Thursday, November 19, 2020

Bateleur

This morning I birded with Jonathan in the agricultural fields around Gal'on in the southern Judean Plains. Yesterday a young Bateleur was found there by Shraga Alon:

I was keen to get a photo of it. I have seen several in Israel, including earlier this year, but haven't managed a photo yet. The obliging, long-staying bird that spent most of its time in the exact same area overlapped its lengthy stay with my time in the UK.

This is an excellent part of the country, very bird rich. So the hours we spent birding and scanning until Jonathan spotted the Bateleur were enjoyable and fruitful. I found a young Isabelline Shrike, sadly with a deformed bill:


A flock of 43 Wood-Pigeons flew south:

There were many eagles about, including Greater Spotted, Imperial and Bonelli'sץ Volume off! Horrible noise from route 6:

Then Jonathan spotted the Bateleur, flying far to our west, showing its unique and distinctive wing shape and tail-less silhouette:


After a while it flew towards us, in better light but by the time I caught up with it, it was already heading away:

Very cool bird! Close examination of wear and notches indicates that this individual may be the same bird seen in August in the Golan Heights, though I am not sure. Thanks to Yotam Bashan and Ezra Hadad for allowing me to use their images:


Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Akaziengrasmuecke

This morning I surveyed a beautiful acacia wadi in the Arava Valley, together with Meidad. Weather was lovely, trees in blossom, happy birds and birders.

The wadi held a typical species assemblage for this habitat. Nice numbers of common desert species - Blackstart, Arabian Green Bee-eater, Streaked Scrub-Warbler, Desert Lark etc. Due to eBird 48-hrs shutdown I cannot share my checklist.

Early on a majestic Golden Eagle flew past:

Then we enjoyed great activity of this habitat's specialty - Arabian Warbler. In Hebrew, and in German, it's called 'Acacia Warbler'. We had three birds, including a very vocal male already apparently holding territory. Such excellent birds. Certainly one of my best encounters with this species.



With a Palestinian friend

Even came down to the ground to feed on grubs, tossing leaves and acacia fruit up in the air like a Blackbird...

Other quality birds included quite many Spectacled Warblers (winter visitors here), and a Namaqua Dove.


Monday, November 9, 2020

Look south

Today I had a good day down south with Meidad. We started early at Hameishar Plains. It felt dry and rather quiet, but eventually our list there included Asian Desert Warbler, Temminck's and Bar-tailed Larks, Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouse, several Siberian Stonechat and this wonderful young female (dark eyes) Hen Harrier, cruising over the plains in soft golden light:


An early afternoon visit to Urim powerline produced five Sociable Lapwings one minute after I went offroad. They were sat in a field and were spooked when the irrigation started, circled in front of me and landed in a tomato (?) field nearby:




5 and 5

Then this stunning 2cy male Pallid Harrier flew by, leaving my jaw on the floor:





Still clutching the remains of its last meal



Thursday, November 5, 2020

Look east

It's that time of year we all wait for. In western Europe it starts in late September, and peaks in October. Here in Israel, it takes the vagrants from the east a little longer to filter down and make it over here. Numbers and diversity of eastern vagrants we get here compared to western Europe are much lower, so we need to make do with what little we get. On Sunday I got a little reward for working Tzor'a, searching in vain for an Oriental Turtle Dove that didn't show. Driving along a cut alfalfa field, oooh what this bird that flew up from the edge? Little Bunting! It showed briefly, then disappeared for a while, then showed again for half a minute, in front of a crown of five, before heading south high. In the next days, two birds were seen there, maybe this one and another, maybe two new birds. Lovely bird in any case.

On Tuesday, before a meeting in Kfar Ruppin conveniently scheduled for late morning, early morning was spent birding the bird-rich valley. Nothing special or new was found, but I enjoyed the huge amounts of big birds, spiced up with November regulars for Kfar Ruppin: Isabelline Shrike, Oriental Skylark and Richard's Pipit. Many Caspian Stonechat around - love 'em.


This morning a Pied Wheatear south of Be'er Sheva required my attention, a good looking 1cy female in a horrible water treatment plant, in horrible weather. Thanks to Eyal for finding and sharing info.


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Persian twitch

That was a long day... Yesterday I left home at three, met up with Meidad and together we headed down south. Dawn stop was at Neot Smadar fields that were OK, smelled rare but produced nothing better than several Sibe Stonechats, and Oriental Skylark and a late, strange-looking Eastern Black-eared Wheatear (eBird checklist here).


variegatus-type (little white at base of TF)

Yotvata circular field was full of pipits, wagtails and larks (eBird checklist here). Not surprising that it attracted several falcons and hawks, including a Merlin and a super-smart adult Lanner.

One of six Oriental Skylarks:

Midday IBRCE was hot and fairly quiet, no sign of the Little Bunting there the previous day, but two Red-breasted Flycatchers were sweet, and a constant trickle of mixed raptor overhead was nice (eBird checklist here). 

Then it was time for the main Persian dish. Afternoon birding off North Beach was, well, can't remember much until I first spotted the Persian Shearwater arriving from the south. I got everyone on to it, it flew towards us, did a nice flyby, showing small size, dark underwings and dark vent, then it landed on the water in front of us, albeit quite distant. Birders arriving then, in fading light, feared they had to make do with a tiny dark blob in the water (see my video here). With some imagination one could see pale feathering above the eye... Luckily, it was flushed by a passing boat and flew up, but in the wrong direction, away from us... No photo opps for us this time, but I am very pleased with the good views it gave when flying in. I managed a couple of shocking videos through my Swarovski scope, incredibly these are the only videos on eBird/Macaulay/Birds of the World. This one showing its flight action in totally still conditions as we had (live commentary courtesy of Itai):

Phew, a sigh of relief was released when it showed up. I am ashamed to admit that on Friday I already tried once, and failed. At least the second attempt was successful. Boom, Israel, WP and world lifer, 3rd record for Israel and for WP, serious blocker down for some old-timers. Happy days.

