eastern Rock Nuthatch. This supersized, and very loud Nuthatch, was another of the species I had not seen since 1986.

Whilst this was quality birding there was no sign of the star turn. Leaving Gramham to photograph Eastern Black-eared Wheatear I slowly started to climb the scree covered slope towards the cliffs. The terrain was uncertain and it took me some twenty minutes to reach the big boulders at the base of the cliffs. Here I heard an unfamilar song not far away. Arms out-stretched and holding on tight to keep my footing I peered over the top of a big rock. A small bird with a red tail jumped up on top of some nearby boulders – Persian Wheatear (WP #743). Bollocks! If I let go to use my camera I would take a big tumble! Gingerly I worked my way to a more stable position, but the birds saw me and flew up to the high cliffs.

I managed to raise Graham on WhatsApp (the 4G network is generally good throughout Armenia). Rather than follow in my footsteps I suggested an alternative and possibly easier route. Unfortunately by the time he arrived the wheatears had completely disappeared. The site was now very busy and we returned to town to regroup. This proved to be inspired. As we got out the car by the B&B and looked up there was a Lammergier over our heads.

Lammergier (Gypaetus barbatus)
Take Two!

We returned later in the day. After another photoshoot with an obliging Black-eared Wheatear we clambered up the scree, but got seperated.

The Persian Wheatears responded to my tape in the area of the lower boulders. I could not see them! Fortunately Graham could and manged some record shots. Before I could join him they headed off to the high crags. More bollocks! Unfortunately the quickest route back to the car was the way we came and it was much harder going down. My very slow descent was more about caution than age (honest). But on reflection it was a huge mistake not to have packed a walking pole – enough said!

Graham making a rapid(ish) descent to the car park

Not entirely satisfactory but we had both seen and heard Persian Wheatear. At this point we decided to call it a day and returned to the B&B. There, after a restorative shower we enjoyed another of Anna’s excellent home cooked dinners. Not to mention a glass of wine from the family cellar, Unfortunately Anna’s husband seemed a touch disappointed that we sign up for a tasting of his entire range. But that could have got very messy – and we had another long day ahead of us.

Return to the Caucasus

Armenia at last

Despite three trips to Georgia since 2014 I had not been able to return to the Caucasus since the pandemic. Spring 2023 represented the first opportunity for Graham and I to resurrect our trip to Armenia that fell victim to Covid in 2020.  So it was with high anticipation that we departed LHR for Paris to catch a connecting flight to Yerevan.  We flew Air France as the flight arrived in the evening – flights with other carriers arrive in the very early morning!

Clear of passport control and customs Graham changed money whilst I fended off the many taxi scammers. A brief call to our hotel brought a lift and five minutes later we were  settling into the comfortable Kesabella Touristic House (kesabella@hotmail.com). After a simple al fresco evening meal and a welcome beer we retired for the night.

A good breakfast preceded the delivery of our hire car at the agreed time by local rental company CaraVan. We opted for an AWD Toyota Fortuner which proved to be a wise move. It was fine if a touch underpowered and less well specifed than the Landcruisers we drove in Kuwait. Strangely the pre-departure briefing by the agent focussed on a complimentary brolly rather than how to engage AWD! Our first destination was an area adjacent to the ancient monastery of Khor Virap about 40 km South of Yerevan..

Khor Virap
Khor Virap from the approach road; A cloud covered Mount Ararat can be seen in the back left of the image.

The monastery lies on one of a series of low hills close to the border with Türkiye and is quite the tourist trap.  Parking next to the cemetary we circumvented the entrance and headed South towards a small reedbed just across the border.  White Storks fed in the small fields and a few Steppe Buzzards drifted over us. Over the border a lone Montagu’s Harrier made its way north agains the snowy slopes of Mount Ararat.  Significantly the area of scrub between  the footpath and the border fence held good numbers of Ménétries Warbler.  A new species for Graham which, with a little bit of patience, showed very well.

The birds in Armenia are of the nominate race Sylvia mystacea mystacea. These have a dull dusky pink suffusion to the breast and throat best seen in the right hand image.

Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

Other species in this area included Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, Black-headed Bunting and both Lesser Grey and Red-backed Shrikes.

You can find my eBird checklist here.

