Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Why I am not going to Global Birdfair this year

Global Birdfair 2023 - me with Tim Appleton and Dale Forbes

Those of you who follow my blog regularly know that very rarely I stray away from bird stuff in my writing. In recent weeks many people have asked me whether I am taking part in Global Birdfair this year. At this point, I want to share my disappointment and frustration with attitudes I am receiving in recent months, that have led me to decide not to go to Global Birdfair this year.

I have been going to Global Birdfair for many years, representing BirdLife Israel. It really is THE place to be. Tim and Penny's friendship and support are so precious to me personally and to BirdLife Israel. It is always great to meet so many close friends, make new friends and hang out with amazing people from all around the world, to talk about birding and conservation. I am affiliated with BirdLife International, Swarovski Optik, eBird, Rockjumper Birding Tours, OSME, Dutch Birding - several good reasons to visit Global Birdfair. In normal years we go as a BirdLife Israel team, present our conservation work, and promote our international events including Champions of the Flyway. We also promote birding tourism into Israel, emphasizing the connection between birding tourism and conservation.

Since October 7th, our lives here in Israel have shattered. In the first weeks after the Hamas attack, waves of support and comradeship arrived from friends and colleagues around the world, helping us at BirdLife Israel and me personally to pick ourselves up after the horrible massacre. However, after the Israeli military operation began in Gaza, the positive vibes were muted. Instead, I started receiving vile, offensive messages from people and from organisations around the world. Surprisingly, even people that I regarded as personal friends turned their backs on me and on BirdLife Israel. Not only ignored, but actively accused me personally of committing genocide, killing children etc. This is nonsense of course, but I felt very troubled and confused by this approach. Maybe I was totally naïve. I believed that people in the birding and conservation community have some kind of basic understanding of how conservation NGOs work, and how much support conservation NGOs need especially in extreme situations like we are in now. No, some people are simply stupid, ignorant or brainwashed, unable to separate their own political or social agendas from their views about conservation and about basic human relationships and behaviour.

I want to clarify. I am not an Israeli spokesperson. I don't take responsibility for the actions of the Israeli government since October 7th (and before). I even openly criticize the Israeli government. The war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is horrible, inflicting unimaginable suffering on civilians in Israel and in Gaza. I hope the war ends yesterday. Those who know me are familiar with my deep belief in cross-border work with our neighbours, developing partnerships with Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians in pre-war days. Accusing me of genocide and murder, and openly calling for my death or deportation, just for being Israeli and Jewish, is unacceptable and very wrong. Moreover, people from the global birding and conservation communities openly calling to boycott BirdLife Israel, which has happened, demonstrates how rife are ignorance and hypocrisy in these communities. 

All of these events, combined with the huge increase in antisemitism and anti-Israeli cases in the UK, led me to decide not to take part in Global Birdfair this year. Obviously, it is pointless to promote birding tourism into Israel in the near future. Moreover, I was concerned that if I tried to give a presentation or hold an event, idiots would sabotage our efforts. The whole situation is so toxic at the moment. It is very sad for me not to take part this year. I know that during birdfair, seeing all the smiling faces and sensing the strong vibes of global solidarity (unless you're Israeli) FOMO will take over me. 

I have hope that this horrible war will end soon, the hostages will return home and our crazy region will regain some kind of fragile stability. I am sure that a few months later those holding racist and antisemitic opinions will not feel comfortable to share their dangerous views anymore. The Israeli civil society, and I include myself in it, is resilient. We struggle to keep our heads above the water, but we'll make it to the other side. The strength of the civil society in Israel gives me hope for the future. I promise that in Global Birdfair 2025 BirdLife Israel will return stronger than ever, proudly showcasing the good conservation work that we do, for nature and people, against all odds.

A nice bird for good measure.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Poland - Aquatic Warblers and more

I recently returned from a short work visit to Poland, with Amir Balaban. This trip was organised with OTOP, to learn about their excellent conservation work, focused on restoration, and develop collaborations. Despite all the photos, videos and sound recordings that appear below, it really was a work trip, honest! Luckily our work includes field visits, so when a group of birders meet up, and excellent birds are plentiful, sometimes meetings get a little shorter... 

Our trip started on Sunday, June 2nd. After picking up the rental car in Warsaw we headed straight to Biebrza marshes. Our first stop was at Dluga Lake, the classic spot for Aquatic Warbler. 

