For nearly two weeks in Israel, I had practically lived with my binoculars around my neck so I wouldn't miss a single one of the birds I'd come so far to see.
Then one night as I was about to go to bed in a kibbutz guest house near the Lebanese border, I heard a soft but insistent "piu" from somewhere outside and, almost simultaneously, the sound of trampling feet as the others in our group recognized the call of the hard-to-see Scops owl and dashed outside to track it down.
I dashed out too, following the sounds through the darkness until I reached the others, who had the bird full in the beam of a spotlight, high in a tree. With oohs and aahs, they were examining it through an array of binoculars, while I stood there clutching forlornly at my chest where my binoculars should have been -- and tried to slip into the shadows so none of the big-league birders would notice that this poor novice had come out WITHOUT HIS BINOCULARS.
"It's right there in the light, Dick -- use your bins," Bryan, one of our two British leaders, shouted at me, as I wondered in mortification whether anybody had ever forgotten their "bins" on one of his trips before. "Get your bins up, man!"
Well, I had no bins to put up and I decided I might as well say so before the whole kibbutz knew. I whispered a confession to Bryan, and without a word, he gave me his, for my first look at the scowling little owl.
The next afternoon, coming down from the Golan Heights, we suddenly stopped our vans and got out to look in awe. Swirls of tiny specks in the distant sky turned into flashes of white as they drew nearer, and then they became magnificent, soaring birds, thousands of them, filling the horizon as far as we could see.
The birds -- white storks, their snowy bodies contrasting with five-foot spans of glossy black wings -- were migrating to Europe from their winter home in Africa.
The lone Scops owl in the kibbutz tree and the mass migration of storks were all part of the spectacle that had drawn me and the rest of our group of 15 to Israel, where the seasonal bird migrations, experts say, are the biggest in the world.
When acquaintances heard I was going to Israel, they were sure they knew why. "How nice, being in the Holy Land just before Easter," friends would say. From professional contacts it was something like, "So you're going to look at the Palestinian situation first hand." I would explain -- hoping nobody would think I was trivializing the country -- that actually I was going to look at birds.
For two weeks last spring I traveled Israel, from scorching deserts and Red Sea beaches in the south to the cold, snowy slopes of Mount Hermon in the north, and, in between, a succession of game preserves, lakes, scenic valleys and majestic canyons -- but not a glimpse of Jerusalem or Bethlehem or Tel Aviv.
To be sure, there were visits to holy places and historic sites -- but only because they also happened to be home to some interesting birds. Thus, whiskered terns drew us to Teverya (Tiberias) on the Sea of Galilee, Barbary falcons to Masada, fan-tailed ravens to the cliff-top Monastery of the Temptation above Ariha (Jericho) and eagle owls to the spectacular David Ben-Gurion memorial at Sede Boqer.
And there were reminders, too, that Israel is a nation still in a state of war -- from the land-mine warnings and jeep patrols along plowed border zones to the wadi in the Golan Heights that the army had closed for tank maneuvers the morning we tried to visit.
But for most of our time in Israel, except for the unfamiliar birds they contained, the peaceful deserts we tramped could have been the Mojave, the beaches the Costa del Sol and the mountains the Poconos. Our attention, from dawn until dusk -- and sometimes longer -- was on birds.
Positioned along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, occupying a lowland enclosed on the other side by the Red Sea and mountains of Jordan, Israel provides a natural funnel for birds -- especially raptors -- migrating between Africa and the continents to the north. While songbirds can cross the Mediterranean, bigger birds such as storks, buzzards, eagles and vultures need an overland route that produces thermals, updrafts of warm air they can ride with little expenditure of energy.
American raptor expert Bill Clark, who visits Israel almost yearly and lived there for 18 months to study the migrations, considers Elat, at the head of the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba in southernmost Israel, the world's prime raptor-watching site for its "truly big numbers" of both individuals and species.
Clark estimates that tens of millions of birds move through Israel each migratory season. In addition, the tiny country has a surprisingly varied lot of native birds, reflecting its diverse habitats and location at the juncture of three continents.
