Apart from a roosting Black Stork close to the Egyptian border, not much was in evidence as we descended into the arid plains. I was a touch concerned about whether our temperamental Toyota saloon would cope with the stony track, but it seemed ok.... for now! A rather smart White-crowned Black Wheatear greeted us as we piled out of the car full of anticipation. A Crested Lark dropped in and was called as several species before we realised we had been a little bit over-excited!
We went for a walk along the track and soon fixed on to two more stonking black and white wheatear species: first a rather cute Mourning Wheatear, followed by a svelte, flashy Hooded Wheatear. Little to differentiate on plumage alone, but on jizz (size, shape, behaviour), they couldn't be more different. The Mourning casually hung out like a big black and white Stonechat, whereas the Hoodie was all elongation and elastic, long tail, long beak and long legs, zipping around like a giant flycatcher on long fluid wings. If ever jizz was a useful identification aid, it was for this species pair.
Three Trumpeter Finches flew past. A group of Desert Larks showed up, long-billed and matching the arid landscape perfectly. They were confiding, and approached us closely, while we studied some of the local dung beetles and Gerboa burrows. A Dorca's Gazelle buck kept watch as the heat began to rise and a gaggle of Chukar (partridges) scuttled past.
We drove up the stony track, pausing to scan. Suddenly, a Quail appeared right next to the car. This was an emotional moment for us all. Quail is the flagship species of COTF18, as a migrant bird relentlessly and mercilessly slaughtered on their spring migration up the Adriatic coast. To see one of these little guys, out here in the Negev, seeking a little bit of shade from the harsh desert sun, showed how fragile and yet resilient this species is, able to cope with such an arduous journey and yet so vulnerable to hunting. We left this little guy keeping cool next to a bush, wishing him a safe flight north from here.
Shortly, our spirits were lifted as a raptor soared up close to us. A stonking Long-legged Buzzard! Instead of wheeling away, 'she' came and eyeballed us closely, perhaps wondering if a Terrier was a breakfast possibility. The guys got some great shots. I stared at her intently. A beautiful, breathtaking treat.
A little further on, our favoured track back to the main road suddenly came to an end in a rock-strewn gullied cliff. What a pain, it seemed that we would have to retrace our long desert journey. But that wasn't Terrier-style, so I asked the dogs to disembark to lighten the load, before flooring it up the track. The boys could hardly watch and I think I had my eyes closed for most of it, but somehow, the car scrambled up and over the rocks to the top and on to the smooth, level road. Relief and smiles all round! Maybe this little Toyota wasn't too bad after all.
Further on, we stopped in a likely spot and had a scan. A Hooded Wheatear was showing well atop a metal structure and Darren got down in the dusty hard shoulder to satisfy his craving for paint - and what a fab job he did! I managed to try and turn a male Marsh Harrier into a Pallid (?!) but the Dogs were not letting me off with that one, #Fail I then got my scope on a stonking Cream-coloured Courser, which turned out to be a rock. Albeit a very convincingly courser-like rock. #Doublefail Things were going downhill, it must have been the heat!
We turned east onto the Uvda Plains and close to where we saw the shrike yesterday, we were soon into some sandgrouse. This time, we had Spotted on one side of the road and Crowned on the other. Nice.
A Short-toed (Snake) Eagle appeared on a distant pylon, glaring around with its owl-like eyes, set in an owl-like face and Rich pulled out our first Desert Wheatear of the trip.
I could hear an intriguing call so leaving the pack I wandered a little down the roadside. To my amazement the calling grew louder, and looking up I swooned at the site of a creamy wader, with jet black underwings, edged in white, heading over. I bellowed "Courser!" and an arsenal of cameras and Zeiss SFs swung skywards to engage this stunning desert resident. The creamy one disappeared into the distance, and then Mark spotted a tiny movement in the roadside bushes. This looked promising and shortly, a tiny form sped across the sand and hid under a bush. It peered out, showing its beady yellow eye - an Asian Desert Warbler!! Superb! Mark managed a flight shot, revealing its gingery tail and rather drab colouration. These birds winter in the area, so this one was unexpected. Brilliant stuff. Elated, we headed down to the kibbutz for some shade and a rest.
