Sunday, November 28, 2021

Double Turkestan

Healing journal, Day 1. This morning I ventured out into the southern Negev with Rony. I needed some desert bliss (and good birds) to comfort my aching soul. First stop was Neot Smadar. It was cold first thing, and it took the birds some time to wake up. A pallid Hen Harrier flew past, fast, low, wrong settings...

It took us a little while to relocate the Turkestan (AKA Red-tailed) Shrike, but eventually it showed really well, feeding on grasshoppers and chasing other birds. Very smart bird, gives a different impression compared to a normal Isabelline. Dark cold brown upperparts, almost Brown Shrike-like (it isn't), strong supercilium, whitish underparts with limited wash on flanks. Of course identifying 1cy birds of these taxa is challenging, but to my eyes this bird looks good for phoenicuroides.




Our next stop was the northern edge of Uvda Valley, north of Rt.12. We walked down from the road into the dry wadi - very lovely there.


Quickly we noticed that there were huge numbers of larks in the bottom of the wadi. At first we saw lots of Crested Larks, then we started seeing more and more Temminck's Larks, then large flocks starting moving all around us - they were so mobile! 



One of the very few that didn't fly off:


Then I spotted some Thick-billed Larks with them - great! But they were up and off quickly too, 12 in total.

Two Thick-bills with a Temminck's


The lark bonanza continued. I scanned through a flock of Temminck's Larks that momentarily landed. I spotted a 'lesser short-toed lark', got the scope on it - whoa! Dark, heavily-streaked breast, large bill - must be Turkestan Short-toed Lark!! I got Rony on it, we had it on the ground for another five or ten seconds, then the whole flock took flight, up and away, and joined hundreds of larks on the wing - we estimated 300 Temminck's Larks up in the air! No photos, damn. The whole mass moved west and out of sight behind the mountains. The Turkestan encounter was brief, but we enjoyed really good scope views. This is my first 'modern' Turkestan Short-toed Lark in Israel, since the split, so this is very exciting.
We continued birding the wadi which was very enjoyable, with large numbers of Bar-tailed Larks, Asian Desert Warbler, many wheatears - eBird checklist here.

A quick walk through the southern section of Uvda Valley was less productive - it was getting hot and bird activity was reduced. Still high numbers of larks and wheatears (eBird checklist here), including this lovely Desert Wheatear:


The midday heat put us off from further birding, so we made our way back home - a brilliant morning that was.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Uganda called off

If you're following me on social media, you might have noticed this post (similar on Facebook, Instagram):

I was invited by the organisers of African Birding Expo in Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, to attend the event and join the fam trip preceding it, with a wonderful bunch of good friends and excellent birders. I was all pumped up and ready to go, so excited to visit Uganda for the first time. Images of Mountain Gorillas and Shoebills ran through my head.

Last night I headed over to the airport to catch my flight to Uganda via Dubai. News of a new COVID-19 variant, Omicoron, spreading like fire in southern Africa was sitting at the back of my head, also the travel ban Israel imposed on these countries. I started the check-in process, when the person at the check-in counter notified me that Israel had just upgraded the covid status of Uganda, as most African countries, to red. Meaning that there's a travel ban to this country. Technically I could fly because my flight wasn't direct. The check-in attendant warned me of the real and possible grave consequences when I return. I had the worst dilemma - my heart directed me to go and fulfill my dream, and deal with the consequences down the line when they arrive. But my brain, my damn, logical, responsible brain, made the decision to cancel the trip. I was shattered, devastated. I was almost there, then everything collapsed. Cognitively I know I made the right decision. Emotionally, I don't know...

I want to express here my deep gratitude to the organisers of the African Birding Expo. They put it significant efforts to bring me over. I am sure they are disappointed and concerned as well. I hope that the trip and expo will go smoothly, and all travellers will return home safely.

I was invited to the expo to promote birding tourism into this wonderful country. I will do my best to promote birding in Uganda, even if I am not there. The expo organisers and Bird Uganda Safaris team, including Annette and Herbert, were extremely helpful, informative and responsive during the months and weeks before the event. I can highly recommend working with them. The gorillas, chimpanzees and shoebills will have to wait for me until I eventually make it. In the meanwhile, I recommend following the adventures of my fam-trip fellows, George, Ted, Dominic and Hannah and Erik Go Birding.

