In Cahoots: Rare Desert Owl Finally Spotted in Israel's Judean Desert

After many long, dark nights outdoors, nature lovers have finally managed to document the nesting habits of the desert tawny owl.

Zafrir Rinat
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Desert owl nestlings almost ready to fledge.
Desert owl nestlings almost ready to fledge. Credit: Amir Ben Dov
Zafrir Rinat

The nesting habits of the desert tawny owl – one of the rarest species of owl in the region – have finally been documented, thanks to the efforts of nature lovers who spent many long, dark nights in the northern Judean Desert.

The unique documentation was led by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and it will be presented tomorrow at the 36th annual conference of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel at Tel Aviv University.

A sighting of the species was previously reported a few years ago, but the current findings show that the previous nest was actually that of another species.

The desert tawny owl survey was led by the INPA’s Aviam Atar and Erez Baruchi, with the help of photographer and ornithologist Amir Ben-Dov.

According to Dan Alon, head of the SPNI’s Birdwatching Center, “The desert tawny owl is a unique and very unknown nocturnal desert bird. At the beginning of this year, the scientific name of the bird was changed [to Strix hadorami] and it is now named after an Israeli ornithologist. We estimate that there are about 100 pairs of desert owls nesting in Israel, but so far we have only documented one nest,” Alon added.

The desert tawny owl sites in its nest snacking on a bug.
Desert owl nestlings almost ready to fledge.
Desert owl nestlings almost ready to fledge.
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Credit: Amir Ben-Dov
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Credit: Amir Ben Dov
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Credit: Amir Ben Dov

Ben-Dov said that during the survey he and the INPA people spent long nights in the wadis of the Judean Desert looking for the birds. “We did it night after night, in an area that is difficult to move through, and sometimes we had to climb to get to places where there might be nests.” Finally, Ben-Dov said, they found a nest on a cliff in one of the wadis of the northern Judean Desert, in an area of nature reserves occasionally closed to the public.

The nest contained a whole family of desert tawny owls – parents and a pair of nestlings that were almost ready to leave the nest. It is yet not known whether this is a typical family, or how many nestlings this species usually has. “This is one of the things we will try to check in further research,” Ben-Dov said.

Researchers have already managed to record, for the first time, the sounds of the female and the nestlings.

Ben-Dov couldn’t explain why no nests had been found before, although the areas are relatively small and many birdwatchers visit them. “The explanation might simply be that this is a nest that is well hidden in a niche in the cliff,” he said.

From what has been documented so far, the desert tawny owl, like other owl species, is clearly a skilled hunter on dark nights. It hunts mainly insects or rodents, but also other birds. Ben-Dov photographed one of the parents with a rodent, a bushy-tailed jird that it had brought to feed its young. Ben-Dov is confident that future surveys will reveal more nests and more details of the life of this rare bird.