Stepping from the cool air-conditioned car, the heat engulfed me. I gulped from my bottle, grateful as the cool water trickled down my throat. The landscape was almost entirely devoid of colour, except for the parked cars and a blanket strewn across the back of a camel, resting in its uncomfortable-looking squat while waiting for a paying rider.
Squinting into the distance, the undulating curves of hills and mountains stretched endlessly, their beigeness broken only by occasional patches of scrub. It was a hostile, dry, hot landscape. We were heading into the Israeli desert.
It was mid-March and I was in Israel for TBEX Jerusalem, a travel blogging conference. Before heading to the country, most of my conversations had been about religion and politics, as friends and family had expressed interest yet wariness about my visit.
But I wanted to discover another side of Israel: its wild side.
For a relatively small country, Israel contains diverse geographical regions, from the southern deserts, to soaring, alpinesque peaks in the north, and over 200 kilometres of Mediterranean beaches. These landscapes are home to a dazzling array of nature, including some stunning birds.
I only had a limited time in the country and I spent most of that in Jerusalem, but before and after the conference I was invited to stay with good friends in Tel Aviv. They indulged my Israeli wildlife quest and, armed with a small bird guide and my binoculars, we set off to explore some of Israel’s magnificent landscapes and try to find some unusual birds.
Wadi Qelt is a valley running from just outside Jerusalem through the northern Judean Desert to Jericho. It’s in the Israeli-controlled part of the West Bank, though Palestinians travel freely here.
A handful of Palestinian Bedouins sat in the car park, hawking headscarves, refreshments and camel rides to those heading to nearby St. George’s Monastery – one of the oldest continuously occupied Greek Orthodox monasteries in the world – which clings to the side of the precipitous gorge. We set off in the opposite direction, following a boisterous group of Palestinian university students who were on a weekend hike.
I’d left it up to my friends to decide where to take me. Partly because, as I usually travel alone, it was lovely letting somebody else take control for a while so I could just enjoy being. Plus, locals always know the best places to visit. But I did wonder where we were going. Do many creatures live in such a harsh environment?
The cloudy sky emphasised the colourless moonscape as we followed the singing students into the beigeness, past giant craters and crumbling buildings that had long succumb to the desert. We passed a beautiful mourning wheatear sitting on a rock, its black and white colours stark against the backdrop, but aside from that there were few signs of wildlife. Of course, that could have been due to the Palestinian fiesta happening around us. Their exuberance was infectious and they frequently stopped to chat, curious why I was walking into the desert with my Israeli friends and their children, and eager to practise their English.
After winding steadily downhill for a while, I noticed a flash of green snaking its way along the valley floor. We’d reached the river. We scrambled down a set of steps next to a building, where clothes were hanging out to dry. Chickens scratched at the dusty floor, sheep and goats bleated in their pens, a group of lads kicked a ball around, and a couple of young girls wearing colourful headscarves peered warily from behind the bushes, uncertain whether to return my smiles.
Alongside the river, the desert sprang to life. Water trickled over stones, giant grasses rustled in the gentle breeze, birds sang from hidden perches in leafy trees, and a white-throated kingfisher dived into the river before heading upstream with its prize. And the Palestinian songs continued…
The path narrowed at a steep-sided gorge, where the water ran into a natural swimming pool. Our walking companions kicked off their shoes and jumped in to paddle, while we moved to a side tributary so the kids could play in the water away from the hustle and bustle.
We laid out a picnic bought that morning in Jerusalem and sat in the shade of a tree, stuffing falafel into warm pita bread, and munching it with salty pickles, fiery chilli dip and some of the best hummus I’ve ever eaten. It was the perfect food to refuel our bodies before heading back up the steep incline to the car park in the heat of the midday sun. The desert had given me a tantalising glimpse of Israeli wildlife and nature, especially the mourning wheatear and white-throated kingfisher – both new birds for me. And Wadi Qelt had demonstrated that the desert was very much alive. As long as you know where to look.
The shoreline of the Dead Sea is the lowest point on the earth’s surface at 428 metres below sea level. Its Hebrew name – Yam Ha-Melah – translates as ‘Sea of Salt’, and with water that contains nine times more saline than our oceans, it’s a pretty inhospitable environment for animals and birds. But this was about experiencing a very different type of Israeli nature, one that is, quite literally, dead.
The Dead Sea gets its name from the fact that life cannot live within it, except a type of algae. Forming a natural border between Israel and Jordan, it’s actually a large lake. But its geographical name is irrelevant, because when you arrive it feels as though you’ve landed on another planet.