This era of covid is crushing the birding tourism industry worldwide. I can just hope that this period of escalating chaos will pass, and birding tourism, so important for local communities and conservation efforts, and for my fellow bird tour leaders, will resume without interruptions.

And me? I am OK. I was in a very bad mood for a while, but already went birding in the morning, which is always good for the soul. The checklist streak must continue. Rather than mourn over the lost opportunity in Uganda, I plan to celebrate the birding in Israel. My diary is empty for the next 2.5 weeks, and I have a Big Year to complete.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Frustrations

The past week has been very frustrating for me. Israel is experiencing an amazing run of Asian vagrants, including two national firsts. I have been somewhat involved indirectly with those, but have not seen them. Just to clarify, I claim no credit for these records; all the fame and glory go to the finders.


In the evening of October 31st belated news broke of a Black-faced Bunting that had been ringed in the morning at Hefer Valley Ringing Station:

As soon as photos of a strange bunting went online I thought to myself 'what on earth is this bunting?'. Yosef Kiat was the first to blow the whistle. Frustration #1 - had the bird been identified immediately, perhaps I had a chance to see it?

Next morning (November 1st) I was there first thing. Incredibly, there were just three birders searching - Barak, Avi and me. Imagine this scenario in UK... The weather was horrendous, and we failed to relocate the bunting, not for the lack of trying (eBird checklist here). Frustration #2.

Next day (November 2nd) I had work to do at the JBO, enjoyed a Yellow-browed there and added Woodcock to my yearlist nearby at Gazelle Valley. 

Frustratingly, my birding session at Gazelle Valley was interrupted by belated news, again, that the Black-faced Bunting had been seen again (but identified only retrospectively from photos online) few hours after we had left the previous day, about half a kilometer away from where we searched. Arrrgh! Frustration #4. I sped back to Agamon Hefer, again to meet Barak and a few others. Nothing. No sign. This pretty Caspian Stonechat improved our mood by just a bit.



Next day (November 3rd) I was ringing peacefully near home, when Noam Weiss calls me, in a state of hyperventilation, asking me for help to identify an interesting bunting that had just been caught at IBRCE. I went with Noam over ID features, and we identified it as Chestnut Bunting - another national first, four days after the Black-faced Bunting. Amazing! What's going on? Frustrating to be part of the effort without seeing the bird (frustration #5).

Yesterday (November 4th) I did my monthly point count morning at Ma'agan Michael. It was in fact an excellent morning, tons of birds, so many species (eBird checklist here). I tried really hard but saw nothing more special than a Richard's Pipit. Before leaving I joined Itai Bloch's ringing team for a short while, good fun, until I had to leave.

This morning while birding near Tzor'a, guess who calls me. Itai Bloch. 'Please help me identify this bunting'. I video call Itai on WhatsApp - bloody Rustic Bunting. Arrrrrrgggghhhhh! I was there yesterday! Bastard bird. Frustration #6.

Imperial Eagle 2cy - much better than a bloody bunting



Caspian Stonechat - so much better than a bloody bunting

A short while ago news came from Eilat that the Chestnut Bunting resurfaced and is being seen. There are so many good reasons for me NOT to go for it tomorrow. Don't know if I will. May the force be with me.

Friday, October 22, 2021

My brother the birder

For Birdability Week, organised by Birdability, I want to share here the inspiring story of my brother Gidon. 

My brother Gidon is three and a half years older than me. He started birding just before I did - we were both under 10. Thanks to his infectious enthusiasm about wildlife and birding, my childhood growing up in Jerusalem was all outdoors. We trained as birders and ringers together, and spent long periods together in the field. My brother was always up there for me, leading the way, pushing boundaries. He co-founded the wonderful Nili and David Jerusalem Bird Observatory, with Amir Balaban, back in 1994. He served as head of the Israel Ringing Center for many years. Here is Gidon, in the early 1990s, ringing an Eagle Owl near Jerusalem.


Here he is in eastern Turkey, in June 2013. We climbed up Mt. Ararat searching for Caspian Snowcock.




Thanks Amir for the snap

************************************************************************

In 2015 Gidon was diagnosed with a horrible, terminal neurodegenerative disease, ALS. His disease develops in a medium, steady pace. When he was diagnosed he lived in Vancouver, where he worked as a fellow in a leading hospital (his main profession is cardiologist). In May 2016 I went to visit Gidon and his family in Vancouver, with Amir. Back then his disease was demonstrated mainly in weakness in one of his legs. This affected his walking and stability, but all in all his mobility was reasonable.

