Back in Blighty after nearly two weeks in Israel, with TV reports of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, and Hamas ambushes on Israeli soldiers ringing in my ears - our birding crew were mindful, but unaware of the latest horrors unfolding in this region as we worked the Med Coast, Golan Heights, Galilee, En Gedi, Arava, Eilat, the Negev Desert and Tel Aviv.
It's hard to forget the strife in the area, as barbed wire, minefield warnings and humvees bristling with troops are regular sights, but it's frightening how quickly you get used to the fact that M16s are as common as beermats in the bars of Israel.
Bazzo, Neill, Trops, Jellyhead, Mike Stocker and I escaped unscathed apart from sunburn, tick attacks, acacia lacerations and hangovers, with some good birds under our belts, although with temperatures way above the average for this time of year it was hotter than the Devil's underpants in a centrally heated sauna.
After landing in Tel Aviv we drove north to stay the night at the Hotel Nahsholim, not too far from Ma'agan Mikhael and its complex of pools on the Med Coast.
Up before dawn on the first morning and the birds came thick and fast - Yellow Vented Bulbul, Palestine Sunbirds, Spur Winged Plovers, Graceful Warblers and Pied Kingfishers were all common, and migrants more familiar to Euro-birders slipped through.
After brekkie we hit the fishponds, where stunning White Breasted (Smirnoff) Kingfishers hunted alongside Pieds, and Yellow Wags of numerous races including many Black Headed, chased after insects at the waterside.
Squadrons of Caspian Gulls passed along the coast.
A good start to the trip, we headed inland and north to the Hula Valley, passing kettles of White Storks and raptors.
The Hula Reserve itself was impressive, if a bit rundown, with 15-20 White Pelicans, Booted, White Tailed and Short Toed Eagles, a large aquila (Steppe or Imperial - the debate on that one will run in the Legless Arms for months), Marbled Duck, Little Crake, Great Reed Warbler and tons of herons.
The rest of the valley was something of a disappointment - many of the fishponds marked on the maps have been filled in for agriculture, and while its doubtless still amazing in winter, it was hard going as the temperatures soared.
Plenty of Black Kites about though hanging around on the irrigation arms, with Ospreys and Chukars, egrets, sunbirds and Honey Buzzards.
We spent the night in the hills at Methullah, right against the border with Lebanon, where I got my first views of Syrian Woodpecker (a common bird in the north) having missed several earlier the day.
After a spot of dinner, it was off to the Irish Bar to play spot the M16.
Next morning we drove up into the Golan Heights, picking up Cretzschmar's Bunting, Wrynecks, and Lesser Whitethroats by the gazillion.
The mountains themselves failed to produce the hoped for Rock Nuthatches and Sombre Tits (although Trops had one of the latter), but the cool mountain air of the tiny village of Nev Ativ was good to watch Red Rumped Swallows, Syrian Woodpeckers and Syrian Serin in.
The little finches, like diminutive Citrils, fed beside the car park in the town square, but were always flighty.
The less said about the unfortunate cardumon coffee incident in the hills the better. Marshside's finest need caffeine in the a.m, not some spice drink that was stickier than flypaper.
The road down from there to El Rom gave us Rock Thrush, Black Eared Wheatear, Great Spotted Cuckoo and Orphean Warblers (see crappy pic below), Short Toed Eagle and gorgeous Black Redstarts of the semi-ruficollis race.
No Bimacs at El Rom, so we pushed onto the Gamla reserve and its gorge which held Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Woodchat, Masked and Southern Grey Shrike, Ruppell's Warbler, Little Swift, Long Legged Buzzard and Monty's and Pallid Harriers.
Not a bad bag, although in the heat of the day, the boys didn't seem too excited by my discovery of Borad's Helleborine in the rocks - I put it down to a lack of Long Billed Pipits and we moved on.
Finished the day on a high at Bet She'an fishponds, getting there at about 5.30pm for Clamorous Reed Warbler in the reedstands on the right of the entrance, 9 Pygmy Cormorant overhead, White Tailed Eagle and plenty of cracking waders including Marsh Sands.
Stayed at Bet Prosper (basic but good) and hit the town to the sound of Scops Owls to watch Trops do mortal combat with 28 starters in a restaurant rightly astounded by his trencherman's skills.
Bright and early the next day we hit Mount Gilboa, where Neill heroically discovered a singing Long Billed Pipit on the hairpin just past the large viewpoint car park about a mile or so up the hairpin road.
