Yitshak Ben-Mohe first thought he spotted an odd rock on a recent scouting hike in the Sheizaf Reserve. “I saw a strange rock that frightened a group of Babblers,” Ben-Mohe, a graduate student at Tel Aviv University, recalled. “The birds circled the rock as if it was a predator and tried to attack it. Then, it suddenly opened its beak and revealed itself."
Ben-Mohe had come upon a rare site, a nubian nightjar. Once thought to be extinct, researchers now believe that less than thirty pairs of the birds exist in the Arava region. Ben-Mohe’s sighting, the first in twenty years for the elusive nightjars, is a hopeful sign that perhaps the species are not as rare in nature as zoologists have documented.
“It's possible that the nightjars we discovered have survived there for many years, and simply slipped under the radar," Yoav Pearlman, a zoologist for the Society for the Protection of Nature, acknowledged. Pearlman and his team have been tracking the birds for many years, an effort that has proven a difficult task for the researchers.
"These are shy and very stealth nocturnal birds, we know little about them," Pearlman noted. Zoologists do know that the nubian nightjar’s habitat, which once extended into the Arava area, the Dead Sea and the Jordan Rift Valley, is being destroyed. Development in the area has threatened nesting areas for the elusive ground nesters, and minefield clearing operations have endangered both the birds and their nests.
Climate change also impacts the birds which do not migrate and are very sensitive to environmental variances. "The ecological pressure can push the nightjars to relocate to other territories, and even to Jordan, but many simply disappear," said Pearlman.
The Society for the Protection of Nature has been working to protect the bird’s fragile habitat, including preventing the last known nubian nightjar breeding ground in all of Israel from being drained by developers. Pearlman is optimistic that the recent nightjar sightings are a sign that the conservation efforts have proven a success for the endangered bird species.