Birdwatching in the stony deserts of southern Israel

I was born in Jerusalem, and this ancient, holy city with its wealth of religious sites was my place to wander.

The desolate stony deserts of southern Israel can be misleading to the eyes of an uninitiated birder. A vast open landscape of wadis, jagged rocky cliffs and wide-open flats but it’s the place I now call home, as do a range of extreme and secretive desert species.

Life here is sparse but diverse. The desert has its own rules and if you respect them, you can blend in and experience it all. If not, the desert will look vast and empty to you and its wildlife will remain elusive.

Understanding the extreme conditions that make life in the desert challenging is also the key to success. Resources we take for granted are scarce: food, shade and especially water are much in demand.

In the desert the slightest movement can provide you with a spectacle, a single ant can lead you to a giant nest while a group of Sandgrouse may lead you to the holy grail, a waterhole where life spills over and floods the area.

At the age of ten, I watched amazed as Swifts Apus apus passed screaming overhead into their nests, safely wedged within the cracks and crevices of the ancient Western Wall. It was a defining moment and I was hooked on birdwatching.

As I grew older in this religious epicenter, I saw thousands of pilgrims of all faiths drawn to the city in search of their holy sites, much as desert birds are drawn to a source of water. In the desert, these scattered and often ephemeral drinking spots are my holy sites. It is not the water they hold or the stories they inspire that make them holy, but their visitors.

In the desert, these scattered and often ephemeral drinking spots are my holy sites. It is not the water they hold or the stories they inspire that make them holy, but their visitors.

Like Jerusalem and its multitudes of faiths, all within one city, the rules of these places are different. Territorial species turn social within these sacred grounds, and for a few brief moments competition is set aside.

Every species has its own rituals. Sandgrouse drink fast, but are in little hurry to fly away, back to their solitary desert life. Hooded Wheatears can relax, disregarding the neighbors it would normally be eager to chase away.

Watching from a distance through my Zeiss Harpia 95, I witness this sacred spectacle in crystal clarity without disturbing its pilgrims.

The Arabian Babbler who has had enough of its flock, may find a more welcoming group and this is probably the best place to hear wild stories from some adventurous migratory birds.

Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse, Hundreds of Sand Partridges, Desert Larks, Trumpeter Finches, White Crowned, Hooded and Morning Wheatears, Babblers, Bulbuls, Doves and Pigeons, Blackstarts, Pale Rock Sparrows and Rock Martins, each takes its turn at this precious resource.

These oases are a crucial part of the work carried out by the International Birding & Research in Eilat, in partnership with Zeiss. We will continue to work to build a framework to safeguard, monitor and improve these key drinking spots for birds and other wildlife in the southern Negev desert.

Noam Weiss

Noam calls himself a 24/7 birder, who wears his ZEISS Victory SF binoculars always around his neck even on vacations and in the middle of big city. Luckily, he is married to a biologist, who shows some understanding on this. But his attitude on birding has changed: As a place of refuge Noam relished nature mainly on his own early in life. Later on, as he wanted to give nature something back, he had to engage other people for his commitment in nature conservation. His passion and positive charisma is anyhow so infectious that even inexperienced people understand why bird and nature conservation is relevant. It protects all of us.