Wednesday, February 20, 2019

21 hours

Yesterday was extremely long. I left home very early, met up with Piki and together we sailed down towards the Dead Sea. Despite the dire state of the shrinking Dead Sea, Climate Change, Sixth Extinction, Donald Trump etc., I find the view of the sun rising over the Edom Mountains of Jordan, above the Dead Sea, always heartening. 

First thing we birded Wadi Mishmar. After a couple of good winter floods, vegetation in the wadi looks great. The Ochradenus bacatus bushes look very happy,  and the Sylvia warblers were feasting on them. 

Most prominent was Sardinian Warbler, several tens, including quite a few of the nominate subspecies. Among them we had at least 9 Cyprus Warblers. At first they weren't easy to pin down, but eventually I managed to get some photos of a few. Still not the perfect photos I'm hoping for, but I guess they ain't too shabby.

Cyprus Warbler, male, in Ochradenus baccatus bush

Cyprus Warbler, female

Also a couple each of Spectacled Warbler and Whitethroat.

Common Whitethroat

Tristram's Starlings were present in some large flocks. One flock mobbed a passing Long-legged Buzzard. Others were just feeding on the baccatus fruit and other fruiting trees in the wadi. I find them uber-charismatic, despite being very common in this part of the country, including trash-bird behaviour at some tourist sites. They are most attractive when they fly, exposing their brilliant wing pattern:

We bumped into Shlomi, another Israeli birder. While exchanging information we spotted a large raptor soaring over the high cliffs:

Cinereous Vulture! What a pleasant surprise (though unknowingly at that moment it had been present for a couple of days at least):

We had a couple of Striolated Bunting flying high over the cliffs, and Shlomi told us of a waterhole up the wadi that they come down to drink in. We walked up there, sat down quietly for a few minutes and indeed a single bunting, a female, graced us with its beautiful presence:

Since my return from the UK, my appreciation for our local species, especially range-restricted species like Tristram's Starling and Fan-tailed Raven, has increased. The aerobatic flight of the ravens, their unique high-pitched calls echoing off the mighty cliffs, is an epic symbol of the Judean Desert.

Fan-tailed Raven

On the way out we spent a couple of minutes with an oddly-plumaged Blackstart. I'm not sure whether it's oil-stained or melanistic. In real life it felt much darker than how it looks in these images.

Golden Spiny Mouse - indeed golden and spiny

While there were saddeningly few Eurasian Griffons, it was nice to have a 3-vulture species morning, including Egyptian Vulture. There were first signs of soaring bird migration, with a northbound movement of Black Kites, first mini-flock of 8 White Storks and a single Black Stork. Soon it will be thousands. Wadi Mishmar eBird checklist here.

Our next stop was Heimar Reservoir. We met up there with two Swiss friends, Martin and Michael. Another very pleasant surprise was a stonking male Daurian Shrike that hopped on the ugly fence surrounding the reservoir - what a beautiful bird:

Full frame


Getting the priorities right - at this location these could be 'wild-type' Rock Pigeons:

There was also a maurus Siberian Stonechat, Penduline Tit, Dead Sea Sparrows and some migrant hirundines - Red-rumped, Barn and House Martins. eBird checklist here.

Then we moved on down the road to Navit Pools. I don't fully understand why, but this site is absolutely jam-packed with birds. Contrastingly, adjacent reservoirs are quite empty. Navit Pools had many hundreds of ducks, including 20 Fudge Ducks (they breed there), 4 African Swamphens and much more. Combine that with stunning scenery and one gets 47 minutes of fun (eBird checklist here).

Then we continued down into the bottom of the valley at Ne'ot Hakikar. It was a beautiful, mild, moonlit evening. Nubian Nightjars were very active: we had at least 9 individuals, including a few that put on quite a show. Over the years I have had countless intimate encounters with these fascinating birds, yet every time the excitement is still on. Wow.