Here he is during a trip we took to Vancouver Island. He had just spotted our first Orca of the trip.


Back then, the idea to embark on a Big Cat quest was born. Though Gidon had travelled the world extensively when he was young and healthy, he failed to connect with several Big Cat species. I remember that in July 1999, when Gidon came to visit me while I was travelling in Pacific Russia, we walked through a forest full of buntings and leaf-warblers. When we reached a stream that crossed our path, we noticed big, wet, paw prints, still wet from crossing the stream. We missed an Amur Tiger by minutes. Therefore, Gidon was keen to see as many Big Cats as long as he could travel. One day I may write a book about our travels (too many adventures to share here). 

By early 2017 Gidon's condition worsened. He was already using a mobility chair (scooter), but could somehow walk short distances using two sticks. In February 2017 we travelled to India. The team included, Gidon, Amir, Eli (Gidon's close friend who's also a medical doctor) and me. We already had to plan the trip according to Gidon's limited mobility. It was a challenge to climb into and out of the safari vehicles. Walking forest trails was out of the picture basically. We planned the trip well, and had breathtaking encounters with Bengal Tigers in Ranthambhore NP.  Kaziranga NP was incredible too.


Here are Gidon and Eli in a tea estate near Kaziranga NP, searching for Blue-naped Pitta.


In November 2017 I visited Israel (before my return from UK to Israel). I met up with Gidon and Amir, and we birded the Negev. It was a special year for rare wheatears and we enjoyed them along the Uvda Valley road. Gidon was unable to walk then, so birding was limited to roadside stuff. Thankfully the wheatears were kind to us, and showed well just by the road.


Red-rumped Wheatear

Basalt Wheatear

Our next trip together was to South Africa, in February 2018. This time it was a family trip, introducing the children to their family roots in Cape Town. Of course, we had planned the trip to connect with Lion and Cheetah. By then, Gidon could barely stand up using sticks. The safari-drive tempo worked better with his mobility challenges. Of course, we planned our trip to South Africa bringing into consideration his disabilities.
An important consideration in planning birding and outdoor activities is Gidon's ability to use optics. For birders without disabilities, the simple actions of lifting binoculars up to the eyes, or tilting the head to look through a telescope, are trivial. For birders with disabilities that affect the use of arms and hands, this is not trivial at all. In South Africa, Gidon still had just enough muscle power in his arms to lift binoculars up. Here he is in Hluhluwe Game Reserve:


Honorary Big Cat

Our next Big Cat assignment took us to the world-famous Pantanal in Brazil, in November 2018. Again, the crew included Gidon, Amir, Eli and me. Our main target was Jaguar. For this, we used boats specially adapted to Gidon's condition, with the help of awesome friends from Panthera. By then Gidon could barely stand up, so getting him into a boat was a big challenge. Despite the challenges, we had wonderful experiences with Jaguar. Of course, the stunning wildlife of the Pantanal includes much more than Jaguar - it was a dream come true to visit there.
Check Gidon's smile seconds after our first Jaguar encounter - worth all the efforts to get him there:




After a few days in Pantanal we headed north to spend another few days birding the Atlantic Forest with Marco Silva. There are few accessible accommodation options in Brazil, which made us adjust our itinerary so we stay at a suitable location. Few forest trails were accessible to Gidon. A visit to Sitio Folha Seca, to admire the hummingbird feeding operation, was both rewarding and suitable for Gidon - birds are extremely close there.

Our final international assignment (to date) was just before COVID-19 pandemic halted world travel. We flew to southern Spain in late January 2020, where with our Flyway Family siblings Inglorious Bustards we tried to connect with Iberian Lynx in Sierra de Andujar. By then, Gidon's condition had deteriorated dramatically. Now seated in a wheelchair (rather than scooter), and more tragically, hardly able to lift up binoculars. Gidon's energy levels and stamina reached a new low. It was a tough trip, made even more difficult by various unexpected events, including Gidon catching pneumonia. Eventually, on our final morning, we had views of an Iberian Lynx at long range. Sadly, Gidon was unable to stabilise his binoculars, and he failed to see the cat. It was an extremely frustrating moment; after all the difficulties of getting Gidon up that mountain, he couldn't see the lynx.