Low, flat, barren terrain circles the Dead Sea, its various shades of brown and beige turning white at the water’s edge, where great globules of salt gather. In the distance, craggy cliffs rise, defining the gigantic canyon in which the Dead Sea formed. The cloudy sky was emphasised by a haze, caused by salt rising into the atmosphere. It felt heavy, almost oily.
The otherworldly appearance of the Dead Sea is matched only by the strange sensation of swimming in it. A gigantic smile crept across my face as I lifted my feet and floated, and I had a fit of giggles as I tried to move from my back to my front, my body flopping inelegantly once I reached the point of no return. Now I know what it feels like to be a buoy!
One of the best views over the Dead Sea comes from Masada. This rugged natural fortress sits high in the Judean Desert. It once housed a palace complex built by King Herod the Great, but is most famous as the site of the last stand of Jewish patriots in 74 AD, when almost 1,000 Jews chose to throw themselves from the steep fortress walls rather than face the conquering Roman army.
I was delighted to see Tristram’s starling, or Tristram’s grackle, on Mount Masada. This desert-dwelling bird is a black starling with bright orange wing patches that fan strikingly during flight. As I crept closer to take a picture, the birds just looked at me. They’re clearly used to being fed and show little fear of humans. But it was their song that amused me the most – a melodic whistle that sounds a little like a wolf whistle crossed with an arcade game!
‘What’s that? What’s that?’
I stopped dead as a slinky grey creature darted across the path in front of us and disappeared into a ditch.
My friends turned to look at me, bemused.
‘It’s a… err, I don’t know the word in English, but they’re really common.’
It was the final stop on my Israeli wildlife quest and we were at the Ma’agan Michael kibbutz, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. With giant fishponds and marshy vegetation, it’s an area rich in birds. And – as we discovered after flicking through some translation and wildlife sites on our smartphones* – a hotspot for Egyptian mongoose.
Ma’agan Michael is Israel’s largest kibbutz, but the surface area of the main settlement is dwarfed by its fishponds. We didn’t enter the settlement but visitors are free to wander around the ponds, which are a renowned birding spot. It’s a more managed environment than the other stops on my wildlife tour, though bathed in the warm afternoon sun it was every bit as beautiful.
But I was in for a surprise. The fishponds separate the settlement from a wild, windswept beach that runs along the Mediterranean coast. With palm trees dotted along the edge and a blonde sandy beach stretching into the distance, it was the ideal place for an afternoon stroll.
And what about the wildlife? After my initial excitement at spotting the Egyptian mongoose, I realised my friends were right. They were everywhere, swimming in ponds like giant otters and scampering around paths, though I couldn’t take my eyes off them for long enough to take a good picture.
My favourite bird of the day was the pied kingfisher. This was high on my list of ‘want to sees’, so I squealed like a child in front of a mound of Christmas presents when one flew across the path in front of me. I soon realised that, like the mongoose, they were everywhere, flying in groups of two and threes, diving for fish, and hovering like kestrels.
Among the other birds feeding at the fishponds were spur-winged plovers, black-capped night heron, grey heron, black-winged stilt, and flocks of glossy ibis, their long bills rooting in the squelchy mud. My little camera isn’t the best at close-up wildlife shots, but here are a few of my favourite pictures.
As the late afternoon sun sank low on the horizon, it was time for us to head back to Tel Aviv. But I knew this was one place I’d definitely be returning to.
I was in Israel during spring migration, which is a perfect time to see some unusual birds. Israel is also home to a number of resident species that are, to me, wonderfully exotic. I was delighted to see Palestine sunbirds, spectacled bulbuls, graceful prinia, and laughing doves as I wandered about Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But there was one bird that was eluding me. While I’d seen the exotic-looking hoopoe before, I wanted another look. And where better than in Israel, where it’s so common it’s their national bird.
When I showed my friends what I was looking for, they laughed. Because they see them all the time, on the school run, in the gardens outside their house, in the park where we walked for hours in search of one.
Then, on my final day as we were wandering around the old city of Jaffa, there was a hoopoe, so engrossed in its search for food I walked right up and stood next to it for ages. What a gorgeous bird!
I only saw a handful of sites on my brief exploration of Israeli wildlife and nature, but it left me hungry for more. Israel is home to a number of spectacular birding and wildlife sites, including the Hula Valley in the north. I’m already planning my return.
Huge thanks to my friends Shira and Shai and their gorgeous children Yali and Almi for inviting me to stay, showing me their beautiful country, and indulging my Israeli wildlife quest.
* Thanks also to SIMtoIsrael who provided all TBEX attendees with free sim cards and unlimited data throughout our stay in Israel, which enabled me to work out what those Egyptian mongoose were from the fishponds of Ma’agan Michael!