Monday, June 27, 2022

Tick and new breeding species

On Saturday, Nadav Israel, a bird photographer, posted these images of an unknown sparrow on Facebook, asking for help in ID:

Amir Ben Dov noticed it online first, of course it was a stonking male Yellow-throated Sparrow, apparently in song, 9th record for Israel! Amir followed up on the location with Nadav, and indeed next day it was refound in the early morning by several twitchers. I couldn't go yesterday, which was quite tough because I needed that bird for my Israel list. The only twitchable bird arrived in 2017, during my years in the UK.

I have seen this bird before, in India, and even inside the WP, in Turkey. However, a national list is different, so I was keen to see it. Online discussions raised the suspicion that it could be breeding here - why would it be here, in late June, in song? However, no further breeding evidence was noted.
This morning I was up early to get to the Golan Heights first thing. It took me and the few other birders on sitea few minutes  to get our bearings. Soon I first heard the bird, then we spotted the male Yellow-throated Sparrow - what a relief! Fantastic bird, the chestnut lesser coverts, long, black bill and yellow throat were wonderfully visible. And that song... The bird wasn't close, but the views were great. It was hanging around with another drab sparrow; at first look we dismissed it as a young House Sparrow but then the penny dropped in my brain - it was another Yellow-throated Sparrow! 

We watched the birds as they moved together, then I saw the adult male feeding the second bird - a fledgling! Breeding proof! How exciting, a new breeding bird for Israel. They flew up to the overhead wires, and away, then mixed with House Sparrows, then reappeared.

Then they showed back up on the original tree. Only later I figured out that its their nest in here:

The bird at the nest entrance here is an adult female, worn, so there were at least three individuals!

By 07:00 I had to rush off to a meeting in Kfar Ruppin, very satisfied by today's discovery and by my bimbo (for those who aren't familiar, Spanish birders use the term 'bimbo' for tick). Driving on, I had time to reflect on the discovery. It really is great that in Israel, despite its small size and relatively good birders coverage, there are still new phenomena left to be discovered. Could there be more pairs of Yellow-throated Sparrow breeding on the Golan Heights? We will look out for them in the next few weeks and try to come up with an answer. I wouldn't be surprised if they do. When I saw them in Turkey, near Birecik, their breeding habitat, in pistachio orchards, wasn't too dissimilar to the habitat in the Golan Heights where this pair is breeding:

Interestingly, we did survey this section of the Golan Heights thoroughly and methodically in recent years and found none, so maybe it's a new arrival?

During my time with the sparrows I enjoyed the fine habitat and its birds - several Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robins, several shrike families, really nice (eBird checklist here). 

Woodchat Shrike, made in 2022:

Nearby, on the way out, I had a family of Upcher's Warbler. And these funny teddy bears. 

Rock Hyrax

Friday, June 17, 2022

Eilat seawatching

I spent two and a half days in Eilat, that included work, scuba diving and birding. Order of importance is debatable... This is the story: My elder son is really into scuba diving, and I am too. We went down to Eilat for him to complete his advanced open water training. I joined him on one dive but got an ear infection and couldn't dive anymore. I spent the rest of my days working, with compulsory dawn and dusk visits to North Beach, where all the action is these days. Everywhere else in the country spring migration is officially over and birding has become very static. In contrast, at North Beach, especially in the very early morning, birding was very dynamic with lots of stuff moving. I enjoyed that a lot. Check this representative eBird checklist.

Super moon setting over Sinai

Shachar's two recent rarities, Sabine's Gull and Great Crested Tern didn't linger, but there was plenty of interest at sea to keep me busy. Sooty Shearwater numbers are higher than normal, with a maximum of 14 yesterday morning. This could be an underestimate - shearwaters kept flying from one side of the gulf to the other constantly. Every scope sweep came up with at least one or two. One early morning, two sooties patrolled over the beach, even flying inland a bit, then returning to sea - could they be prospecting an overland crossing - to where? It was almost dark when I took this photo, as it flew over my head, so it isn't great:

Two Cory's Shearwaters were present too. There was very good skua/jaeger action too - three species seen: Arctic/Parasitic, Pomarine and Long-tailed - two magnificent adults with loooooong tail streamers, too distant for photography I'm afraid but good scope views. There were plenty of terns too, quite large numbers of Common and Little moving through. Quality terns included Lesser Crested, Bridled and White-cheeked. 