Good scope views, but no chance of a decent pic for me.
Mountain Gazelle here, and plenty other common migrants, residents etc before we drove down to the kibbutz at Kafar Ruppin, a good site but not too productive today, with Golden Jackal, Mongoose, Graceful Warblers and migrants like Ortolan tight up against the Jordanian border.
From there we raced south through the desolation of the Occupied Territories til we got to the Dead Sea and the birding oasis of En Gedi.
We didn't go into the reserve - everything we needed could be seen in a wadi just to the right of the entrance - Blackstart, Rock Martins, Fan Tailed Raven, Tristram's Grackle, loads of groovy African Rock Hyraxes and 70-100 Honey Buzzards migrating over the ridge above.
From there we pushed on south, calling in at the Km20 fishponds on route 90 to pick up Greater Flamingo, scores of Little Stints and a good collection of fresh waders before pushing on to Eilat.
We arrived at the Hotel Pierre for 6.15pm, to be greeted by the burgeoning House Crow population -cool birds.
Hit the town centre parks at dawn the next morning, doing Ofirah first, then Central Park.
Although not big, they attracted a good selection of birds, with Masked Shrike, Pallid Harrier overhead, loads of Red Throated and Tree Pipits, Black Eared Wheatear and Common Mynah, Hoopoes and Wrynecks among the best of them.
Breakfast of bread and coffee, then we visited North Beach, which had White Eyed Gull, Western Reef Heron and Striated Heron mooching around the fishfarm offshore. Plenty of Slender Billed Gulls and Caspian Gulls here, with Garganey and Bee-Eaters coming in off the Red Sea.
Then it was off to the Eilat Birdwatching Centre, where the terrifyingly good birder Noam happily showed us a Black Scrub Robin, when he wasn't ringing the entire Israeli population of Spanish Sparrows.
Shame the "Black Witch" hopped back into cover by the time I'd set up my camera and scope...but Imperial Eagle, Black Storks and Nightingale were some compensation.
We headed north to the piles of compost at Km38 and the Yotvata area for the rest of the day.
Stinking and fly-infested, the dung heaps all over the country lured an astonishing number of pipits, wheatears and wagtails and our first was particularly pungent.
Black Headed Wagtails, Red Throated Pipits, Isabelline Wheatears and Short Toed Larks happily feasted in poo-town.
In a bid to clear our heads and the van from flies, we drove up to the reserve at Timna Valley a baking hot rocky landscape of desolation, which was pretty thin on birds, although it was now in the hottest part of a hot day.
The scrub behind Yotvata was equally hard work, although we did get our first Little Green Bee-Eaters of the trip, plus a good selection of commoner warblers.
From there it was on to the reform movement kibbuttz at Lotan, our base for the next three nights, and a fine place to check the area of residents and migrants.
And drink quite a lot of beer.
Plenty of common migrants about in the grounds, with more in the nearby wadis and by the track at Km76 to the north, breeding Southern Grey Shrike and Arabian Babbler, but no Crowned Sandgrouse, although a few groups had connected with them here.
Lots of shell casings on the sand here (it is very close to the Jordanian border. Please tell me that Jellyhead didn't really go and kick one in a state of sandgrouse deprived boredom?)
Trumpeter Finch, Bar Tailed Desert Lark and Black Eared Wheatear here too.
Needing a boost, we headed back and right up route 40, to the sewage works at Km9, near Shizzafon Junction, where a stunning male Hooded Wheatear was presiding over a soup of wagtails and waders.
Probably one of the birds of the trip it was an absolute beauty, just what we needed to lift our spirits.
Back on the road south to Eilat we tried the Arabian Warbler site at Km 49 and the date plantation at Km 40 with no great success - it was just too hot.
Turning north again we called in at the compost heaps behind Yotvata - buzzing with birds, including Bluethroat, 3 Rock Thrush, Isabelline Wheatear and best of all a Bimaculated Lark found by Neill, which though flighty showed very well when it headed out onto the desert sand or ploughed dust fields around us.
No sign of any Dead Sea Sparrows in the area.
Time for some beer and hard boiled eggs, the fuel that keeps Lotan running smoothly.
(As the immortal Strother Martin said in "Cool Hand Luke":
"No man can eat 50 eggs...")
Next morning (April 9th) it was time for more punishment at the Arabian Warbler site at Km 49/50, where once again we spectacularly failed to find any Arabian or Scrub Warblers, but did enjoy a good passage of raptors and common migrants.
