Saturday, September 18, 2021

Swinhoe's Storm-petrels and...

 Yesterday I joined a pelagic trip off Eilat, deep in the Gulf of Aqaba. We left relatively late in the morning, which left time for an hour of birding first thing at IBRCE. To be at IBRCE we (Amir, Piki, Rony and I) had to leave home stupidly early. I always enjoy visiting the IBRCE - certainly worth the sleepless night. IBRCE offered, as always, enjoyable birding, great hospitality and I always have huge respect for the brilliant team working there. Birding was good fun with a Eurasian Nightjar ringed, Citrine Wagtail, Little Bitterns and lots of shrikes (eBird checklist here). Thanks Rony for the nightjar photo.

Our aim for the pelagic trip was to follow up on Noam Weiss's stimulating pelagic a few days earlier, where he reported a larger and heavier dark-rumped storm-petrel, raising the possibility of Matsudaira's Storm-petrel (read Noam's write-up here). Eventually we set off at 08:00, made our way very close to the border triangle with Egypt and Jordan, and started chumming a fair distance north of the border. The northerly wind was blowing harder that the forecast had predicted, so the chum slick slipped quickly south too close and beyond the border. We scanned the sea and the chum slick back and forth, again and again, excitement and anticipation slowly transforming into despair. It took a good two hours of seeing nothing until Noam yelled first 'storm-petrel!'. Adrenalin levels peaked - it was very distant, at the very far end of the chum slick, on or beyond the international border, but we had a dark-rumped storm-petrel! We had prolonged views of the bird, trying to get as much on it as possible, then it was joined by a second! Little by little, despite the distance, we managed to get enough details to figure out they were both Swinhoe's Storm-petrels: small size, small bill, narrow tail fork. Nothing out of the ordinary. Still very nice but quite normal - over the last decade it became evident that Swinhoe's is a regular summer visitor to the waters off Eilat. I was happy though - year bird for me, and my first photos of the species in Israel and globally. My photos are poor indeed - the birds were always distant, and they're tiny; these are the few photos that included anything but beautiful blue sea and white wave crests.

Swinhoe's Storm-petrels in tandem

Blow up of the photo above, showing nice coverts panel and pale primary bases

Small and delicate, without significant tail fork

Here are a couple of photos courtesy of Amir Balaban, better than mine

The two birds continued to feed on the slick in tandem for a while, zipping back and forth across the now large chum slick, sometimes dropping down to feed, occasionally approaching a bit. Then we noticed a third bird! It consistently kept its distance from the two Swinhoe's in tandem. Frustratingly, it always stayed at the very far end of the chum slick and never approached our boat even a little. It was very difficult to get any details on the bird. A couple of times it gave an impression that it is perhaps larger and heavier (a few of us called that out independently), but we never saw the third bird close enough and in direct comparison with the two Swinhoe's; it was too distant for any detailed views, nonetheless for photos. Eventually, the chum slick drifted too far south, across the Egyptian border, and we had to leave the slick and the birds. 

We established a second chum slick further north, and after a while two Swinhoe's Storm-petrels visited it, typically flying past quite high and in direct flight vector. Sadly, the third, unidentified bird never reappeared. Somewhat disappointed, we tried and tried until it was time to head back. Amazingly, the commonest seabird family we saw during the entire pelagic was storm-petrels. Other than that, we had only two White-cheeked Terns and that's it. eBird checklist here.

The way back to Eilat was characterised by mixed feelings. On the one hand, how bad can a day with two Swinhoe's Storm-petrels in the Western Palearctic be? On the other hand, we were unable to resolve Noam's mystery, and were frustrated by that third, unidentified bird that slipped away. 

Thanks to all the team on board, especially to the organisers Rami and Amir.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

New Year Birding

It's Rosh Hashana here - Jewish New Year, which means a three-day-long holiday, that translates into more time for birding... These are fantastic migration days in Israel, and I try to make the most of it without driving too far. 