In all, about 470 species of birds have been recorded in Israel, and we were delighted, in just two weeks, to see more than half that total -- 241 in all, most of them new and exotic to an American birder since there is only a small overlap between the birds of North America and those of Eurasia.
Israel has never become a popular site for American birding groups -- Clark blames news media coverage of the fighting and political turmoil there -- so I flew to London to join a British-sponsored group. On a Wednesday in late March we boarded a jammed charter flight from Gatwick Airport to Ovda, an Israeli military air base that doubles as the civilian jet airport for Elat, an hour's drive to the south.
The 330 passengers were about evenly divided between birders and scuba divers -- the Gulf of Aqaba boasts some of the world's most spectacular coral formations -- with a smattering of others such as the management consultant from northern England sitting next to me who said he was going simply "to catch some early sun."
It was dark when we arrived at our attractive beach hotel, the Galei Elat, where we would be spending the next week, so birding had to wait until morning. At home, a friend and I had speculated about what exotic species the first bird I saw might be, but I didn't need my new Middle East field guide to identify it -- or the second -- the next morning when I pulled open my balcony curtain at first light. A pigeon that could have been from Lafayette Park was perched on one rail, cooing, and a house sparrow was on another.
When we made a quick pre-breakfast round of the hotel's park and beach a few minutes later, however, things picked up rapidly, and I soon had seen a dozen birds I'd never seen before. Some, like the hoopoe, a black, white and pink bird with a striking crest, were genuinely exotic, while others, such as the yellow-vented bulbul -- a grandiosely named scavenger -- merely sounded exotic.
In and around Elat, the first patch of green the birds see after crossing the deserts of North Africa and the Sinai, was a wide range of habitats that we checked regularly for newly arrived migrants. Longer drives took us to sites where we looked for specialties.
A typical day began with a pre-dawn drive into the Arava Valley desert to search for larks or sandgrouse that favor the dry terrain. After breakfast we might visit the "salt pans," shallow ponds that attract dozens of species of ducks, shorebirds, herons and flamingos, or the "date palms," a square-mile tract of row upon row of commercial date trees, with camels grazing among them and an ever-changing population of migrating songbirds such as wagtails, wheatears and colorful shrikes, bee eaters and bluethroats.
It was in the date palms that we came upon a frustrated Scottish birder who explained that he'd found the almost invisible nest of an Indian silverbill, a tiny bird introduced into Israel that normally lives in the Indian subcontinent. He had gone back to his car for his camera, and now couldn't remember which of the many look-alike trees the bird was in. He'd left a stick to mark it, and remembered that it was "to the right of a camel," but now, he said morosely, all the sticks and trees and camels looked alike.
A regular stop daily was the North Beach, a stretch of sand abutting the Jordanian border. From it, the city of Al Aqabah, Jordan's only seaport, can easily be seen -- but not visited, since the countries are still technically in a state of war -- and rising in the distance are the mountains of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. (Since last spring, the port of Al Aqabah has become a focal point of the international shipping embargo against Iraq, but there have been no hostilities there.)
Gulls and ducks appear at the beach and over the gulf, whose waters are carefully shared by cargo vessels, patrol boats and pleasure craft of Jordan and Israel. At any daylight moment, groups of birders could be found, telescopes pointed to sea to examine the shifting cast of birds there and catch the occasional rarity blown up from the south. Cruising the beach and spreading word of the latest sightings was the Elat Bird Patrol jeep of the city's International Birdwatching Center, which runs a book shop, dispenses information and conducts programs for visitors.
A network of marshy ditches held the shyer birds, and by patiently sitting in silence, we could be rewarded with looks at furtive Baillon's crakes and other skulking rails, as well as migrating warblers that prefer the dank reeds.
Another popular spot was the city's water pumping station, where a quaint "Dear Birdwatchers" billboard gave the do's and don'ts in English and Hebrew, then exhorted us to "Enjoy Your Visit." There we watched families of sand partridges as well as colorful trumpeter and desert finches.