Fantasy Fish Ponds

About 25 km South of Khor Virap lies one of the iconic WP birding destinations, Armash Fish Ponds.  These privately owned fishponds cover ca 1,500 ha are not a nature reserve despite being their designation as an IBA by Birdlife International.  The importance of Armash FP for breeding and migrating waterbirds is well understood, as is the potential for ecotourism.  For example a recently opened lodge (whihc we did not know about), makes it possible for birders to stay on site. 

Access is strictly by permit which is available in advance, for a small fee from Karen Aghababyan. Karen is the leading field ornithologist in Armenia and was a great source of help guidance throughtout our trip.

We briefly visited a Verdi supermarket to pick up some lunch before presenting ourself at the gate.  After a short Soviet era administrative pause the gatekeeper waved us through. And just beyond the entrance we found an entrancing colony of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. 

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater (Merops persicus)

Driving slowly along the bunds between the ponds we encountered good numbers of herons and Pygmy Comorants in flight. Whilst White-winged Black Terns seemed to be everywhere.

Small herons such as Squacco and Black-crwoned Night Heron were abundant in the many reed-filled ditches.

Gone with the wind!

The birds continued to come thick and fast. Larger passerines such as Roller and Rufous-tailed Bush-robin were not hard to find.

However, the strong breeze was keeping any Acrocephalus warblers including the much desired Paddyfield Warbler low in the reeds. Despite Graham’s excellent ear we simply could not convince ourselves we were hearing Paddyfields amongst the familar Reed Warbler cacophony. Only a few Great Reed Warblers were robust enough to brave the wind.

Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus)

There were however thousands of Sand Martins and we did locate a few flocks of flava wagtails. We were pleased to pick out migrant Grey-headed (ssp thunbergi) and Blue-headed (ssp flava) amongst the local Black-headed (ssp feldegg). I hoped that we might see another blue-headed form, Syke’s Wagtail (ssp beema), en route to SE Russia. However I am content that only saw ssp flava. Pro flava features include a yellow chin, no sub-ocular mark, dark ear coverts and necklace of dark spots.

Black-headed Wagtail (Motacilla flava feldegg)
Where are the waders?

Apart from a couple of flocks of Grey Plover in flight we saw very few waders. Unfortunately there were no partially drained fish ponds to provide suitable habitat. The levels in the ponds varies from year to year and we were just unlucky. But the lack of waders and hidden Acros meant that we would return later in the trip. On our way back to the gate we did find another group of ponds favoured by some White-tailed Lapwings. A nearby ditch held a few larger waders – but it was a bit thin.

White-tailed Lapwing (Vanelllus leucurus)
The Long Way Home

The evening was drawing in and tiredness was catching up with both of us. Our hotel was about 80 minutes drive away. But checking Google Maps the route given was closer to 2.5 hours drive via a circuitous route. Graham took the wheel and negotiated a difficult drive over a twisty potholed made harder by the local truck drivers. But why the detour? It turns out that the fastest route to Areni goes throught the village of Karki, which is marked on maps as an eclave of Azerbaijan. Google Maps perceives this as a need to cross two international borders and adds time. In reality Karki is administered by Armenia and the main North/South road passes through with no delay. This unforced error left us both frazzled and to arrive late at the charming Areni Wine Cellar B&B. Fortunately our lovely host Anna was unfazed by this and served us a delicious evening meal on her terrace.

And if only…

It seems churlish to look back at such an outstanding day (eBird checklist here) with regret. But if the lack of waders was unfortunate, missing Paddyfield Warbler was unforgivable. What could we have done better? Needing to organise permits in advance makes it hard to work around the weather. That said being on site in the early morning might of have helped with the warblers and offered better light for photography. Most of all I wonder if it was wise to tackle such a large diverse site on day one of a trip? Some useful lessons for future trips.

Twixmas in Morocco – Oukaimeden

I conceived this rather ambitious short birding trip with the aim of seeing four new Western Palearctic species in three days. For me it represented three firsts.  This was my first solo trip overseas since turning 60, since the start of the C-19 pandemic and since cancer surgery. And it nearly didn’t happen.  The journey from Trevarth to Gatwick took nearly eight hours.  Fortunately I got from the long stay car park to the gate in just 21 minutes – three minutes before it closed!

The flight to Marrakech was uneventful. Entry formalities complete I met my driver who took me to the nearby Riad L’aeroport.  I enjoyed a good night’s sleep and a fine breakfast in this spotless and comfortable hotel. Fully recovered I returned to the airport to pick up my hire car and start the 1.5 hour drive to Oukaimeden.

