In yesterday’s My Biggest Dip: The Barbary Falcon, I only told you half the truth. Dipping on the falcon that day was a major disappointment (of my own doing) but our guide Itai Shanni managed to get us on breeding pair on Sunday, our last morning of desert birding.
I ventured out with Itai, Martin Garner, and Neil Glenn to the Hoopoe Lark Reserve just north of Eilat, right on the border of Jordan.
We stood on the “highest sand dune” and combed the area for Greater Hoopoe-Lark.
The Hoopoe-Lark “runs speedily with sudden stops in upright position; also creeps away slowly. In characteristic song flight, male ascends vertically a few meters, twists over and spirals to bush or ground with outstretched wings.” (Princeton Field Guide to Birds of the Middle East). Though we didn’t observe Hoopoe Lark, we found some fresh morning tracks in the sand.
We also observed Black-eared Wheatear, White-crowned Wheater (below), Balkan Warbler, Masked Shrike, Steppe Buzzard, Chiffchaff, Lesser Whitethroat, Crested Larks, and Common Kestrel. Taking snapshots of sand-colored birds at long range with a 300 mm lens is tough, so I suggest you check out blogs by Yoav Perlman, Martin Garner, and Eilat Birding for great photos of these and other birds. Another highlight was watching four sprightly red fox cubs played in a sandy hollow beyond the border fence.
Though the news media is rife with reports of conflict in and around the Middle East, the areas of conflict pale in comparison to the vast and special places where a measurable peace settles over the observer; this quiet, lonely reserve is one of them.
Accepting the fact that Hoopoe-Larks had wrapped up their morning displays and moved on, we later drove to the Eilat Mountains to watch an incredible, world-class moment of raptor migration over the hills of southern Israel.
For more than an hour, we watched as a continuous arc of migrating raptors stretched overhead, appearing over the crest of a mountain to our left and disappearing over a crest to our right. Steppe Buzzards, Steppe Eagles, Booted Eagles, Greater Spotted Eagle, Black Storks, and other species drifted in the thermals in a northeast direction; perhaps, my host Itai Shanni surmised, on their way to the Caspian and Black seas.
The rose-and cream-colored rock surrounding this area is striking and beautiful, in a hard but almost feminine way. She cast gentle highlights over the landscape that changed with the position of the sun.
Southern Israel, perhaps the entire Middle East, is a geologist’s dream. Occasionally, black granite outcrops jut upward between ridges of sandstone and limestone.
While I was admiring this gallery of colored rock, Itai spotted a Barbary Falcon soaring towards the cliff and land in a crevasse, where it was rearing chicks in a lovely nest.
Here was my LAST CHANCE to rectify My Biggest Dip – to tick Barbary Falcon off my list before I stepped on a plane and headed home, perhaps never to return. This was an important bird, not only because it’s a cool-looking raptor, but also, if I missed a bird named after the most infamous pirates in history, I’d lug a carry-on worth of regret onto the plane.
The guys quickly lined the bird up in their scopes; the time it took me to find the bird could be measured in epochs. I began to get that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, believing that I was about to “double dip” on this species, even though it was sitting on a cliff right in front of me. It took SO long that Neil said, “Christ! It was a juvenile when you began looking and a fully-fledged adult by the time you spotted it!”
To be fair, however, the crevasse was exceedingly far away; so far that our guide was embarrassed by our attempts to snap a photo of it. “Nooo, you’re not trying to get a photo of that, are you?”
Maybe he was right. Can you see the bird in the image below? Neither can I. It’s perfectly hidden in the darkest, longest shadow at the lower right hand edge.
But good photo or not, “X” marks the spot where I saw my first Barbary Falcon, a nemesis averted, a treasure in the rock, and one last jewel in a precious strand of Middle Eastern birds.