Three White-cheeked terns with a casual Sooty Shearwater

Little Terns on the move

There aren't many shorebirds in Eilat now, most should be busy breeding now very far north. This lovely female Greater Sand-plover shared the beach with humans one morning:

I spotted at a great distance a tiny white dot heading north. As it approached it became clear it's a Red-necked Phalarope - you should be in the arctic now, in nicer plumage than this!

Crested Eagle meets Red-necked Phalarope

Greater Flamingo is a silly bird. I counted 820 at KM20 saltpans where they look very settled - don't know why they don't breed there. Therefore it was very cool to spot a flock of 25 flying low over the water, heading north, battling against the wind. Migration magic.

Swerved from side to side, they eventually passed overhead

Unbelievable that such comic birds can actually migrate

White-eyed Gull for dessert

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Back in the UK, Black-browed Albatross

Last week I arrived in the UK for a family visit, our first after covid. Over the first week we did lots of stuff, on which I will elaborate later. Here I want to focus on our visit to Yorkshire. We stayed in Filey with our dear friends Mark and Amity. The reunion was emotional, but my brain wasn't completely there... It was in RSPB Bempton Cliffs. Half an hour after arrival on June 2nd I was already at Bempton Cliffs. Mark and I spent a few good hours there waiting for the albatross to show up, admiring the amazing reserve and its breeding seabirds, but one long-winged bird didn't show up. We had to leave empty-handed to join our family for tea. 

Back in Filey, as I was chopping up vegetables for tea, my phone rang - a mate who stayed on the cliff reported the albatross to be back (thanks mate!)... Classic. Mark and I looked at each other, then at our wives, then at the fading light outside. 15 minutes later we were back in Bempton Cliffs. I ran from the carpark to Staple Nook, only to discover the bird was not showing, apparently still there but concealed from view. Noooooo! I couldn't believe it, After a few long minutes of stressful wait eventually we spotted the albatross flying around with Gannets, showing off its long black wings and wonderful black brows. Yes! Sigh of relief. What a bird. The light was fading quickly so my photos weren't amazing, but I was over the moon with joy and excitement.

Next day we returned with the families - Bempton Cliffs really is a perfect reserve for the family to enjoy wildlife at its best. Of course, as soon as we arrived, the albatross was showing, first at some distance, circling over Staple Nook with gannets:

Then we joined the crowds at Staple Nook viewpoint and were treated to fantastic figures-of-eight flights below us. Light conditions were a bit better. Still room for improvement but I guess I shouldn't complain.

It was challenging to find photos of the albatross without other birds in the frame, demonstrating how huge the bird numbers are there. Check out how many birds are in this video by Mark:

Kittiwake and Gannet

Kittiwake and two Gannets



Of course, Bempton Cliffs offers so much more than the albatross. I have visited the reserve several times before, yet it keeps blowing my mind away, how powerful the wildlife experience it offers, and how well the reserve is set up for visitors, much to the credit of the fantastic staff and volunteers there. 

Fulmar are mega birds

Adult Gannets are so beautiful

To my eyes, younger birds are even more stunning with their checkered plumage

Puffins are the sweetest thing

I enjoyed the challenge of photographing flying auks - they fly so fast!


Tree Sparrows joined us for the celebratory ice cream back in the cafe

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Global Big Day May 2022

Another Global Big Day done and dusted for Team Champions of the Flyway: Jonathan, Re'a and me. This time it was a bit different. Several factors affected our decision to focus more on quality rather than on quantity: 

1. Late date, May 14th, meant that here, in more southern latitudes, migration is almost over (hey eBird! Next year at the beginning of May, please!).

2. The late date translated into higher temperatures. We were unlucky with a serious heatwave hitting Israel. Morning weather was OK but from noon weather switched to quite horrible.

3. Stamina, or rather lack of: After several years of doing die-hard big days for Global Big Day (see our recent effort in October 2021, for example), we (I?) lacked motivation to rock it in full blast for a full 24-hr effort.