Since then we have been unable to travel outside of Israel. First, because of COVID. Second, because Gidon's condition is now so frail, that the logistics of international travel make it (almost) impossible for him to fly. I write 'almost' because I still hope that in the near future, we will do the impossible and travel somewhere. Sadly, Gidon won't be able to see any more large cat species. Initial plans we had for Puma in Torres del Paine, or Snow Leopard in Tibet, have become irrelevant. Gidon's lungs won't withstand high altitude anymore. Additionally, Gidon needs to be within short driving distance from a modern medical facility, and requires stable, reliable power supply to sustain him. Since our last trip to Spain, I have tried, usually with Amir, to take Gidon to as many places as possible in Israel. We plan our trips according to Gidon's accessibility requirements. Not many high quality birding sites in Israel are fully accessible. Nowadays, Gidon is unable to lift up binoculars or even tilt his head to look through a telescope. So Gidon requires birding sites that have big birds (Agamon Hula for instance). Gidon is a keen ringer; now unable to handle birds himself, his interest and knowledge of ringing hasn't declined. And it's a great opportunity for him to see birds from up close. Thankfully Gidon has the Jerusalem bird Observatory - he visits there multiple times a week, and is still deeply involved in the monitoring and research work carried out there. Together we visited IBRCE  - Eilat Bird Park, that is fully accessible too. The ringing station is, and also the wonderful walking trails and hides are. The team working there, lead by Noam Weiss, always go a long way to help and assist.


We also visited Ashalim Reservoir, a wonderful site with a good lookout but the distances are large. I attempted to connect a lightweight scope, Viking 12-36x 50mm Swallow Compact Telescope, connected to his wheelchair by a complex system of clamps and adapters. It's a good scope, and the system looks good in the photos, but eventually wasn't very useful, mainly because Gidon was unable to tilt his head in the exact angle needed to look through the scope. We tried also to show Gidon birds through my scope, connected to my phone with an adapter. That didn't work well either - sunlight on the screen makes it difficult to use. That was very frustrating at times.


At KM20 flamingo pools north of Eilat - the rough tracks between the saltpans aren't suitable for Gidon's wheelchair

In July 2021 we joined a ringing team working on Mt. Hermon for a wonderful session, enjoying Mt. Hermon's special birds, including this Syrian Serin held by Yael:



I somehow managed to get Gidon look through the scope at Israel's first Three-banded Plover in Ha'Maapil fishponds. It was very challenging to adapt the scope inside the specialised vehicle, in the exact angle for Gidon to look through the scope at the constantly moving plover:



In June 2021, Kan 11 TV channel broadcasted a piece they did on Gidon and his inspiring story. I am also in there... If you want to get to know Gidon better, consider watching this story. Unfortunately for most of the world it's in Hebrew, but I think you can get the main idea. You can watch it on Youtube (I am not sure whether it works outside of Israel), or through their website, from minute 54 onward. 

To conclude, birding with Gidon has changed my concept about birding with disabilities. In the past, when I birded daily, I was totally unaware of accessibility considerations. I never thought about the simple actions of lifting binoculars up, or looking through a scope. I also never faced issues staying in the field for hours. Now, my views have changed. When I am birding with my brother, the careful planning, the slow pace of birding, the accessibility of trails and the distance to birds all become fundamental. The birding community in Israel is small, and there's only a handful of birders with disabilities. I hope that Gidon's story will elevate accessibility for birders with disabilities into the agenda of birding and wildlife experiencing in Israel. Many new birding sites are being planned these days. Almost every city has an infrastructure of urban wildlife sites. Accessibility needs to be a major component of the planning process.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Global Big Day and Pin-tailed Snipe

Yesterday was Global Big Day, organised by eBird, part of the international events of Global Bird Weekend and World Migratory Bird Day. Our team 'Champions of the Flyway' traditionally included Jonathan, Re'a and me.

Initially, we had plans for a selective Big Day, focused on special specialties only, at a slower pace. Eventually, we changed our plans and returned to a proper, ambitious full Big Day effort, the way it should be done.

We left our homes in central Israel in the early hours to arrive in the Hula Valley enough time before dawn for some night birding. Our traditional Tawny Owl was waiting for us at the entrance to Hula NR. A night drive in the Agamon failed to produce other new owls (only Barn) or a nightjar, but produced a surprising, late Golden Oriole - our only one for the whole day, spotted by Re'a roosting in a big tree.