Pick of the bunch was a fine male Collared Flycatcher.
The flycatcher was a little peach, there were more Little Green Bee-Eaters here, with Black and White Storks moving north along the ridge, Barbary Falcon and Honey Buzzard.
Frying our bits off in the sun around the tamarisks behind Yotvata for no Dead Sea Sparrows, we retraced our steps to the date plantation at Km 40, where we found five gorgeous Namaqua Doves on a wire fence by the sewage plant, then feeding in the plantation.
Hmm, time for more beer, and luckily the kibbutz at Lotan had opened its bar, where men wear dresses, and the spirit of avantgarde Euro-synth prog-rock is alive and well.
Once Marshside's finest had showed everyone how to dance, the evening went swimmingly, although memories of our last night at Lotan were suitably hazy.
A great place.
A bit groggy, we got up before dawn on April 10th and headed out to a stake out for Desert Wolf.
Remarkably, we saw a female loping across the wasteland in the grey light of dawn - I'm leaving out the specific site details as some of the locals don't take too kindly to wolves in the area.
A quick look at Km76 once again refused to yield any Crowned Sandgrouse, so we turned south again for a longer stay in Eilat.
A good raptor kettle at Km33 had 3 Steppe Eagle, Black Stork and hordes of Steppe Buzzard and the pools at Km20 gave us 2 Black Winged Pratincoles, Glossy Ibis, Greater Sandplover, Honey Buzzard on the deck, Rufous Bushchat and a close quarters Thrush Nightingale.
An afternoon seawatch at North Beach, Eilat produced more White Eyed Gulls, Striated and Western Reef Herons.
For the next three days we birded the parks and mountains around Eilat, with seawatching and beer thrown in, again using the Hotel Pierre as our base.
Dawn checks of the parks brought more migrants, and the ever present Yellow Vented Bulbuls, Palm Doves and House Crows.
Hour long raptor watching from the top of Mount Yo'ash gave us 117 Steppe Buzzards and 2 Levants Sparrowhawks on April 11th, and 436 Steppe Buzzards, 1 Black Kite and two small accipiters on April 12th.
From Yo'ash on April 11th we drove round to the Well of En Natifim, where Mike Stocker defied gravity and vertigo by finding a great Scrub Warbler and two Sand Partridge by staring over the edge of the sheer ravine through his scope.
Not how I like to watch my lifers generally, but a stunning location.
We went to the Km 19 stake out for Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse on the evening of the 11th, and had two birds come in to drink at 7.28pm, as darkness closed in.
You can just make them out in my pic (- or it may be an old shot of the Loch Ness Monster).
Neill will have better.
Seawatching on April 12th from Eilat's North Beach and the breakwater produced 2 Cory's Shearwaters, Curlew, Garganey, Baltic Gull, Caspian Gull, White Eyed Gull, 40+ Steppe Buzzard, 1 Levant Sparrowhawk, Osprey, Swallow, 4 Black Winged Pratincoles, 19 Grey Heron, 2 Purple Herons and a Sooty Shearwater.
Trops and Jellyhead caught a sea urchin and a crab respectively.
We marked one of our more unusual seawatches the only way we know how.
Eilat is such a big resort now it has doubtless lost some of its birding appeal, but it still turns up the goodies - as we left on April 13th we called in at the Birdwatching Centre to luck on to a White Tailed Plover on the lagoons - it's that type of place (but why, oh why did I get that Krusty the Klown tattoo the night before?
I'm sure the guy told me it was temporary, but ol' Krusty is still smiling back at me now...)
We were in the Negev Desert by 10am and checking out the Haminshar Plains, which were quiet, but the sewage pools at Mizpe Ramon had Desert Finch, a nomadic species which had eluded us so far, Long Legged Buzzard and plenty of migrants including Collared Flys and Wrynecks.
This part of the world is sorely parched, but we pushed on.
The Zin Valley and En Avedat reserve were magnificent - a beautiful gorge with a stream running through it, where Bonelli's Eagles considered nesting on a ledge on the cliff face, Desert Larks scurried about the car park and Trumpeter Finches came down to drink.
We also had two fine Mourning Wheatears in the reserve, a species that eluded us in Morocco last year, but were in your face here.
We spent an hour or two struggling to find somewhere to stay so we could be close to Nizzana for the MacQueen's Bustards the next morning, but helpful kibbutzim sorted us out with a wigwam for the night, not far from En Avedat.