Re lack of stamina, we met up at 02:30 and headed north. First stop was in the Hula Valley, where the pre-dawn session produced three owls: Tawny, Scops and Barn, plus quite many Eurasian Nightjars. We also encountered four different Jungle Cats; one of them, in the picture here snoozing on a wheat bale, had a GPS-collar on, attached by INPA researchers.

Can't believe I took, downloaded and edited this photo of A Eurasian Nightjar

At dawn we were joined by Nadav. Together we birded around the Agamon Hula park, which was OK but lacked migrants. Still, we got lots of good stuff, including Marbled Teal, Black Francolin, Golden Oriole, Lesser Gray Shrike, Dead Sea Sparrow and many more. Jonathan was responsible for social media.

I was responsible for birding 😉

This Red-backed Shrike looked very posh in the early morning sunlight:

Most interesting birds of the morning were Rosy Starlings. It is a scarce bird in Israel. Typically, in Mid May, small flocks of Rosy Starling arrive to Agamon Hula to feast on mulberries. Several small flocks were reported in recent days, and indeed there were starlings around. At first light we had a few singles flying over, then we bumped into several small groups, all very mobile. 

We left the Hula valley with 80 species, not bad I guess. Originally we had managed to obtain a special permit to visit Bul'an Valley in the highest section of Mt. Hermon, one of the most amazing sites in Israel for breeding birds, home to White-throated Robin, Asian Crimson-winged Finch and other wonderful and rare breeding species. See an example of how wonderful it is in this post from June 2019. This valley is normally off limits due to its proximity to Syria and security sensitivity, but for important survey work special permits are granted. Our original plan was to collect there valuable breeding data, not in big day manner, so we obtained the permit and were joined by INPA staff. The visit to Bul'an Valley was planned to be the highlight of our Big Day. Plans don't always materialise. When we reached the military checkpoint to the upper platform, we were refused entry. We were together with INPA staff but nothing helped. We wasted 1.5 valuable hours of morning birding at the gate, trying to negotiate with the military, without success. By the time we gave up, our motivation levels received a serious blow. We continued to bird around the lower cable station and drinking pools, and in fact connected with the Hermon specialties - Syrian Serin, Western Rock Nuthatch, Upcher's and Eastern Bonelli's Warbler, Rock Bunting, Eastern Black Redstart. But all of this birding was done with a soundtrack of our complaints and negative talk after the unplanned change in plans.

When I do Big Days my focus is on finding birds so my senses are devoted to that, and there is little time to spend on photography during such a whirlwind of a day. Therefore my photos from this Big Day are few and, well, not great. 

Syrian Serin on the beautiful bloom of the hawthorn Crataegus azarolus

Short-toed Eagle

This year there was more snow than normal, later into spring, so spring development of plants, arthropods and breeding behaviour of birds seems to be late. There were certainly fewer butterflies than I'm used to this time of year. Frayer's Fritillary was the commonest:

Clouded Yellow

After we were done on Mt. Hermon we headed down to the Golan Heights, picking up specialties and stuff along the way, including Chaffinch (very localised breeder), Calandra Lark, Great Crested Grebe (only a handful of pairs breed in Israel), Black-headed Buntings.

Calandra Lark looking away - they breed here in vineyards

After midday the weather deteriorated fast. The temperatures rose to 42 degrees, and the wind was horrible. We likened the weather conditions to the hot wind coming out when opening an oven door on turbo mode. It was really nasty. A stop at Susita was close to torture, though somehow we added there Long-billed Pipit and Blackstart. That was the end of our Big Day - we were quite exhausted by the heat, and found shelter in the air-conditioned car.

Our total for yesterday was 122 species, 16 eBird checklists. Our lowest score ever on a Big Day. Yet we saw some good birds; additionally, any day with a visit to Mt. Hermon is good a good one. And as always, we had lots of fun - thanks to my mates Jonathan and Re'a, and Nadav who joined us for the Agamon section.

I created a Trip Report for yesterday's Big Day effort. I really enjoy this new feature by eBird - very useful and well designed. The link is here.

Till October Big Day, over and out.