Tuesday, May 30, 2023

They're back!

Yesterday I spent the morning on Mt. Hermon, working there with INPA and Nadav to better protect the precious ecosystem of the mountain, threatened by further development by the military and the ski resort. It's incredible that one of Israel's most unique and precious ecosystems is only partially protected. Anyway, the gate leading up to the mountain opens up only at 07:30. What to do during the two hours of light before 07:30? I spent them along the Petroleum Road, in search of Yellow-throated Sparrows that had returned for another breeding season. When I arrived on site, I was happily surprised to find there Yosef Kiat, doing what he normally does... Perfect timing for me. We quickly saw a male sparrow singing high up on wires, and in no time it was in the hand, allowing close examination of its subtle but wonderful plumage.

Those long wings take the sparrows all the way to winter in India and back

Apart for this male, I saw his female, in fact a returning bird which had been ringed by Yosef last year, and another singing male. Yosef even sound recorded him or another nearby - subtle song too:

It's great to see that the Yellow-throated Sparrows returned to breed. This is an exciting discovery, that last year's appearance wasn't a fleeting, temporary and sporadic event. Rather, this is apparently a new species added to Israel's breeding avifauna. Time to update those breeding range maps!

Yellow-throated Sparrow distribution map from Birds of the World

Then it was up to Mt. Hermon. It felt very wintery up on the mountain -  cold and overcast with slight drizzle. The lower, forested reaches of the mountains were packed with cool breeding birds, including Western Rock Nutjatch, Sombre Tit, Upcher's Warbler and Syrian Serin. 

Upcher's Warbler

Family party of Sombre tits

Male Eastern Orphean Warbler

By the time we made our way to the upper level of the mountain, the weather had cleared up and it became a glorious day. 

Birds were very active, and in the short time we were up there we saw almost all distinctive breeding species - White-throated Robin at three spots, Asian Crimson-winged Finches, Pale Rockfinch, Black-necklaced Horned Larks and even a pale-morph Eleonora's Falcon. Quite a productive birding session. I was busy so little time for photography, and the light was very harsh.

Horned Lark feeding on a small patch of dirty snow

Wood Larks were hyperactive

Monday, May 15, 2023

Oh Julia

A few days ago a female Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus) landed on a beach just south of Tel Aviv, in Jaffa. It is globally Endangered, with less than 700 individuals left in the world, mostly in Greece and Turkey. This is the third modern record in Israel, and the first accessible individual, so it caused huge interest nationally. It is a 16-year old female, identified according to her unique pattern of scars as an individual from Turkey, affectionately named 'Julia'. A barrier or fence was erected at a safe perimeter around her. Rangers from Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the police are guarding her 24/7. Delphis, an NGO devoted to the conservation of marine mammals in Israel, organised a team and is using the opportunity to do important outreach with the huge crowds attracted.

I couldn't go until yesterday, but yesterday I went twice actually, in the morning with Piki and then again in the evening to broadcast live in a webinar we (BirdLife Israel) did - you can watch the recording on FB here
It was wonderful and very emotional to see such a rare mammal in Israel - we don't have many marine mammals here, and it was my first Israeli seal. She did very little - she started her fur moult process so she is full of fat and just lying there on the beach, possibly for a few more days or even weeks. She turned around and sneezed a few times, that's the most action we saw of her.

Distant Cory's Shearwaters (Scopoli's I assume) were the only birds of note.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Global Big Day May 2023

Yesterday was Global Big Day, organised by eBird, part of World Migratory Bird Day and Global Birding Weekend events. It was an unusual big day for me,  because for the first time in several years I didn't do a proper big day - I had a good reason though (see below). Also, our third team member Re'a made a bunk, so it was just Jonathan and me. We decided to spend the morning around birdy Kfar Ruppin - possibly the most productive place to spend a morning birding this time of year, when migration is dwindling here. Hey World Migratory Bird Day and eBird - please shift the date one week earlier (first weekend of May rather than second) so more southerly countries could enjoy good migration too. Thanks!

