Israel: Migration Hotspot at the Crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe

The tiny nation of Israel is one of the finest birding locations on Earth; something that has led it to be a firm favourite on the calendars of European birders, many of which themselves migrate there each year. Its position, at the meeting point of Africa, Asia and Europe, leads Israel to not only hold an interesting and varied avifauna of its own, but also allows it to play host to one of the world’s most impressive migration spectacles. In addition to the great birding, few can argue that the land known as modern-day Israel has been at the heart of “civilization” for millennia. We will bird our way from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, through a land that has been ruled by the Romans, Ottomans, and Egyptians, and played a major role in the Crusades. Few places have such palpable history, and we’ll see a bevy of famous locations including Mount Hermon, the Judean and Negev Deserts, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Jericho and even take time to float in the Dead Sea.


This relatively short tour takes in all the major highlights of Israel, and provides a safe opportunity to bird the Middle East. The timing of the tour visit is strategic, timed for when the largest numbers of migratory birds typically move through the country. With so many birds on the move, and a very active local birding scene, Israel is well known for turning up plenty of rare birds, with regular rarities in recent times, including Black Scrub-Robin, Grey Hypocolious, and Caspian Plover. We will adapt our itinerary daily depending on what is on offer, and if the opportunity arises to see something special, we’ll make every effort to do so. Less known, is that Israel also has a very healthy mammal list, and we hope to see some of these along the way, which could include Jungle Cat, Striped Hyena, Wolf, or Dorcas Gazelle.

The breathtaking Palestine Sunbird is easy to find
The breathtaking Palestine Sunbird is easy to find (Steve Arlow)

Israel is packed with numerous historical, religious, and cultural attractions too, such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, and the Dead Sea. Therefore, there is plenty to do there outside of this birding itinerary. While some of these places are included within this tour (e.g. Nazareth and the Dead Sea), you may decide explore these further beyond this tour, or to visit one of the Holy areas not included on the schedule. If you wish to do a small add on please contact the Tropical Birding office, and we can help with these and other areas. We can also arrange trips into neighboring Jordan to visit the hallowed archaeological site of Petra.

A migrant Collared Pratincole rests in Eilat
A migrant Collared Pratincole rests in Eilat (Simon Buckell)

Day 1: Arrival in Tel Aviv. After arrival in the International airport you will be transferred to a hotel in a quiet rural area, away from the city.

Day 2: To The Hula Valley. On this morning, we will make our way north to Nahsholim, where we’ll spend some time at the Ma’agan Mikhael fishponds. Here we will get familiar with the more common migrants and residents, which should include Temminck’s and Little Stints, Marsh Sandpiper, Ruff, White and Black Storks, Greater Flamingo, Glossy Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Squacco and Black-crowned Night Herons, and a variety of waterfowl. Around the fish ponds we’ll find Common, Pied and White-breasted Kingfishers, and perhaps to Little or Baillon’s Crakes. Songbirds could include Clamorous Reed Warbler, Crested Lark, Graceful Warbler and maybe an early Ruppell’s Warbler. Specialities here include Armenian Gull, and the colossal Pallas’s Gull, Greater Sand Plover, and Spur-winged Lapwing. We should also see a regional endemic, in the form of Yelkouan Shearwater, gliding over the nearby Mediterranean Sea. We’ll make our way to the lush Hula Valley, our base for two nights; passing Nazareth along the way.

We'll check the edges of pans for birds like an electric male Citrine Wagtail
We'll check the edges of pans for birds like an electric male Citrine Wagtail (Steve Arlow)

Day 3: The Hula Valley. Most of the day will be spent around Lake Agamon, scouring the pools, fish ponds, papyrus beds and open wetlands for birds. The area is known for being home to thousands of Common Cranes, White Storks and Great White Pelicans, which can provide an amazing spectacle. The wetlands are teeming with Western Swamphens, Spotted Crakes and thousands of wildfowl like, Marbled Teal, Ferruginous Duck and maybe even a late-staying White-headed Duck. The water’s edge is alive with singing Clamorous Reed and Cetti’s Warblers, and the open areas can hold a bounty of migrant songbirds, which often change over daily.

The Hula Valley also boasts good diversity of birds of prey, with Steppe, Lesser and Greater Spotted, Eastern Imperial, Short-toed, Booted and White-tailed Eagles all occurring, along with Pallid Harrier, Black Kite, Long-legged Buzzard, Peregrine, Merlin, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, and Black-shouldered Kite, as well as numerous other migrants, so keeping our eyes on the sky may prove worthwhile today, and indeed throughout the tour.

