Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Return of the Striolated Bunting to the Eilat Mountains


The Striolated Bunting is one of the most beautiful and interesting birds of the desert.
The males, with their painted black and white faces and brown striped bodies, sit atop gigantic cliffs and sing their long trill at the sky and beyond.
Due to their nomadic nature they also come and go where the wind takes them. In dry years they are absent whilst in rainy years, when their favorite weed grows, they arrive out of nowhere, although they are never common.

In the Dead Sea area, in deep canyons and along the rift valley cliffs, the Striolated Buntings populations are steadier, with tens of birds in Wadi Dragot, and at a small spring in a remote valley that very few people know of. In the other wadis they are rare and difficult to see. It looks like they are declining as it has been harder and harder to see them the past few years.

In the Eilat Mountains, the Buntings used to be a scarce resident. Generations of visiting birders from all over the world used to come to the small cemetery above town to view this beautiful species that loved to feed between the graves or in the vegetation. In good years there were tens of them reported from different remote locations, mainly next to the legendary cemetery and near Neot Smadar (Shizafon). But since the late 90's the observations decreased to nothing. They were always on the list of birds of Eilat, but every birder would have told you to forget about them. They are not there anymore.

Nobody but a few enthusiastic birders that had bad luck in the Dead Sea mentioned them to me, and I had no good advice to give.
In the last few years scattered reports of single Striolated Buntings arrived every few months. I saw a male drinking in Neot Smadar Sewage last spring, Shachar Alterman saw one at the same location a year before and foreign birders reported that one bird showed up a few time in the cemetery, but it was very difficult to repeat these observations.

Two weeks ago, Christoph Gruneberg, an intern from Germany helping me with special projects at the IBRCE, reported to me that on the way to look for Pallid Scopes Owls, he had discovered a small flock of Striolated Buntings. He visited the flock every few days and they grew to number at least 15 birds. I joined him one afternoon and there they were - singing, jumping and so tame, letting me take pictures from 4 meters away, exactly like they always are - great birds. A small circle from my childhood is closing for me. The forgotten bird of Eilat is back.

The Buntings are just next to the main road of the Eilat Mountains (road 12) and are easy to find. Because they stay very close to a military camp's fence I'll give detailed directions with some safety advice, to whoever wants to see them in the new birding information office at the bird sanctuary.The desk will provide free information to all birders about rare or hard to see birds in the area and will gather new observations every evening.

See you in Eilat

Spring is just around the corner