Stay on the Grass

Ouakimeden is a ski resort in the High Atlas. It known in Western Palearctic birding circles as the place to search the snowline for high altitude Atlas species .  There was just one problem – no snow!  Undeterred I followed the example Hamid (Guyuin Birding Tours) and his group onto the flat expanse of short turf above the lake.

The approach to Ouakaimeden

Red-billed Chough was the most obvious species, whilst White Wagtail,  Meadow and Water Pipits fed on the ice melt.  Black Wheatears and Black Redstarts flitted around the boulders. 

An unfamilar high-pitched melodic call distracted me. This emanated from small flocks of  Atlas Horned Larks (Eremophilia (alpestris) atlas) flying low across the sward.  This distinctive taxon restricted to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria is considered by some authorities as a full species. For more about Horned Lark taxonomy see HOLA Staines.

Atlas Horned Lark
Sister Species

I met Hamid who told me his group had seen African Crimson-winged Finch further up the valley.  A search of the area of boulders he directed me towards was not successful.  Next I turned my attention to similar habitat just beneath the road.  I did not immediately recognise the first birds I saw.  For some reason Rock Sparrow is not a species I have encountered often in my travels.

Rock Sparrow

As I tried to get better photographs of a Rock Sparrow when a bigger bird appeared in the viewfinder.  African Crimson-winged Finch (WP #734), the first of my four trip targets.  It is nearly forty years since I saw the sister species (Asian Crimson-winged Finch) in Eastern Turkey.  As such this striking bird felt very special.  After 15 minutes I left the flock of four to feed in peace and headed to the café where Hamid suggested for lunch.

African Crimson-winged Finch

After lunch I followed Hamid up the track beyond the last car park. About 1 km along the track we parked and scrambled up the slope to search some livestock enclosures. Hamid and his clients scored an Alpine Accentor which unfortunately I could not relocate.

Sheep and Goat shelters favoured by Rock Sparrowsand Alpine Accentor
The Descent

By now a day and half of travelling had caught up with me.  Consequently I decided to head back down the approach road to my hotel.  After about 3 km I stopped by some radio masts where Hamid’s party  had seen Levaillant’s Woodpecker. No luck with the woodpecker, but a Rock Bunting emerged from a nearby bush.  

A few km down the road I found a generous pull off next to some promising habitat.  A mixture of well spaced mature conifers and open areas that is favoured by the woodpeckers.  A calling Crossbill shared the upper branches with African Chaffinches. 

African Chaffinch

I played a little bit of “music” and immediately got a response!  Another burst and a superb male Levailliant’s Woodpecker (#735) burst into view and alighted on a bare bough.

Levailliant’s Woodpecker

The woodpecker disappeared as quickly as it arrived.  More than content with the day’s birding I continued the descent to the attractive wooded Ourika Valley.  Here I quickly found the Auberge de Maquis, a former boar hunter’s lodge turned cozy hotel where I would spend the night.

Auberge le Maquis

Mount Amasa and Ashalim

The rocky slopes of Mount Amasa in central Israel typify hillsides found across much of the Mediterranean basin.  The mosaic of boulders, scrub and open area is home to species such a Blue Rock Thrush, Sardinan Warbler and Woodlark. Proximity to the Judean Desert means that some desert species are also present, e.g. Mourning Wheatear and Scrub Warbler.  Moreover the climate and terroir, as Ingrid and I later discovered, suits vineyards that produce very fine wine.  Even more remarkable is the fact that there are wheatears all year round!  I winter Finsch’s Wheatears from Turkey and the Caucasus replace the Eastern Black-eared Wheatears that breed each summer. Their Hebrew names which translate as Winter and Summer Wheatear reflect the seasonal occurance of these two species.

Wine from Mount Amasa was served in our hotel

Mount Amasa is about the same distance from Eilat as Tel Aviv. This  together with the quality birding made it a sensible place to meet  Yoav Perlman. Plus Yoav wanted to see if the Persian Wheatear that had spent the last two winters here had returned.  We met in the car park of Tel Arad National Park  an importantant archeological site with a series of well preserved artefacts dating back to the Canaanite period (Early Bronze Age). I transferred my gear to Yoav’s car and we drove the few km up the road to the trailhead.