We left early, Jonathan did his story things, and we arrived at Kfar Ruppin nice and early, in time for a good coffee and fresh dawn birding. Kfar Ruppin fishponds, where we have our restoration project with the kibbutz, are so amazing. This specific reservoir has held low water levels, and amazing bird levels, for several months now. 

Swarovski Optik gear put into good use

That specific reservoir had so many birds, both in numbers and species richness - it was great to simply be there and take it all in. We bumped into another Jonathan, Yonatan Gordon, and his dad. Yonatan is a super keen, sharp-eyed and excellent teenaged birder - he already is a hotshot and will surely lead the Israel birding community in the future. Yonatan jumped into our car and joined us for the rest of the morning, while his dad got a couple of hours off... Back to the birds, the muddy edges had hundreds of shorebirds, mostly Little Stints and Ringed Plovers spiced up with Broad-billed, Curlew and Temminck's Sands; Whiskered and White-winged Terns flying gracefully over the water; Marbled and Ferruginous Ducks swimming; Little Crake, Little Bitterns and acros in the reeds. Bliss. Listen to the soundtrack in these rubbish videos I took.

eBird checklist for Kfar Ruppin fishponds here.

We checked a few more sites around Kfar Ruppin, including our restored wetland at Amud Reservoir - good stuff there included singing Common Nightingales, and Rollers displaying over their breeding cliff. Check the background sound here too.

The morning ended too quickly and we had to drive back home, adding some random stuff on the way back. Our morning total was 97 species, poor for a big day but quite OK (I think) for a concentrated four-hour effort. Had we done a full big day, that would have been a decent start.

The reason I headed back so early, abruptly cutting short my big day effort, had to be dramatic. I headed back for the premiere of a new documentary movie, Observation Diary, part of the documentary movie festival Doc Aviv. It's a beautiful movie, created and directed by the talented Itay Marom. The movie follows the birding diaries of the late Amit Geffen, a young and talented birder whom I had the honour and pleasure to guide, mentor and work with until he passed away in 2007, at the tender age of 21. I was fortunate to participate in the movie, and there is even lovely footage of my late dog Bamba, out birding with me. Several friends - Nadav, Yael, Nimrod and others also take part in the movie. 

The premiere was awesome - it was a powerful experience, to share the experience with so many people. Everyone involved in the movie were very excited - I have so much appreciation and gratitude towards Itay, Idit and their team for giving me the opportunity to take part in such a beautiful project. This is Udi, Amit's dad, and me at the premiere - photo taken by my son Uri.

Friday, May 5, 2023

My favourite bird?

I often get asked what is my favourite bird. As a professional birder, I find this question impossible to answer. I appreciate a Willow Warbler as much as I appreciate a Wandering Albatross. I find Garden Warbler to be a very pretty bird, just as pretty as a European Bee-eater. Trying to understand the unique ecological position of each and every species in the complex web of life on earth, every organism has its role and importance. Further, I think I comprehend some of the huge challenges birds are facing, whether they are long-distance migrants or residents. However, there are a few species that I have dedicated more time to study and understand them better, and protect them. Nubian Nightjar is one of those species. Not sure whether I can call it my favourite birds - certainly it's the bird species I know most intimately, and have invested most time on. Admittedly, it's a very fine bird.

Since I studied the Sdom Saltmarsh Nubian Nightjars for my MSc research at Ben Gurion University in 2004-2006, I have been deeply involved in the conservation of their habitat. I am very proud that as a result of a concentrated team effort, most of the remaining habitat of the species' stronghold, in Sdom Saltmarsh, has recently been declared as a nature reserve, and will remain protected forever, I hope. 

My current job as director of BirdLife Israel includes significant managerial components. However, I kept some fieldwork components in my job, especially in projects or areas that are most important to me. Such is the Nubian Nightjar monitoring that I do every year around this period, around a full moon, trying to assess the population status of the threatened species. 

Last night was part 1 of my monitoring effort in Sdom Saltmarsh. I headed down with Rotem, a keen young birder who is starting to work with us. Before dusk we had time for a quick look at Ashalim Reservoir. It was too dark for photography but the birds were active and it was fun. Seven African Swamphens, including two recently-fledged young, first families of Ferruginous Ducks, Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, a large roost of Sand Martins - I love this site, even before the Sooty Falcons return.