Lunch was usually at some casual outdoor cafe that didn't mind making an extra table available for our assemblage of optical gear. In the afternoons we would visit spots we hadn't that morning, or take a longer trip. Bedtime came early, following dinner and the nightly ritual of totting up the species we'd seen that day.
A trip one morning took us down an axle-jarring, rutted dirt road into Ein Netafim, a deep canyon with a spring where desert birds come to drink. The prize there was a Sinai rosefinch, found only in scattered desert sites.
Another morning we drove north into the desert to search for the bird I had most wanted to see in Israel -- a lappet-faced vulture. This huge, homely black bird with red skin on its featherless face, a fierce beak and a 9-foot wing span, is the rarest breeding vulture in the region. Only one breeding-age pair is known to remain in the wild in Israel, although another subspecies lives in Africa. A dozen are in captivity, but attempts to breed them have been unsuccessful and most are now too old to reproduce.
The remaining pair, perhaps sensing its species' fragility, has taken up residence at the Hai-Bar Nature Reserve, 30 miles north of Elat, where animals such as oryxes and ostriches that have become extinct in the region are being bred in hopes of reintroducing them into the wild. We spotted one of the vultures circling over the highway. It landed next to a raven dining on a small animal. After a brief, mismatched face-off, the raven left and the vulture finished the meal.
Close by, we found another of the most-wanted birds of our trip, a Dunn's lark. This nondescript little desert bird is normally found in the Arabian peninsula, well to the east, and since first being seen in Israel in 1978 had been recorded there only twice.
Ours was by a barbed-wire fence along the no man's land at the Jordanian border, but just as we spotted it, an Israeli jeep patrol roared by in a cloud of dust, its occupants waving their assault rifles at us -- in welcome, we assumed. When the dust settled, the cooperative lark was still there, obliging us with a long look.
Time and again, in downtown Elat, we would brake to a halt as flights of raptors came overhead -- black kites, steppe buzzards, booted eagles, harriers -- and at one such stop, while the others were busy examining an eagle through their scopes, I spotted our trip's only Levant sparrowhawk, almost pure white against the bright blue sky and two weeks early in its migration.
The city soccer stadium, we heard, often had a rock thrush early in the morning, but it was locked when we arrived one dawn, so we climbed atop our vans to peer over the walls. What we saw inside was Ruth, the oldest member of our group. She had attached herself to a girls' physical education class that had just arrived, and quickly had the bird staked out for us.
One afternoon, alerted by other birders among the hundreds in Elat at the time, we raced to a residential area to see a great spotted cuckoo, common in Europe but found in Israel only in migration. It was clearly tired, sitting immobile on its chosen branch just five feet above the ground, as two artists sketched it, birders stared it through scopes, and a squealing crowd of schoolgirls trooped by.
At the end of the week, we packed up to head north in a big loop that would take us through the Negev desert to the Mediterranean coast, then to Upper Galilee and Mount Hermon, and back south through the Golan Heights and along the Dead Sea, and then to Elat again for the return flight to London.
With a week of close-quarter, dawn-to-dusk togetherness, we had gotten to know one another -- and each other's birding abilities -- well. David Fisher, our leader and managing director of Sunbird, our tour company, had been coming to the area for a dozen years. He had seen 3,600 species of birds in the Western Palearctic region -- Europe, Asia Minor and Northern Africa -- the most anyone has seen there.
Even more impressive was the record of an American in our group, Phoebe Snetsinger, from St. Louis, who had seen more than 6,300 of the world's 9,000 species -- more than any other woman and exceeded by only five men. Colin, an Englishman, was bird curator at the Paignton Zoo in Devon; Wim was a senior zoologist at the Tromso Museum in Norway; George works with the International Council for Bird Preservation. I was in fast company.
Co-leader Bryan Bland lives in Cley-next-the-Sea, on the Norfolk coast, one of England's prime bird-watching areas, and in between identifying obscure birds for us, supplied arcane information and folklore on bird names. Thus, the redstart is so-called because "start" was an Anglo-Saxon word for tail. And the wheatear, whose name had mystified me, turns out, by Bryan's account, to be a corruption (some might call it a cleaning-up) of "white arse."