Winter Wheatears and a Big Surprise

Under bright blue skies we walked out across a flat grassy plain towards the foothills.  The elevation and strong wind made me regret not having a coat.  But conversation was a good distraction and as we gained height there was plenty to see. In particular good numbers of Finsch’s Wheatear along with Stonechats and Spectacled Warblers.  Yoav’s keen ears picked out other species including Woodlark and Scrub Warbler, but nothing was coming close.  And there was no sign of the Persian Wheatear on its favoured ridge. To mitigate the wind chill we took shelter in a hollow to see if the wheatears would come to us.

Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) , Mount Amasa, Israel, January 2020
Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)

After about ten minutes with little success all hell let loose! A startled fox dashed down the path with a large raptor in hot pursuit.  I tried to process what we were seeing when Yoav excitedly called it as a Goshawk. The first he had seen in Israel for ca 20 years.  I was instructed to get a photo as Yoav’s camera was in his bag. The huge female did a U-turn and appeared to pitch in on the opposite hillside. We left our shelter and scrambled up the  hillside, but unfortunately couldn’t relocate it. I walked down the valley to try and photograph the wheatears whilst Yoav scoured the upper slopes for the Persian but with no luck.

Finsch's Wheatear (Oenanthe finschii), Mount Amasa, Israel, January 2020
Finsch’s Wheatear (Oenanthe finschii)
Ashalim Reservoir

We left Mount Amasa and retreived my car then visited nearby Arad for a quick coffee and sandwich.  Our next destination was Ashalim Reservoir at the edge of the Dead Sea industrial zone.   Patches of open water held plenty of duck, including an impressive 47 Ferruginous Duck.  The extensive reedbeds were full of wintering Chiffchaffs feeding alongside the resident Clamorous Reed Warblers. Dead Sea Sparrows darted in and out of the vegetation and overhead were Marsh Harriers and a Long-legged Buzzard  This very birdy area eventually produced our target species, African Swamphen.

African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis) – 4th January 2020

Recently the Western Palearctic taxa in the “Purple Swamphen” complex were split into three species. Western (Purple) Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) is found in the Iberian Penninsular and North Africa. In Turkey, the Caucausus and the Arabian Penninsular it is replaced by Grey-headed Swamphen (Porphyrio policephalus).  The third species, African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis),  recently extended its range northwards from the Nile Valley into Israel.  To be honest it was not even on my radar for this trip and that made for an even more welcome WP tick (#718).

A Great Spotted Cuckoo put in a brief appearance which was a sure sign that spring had arrived in Israel.  Unfortunately our time had gone very quickly and Yoav needed to back in Tel Aviv.  


There was just over two hours of daylight left.  Yoav suggested a site just off Route 90 for Arabian Warbler to visit on the way back to Eilat.  This black hooded lump of Sylvia warbler starts to sing in early January and should have been easy to find.  I followed Yoav’s directions to a wadi just South of Hazeva full of mature Acacias.  As directed, I explored the wadi both to the North and South of the parking area but to no avail.

Wadi South of Hazeva – mature Acacias like tehse are favoured by Arabian Warbler.

Unfortunately the only Sylvia warbler I saw in the wadi was a very photogenic Sardinian Warbler.  An Arabian (Great) Grey Shrike was the only one of the trip and  putting the fear of God into the local bulbuls.

Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala)

There was a gorgeous sunset to enjoy before I rejoined Route 90 and returned to Eilat to join Ingrid for dinner.

Sunset over the Ararva Valley

Pink and Grey

After two fine sunny days the weather took a turn for the worse. My plan was to go out for the morning and look for Sinai Rosefinch then meet Ingrid for lunch. I started at Km 35 on Route 90 and looked for a Steppe Grey Shrike, but with no luck. I drove back towards Eilat and took the turning west at Km19 towards the Eilat Mountains.

Grey skies over the track to Amram’s Pillars.

After a few kilometers the road divides. I took the right-hand fork towards Amram’s Pillars. These natural pillars of red sandstone are a popular tourist attraction and a good place ot look for desert birds. As I parked I noticed two tiny birds with long tails scurrying over the boulders that edged the car-park. These were the two showiest Scrub Warblers that one could wish for. One even posed for me on top of one of the boulders.

Scrub Warbler, Scotocerca inquieta, Amram's Pillars, Israel, January 2020
Scrub Warbler (Scotocerca inquieta)

I walked the start of a couple of the trails leading from the car-park without going as far as the pillars. It was the Israeli weekend and many hikers and dog walkers were enjoying their day off. As a consequence there were no birds. I drove back towards the camp site and noticed a few small birds feeding on a low sandstone rock. One of these was very pink indeed! I turned the car around and edged back to the rock. A small flock of Sinai Rosefinches was attending a feeding station. I manouvered the car to use it as a hide and enjoyed excellent views. The raspberry pink male with it’s snowy forehead was a delight because on my previous winter visit I saw only the dun females.