Several Jungle Cats were hunting in the dark, including this poser:


At day break, we were positioned at the southern end of the Agamon, and enjoyed this scene, now complete with crane cacophony:


The Agamon and adjacent fields were fantastic (eBird checklist here). Huge numbers of birds. many species, good quality including Moustached Warbler, Black Francolin, Pallid Harrier. A cut alfalfa field was coated with hundreds of Yellow Wagtails, and even larger numbers of Corn Bunting. Several Red-footed Falcons were hunting over the ploughed fields.


Red-footed Falcon

Montagu's Harrier

We quickly visited Lehavot Habashan fishponds - it would have been rude to leave the Hula Valley without seeing Marbled Teal. There were still good numbers of Marbled Teal there, 108, alongside a nice selection of shorebirds (eBird checklist here).


We left the Hula Valley satisfied with 114 species under our belt. When we arrived at Susita it was already very hot. Birding was tough, we missed Long-billed Pipit but added a few good species. While birding there news broke of a Pin-tailed Snipe in central Israel, close to home. We contemplated the option of altering our route to twitch the snipe. In an act of maturity and responsibility we decided to stick to Plan A and continue as planned. This came with some disappointment, as Jonathan and I are doing a Big Year. 

Global Big Day is timed to suit best N American birders' calendar. In Israel, both October and May Big Days happen when the weather is very hot. Yesterday was no exception, and when we arrived in the Bet She'an Valley the temperatures were soaring towards 40 degrees, making birding difficult. What to do when it's so hot? We walked a couple of alfalfa fields, failed to find Oriental Skylark but added Richard's pipit and a surprise Spectacled Warbler. We were melting. Bad choice. Birding the fishponds, for waterbirds, stationary, made more sense (eBird checklist here). The White-tailed Lapwing remained in it's wonderful pond that hosted many new shorebirds for the day. There were some raptors up in the air, though we failed to intercept a proper stream of raptor migration the whole day. Light conditions were harsh, and we were in a hurry, so I didn't take any photos. Jonathan shot this video of the wonderful pond with the lapwing: 


We left Bet Shean Valley with 142 species and headed cross-country towards the Dead Sea.

Ein Gedi NR carpark was exploding with humans rather than birds. Still, some nice desert species were present, including Fan-tailed Raven.


Note that the bird in the center is ringed:

Ashalim Reservoir is a stunning location, and I love birding there. It provided us with a few good species, including Dead Sea Sparrow and African Swamphen (eBird checklist here).


Late in the afternoon we arrived at Heimar Reservoir. Immediately we enjoyed a fantastic show by Sooty Falcons, at least four of them, hunting hirundines high up. Top quality birds. Just before dusk we Re'a struck again - Isabelline Shrike! Boom! Very nice surprise.



After dusk we checked a nearby site for Nubian Nightjar. It's not their main site, and habitat there isn't optimal, so it wasn't a big surprise we didn't succeed. However, the day was topped by a fantastic Desert Owl hooting in a nearby wadi.

Our daily total was a very satisfying 159 species. This is our best autumn Big Day score so far. This is the second time we do a cross-country effort. In May 2019 our route was even crazier, because it included also Mt. Hermon, and we ended up with 164 species. So our score yesterday is pretty good for our effort I reckon. Of course, like in every Big Day, we missed a good number of silly species, and gained a few 'Wild Cards'. 

Thanks Re'a and Jonathan for another memorable Big Day. It was a day full of quality birding and lots of fun with the best possible team. Thank you guys.
Thanks to the organisers, eBird and Global Birding - always a pleasure to participate in this global event. Thanks to Swarovski Optik for the privilege to use the best optics in the world.

####################### Post-script ##############################

After a well-deserved night sleep, this late morning I went with Jonathan to look for the snipe at Tel Afek. We weren't optimistic. This is a super intensive site, most it it developed for recreation. Yesterday, as the park filled up with hundreds of noisy families, the bird vanished. This early morning many birders searched for it, without success. We birded the park hard, checked all habitats that made some sense for a skulky snipe, without success either. Then Oren Maman called - 'Come quick, I found it!'. It was sitting quietly under a tree in the most intensive section of the park, between picnic tables and screaming kids. We must have walked right past it, as did many other birders. 


It sat there motionless for a while until a screaming kid that ran past it flushed it a short distance. Fantastic views of it. Great year bird, and a good rarity in Israel, with about 14 records only. The identity of this bird was confirmed by call, and by photos of it preening (by Ron Singer), displaying its pin-like outer tail feathers.

Note short tail

Open face