Yesterday (Tuesday) I was hoping to enjoy a good take-off of Honey Buzzards off the hills above Tzor'a in the Sorek Valley. 300K Honey Buzzards passed over Israel in recent days, and I was hoping for good conditions. I started early with Bamba, and enjoyed lovely autumn weather, much needed after the brutally-hot summer. 

The alfalfa fields in the bottom of the valley were packed with birds, especially the recently-cut sections. 450 Yellow Wagtails were busy providing ecosystem services (i.e. feeding on Egyptian Cotton Leafworm caterpillars), always spectacular to see. Among the wagtails were a few pipits (tree and tawny), Greater Short-toed Larks, Cretzschmar's and Ortolan Buntings, Rollers, Whinchats and Wheatears. Fantastic.

A single, beautiful, gingery juvenile Montagu's Harrier was sat in the field, chilling before moving on:

I then met up with Gidon, Amir and Dan and we continued birding together. The surrounding scrub and WTP provided excellent habitat for many more migrants. Tons of hirundines, many shrikes, warblers. It was fun (eBird checklist here). Before leaving I spotted two young Bonelli's Eagles. They were strongly associated with each other, probably siblings. They flew around for a while, playing around with pigeons and generally being immature. 

They gained some height, and circled with a Marsh Harrier. Suddenly, both eagles decided to have a go at the harrier - we thought they were going to predate on it. Eventually the encounter left the harrier destroyed, with injured wings and an injured leg, but still alive as it migrated on, somehow. The attack itself took few seconds - I managed to capture only a secondary encounter. Incredible to watch.

Sadly, young Bonelli's Eagles are really stupid when it comes to electric pylons, and they are especially susceptible to electrocution. This valley is a bit of a dead zone for these threatened eagles (CR in Israel). See for example here the sad story of a tagged eagle I found dead a year ago. Frustratingly, Israel Electric Corporation doesn't do enough to protect pylons against electrocution.

Eventually, the main Honey Buzzard stream passed to our west, and we say only few take off. However, when I got back home it was flooding straight over. In 32 minutes of sitting outside I counted 4420 Honey Buzzards (and quite a few other raptors) - always incredible to watch. eBird checklist here. How lucky I am to live bang on the main highway. The only problem is that when they arrive over my house they are normally very high and the light is harsh, providing difficult conditions for photography.

This morning (Wednesday) I had time only for a short session at nearby Tal Shahar, a bit west of Tzor'a. It was short but uber-productive and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Again, there was a huge, even larger, flock of Yellow Wagtails in the alfalfa. I estimated 550 but it could have been much more. Check this video  - I hope you can absorb the sensation of walking through the alfalfa, with clouds of wagtails jumping at my feet. You can also appreciate the habitat in the Sorek Valley where I bird often. Also, this video demonstrates that we are in the transition period between feldegg (early migrants) and flava, compare the two call types - clear (flava) and rasping (fledegg).

These are shrike days in Israel. Indeed, there were many shrikes in the surrounding scrub, mainly Red-backed and fewer Lesser Greys etc. I really love Lesser Grey Shrike - especially the young birds look so good to my eyes. None of them posed long enough for a proper video, all they allowed me was a hasty jumpshot. 

Again, the wagtail flock contained welcome guests, and the scrub provided a wonderful array of migrants, all lovely and so welcome. Migrate on safely you little heroes. eBird checklist here.

On Monday I did something a bit different. I went with Piki to Tel Barukh beach in Tel Aviv, where the Pacific Golden Plover returned for its sixth winter - see previous encounters here (2020) and here (2019). It is fascinating how this individual rarity survives, trapped somewhere far west of its original flyway, and returns to the same rocks on one of the busiest beaches in Israel. And it was a new addition to my Year List...

