Hooded Wheatear, Ovda, Israel April 2018

IT WAS MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS since I last had a close encounter with a Hooded Wheatear. Apart from one brief look in Oman, my last meeting with this amazing bird was in the vast canyon of Metzoke Dragot in Israel’s Dead Sea region, with friends David Hind, (the late) Keith Regan and Nick Watmough. This was a time when I was very much into birding in Israel and I made several visits in my early twenties before the intifada really got going and I turned my attentions elsewhere. Wheatears are some of my favourite birds and with its extra long legs and bill, this one in particular literally stands out among them. It was also one of the first new birds I saw in Eilat on my first visit there. I had just dropped my bag at the notorious Max’s Hostel and headed out towards the north fields and there it was, a fantastic male Hooded Wheatear, almost at my feet and right on the edge of town. I can remember it like it was yesterday. This was a time when there were no hotels on the North Beach and tamarisk scrub stretched all the way from there to the saltpans. As time has gone by (and I have also got more into bird photography) I have hoped for another close encounter and with no luck in Oman, where they are quite scarce, Israel represented my best chance. It was therefore a very exciting moment to call one on the April 2018 Birdquest tour there, out on the desolate Ovda Plain, just looking over my shoulder in case anything had sneaked in behind us, like so often happens in wide open places.

Hooded Wheatear has a wide range from Egypt to western Pakistan but there are not many countries within this area that are still relatively safe for visiting western birdwatchers so consequently there are not too many opportunities to see one. Something else has struck me about them that adds to their appeal. They are often inhabitants of remote wild desert canyons, met with briefly before they make long flights across chasms to become simply a black-and-white dot on a distant rock face. However, an encounter with one on a desert plain is often a different prospect. The Ovda Plain bird appeared to approach and investigate us. ‘How did you know it would not just fly off when we approached it?’ said André. I guess this might be a difference between a breeding bird and a simply curious wandering one?