'Tamarisk' Nubian Nightjar

On the way back home we had rather casual encounters with (heard only) Desert Owl by the main road, Egyptian Nightjar and Pallid Scops Owl. Back home, 21 hours after leaving, I felt quite satisfied, and totally knackered.
Piki, Martin, Michael - thanks.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

South coast

Today I worked with NPA marine rangers on seabird identification near Ashkelon. There were no proper seabirds around, so we made do with gull identification. Can't get any better than that. We spent a bit of time inside Ashkelon NP, then checked for some gull rafts inside the coal depot. At one secluded spot a nice mixed group contained, among the striking Pallas's Gulls, a few other taxa, especially fuscus and heuglini. A metal-ringed cachinnans, metal ringed Pallas's and two darvic ringed fuscus were out there, but frustratingly too distant to read.

Armenian Gull is less frequent down the southern coast compared to the northern coast and northern valleys where it is the 'default' large gull. As spring comes, adults like this gradually lose the diagnostic black bill band. I have seen individuals with a more convincing P3 pattern, but the overall solid black wingtip (very limited grey tongues on P7/8) and deeply hooked bill leave no doubt that it's armenicus:

Large numbers of Loggerhead Sea Turtles were washed up dead or dying on the coast over the last few weeks. This one was washed up on the beach this morning.

Some of the few remaining Mountain Gazelles still roam on the vegetated coastal dunes. Sad to see numbers of this globally Endangered mammal dwindling.

Thanks to Guy (NPA) and his team for a great day out.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

My rosefinch

It's still around, my subtle beauty. This morning it finally posed albeit briefly. Perched for a few snaps and disappeared somewhere - still not familiar with all of its hiding spots. I think I am the only birder who has seen it - a few others tried and failed.

It is interesting (for very few of us, admittedly) to note that this bird has asymmetric tertial moult: On its left wing longest tertial is unmoulted, on right wing it is moulted.

Amidst a few days of unsettled weather, this morning was perfectly still and bird activity was great at my local patch. I had higher numbers than my winter average of Chiffchaff, Bluethroat and Blackcap. A Wryneck that I have seen a couple of times during the winter showed nicely. Reed Warblers are back. Full eBird checklist here.

White-throated Kingfisher

Lots of wildflowers now, including the stunning Blue Lupins.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Hula weekend

Spent the weekend up in the Hula Valley with my wife, my brother and his wife. No kids. Good food, wine, spectacular scenery and a little bit of birding in between.
In the Agamon, Barny is still present - patiently waited for my brother:

Nice to see the beautiful, petite Demoiselle Crane among the 47k Common Cranes, luckily outside the main feeding area:

A crane or two... Always a treat to be on a mobile hide tour

White-tailed eagle

5 Marbled Ducks in Hagome junction fishponds

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Empty skies

I had a strange day yesterday. I was very fortunate to visit one of Israel's remotest corners, Ardon Valley in the central Negev, which is the southeastern section of Ramon Crater. This nature reserve is strictly closed off to the public and is visited by NPA rangers only few times a year. Yesterday I joined the local NPA ranger for a thorough scan of the mighty cliffs surrounding the pristine desert valley, in an attempt to find the last few breeding pairs of Golden Eagle in the desert. Sadly, despite our best efforts, we found nothing at all. In fact we saw no raptors whatsoever yesterday. Really depressing. It is possible that yesterday we were unlucky (again), but the state of many breeding raptors in Israel is dire and I fear that our experience yesterday reflects the overall situation.
With the absence of raptors, we had to focus on the beauty of the valley - scenery is truly stunning. We had quite many mammals - again large numbers of Dorcas Gazelle, and also Onager (Asian Wild Ass). We saw only one but by the enormous amounts of their poo it is evident they are doing well there.

Besides absent raptors, bird activity was slowish but OK. Some quality birds seen were Sinai Rosefinch, Striolated Bunting, Asian Desert and Cyprus Warblers. This 'lilith' Little Owl was the closest thing to a raptor I saw yesterday:

Burrowing Owl wannabe

eBird checklist here.

If I were a botanist or geologist, yesterday would have been a fantastic day. There were some lovely desert flower along the wadi:

Astragalus dactylocarpus

Desert Lotus (Lotus lanuginosus)

 Retama raetam

Dike - vertical magmatic intrusion

My trusted Swarovski ATX95 was jobless, but is always photogenic

Coffee time

Ardon Valley panorama

Many thanks to Yedidya and Naama from NPA for a beautiful day, despite the negative results. Hope for better luck next time.