Our little friend, the Semi-collared Flycatcher was still present at Kibbtuz Shizzafon, and showed well, along with a fine sub-singing Bluethroat. News came through of a Black Bush Robin, an ultra rare stonker not too far away at Lotan Kibbutz, but being chilled dogs, we decided on a drink and a snooze first, whilst Darren painted the flycatcher's portrait.
A little while later, we turned up at Lotan and we headed for the spot marked on the map. Several gardens, scrubby patches and hedges presented themselves. It was hot and we figured this master skulker could be anywhere. Things weren't looking too good. We were just considering options when another birder appeared and pointed us in the right direction. His mate was sitting under a tree and we headed in his direction. A stonking Black-eared Wheatear was perched in the tree, rather unexpectedly:
We settled down in the shade, assuming we were in for a long wait. To our surprise, the Black Beauty appeared almost immediately, flicking between two bushes. This was great, the kind of view I had dreamed of, and assumed the best we would get. But no, the BBR had other plans and broke cover, flying straight towards us and into a bush a couple of metres away, where it skulked in the shade, cocking its impressive white-tipped black tail. Wow! This was bonkers. For the next hour the bird showed incredibly well. Sitting still, the bird would approach us to within a couple of metres, sometimes hopping right out in the open, cocking it's remarkable tail and flaring its ever-so slightly rufous wings. None of us could believe it, but it just felt like one of those magical, memorable days.
The day was still far from over. We headed north towards our rendezvous point for our guided trip, somewhere near the south end of the Dead Sea. After a bit, I was surprised to see a large white SUV tailgating me. I then realised it was the cops, and the loud speaker projecting Hebrew confirmed this! I had no idea what the cop was saying and after an intense debate about where to stop, I pulled over. He instructed me to get out of the car and walk towards him, which I did, leaving the Terriers wide-eyed and me crapping myself. He asked me for my passport. I pulled out Rich's. Oops! Hide that one, and hope he hasn't noticed! I handed him mine through the open window, which immediately went up, trapping my hand. This broke the tension and the big, armed cop apologised for nearly severing my hand! I wanted to suggest that the hand severance should come later, not before he'd charged me. But for once, I kept my mouth shut. The cop explained my transgression. "This is the last time you cross the white line". I assured him it would be and we went on our way. Eek!
Shortly, we met up with a bunch of other Champion teams at the rendezvous in some random Dead Sea bus shelter. Mark knew many of the guys, so it was smiles and photos all round.
It had been such an incredible day that I couldn't really imagine any more excitement, but soon we were led convoy-style (once we had caught up due to our little car playing hardball and refusing to start) into a militarized zone close to the Palestinian border. We were instructed to stay close in convoy as land either side was mined. Great! We arrived in a bunch of market gardens, near a cafe with blaring music. Workers were hanging out drinking and nodding along to the tinny Israeli pop.Not the most attractive of locations but within minutes a bird appeared, hovering right over us, lit up by flash lights - Nubian Nightjar! The dinky bird flew round us at very close range, flashing tail and wing spots. It melted away. We walked and drove round the area for the best part of an hour and apart from two Barn Owls, nothing else appeared. It was time to move on to our final destination, a remote, special wadi where Desert Tawny Owls were said to breed. This elusive, nocturnal beast was recently renamed in tribute to the renowned Israeli ornithologist Hadoram Shirihai, and is now known as Strix hadorami.
We again drove in convoy out into the darkness. To our surprise, we were met by lots of bright lights, armed men in T shirts and a lot of racket from hundreds of kids. Not what we were expecting in such a remote location! Our guides were a bit shocked too. There was no way we would see our target in the usual spot, so with some quick thinking, Itai decided to lead us all across a stony plain to another gorge where we might have a chance. With 1000 screaming scouts and guides in the background I had no real confidence of success, so when the owl began hooting in the distant darkness, I was utterly amazed! It seemed the bird was reluctant to come any closer - I wasn't surprised given the noise - and was out of range of the flashlight. We turned to leave and James shouted 'there it is' and sure enough, an owl-shaped form had appeared on the edge of the canyon. A Desert Tawny Owl! It's small, pale unmarked shape was clearly visible as it glowered around in the darkness. Shortly, it flew along the clifftop and vanished into the night, leaving us all dumbfounded.
What a day. Unbelievable scenes!