The desert comes with lots of wheatears - White-crowned Black Wheatear
The desert comes with lots of wheatears - White-crowned Black Wheatear (Steve Arlow)

Day 4: Mount Hermon & the Dead Sea. Much of our attention today will be on Mount Hermon, the highest point in Israel at 7295ft/2224m above sea level. We’ll begin by looking for Isabelline and Finsch’s Wheatears and Bimaculated and Calandra Larks on the stony lower slopes, followed by Cretzschmar’s Bunting, Upcher’s and Ruppell’s Warblers a little further on. As we approach the ski center, we’ll search for Rock and Pale Rock Sparrows, Olive-tree Warbler, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Syrian Serin, Sombre Tit and Western Rock Nuthatch. After a short ski-lift ride we may find Asian Crimson-winged Finch or the endemic race of Shore Lark. With eyes to the sky, we may encounter Eurasian Griffon, Egyptian Vulture, Bonelli’s Eagle and Levant Sparrowhawk.

Much of the afternoon will be spent making our way south to our base for a night on the shore of the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi, passing Jericho on our way. Those who wish to relax and have a dip in the Dead Sea this evening may do so, while others may take the chance to spend some of the night searching for Nubian Nightjar and Desert Tawny Owl a little further south.

Dead Sea Sparrow is a regional endemic
Dead Sea Sparrow is a regional endemic (Steve Arlow)

Day 5: The Dead Sea to Eilat. Much of today will be spent around Ein Gedi, where the stark Judean Desert meets the lowest land on Earth at the shore of the Dead Sea. There are a number of specialties in the area, including Sand and Chukar Partridges, Scrub Warbler, Striolated Bunting and Fan-tailed Raven, and, with some luck, Sinai Rosefinch. We also hope to see the area’s namesake Dead Sea Sparrow. We hope to encounter, among many others, Green Bee-eater, Desert Lark, Arabian Babbler, Tristram’s Starling, Lanner, and the “Barbary” Falcon form of Peregrine. For mammal lovers, Nubian Ibex could be a highlight today.
In the afternoon, after a quick dip in the Dead Sea for those who went owling last night, we will head further south making numerous birding stops along the way as we follow the Arava Valley to Eilat, our base for the next five nights.

The deserts north of Eilat are home to several species of sandgrouse - Pin-tailed
The deserts north of Eilat are home to several species of sandgrouse - Pin-tailed (Steve Arlow)

Days 6 – 9: Eilat area. Eilat can be described as nothing short of a migration wonderland. For many birders, a spring trip to Eilat can be the pinnacle of their birding career. Our exact itinerary over these four full days will be decided based on wind and weather conditions, but will involve visits to all the key sites as well as the opportunity to experience the thrill of the chase to track down any rarities that have been reported on the local grapevine.

With Eilat as a base, we have fantastic access to a variety of habitats, including desert, mountains, wadis, parks, plantations, agricultural fields, wetlands, and the Red Sea coast. The area is home to a range of resident specialities, including Arabian Babbler, Palestine Sunbird, Tristram’s Starling, Laughing Dove, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Sand Partridge, Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse, Trumpeter Finch, House Bunting, Hooded and White-crowned Wheatears, Namaqua Dove, and, with luck, Egyptian Nightjar, Pallid Scops-Owl and Desert Tawny Owl.

At this time of year, tens of thousands of raptors pass through Israel - Steppe Buzzard
At this time of year, tens of thousands of raptors pass through Israel - Steppe Buzzard (Steve Arlow)

However, it is migration that makes Eilat particularly special, and the number of both species and individual birds passing through at this time can be mind-blowing, and so is extremely difficult to convey in words. Raptor migration is perhaps most famous, and we hope to witness thousands of Steppe Buzzards, Black Kites, Egyptian Vultures, Short-toed, Booted and several Aquila eagle species. In recent years Crested Honey Buzzard has also been seen with increasing regularity. We will be spoilt for choice in this area; songbird migration is also spectacular, with large numbers of birds passing through constantly in this season.

The gorgeous Blue-cheeked Bee-eater is one of 3 species from this family on offer
The gorgeous Blue-cheeked Bee-eater is one of 3 species from this family on offer (Steve Arlow)

A lot of attention will be paid to parks and areas of scrub in Eilat, but we’ll also visit the famous International Birding and Research Centre, where the habitat is a magnet for migrants. Highlights could include Lesser Grey, Woodchat and Masked Shrikes, Cretzchmar’s and Ortolan Buntings, Collared, Semi-collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers, Common and Thrush Nightingales, Eurasian Wryneck, Common Quail, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Corncrake, European and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, several races of Western Yellow Wagtail, Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin, and up to 20 warbler species, including the handsome Ruppell’s.