Sinai Rosefinch, Carpodacus synoicus, Amram's Pillars, Israel, January 2020
Sinai Rosefinch (Carpodacus synoicus)

My time was up and I needed to return to the hotel.  Unfortunately Ingrid was still unwell and wished to stay in bed.  I looked in vain for two other local scarcities; Hume’s warbler and Striated Scops Owl.  But the weather got worse with a cool wind and intermittent rain.  And after a half hearted look at North Beach and the Canal I gave in for the day.

Uvda Valley Wheatears and a lifer

The Uvda Valley Wheatears

The Uvda Valley is about a one hour drive NW of Eilat.  Autumn rains caused the desert to bloom making it attractive to a  range of  wintering passerines espcially wheatears.  These included two Israeli rarities; Kurdish Wheatear and Basalt (Mourning) Wheatear that I was keen to see.  The black and white nominate form of Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens lugens) is common throughout Israeli desert regions.  In contrast the striking all black Basalt Wheatear (O. l. warriae) is a scarce (increasing?) winter visitor from NE Jordan and Syria. These represent two of eight taxa in a complex distributed across the arid regions of North and East Africa and the Middle East .  Historically  Basalt Wheatear was regarded as a colour morph of Mourning Wheatear. However recent work suggests that it is at very least a distinctive subspecies and quite possibly a good species.

Despite best efforts at an early(ish) start I was doubly thwarted. First by lack of planning; no packed breakfast. Second by a call from Yoav, surprised that I was not already in the field, who wished to plan for Sunday.  When I arrived at the given coordinates it was already mid-morning. Although Noam Weiss and clients were already leaving they had seen both birds.  Despite clear directions it took me over two hours to track down the Kurdish Wheatear.  After showing well for <1min  it  flew off 200+ m. to another patch of bushes and I couldn’t relocate it.  A real shame as although not a WP tick, I saw this species in Turkey 34 years ago, it might as well be!

Kurdish Wheatear (Oenanthe xanthoprymna)
Kurdish Wheatear (Oenanthe xanthoprymna)

Time was moving on as I walked NW up the valley to try to find the regular Basalt; one of four wintering in the area. It was slow going with many distractions like this confiding female Hooded Wheatear.

Hooded Wheatear (Oenanthe monacha), Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Hooded Wheatear (Oenanthe monacha)

And a noisy flock of more than forty Trumpeter Finches to name but a few.

Trumpeter Fich Bucanetes githagineus, Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Trumpeter Finch (Bucanetes githagineus)
Mourning Glory

I spent some time with this Mourning Wheatear perplexed by the coarse and extensive streaking on the crown. Later I discovered Dutch birder Leo Boon the author of a 2004 article “Mourning wheatears” – illustrated in Dutch Birding had photographed the same bird.  He wondered if it was of the Eastern form O.l. persica that breeds in Iran.  Leo recorded video and collected poo for DNA  extraction/sequencing.  I await the outcome with interest.

Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens lugens/persica), Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens lugens/persica)

Nearby a promising looking black wheatear sitting on top of a bush about 250 m away turned out to be the boy. 

Basalt Wheatear Oenanthe (lugens) warriae), Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Basalt Wheatear (Oenanthe (lugens) warriae)

The Basalt Wheatear was clearly not happy that  I hadn’t brought a tribute of mealworms and promptly went walkabout. Not before giveing couple of distant fly pasts to show off it’s distinctive wing and tail patterns. More than happy I said farewell to the Uvda Valley wheatears and returned to the car. I drove to Yotvat to find something to eat and had a brief poke around the north circular field,  Finding nothing of note I headed South in search for my next target. 

Samar, a small kibbutz about 40 km North of Eilat, has recently hosted a family of Black Scrub Robins. This sub-Saharan species has recently colonised the Southern Arava.   The one remaining bird, I was told, had moved location and become a bit elusive.  Passing through the sturdy gates of the kibbutz I stopped to photograph an approachable pair of Spur-winged Lapwings.