David paired an encyclopedic knowledge with an infinite patience for novices' questions -- but not for herring gulls, the world's most numerous, which he despised not for their unkempt looks or unsanitary habits, but for their propensity for interbreeding, which offended his sense of scientific order.
"Look at that awful herring gull," he erupted one day, gesturing at a gull that happened innocently by. "You know what I call it? A lump of rubbish, that's what. God, I hate the things." Then, apologetically a moment later after a grudging closer look, "Wait -- it's a great black-headed gull in second-year plumage. I take it all back."
Beer Sheva, the "capital" of the Negev, where we spent the first two nights after leaving Elat, is a dusty frontier town of low buildings and few attractions that has the air of being a "starter city" for Israel's vast range of immigrants. But within easy drives are such tourist sights as the Ben-Gurion home and museum, overlooking the spectacular Avdat Gorge, probably Israel's most scenic spot.
In the gorge, we watched families of Nubian ibexes, parents and young, moving sure-footedly along the perilous face of the cliff, and buses unloading swarms of schoolchildren on outings, the assault rifles slung casually over the shoulders of the teachers and older students, jarring only us, it appeared. One teenager, clearly a student of his country's birds, chatted knowledgeably with us and directed us to the nest of a long-toed eagle he'd found.
As we waited for dusk and a hoped-for look at an eagle owl living in a cave on the cliff, David told of another Israeli birder he met unexpectedly one trip when his group was in a sensitive border area at night, moving by flashlight, and an army jeep patrol surrounded them. A sergeant, who spoke English, relayed to the captain, who did not, that David said they were looking for owls and had just found one. "Bubo bubo?" the captain, from his jeep, asked the startled David, using the Latin scientific name for the common eagle owl. "No, strix butleri," David replied -- giving the Latin name for the Hume's tawny owl, one of the least-seen in the world. The captain bounded out of the jeep and summoned his patrol for a look.
Try as we might, we never managed to see a Hume's tawny owl on our trip, but we saw the eagle owl shortly after dusk and, the next day, spotted another prize, a Houbara bustard, a crane-like bird, its head bobbing up through the tall grass as it nonchalantly grazed in a field along the Egyptian border that was festooned with signs warning that it was a firing range and heavily mined.
A quick dash north, skirting busy Tel Aviv, brought us to the Maagen Mikhail Nature Reserve, on the Mediterranean coast, and then to the Hula Valley Reserve, a well-run sanctuary with good trails and an informative visitors' center. Both provided an array of new birds. So did Wadi Ammud, a canyon north of the Sea of Galilee where we saw griffon vultures, which breed on the cliff edges and soar endlessly on expansive wings.
Rain had set in before we reached Kfar Blum kibbutz in the far north, where we were to spend the next two nights. As we worked our way up the foothills of Mount Hermon the next day, jumping out for quick, wet looks at serins, linnets, rock nuthatches and other birds that like the higher elevations, the rain continued and we tried not to notice the cars coming down with snow on them.
We passed blown-up bunkers and burned-out buses and tanks, reminders of the wars fought in the area, and at 6,500 feet, reached the lodge at the foot of the ski lift in a full-fledged sleet and snow storm. In the company of soldiers and disconsolate tourists, we ate a gruesome lunch of thawed pizza and grilled cheese sandwiches -- a far cry from what we had become accustomed to -- and waited for one of our group to complete a quixotic round-trip traverse on the fog-bound ski lift before heading back down.
It wasn't our day, we decided two hours later, when we were brought to an abrupt halt by an army sentry on the road into Wadi Yehudiya, the canyon that was to be our only chance to see Bonelli's eagles, which breed there. "Not allowed!" the soldier announced, blocking our way. "There are tanks and they are shooting! Come back another time! Have a nice day!"
"Everybody out of the wadi," one of the Britishers grumbled as we turned around and revised our plans.
Our fallback site turned out to be an unexpected wonderland -- the commercial fishponds of Tirat Zevi kibbutz along the Jordan River, where neither of our leaders had been before. A maze of narrow dirt lanes took us through lush, overgrown reed beds to vantage points for the two dozen ponds and canals, where we found teeming masses of birds that we'd often seen only in ones or twos elsewhere. There were egrets, storks, plovers, countless varieties of ducks, herons, kingfishers, sandpipers and rails.