Time spent along the coast, at the famous North Beach, will give us chances of rarities like Brown Booby, White-eyed Gull, Western Reef and Striated Herons; and a visit to nearby saltpans could produce the elegant Slender-billed Gull, as well as Red-throated Pipit and Citrine Wagtail.

The odd little Namaqua Dove is a resident desert species
The odd little Namaqua Dove is a resident desert species (Steve Arlow)

A trip back up the valley to Yotvata and Lotan will give us access to the Red Sea race of Arabian Warbler, as well as yet more visible migration among the scrub and irrigated agricultural fields, where we may find Bimaculated Lark, Oriental Skylark, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, and perhaps too the scarce Caspian Plover. Some time spent scouring the reservoirs outside of Eilat could pay dividends, with scarce species like Greater Sand Plover, among many other possibilities in this hotspot for vagrants. As evening falls we hope to watch Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse coming to drink at desert waterholes, after which we’ll search for the scarce Egyptian Nightjar.

Stunning Green Bee-eaters lend color to the pallid landscapes of Israel
Stunning Green Bee-eaters lend color to the pallid landscapes of Israel (Steve Arlow)

Days 10 – 11: The Negev Desert. We’ll spend the final two full days of the tour birding the Negev Desert, and overnighting in Mitzpe Roman. We’ll leave Eilat early on our first day to reach an area where Striped Hyena, Wolf, Asiatic Wild Ass, and Dorcas Gazelle are regularly seen. We’ll spend the majority of the day in the central Negev where we’ll hope to find Desert Finch, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Mourning Wheatear, and yet more migrants.
The following day, we’ll make our way to the border area of Nizzana where Israel’s most accessible population of Macqueen’s Bustards reside, and we hope to see them in full puffed-up display regalia. Desert birding will be exciting on this frontier, and targets will include Temminck’s Horned Lark, Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouse, Scrub Warbler, and yet more wheatears, pipits and other migrants.

A long list of wheatears is found in Israel (Mourning Wheatear)
A long list of wheatears is found in Israel (Mourning Wheatear) (Peter Alfrey)

Day 12: Departure from Tel Aviv. We’ll spend this morning slowly birding our way north toward Tel Aviv, fitting in a few last minute stops before arriving in time for afternoon or evening flights home.

Raptor Country: The Eilat Mountains
Raptor Country: The Eilat Mountains (Steve Arlow)

More of Steve Arlow’s Israel photos can be found here: Birder’s Playground

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Long days and early starts are necessary (typically, starts of around 5-5:30am are undertaken). The drives on this tour are not especially long, with drives of up to 3 hours on three days of the tour.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. While long days will be spent in the field in hot conditions (the climate being the toughest aspect of the tour); the walking is easy, with birding done mostly in flat areas. There will be a lot of walking – up to 4 miles per day – but this will be slow and gradual in easy walking areas. Most of the areas visited are low-lying, so altitude should not be an issue, although the highest point of the tour reaches 7295ft/2224m on Mount Hermon.

CLIMATE: Israel has a hot, desert climate, although in this season is cooler, with daytime temperatures reaching around 85 Fahrenheit/30 Celsius. Temperatures can drop to around 70 Fahrenheit/15 Celsius at night. It will be cooler at night around Mount Hermon, and so cold weather clothing should be included for this site. Israel is generally a dry country, with low rainfall, and this is one of the driest times of year, with rain usually not encountered. Humidity reaches around 40% in this season.

ACCOMMODATION: The accommodation standards are good throughout, with en-suite facilities, full time hot water and electricity, and Wi-fi at almost all places, although typically limited to reception areas.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour and not a photography-focused tour; however, the bright conditions make Israel a generally good place for bird photography, although there are no feeder set ups anywhere on this tour. Any photography, is therefore, impromptu.

WHEN TO GO: Israel has good spring and fall migration, although the spring migration is typically more concentrated in time, and is therefore considered the best period of time to visit, when the highest counts and diversity usually occurs during the latter part of March into early April. This tour is timed for when the greatest number of birds, and highest number of species are to be expected.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is needed for entry that does not expire for at least 6 months AFTER the date of departure of Israel. Visas are NOT required for stays of less than 90 days, for tourists from the USA, UK, Australia, Canada, and most Western European countries. PLEASE NOTE: This is just a guide to entry requirements, and these can change at short notice. Please check these with your local embassy/consulate, before planning your trip.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 11; meals from lunch on day 1 to breakfast on day 12; safe drinking water throughout; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from the morning of day 1 to early afternoon of day 12; ground transport in a suitable vehicle driven by the tour leader for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the morning of day 1 to the afternoon of day 12; tips for included meals; entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound bird checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in hotels (where available and if you require their services); international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from water; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; excess baggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.