Seabird Monitoring in Eilat

Born in Israel, surrounded by what at the time were hostile borders, ringed with high, rugged mountains, I always wondered what could be found in places I could see, but could not go. Using my ZEISS spotting scopes, I would track far movements of birds, distant cliffs and desolate mountain peaks, all beyond my reach. I had wondered: What birds might live there? How different is it from our habitats? Reality changed, and I have visited some of these places and discovered beautiful landscapes, birds and people.

A similar feeling is known to every birder who scans the sea for long hours. Gulls and terns come ashore, but in the distance (and only if the wind blows the right way), shearwaters (and a Storm-petrel if you are extremely lucky) may show up and subsequently disappear again into the haze. Watching them through the scope while stuck on land can be frustrating for some, but for me it was inspiring – I wanted to understand what it was like there, on the edge of visibility, beyond the horizon. We tried to go to sea with small boats, but did not find much.

I was dreaming of a new discovery, new solutions and answers to my questions, in the place beyond my reach.

Observing from shore was always more productive. But I knew that there must be more to it, patterns of biology that can only be discovered by long term monitoring. I also wanted to understand the occurrence of Storm-petrels in Eilat. Observations were rare in the past, and almost all were of weak birds that eventually died.
I was eventually able to access the Gulf of Aqaba by reaching out to the marine biology lab of Eilat (the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Science in Eilat). Stating simply “seabirds are part of marine biology” was convincing enough for them to put me on the monthly monitoring voyages to the deep waters off Eilat, far into the Red Sea.

For the past two years now, we have sailed once a month to the middle of the Gulf of Aqaba, on the marine border of Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

Our first trips tried our patience, as sometimes there was not a single bird to report. The winters were exceptionally quiet. But spring would reveal movements of Common and Little Terns, Arctic, Pomarine and Long tailed Skuas, pratincoles and even some passerines, all flying in the center of the bay. Many birds were encountered due south of Eilat’s North Beach, which sits at the head of the gulf. This helps explain why most seabirds gather there, where they are visible to observers scoping from shore.

We have also seen honey-buzzards take a shortcut above water when easterly winds give them a headwind, explaining why our raptor counters in the mountains miss them under these conditions. It also explains why, during easterly winds, we are often called to rescue buzzards found swimming in the gulf. We have even found out that Eleonora’s Falcons hunt the migrant songbirds when they are struggling to cross open water.
But the real discovery came on summer voyages, when temperatures were well above 40°C, making distant birds barely visible through the haze. Out of the blue water, came the Storm-petrels. On a particularly rough ride in the intense heat, a tiny, black and white Wilson’s Storm-petrel suddenly appeared, followed by the bigger Swinhoe’s Storm-petrel. The deep blue water provided a perfect background to revel in the subtle beauty of these birds.

In my ZEISS Victory SF 10×42 binoculars, their plumage was sharp and clear, and I could carefully observe every dramatic twist and turn as they foraged on the ocean’s surface. Our encounter was not simply due to luck. We have since continued seeing Swinhoe’s Storm-petrels between June and September, and the Wilson’s come along every August and September. They have all looked healthy and strong, foraging and flying fast. It turns out that our boiling summer is actually their southern winter.
When the plankton drifts from Antarctica, the Storm-petrels follow it north, up to our gulf. That makes Eilat, at 29°north latitude on the edge of the Indian Ocean, part of the Southern Hemisphere.

It’s a different feeling now to sit and scan the sea from the north beach in Eilat. I know that seabirds are out there and I know our waters are good for them. I got my discovery from beyond the horizon. I have reached the unreachable, once again.

Noam Weiss

Noam Weiss is the director of the IBRCE in Eilat. He is responsible for maintaining and improving the habitats of the bird sanctuary and for replenishing the food stocks for the migratory birds in Eilat and the southern Arava valley. He also raises awareness and runs seminars to encourage people to protect the birds and help out the birders.