Afternoon Delight
Spur-winged Lapwing (Vanellus spinosus), Samar, Israel, January 2020
Spur-winged Lapwing (Vanellus spinosus)

The horse paddocks, reputed to be the bird’s new favourite haunt, were easy enough to find.  But because it was the Israeli weekend the young kibbutz residents were busy grooming  their animals and cleaning tack. I explored a few areas of nearby scrub finding little of note, although a couple of Graceful Prinias posed for the camera.

Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis), Samar, Israel, January 2020
Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis)

Back at the paddocks the Black Scrub Robin (WP #717) crept out from cover to drink at a leaky pipe. As I lined up the camera the BCS was spooked by a passer by and flew to the kibbutz perimeter. Before I could catch up and recompose it dropped into a well-lit hollow under some tall bushes.  This was absolutely perfect except for the chain link fence between me and the bird! Here the BCS strutted its stuff. A magnificant all black bird frequently showing off the rows of white spots on the underside of its huge tail.  An absolute delight but just impossible to photograph…

After another 30 minutes or so of frustration I gave up and headed back to the hotel to catch up with Ingrid and have dinner.  There would be much to talk about after an enjoyable if slightly frustrating day.

An Unexpected Visitor

Ingrid and I flew to Amsterdam on New Years Eve and spent the night at an airport hotel. Early the next morning we flew to the newly constructed Ramon Airport just North of Eilat. However it did take two attempts. The first flight returning to Schipol after an hour because a sensor warning light came on in the cockpit. Consequently we arrived after dark and took a bus (runs every 30 mins) to our hotel near the Coral Beach. I was excited by a return to southern Israel 25 years after our last visit. Although I had no idea that an unexpected visitor from Africa was going to make the first day especially so.

After a good sleep and breakfast I took a bus into town to collect a pre-booked hire car. Two things I should have done at the same time. First use one of the ATMs in the centre of town. These recognise UK debit cards and issue small denomination notes. Seconly buy a local SIM card ca £20 for all the data you will use in a week (or even a month!).

When a new bird is not a tick!

I collected my gear and drove North thruugh Eilat noting the much changed skyline around the North Beach. I turned off East towards the Wadi Araba Border Crossing into Jordan and the Eilat Ornithological Park.

The excellent information boards at the entrance to the International Birding and Research Centre Eilat

The park which serves as HQ for the IBRCE (International Birding and Research Centre Eilat) is undergoing a makeover. Improved trails and hides will enhance the experience for coachloads of tourists who come to learn about the work of the centre. The purpose of my visit was twofold. First of all to pick up some information on the scarce wintering species in the Southern Arava. Secondly to try and see one the 5+ Oriental Honey Buzzards that were wintering in the area. I completely failed on the OHBs but enjoyed some of the common wintering species. Both around the park and on the adjacent saltpans.

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola), Israel, January 2020
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) – IBRCE
Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) – IBRCE

Just as I was leaving I saw a tweet about an African Crake that had been taken into care in Eilat!! A real WTF moment. That on day one of your trip a species with <15 Western Palearctic records has arrived on your doorstep. But! To cut a long story short the African Crake (a species in the same genus as Corncrake) arrived at the IRBCE in a bag. Found in a city garage and rescued from a cat it was lively but injured. Quite rightly it was taken into veterinary care, but not before a photoshoot.

An unexpected visitor African Crake (Crex egregia)
African Crake (Crex egregia) – IBRCE

Regrettably I cannot count African Crake on my Western Palearctic list. Listing birds is a personal thing and even more so in the WP because, like the UK constitution, the rules are unwritten. However for consistency I choose to follow the principles used by the American Birding Association for their recording area.

Evening on the saltpans

After the excitement of the crake I drove a little further North to the saltpans at Km20. It was now late afternoon and looking over the saltpans towards Jordan the light was excellent. Greater Flamingos are the stars of the show here with three big flocks totalling about 450 birds.

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) – Km 20 Saltpans

Including the long-staying melanistic individual.

mealanistic Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) – Km 20 Saltpans

Waders feeding in the shallow edges to the saltpans included Redshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Little Stint, Dunlin and both Kentish and Ringled Plovers.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) – Km 20 Saltpans
Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) – Km 20 Saltpans
Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis) – Km 20 Saltpans

By now the light was starting to go. After a couple of false starts I found the gap in the fence that allowed entry to the Km19 sewage works. In the time I had left I didn’t manage much beyond the exptected herons and duck. Although overhead were some impressive flights of Greater Cormorants heading south from I don’t where to a roost site at the coast. As dusk fell I called it a day and headed back to Eilat for an excellent dinner at a local seafood restaurant.