After dusk we started working, counting nightjars that are super active when the moon is strong, like last night. Conditions were perfect - very powerful moonlight, warm temperatures, very still, good flying insect activity. We covered about half of the relevant habitat, and counted 71 vocal males! I cannot be certain that these 71 vocal males represent 71 active breeding territories - in fact we had visual contact with only a handful of nightjars. One of them did pose briefly - super nice. Check that superb rufous collar.

At some points we found a very high density - up to six birds vocalising around us. I will complete the second half of habitat soon to conclude the numbers for 2023. However, with the current density, I assume the numbers will be similar to the high numbers recorded in 2020.

Nubian Nightjar, Sdom Saltmarsh NR, Israel, 4 May 2023

Other random birds we had during the night were singing Scops Owl, Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin and Little Bittern. We also encountered Porcupine, Wild Boar, Golden Jackal and Cape Hare.

Thanks Rotem for the hard work!

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Recent stuff

It's peak spring migration here in Israel now. With unstable weather, birds are blown in different directions and it is exciting just to be out there and witness migration. I have nothing too major to report, but over the last few days some decent stuff accumulated on my hard drive that is worth sharing here.

Last Wednesday (April 5th) I had time only for a quick early-morning birding session. So I opted for a circuit of Hulda Reservoir with Piki - our regular shared session few minutes away from home. Piki always complains that I start too early, I always complain that he's lazy, eventually we meet halfway. That morning I had time to listen out for active migrants and cook coffee by the time Piki arrived. Birding expectations weren't huge because water levels at the reservoir are very high currently, meaning there's little space for mud-loving waterbirds. We were pleasantly surprised when two minutes after we started walking a small passerine jumped up from the path in front of us, gave a thin 'tick' call and perched on the fence. We both exclaimed simultaneously (more or less 😉) - Little Bunting! We rattled off a few quick photos:

Then the petite bunting flew past us and landed to forage on the path again for a couple of minutes before being chased off by a badass territorial Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (you can hear it singing in the background of the video below). The poor bunting flew up and away and we lost it far in the distance to the south, never to be seen again. Sweet.

Nice to have Turtle Doves back, already in display flight over their territories:

Eventually it was quite a productive morning - eBird checklist here.

A weekend in Tel Aviv to celebrate my wife's birthday meant a couple of early-morning sessions in local Tel Aviv sites. Hatzuk beach was fairly quiet (eBird checklist here) but there's always interest in watching migrants on the edge of the big smoke. 

Next day I checked Hayarkon Park that runs through the city center, including Rosh Tzipor and the adjacent Rock Park. Rosh Tzipor held a Little Crake and a Little Bittern:

Common Kingfisher is the most cliché bird in the world, yet it is irresistible when posed nicely:

Golden Jackals are a prominent feature of Hayarkon Park. They are abundant there, and very accustomed to humans and their dogs - a somewhat surreal coexistence in the middle of the city.

This one is called 'Sexy Ear'

Oh yes, oh yes, right there... Ooohhh so gooood...

On Monday I joined a large public event SPNI held up in the Golan Heights, promoting public action to halt disastrous plans that threaten the wild beauty of the Golan Heights. I picked up Nadav from his home in the Hula Valley. What can I do that the shortest way up to the Golan Heights drives through the fields north of the Agamon, where a Demoiselle Crane has been hanging around?

Friday, March 31, 2023

Eilat Bird Festival and Champions of the Flyway 2023

My head us still buzzing after my return from Eilat. I spent almost a week down there, joining the Eilat Bird festival, this year led by Alen, followed by Champions of the Flyway, led by Jonathan. It was an amazing week, full of fantastic birds and birding, wonderful people from all over the world and from Israel, and conservation, friendship, diversity and collaboration. Traditionally it is one of the highlight weeks of my year, and this year was no different. The birding was really good, with intensive migration both in the River of Birds in the Sky and down on the ground. It was great to spend time with some of the best people in the world, all flocking here to Eilat. My BirdLife Israel team, Eilat Bird Festival guests, Champions of the Flyway teams - what a bunch of extraordinary people. Together we watched bird, promoted conservation and had a few beers.