Our target bird there was the clamorous reed warbler, a raucous little bird that likes to perch on papyrus stems and chirp noisily. We'd searched but seen none elsewhere. At Tirat Zevi, they came to us -- a half-dozen of them in a short stretch of papyrus beds.
At Jericho, in the occupied West Bank, we drove up to the medieval Monastery of the Temptation, now under the control of the "Military Command of Judea and Samaria," according to a sign that admonished: "Weapons should not be taken unto the premises." Armed only with binoculars and scopes, we watched Barbary falcons, fan-tailed ravens and Tristram's grackles criss-cross the face of the cliff.
Our final night was spent on the Dead Sea, where the only wildlife is the Israelis who descend from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to unwind at opulent resort hotels in En Boqeq such as the Hod, where we stayed.
The next day at Masada, one of Israel's most revered Jewish shrines, we toured the ruins of King Herod's fortress palace where nearly 1,000 Jewish warriors had committed suicide rather than surrender to Roman troops. We set up our scopes for a final look at the raptor migration, as a group of German tourists photographed us from all sides.
We returned to Elat to repack for our late-night flight back to London. As I waited in the hotel lounge for the airport bus, Ted, a thoughtful Briton who had helped me with innumerable identifications in our two weeks and knew I would be spending a few days birding in England, came in and asked if I'd like to see a willow warbler he'd found in a tree outside.
"They're quite common in England, but I thought you might like to see one here first," he said. I would, of course, and moments later, in the dusk, I was looking at the little bird that, like me, was only a visitor in Elat and, like me, would shortly fly away. BIRDING IN ISRAEL: WAYS & MEANS BIRDING TOURS TO ISRAEL: I went with Sunbird, a British subsidiary of Wings Inc., an American organization. The two weeks, including accommodations, all meals, entry fees and transportation within Israel, cost 1,390 pounds per person (about $2,300). The Dan-Air round-trip charter from London, booked by Sunbird, cost an additional $300. Sunbird, the largest operator of birding excursions to Israel, will offer several in 1991: two full tours, in April and September, for about $2,800 excluding air fare, and one- and two-week trips in March and November that include only air fare from London and hotel, for about $750 for one week and $950 for two weeks. Booking is through Wings Inc., P.O. Box 31930, Tucson, Ariz. 85751, 602-749-1967, or Sunbird, P.O. Box 76, Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 1DF, England.
Raptours (P.O. Box 8008, Silver Spring, Md. 20907, 301-565-9196), headed by American raptor expert Bill Clark, offers spring and fall tours of two weeks at a cost of about $2,400 plus air fare. The spring tour includes Elat, and the fall tour covers northern Israel with a side trip to Cyprus. Other British tour organizers include Birdquest Ltd. (address: Two Jays, Kemple End, Birdy Brow, Stonyhurst, Lancashire BB6 9QY, England) and Ornitholidays (1/3 Victoria Drive, Bognor Regis, Sussex PO21 2PW, England).
All tour operators say they may have to cancel trips if hostilities in the region make travel unsafe. USEFUL BOOKS:The best field guide is "The Collins Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe With North America and the Middle East" ($15.95, distributed by Viking). "The Birds of the Middle East and North Africa" ($32.50, published in Britain by Poyser, Calton) is very good for birds of the region but does not include European migrants. "Birds of Israel" ($26.95, Christopher Helm, London), by Uzi Paz and Yossi Eshbol, is a coffee-table book with excellent photographs and text that is useful for trip preparation. All are generally available at the Audubon Naturalist Society book shop, 8940 Jones Mill Rd., Chevy Chase, Md. 20815, 301-652-3606, or from the American Birding Association's ABA Sales, P.O. Box 6599, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80934, 800-634-7736.