There were quite a few migrants moving around within the abandoned Sde Dov airport grounds, nothing massive (eBird checklist here). We hadn't enough time to enjoy some of the better habitats nearby, or watch active migration over the sea, reported by that other birders. But I guess we couldn't complain.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

To tick or not to tick, that is the question

On Sunday a farmer working his fields in Urim area, south of the famous powerline, photographed a young Northern Bald Ibis. The news was released only the next day. In the photos a blue ring could be seen but the code was not readable. I searched for it on Monday, without success.

Fast forward to this morning - a different farmer working near Gvulot, about 10 km away, photographed a/the ibis again. I went into 'Fast Response' mode, met up with Amir and within a few minutes we relocated the bird (first spotted by Amir) - my heart stopped. We watched it from a fair distance, feeding along the edge of an irrigated peanut field. It walked and foraged in our direction, until it reached a reasonable distance and turned around, offering us wonderful views in harsh light conditions. The ring code was read - BLV. We left the bird in peace, knowing that hordes of twitchers are on the way.

I communicated with Mustafa Çulcuoğlu who coordinates the work at the ibis colony in Birecik, and confirmed that this bird is from Birecik. Mustafa kindly provided information on BLV. It hatched this summer in natural conditions. BLV is part of a cohort of 15 young ibises that were released and allowed to migrate on July 8th. The rest of the colony gets trapped every year before migration, to prevent them from finding their inevitable death flying past the gun barrels of the Middle East.

Amir, Rami, Rony and I visited the Birecik ibis colony in 2012. It was good fun back then, and we met Mustafa - he still remembered us today!

Birecik street scenes

So, there's a dilemma here, whether to tick this bird or not. 'BLV' originates from a natural population, its parents are wild, and it hatched this summer in natural conditions. It follows traditional migration timing and maybe route. However, this colony has been manipulated by humans (for their safety apparently) for a few decades already. It feels somewhat awkward to tick this bird. Let's wait and see. In any case, it was a wonderful bird to see. So rare and special.

A bit more information about the Northern Bald Ibis: Until the 1990's the Northern Bald Ibis was wiped out from almost its entire range, from Morocco to the Middle East. It was classified as Critically Endangered, and its global population was less than 70 birds! Since the late 1990's the Moroccan population is faring better, now numbering close to 1000 birds. While the Syrian population became extirpated completely, the Turkish population is steady of slightly increasing, due to the efforts by Mustafa and his team and colleagues in Turkey. Now, it is classified as Endangered (this link provides further information about its conservation and ecology).

In Israel, until the 1970's and early 1980's there were a few records of migrating birds, probably originating from Turkey and Syria. All this ended just before I started birding. In January 2007, the superhuman Carsten Rohde found three unringed birds in the Jordan Valley, but the news came out too late and they were never seen by anyone else. Therefore, I have never seen a proper Northern Bald Ibis in Israel (for a few decades there was a small population of free-flying birds around the Zoological Gardens of Tel Aviv University, but they obviously don't count). That's why I was keen to see this Negev bird. Putting aside the silly game of listing, it is great to see some Turkish birds migrating again. I hope that their flyway will become safer for them in the future.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

To write or not to write, that is the question

This post is somewhat unusual, because in recent years I refrain from reporting about my routine daily birding. I go birding every day, but I don't write a new blog every day. In the early years of my blog, I reported almost every time I was out: I saw this, I missed that. Looking back, it's good fun to read and remember, but I'm not sure how much interest there is in this kind of content anymore. Nowadays, I focus here on major events or on events with a broader context rather than standard illustrated birding reports.

This morning's birding session was not different than many others. Like every morning, I was out at dawn, aiming to get some birding done before it gets too hot and I need to start work. My routine birding includes a few good sites within 15-20 minutes from home, that I check in rotation. This morning I chose Yavne 1 ponds. It's a nice little wetland within a horrible industrial zone on the outer edge of the Tel Aviv megapolis. These ponds are used to infiltrate treated water into underground aquifer storage. They are good for autumn migrant shorebirds, and I was hoping to get some shorebird action. Indeed, it was pretty good, with relatively large numbers of common shorebirds, for this region and time of year. This site isn't easy to work, because viewing conditions are not ideal, and birds seem to be quite jumpy and mobile there.