I headed down to Eilat early on Thursday, March 23rd. I picked up Ugandan super-tracker and bird guide Patricia Kansiime from the airport too early, and dragged her with me to Mt. Amasa. Poor girl, she was totally exhausted after a long trip and I made her climb hills and wadis and chase after some little birds. It was a great session, wasn't it Patricia? Highlights were Cinereous Bunting, Eastern Subalpine Warbler and three Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrushes.

Cinereous Bunting

We took the scenic route down to Eilat through the Negev towards Eilat, encountering clouds of White Storks and Black Kites, pretty extreme migration to start with. I arrived in Eilat and joined the festival group that had been running already for a few days. The first afternoon session I led was to north beach that was fairly quiet but hosted this stunning, cooperative blue morph Western Reef-Heron:

I birded with the festival and independently until Saturday, including a night trip for Nubian Nightjars (sadly the Desert Owls didn't show, again...), Arabian Warbler in the northern Arava, mind-blowing raptor migration up in the mountains, Black Scrub-Robins breeding in Samar - top quality stuff! I had a great time with the festival guests, I hope they enjoyed the birding too and also the conservation context that is a part of birding in Israel with BirdLife Israel.

Then it was on to Champions of the Flyway, meeting, greeting and helping teams prepare for the Big Day, scouting sites - all great fun. With a weather change and shifting winds, Saturday and Sunday were super exciting with tons of active bird migration, birds literally dropping out of the sky and going in all directions. The sky was full of raptors, bee-eaters, Hirundines, pipits, wagtails, larks, buntings and all sorts of other active migrants. On the ground, the bushes and fields were exploding with passerines, trees dripping with Sylvia (now Curruca?) warblers. The best birding Eilat can offer.

Tree Pipits

Collared Flycatcher

Masked Shrike

Steppe Eagles

Champions of the Flyways race day and events were an enormous climax of birding and friendship, working with teams, doing media stuff, very busy but lots of fun. I spent the morning with some teams at KM76 that is the most productive site at the moment, it was absolutely exploding with birds, so much stuff on the ground there, I enjoyed it very much. Check our eBird checklist here.

Hen Harrier

Caspian Stonechat

Spanish Sparrows looking all glorious

Appreciate the habitat where this Savi's Warbler is reeling:

Back in Eilat, there were some quality birds on show, including a young Bonelli's Eagle terrorizing pigeons at the cowsheds near KM19, and a pair of Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse showing so wonderfully at the little grove by the entrance to KM20. Exquisite birds those sandgrouse are. Check those feather patterns...

The closing event was incredible, all people gathered together for conservation, solidarity and friendship. Champions of the Flyway winners were The Wrens, who scored 181 species on the big day! The team is comprised of the Zaitlin family from Jerusalem, and included Klil who grew up at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and then did a year at Eilat Birding Center. Klil is an outstanding birder and a great young man. I look forward to see him develop in the world of birding and conservation. Most importantly, COTF is about raising funds for ACBK and BSPB to protect Red-breasted Geese (still time to donate!), and bringing people together to act for conservation. The atmosphere during the closing events was truly inspiring, amplified by the shit storm Israel is going through currently, demonstrating that conservation and international solidarity and collaboration are the real thing, not this politics bullshit.

Photo by Yuval Dax - thanks Yuval for everything!

This is the place to say special thanks to my team who worked so hard on these events and made them so successful - Alen, Jonathan, Noam, Mark, you are legends. IBRCE team formed the backbone of the event. Yuval, Nadav, Meidad, Yotam and Ofri from BirdLife Israel team participated too - thank you! So many wonderful people to thank - sorry if I forgot anyone.

As an aftermath or after-party to COTF, on Thursday, still high on Adrenalin, I headed up to Kfar Ruppin. I met up with The Birders Show for some filming, talking about our restoration work there, led by Nadav. They flew in to participate in COTF, and continued to focus on our restoration work. I had a great time with the team - Chris, Julian y Santi - you guys rock! While talking and watching birds in peace, news broke of a Yellow-billed Stork nearby. We made a quick dash for it, wonderful bird!