Also helpful is "Birdwatching in Eilat" by David Yekutiel, a paperback showing sites, maps, pictures and including a bird list, available for $7.50, postage included, from the International Birdwatching Centre, P.O. Box 774, Elat 88000, Israel. WHAT ELSE TO TAKE:Binoculars are essential for bird-watching, and all participants are expected to have their own (although tour leaders always take top-of-the-line scopes that anyone can use). The best cost more than $1,000, but most people can do nicely with a pair at one-fifth that price. For all-purpose birding, binoculars should have 7- or 8-power magnification; 10-power binoculars can be quite useful for high-flying raptors, but less so for general birding.If you decide to buy, get professional advice at a store that specializes in optics.
Other necessities, anytime of year, are sun protection, a water bottle, bug repellent and walking shoes for rough terrain. TRANSPORTATION:El Al has package vacations in Elat, and the city can be reached by frequent daily flights from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv via Arkia, which flies to Elat's downtown airport, or weekly charters by Dan-Air from London Gatwick to Ovda, north of Elat. One member of our group traveled from Tel Aviv by Egged Bus (about five hours and $10), and Egged provides regional and city service in Elat. Car rental firms in Elat include Eldan Rent-a-car (800-533-8778), which quotes prices from $190 a week. ACCOMMODATIONS:Elat, which was a thriving Red Sea port at the time of King Solomon, has been turned into a bustling tourist resort and now has more than 25 hotels, with a total of 3,500 rooms. Ours, the Galei Elat (P.O Box 1866, North Beach, Elat, Israel, phone 59-73121), is an annex of the posher Neptune Hotel (P.O. Box 259). Elsewhere in Israel we stayed at hotels and kibbutz guest houses, which are comparable to small hotels or motels. Rates quoted are those I saw posted last year; expect them to be somewhat higher this year.
The Hod Hotel, a luxury resort on the Dead Sea (at Ein Bokek, Israel, phone 57-84644), had rates of $75 per person, including meals, and the Beersheva Desert Inn (P.O. Box 247, Beersheva 84102) cost $57 per person, including meals. The Kfar Blum Kibbutz Guesthouse (Upper Galilee Mobile Post 12150, phone 6-943666), which has a pool, tennis courts and boating on the Jordan River, and the Kibbutz Nachsholim Guest House (at Hof Carmel, Israel, phone 6-399-533) both had rates of $61 per person, for rooms with private baths and meals. ELAT ATTRACTIONS: Coral World Underwater Observatory and Aquarium, south of Elat, features a glass-walled structure extending into the sea from which the visitor can view the exotic underwater life otherwise accessible only to divers.
Swimming, deep-sea fishing, sailing, wind-surfing, snorkeling and scuba diving are the main water activities in Elat, where temperatures reach the nineties in March and the air is so dry that signs warn visitors to drink at least four liters of water a day to prevent dehydration. Available on land are tours into the Sinai and horse- and camel-back excursions. Taba, a once-disputed tract of land at the Egyptian border south of Elat, has been returned to Egypt, but it and the Taba Hilton are still frequented, with some border red tape, by Israelis and foreigners, as is Rafi Nelson's Polynesian Village on the Taba beach.
Other attractions near Elat are an ostrich farm; the Timna Valley archaeological sites dating back 5,000 years; and the Yotvata Kibbutz Nature Center, 30 miles north of Elat, with exhibits and audiovisual programs on the desert, and its adjoining Hai-Bar Biblical Wildlife Preserve, where animals from the Old Testament era are being reintroduced.
In Israel's far north, the Hula Valley Nature Reserve and Visitor Center, with good trails, exhibits and programs, is worth a visit. INFORMATION:
Elat Office, Ministry of Tourism, Kahn Center, Ofira Park, Elat 88106, Israel, phone 011-972-59-34-353.
International Birdwatching Centre, P.O. Box 774, Elat 88000, Israel, phone 011-972-59-74276.
Nature Reserve Authority, 78 Yirmeyaha St., Jerusalem 94467, Israel, phone 011-972-2-536-271.
The American Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, 330 Seventh Ave., 21st floor, New York, N.Y. 10001, 212-947-2820, or 4 Hashfela St., Tel Aviv 66183, Israel, phone 011-972-3-375-063. -- Richard Homan