Which shorebird species can you spot in this photo? (annotated answer below)

168 Little Stints were especially enjoyable, all adults. Also fine numbers of Marsh, Wood, Green Sands, Ruff. eBird checklist here.

There were some ducks too, including four Garganey

Both videos were taken through Swarovski ATX85 using my phone and a Swarovski phone adapter.

The reason why I decided to share this morning session is that it was not about birds only. Additionally, the report contained too much information to share in an independent social media post. Bamba and I had two encounters with Wild Boar, one from at very short distance (scared the s&%t out of Bamba) and another from a fair distance, downwind from them, so they were chilled. Also encountered Mountain Gazelle (there's a relict population here, trapped between several motorways) and Golden Jackals.

There were a few individuals of this huge, beautiful antlion, Palpares libelluluoides - wingspan of close to 15cm!

So, should I write such casual report, or not? Interested to get feedback from you, my loyal readers who got this far down.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

More Eilat birds and butterflies

 The rest of the week in Eilat was enjoyable. I did some scuba diving with my son, and continued to visit North Beach twice a day, dawn and dusk. I must admit that I had expectations for some extra rarities - with such effort (8 sessions in five days) I was hoping for a new rarity to show up (Crab Plover?), but nothing exciting happened. Still, I was pleased with the great action, especially of terns. The Great Crested Tern continued to show well as it flew back and forth across the bay, very close sometimes:

Bridled, Lesser Crested and White-cheeked Terns continued as well. Also the/an Arctic tern flew across a couple of time - still I haven't managed to photograph this species in Israel!

Lesser Crested Tern

White-cheeked Terns

The regular White-eyed Gulls did their thing:

Two Western Reef-Egrets (and three littles) in the adjacent canal:

At 45 degrees daily it's hard to think about butterflies in Eilat, but even in the harshest midday conditions Eilat has some on offer. One day I paid a quick visit to a concentration of a butterfly I haven't had the chance to photograph before - Arabian Sapphire. It's a wonderful little 'blue', mouse-white with two splashes of colour at the rear end. I really enjoyed them, nectaring on flowering acacia and baccatus:

Also Desert Bath White enjoyed the acacia

En route bumped into a lovely herd of Onager while driving through Hameishar, in beautiful golden light:

Monday, July 19, 2021


I am spending a few days in Eilat now. My elder son is taking an Open Water Diver course. I am escorting him, and between marine activities and work I manage to get some birding done. Main focus in on North Beach, that is in good form - in fact best I have seen it in many years. There's lots of seabird activity, especially in the morning. Biggest star is a Great Crested Tern, it's been here for a few days now. It's a big rarity in Israel, not even annual; a welcome year tick for me, and also a photo tick. As they always appear in Israel, it's a worn non-adult in non-breeding plumage. BTW it most probably belongs to ssp. velox that breeds in the Indian Ocean north into the Red Sea.

This morning when I arrived at dawn, I found Avi already there, and the bird was there too. It was perched near the Jordanian border, at a spot without good access, so views were a bit distant.

Every now and then, it flew out west across the bay, at some distance, for fishing. Then it headed back east to its perch.

It normally U-turned with the city and the mountains as a background - I find these photos more pleasing aesthetically, despite the bird being farther away:

Here it demonstrates why some people still call it Swift Tern - it has such long wings and is extremely aerobatic:

Other cool terns are Bridled, Lesser Crested and quite many White-cheeked.

The famous underwater observatory in the background:

Cory's Shearwaters are present in exceptional numbers. Others reported up to 35 in previous days, I saw max. 18. Still very cool.

eBird checklist from this morning here.

I am here for a few more days - stay posted!