#nofilter


Monday, October 26, 2020

Special book review: Ageing and Sexing of Migratory East Asian Passerines

 A few days ago I received this wonderful new book, sent to me by Avium Förlaga Swedish publisher: Ageing and Sexing of Migratory East Asian Passerines.

Authors: Gabriel Norevik, Magnus Hellström, Dongping Liu and Bo Petterson.

423 pp, 1420 colour photographs, text in English and Chinese.

The book arrived in a huge box, amply coated and protected. It is a large book, handbook-sized; at 31*24.5 cm, weighing 2.4 kg, it does not fit in a ringer's box, nor into a backpack. Its price tag of £94.99 on NHBS, and SEK899 on Natur Bokhandeln make it rather heavy for the individual ringer and birder. The book is aimed towards use at ringing stations and bird observatories with generous shelf space and a book budget, or as a reference for 'well-established' field ornithologists, ringers and birders, returning home or to the office from the field. The book covers (only) 62 species, those most prominent at East Asian migration hotspots like Beidahe, where research for this book took place. The other side of the detail versus size trade-off is a huge selection of superb, neat, full-size, hi-res images, covering different ages and sexes. Species accounts typically include 20-30 images per species! The different sections for specific identification, moult, ageing and sexing in autumn and spring, organised in a standard structure, make the information accessible and easy to find. Check this splendid account of an elegant bunting (p.361):

This book was produced through a collaboration between Swedish and Chinese ringers. The text is bilingual, with all text appearing side-by-side, English in left column, Chinese in right. I have no problem with that at all, understanding that the book is there for Chinese and Chinese-reading ringers to use. The introduction contains important information about the basics of bird ringing, including bird topography and terminology in moult. This is crucial, because advanced ringing literature readily available to European ringers for decades, such as Svensson's Identification Guide to European Passerines, first published in 1970 and updated since (maybe even a 5th edition one day?), are unavailable to Chinese ringers, especially if they can't read English. Hopefully, this publication will aid Chinese ringers to catch up in detail and professionalism with their Swedish partners.

It becomes clear when reading the text, concise and coherent, and viewing the photos, sharp, illustrative and instructive, that this book is of the highest professional standards. It includes some pieces of information that may seem trivial to advanced ringers. For example, the sections on feather positions and wing length (p. 23) are there for ringers during their training process:

However, the book mainly contains top-quality data and information about moult, identification and ageing that will increase its appeal to the most serious ringers and birders. This book is based upon years of research, collecting data from thousands of birds, photographing and documenting, mainly at the world-famous migration hub of Beidahe in eastern China. It is evident that the expertise developed by generations of top-class Swedish ringers was transferred to the rich avifaunal region of the Orient. I have not had the chance to read each and every word in the entire text. However, I read very carefully accounts of species I am well familiar with, and found the text to be very accurate, detailed and coherent. I assume this level is maintained throughout the book. I did not spot any errors, though I am sure there are few, as in any detail-packed book.

I wrote above 'only 62 species', because this is another aspect of the trade-off between detail and size. The book focuses only on a small subset of species, and does not include information on many other species of migratory East Asian passerines that were left out. I understand this decision, but acknowledge that this is not a full reference book for the region, unlike those available for European ringers, such as Demongin's 2016 Identification Guide to Birds in the Hand (see my review in Dutch Birding). There's still a need for a full reference for in-hand identification, ageing and sexing of East Asian passerines, migratory and non-migratory, which hopefully will get published in the not-so-distant future.

In my opinion the essence of the book is in the photos, and this is its main advantage. As mentioned above, the book contains many photographs, and they are spectacular. From personal experience, I can testify that producing such high-quality photographs of birds in the hand, standardised in colour balance and position, neat and tidy, is a huge and extremely challenging task. Almost without exception, I think the authors succeeded in this task. I am especially impressed by the photos demonstrating moult limits, that are often extremely slight and difficult to illustrate in photos. A good example for clear display of tricky-to-spot moult limit is Brambling (p. 293):

Another good example for display of moult limit is in Grey-backed Thrush (p. 361):

In photographic guides, accurate colour balance is important too, for example when comparing feathers of young birds versus adults. I found colour separation very good, well-printed, and accurate, for example the difference in base colour of Siberian Accentor coverts of different generations (p. 256):

There are very few exceptions to this, where colour balance is not optimal, for example photos of Eastern Crowned Warbler (p. 81) that are too bright yellow-green:

The ability to display feather wear in photographs is not a trivial task either. In this book, variation in wear is well-displayed, for example in Black-faced Bunting wing photos (p. 384):

While this is mainly a book for ringers, aiding identification, sexing and ageing in the hand, it will surely become popular among avid birders in Europe and North America, keen on finding/identifying/twitching East Asian vagrants on e.g. islands such as Shetland, Scilly, Helgoland, Ouessant, Utsira, Attu and Farralon. The specific identification text and photo section is useful for this. I also found the comparative plates of species-groups very illustrative and helpful, for example grey flycatchers (p. 410-411):

I hope that American birders will cope well with ringing autumn moult grey colours, and use of calendar-years and European moult terminology.

To conclude, I find this book an important reference for ringers, essential for East Asian ringers, but also for European and North American ringers and birders. It is instructive, of high-quality, attractive and accurate. It is indeed big, heavy and expensive; yet, even in our changing world of online publications, I find this book an important addition on any keen book shelf.

Thanks to Avium Förlag for generously providing me with this opportunity to review the book.