In 2014, rangers from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority arrested a number of foreign workers at Kibbutz Beit Ha’arava, just north of the Dead Sea in the West Bank, on suspicions of illegal hunting. When the rangers reenacted the alleged crimes with the suspects, the kibbutz’s security coordinator told Erez Bruchi, one of the rangers, that the night before he had hit a bird with his car.
The dead animal was still stuck in the car’s grill and the security coordinator sent Bruchi a picture, which he sent out to birdwatchers for help. The identification turned out to be a big surprise. A number of birdwatchers raised the possibility that the bird was an Egyptian nightjar (Caprimulgus aegyptius), which is crepuscular – most active around nightfall and dawn. It feeds on insects and nests on the ground.
The last time an Egyptian nightjar was seen nesting in what is now Israel or the West Bank was 1947; since then it has occasionally been spotted in the far south in the Arava region and the resort city of Eilat.
Bruchi called the security coordinator to ask if he had kept the bird in a refrigerator, as Bruchi had asked. “He said he threw it away,” said Bruchi, who was in Tel Aviv at the time. He got in his car and “flew off to find it. Luckily no cat or fox grabbed it.” But this was only the first time luck was on his side.
The next task was to see if nightjars were nesting in the area. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority, along with bird expert Adi Ganz, set out to try to find nesting sites. But in two years of searching they found nothing. In June 2016, when Ganz was watching for other species one night, he noticed two birds in his headlights. He managed to photograph them and realized they were Egyptian nightjars.
So suspicions that nightjars were nesting in the area only grew, but another year went by and still no nests were found. The researchers then fitted a few of the birds with transmitters for tracking. But even this didn’t help because nightjars spend most of their time on the ground, making it very difficult to track them with transmitters.
Last May 5, the scientists were about to give up. “Time was running out; the nesting season was supposed to be at its peak and we didn’t even have a clue,” Ganz said Thursday at a seminar at Masada sponsored by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Environmental Protection Ministry.
The next day, the scientists searched a closed military area at the northern end of the Dead Sea. “We didn’t find anything but we stopped to take a few pictures of the scenery, and on the way back to the car I almost stepped on a female,” Ganz said. “I looked down and saw two eggs on the ground, 30 centimeters [nearly a foot] from my shoe.”
The researchers realized that the nightjars hadn’t built a nest at all, but sufficed with a dried-out piece of broken branch washed into the area by rainstorms. It provided a sliver of shade for the female while she sat on the eggs. Because of the bird’s excellent camouflage, it’s very hard to notice the birds or eggs until you’re up close.
The scientists also discovered that the bird prefers to nest on the new land created as the Dead Sea recedes. The search hadn’t focused on these areas because they’re completely barren and the ground is extremely salty. The arid land there hosts no plants or insects.
The researchers proposed that it was actually the drying up of the Dead Sea that provided the nightjars with a new nesting area that drew them to the region. Observation of the birds showed that they came out at night to nearby fields where they hunted insects, mostly moths, with the help of their ample beaks.
Since then, three more nests have been found in the area along with a few dozen Egyptian nightjars themselves. It’s now clear that the species has a relatively stable presence in its new nesting area near the northern end of the Dead Sea.
Ganz summed up the experience of locating the birds in a Hebrew-language article on the Israel Birding Portal website. “The most special moment for me was the night when I was walking with a small flashlight on one of the paths, and suddenly a nightjar dashed out in front of me,” Ganz wrote.
“He flew directly at me in absolute silence, and when he passed by my face the tips of his wings lightly caressed my left ear. No, I wasn’t dreaming this. I don’t know what he was trying to tell me, but my (scientific and objective) feeling was that this was a gesture of friendship.”