While the boys hunkered down in the teepee I slept in a hammock under the stars, listening the sounds of artillery practice and bombers flying over high above.
We woke up to find the campfire dead and our sarnies missing - wolves had stole our breakfast!
(okay, it was probably the dogs on the campsite, but that doesn't sound as good).
We were in position on the desert plains near Nizzana the next morning pre-dawn and had two MacQueen's Bustards feeding at first light, plus several parties of Cream Coloured Coursers.
Then we went searching for the sewage ponds at Nizzana, picking up Little Owl, more Mourning Wheatears, possibly another wolf, Sand Partridge and migrants along the way.
We may have strayed a bit too close to Quezziot Prison (where all the Palestinians are held), as some rather surly chaps with guns pulled up and demanded whether we had cameras or not.
We told them we didn't and after a near Midnight Express moment for Mr Stocker, they let us go on our way.
Minds concentrated we found the sewage pools, where squadrons of sandgrouse were coming into drink.
One of the highpoints of the trip, swirls of Crowned, Spotted, Pin Tailed and Black Belllied Sandgrouse came in calling, giving us great views between 7.30am and 9.15am.
With the trip almost coming to an end (a relief to anyone who has stuck with this report so far), we spent a lazy afternoon at Yeraham Lake watching migrants and Spotted and Little Crakes, before pitching up at Gvulot Kibbutz for a sunny afternoon of beer drinking, Palestine Sunbirds and dozing, tick removal and empty bottle juggling.
A fine, friendly place with great food and bar - a good location to stop.
Next morning we hit the road and headed back up towards Tel Aviv, pausing for a quick look at the coast at Ziqim (which allowed scope views of Gaza City - it looked like hell on earth), where we had another Pallid Harrier, before being sucked into the traffic morass of Tel Aviv.
Bazzo navigated us to Yarkon Park against raising temperatures, no street signs and increasing chaos, so it was a relief when we got to the park, which was full of birds.
Plenty of ferals for Jellyhead, including Common Myna, Ring Necked Parakeet, Monk Parakeet and the very engaging Vinous Breasted Starling.
A White Breasted Kingfisher watched us leave and head for Ben Gurion airport - a good way to end the trip.
And that was that. Well over 200 species in less than a fortnight, some great laughs and great birds. I'll stick a full species list on when I get a chance, meanwhile I'll leave you with Jellyhead enjoying his own desert song.
Oh yeah, one last thing. About the van. It was like that when we picked it up from the hire company. Honest.
Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies...
NEILL'S ISRAELI GALLERY
Thanks to Neill Hunt for sending me his shots from Israel - sorry it has taken so long to get them on! As usual the man with no nickname has captured some stonking images....don't forget, links to Neill's website up on the right.
Black Bellied and Pin Tailed Sandgrouse
Long Billed Pipit
White Crowned Black Wheatear
Vinous Breasted Starling
ISRAEL TRIP LIST:
217 or thereaboutsÃ¢ÂÅ .
Great White Pelican
Black Crowned Night Heron
Western Reef Heron
Great White Egret
White Tailed Eagle
Short Toed Eagle
Long Legged Buzzard
Black Winged Stilt
Cream Coloured Courser
Black Winged Pratincole
Little Ringed Plover
Greater Sand Plover
Spur Winged Plover
White Tailed Plover
Broad Billed Sandpiper
White Eyed Gull
Black Headed Gull
Slender Billed Gull
Lesser Black Backed Gull (fuscus and heuglinÃ¢ÂÂs)
Gull Billed Tern
Black Bellied Sandgrouse
Pin Tailed Sandgrouse
Ring Necked Parakeet
Great Spotted Cuckoo
White Breasted Kingfisher
Little Green Bee-Eater
Bar Tailed Lark
Short Toed Lark
Red Rumped Swallow
Long Billed Pipit
Red Throated Pipit
Black Headed Wagtail
Yellow Vented Bulbul
Black Bush Robin
Black Eared Wheatear
White Crowned Black Wheatear
Blue Rock Thrush
Fan Tailed Warbler
Graceful Warbler (Prinia)
Great Reed Warbler
Clamorous Reed Warbler
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
Eastern Orphean Warbler
Eastern BonelliÃ¢ÂÂs Warbler
Southern Grey Shrike
Brown Necked Raven
Fan Tailed Raven
Vinous Breasted Starling/Myna
African Rock Hyrax
only butterflies identified with any degree of certainty were Cleopatras and Eastern Painted Lady