Such a great habitat, lots of birds singing - I especially enjoyed the snipes in display flight. Despite the less-than-ideal time of day, quickly we heard our first singing male, and soon spotted it singing from the top of a tall grass blade - fantastic!

Clarification: Bimbo is a term used by Spanish birders for lifer. Indeed, Aquatic Warbler was a global lifer for me.

We then continued to the OTOP reserve of Mscichy that is carefully managed specially to create optimal conditions for Aquatic Warbler. Superb example of habitat restoration. It was raining most of the time, and the tall grass was very wet. We finished our session there soaked to the bone, but it was certainly worth it. More encounters with Aquatic Warblers, still not best photos but lovely views and I love their song.

Amir doing his stuff

Next morning (June 3rd) we returned early to Mscichy to improve our views and maybe get some decent photos of Aquatic Warbler. Coming from the hot Middle east, I am used to birds peaking their daily activity in the early morning. But Aquatic Warbler in Poland isn't like that! In fact the morning session was much quieter, with less activity. Still, so many great birds around (River Warbler, Common Rosefinch etc.) that it was highly enjoyable. Habitat photo by Thomas Krumenacker:

Aquatic Warbler in its habitat - they often sing from a tall grass blade:

I was intrigued by this singing Common Rosefinch, clearly a 2cy. It was singing non-stop and being very territorial, but without a hint of pink plumage. The slow plumage development of Common Rosefinch is known and correlated with song development - see this article

Later on we continued to the watch tower at Bialy Grad trail - lots of good birds on the marsh there, including Black and White-winged Terns.

In the morning of June 4th we visited a state-protected old growth forest in the Lublin region. It was truly majestic, and full of birds, mosquitoes and fungi. Thanks Jarek for the help in identifying non-birds! Red-breasted, Collared and Pied Flycatchers, Gray-headed Woodpeckers, Wood Warblers etc. - superb.

Fuligo septica

Pluteus leoninus

Gray-headed Woodpecker in its nest

Red-backed Shrike

I believe I can fly! (Roe Deer)

A study visit to another restored OTOP reserve, Krowie Bagno, was very interesting regarding hydrology and vegetation management. The boggy mire is full of life, small and large. Great Snipe and Corn Crake were among the excellent birds seen and heard there.

Very cool meat-eating plant - Drosera rotundifolia

Cranberry Fritillary

In the evening it was time for main dish. We headed over to THE prime location for Aquatic Warbler in Lublin area - another chunk of OTOP-managed land, Serebryskie Bagno. It is slightly drier there, resulting in less competition with Sedge Warbler. Aquatic Warblers were so plentiful and active in the evening, in beautiful restored habitat. I split away from the group to spend quality solo time with these globally-threatened birds. It was awesome. I sat down, surrounded between four different males, serenading to each other. The air was still. The light was golden. Meadow Pipits singing in the background. I felt complete.

That median crown stripe

Bombina Bombina - the scientific name is so much cooler than the English name (European Fire-bellied Toad)

Early Marsh-Orchid

Then it was back to Warsaw for two days of meetings and events:

Of course, the visit to Warsaw included exploration of some of its fine urban wildlife sites. We joined a research team working on Mandarin Ducks in the Royal Palace Park, and wandered around the wild Jewish cemetery. 

The final new bird species for the trip was Common Redstart - I was pleasantly surprised to find them breeding inside the city. eBird trip report is here here - 130 species in total which is quite OK I think.

And that was that. Huge thanks to our hosts from OTOP - Iza, Jarek, Staszek, Slava, Łukasz, Krzysztof. Also Viktar and Thomas that joined us contributed greatly to the trip. It was awesome! And Amir... Till next time.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Global Big Day, 11 May 2024

Yesterday was Global Big Day and World Migratory Bird Day. Global Big Day is organised by the Cornell Lab, in association with Swarovski Optik and Global Birding. My team, Champions of the Flyway, included the original trio - Jonathan, Re'a and me. It was good to be back in the game with this team. In Global Big Days we normally take the northern route. This year, because of the war, the northern route is more challenging. For example, Mt. Hermon is off limits currently. Also the northern sections of the Hula Valley and the Upper Galilee are not safe now. We planned our route for yesterday staying away from trouble, hoping that it will be a relatively quiet day on the non-avian flying object front... 

We left early and arrived at the entrance to the Hula NR to try for owls. Nothing. A pre-dawn drive through Agamon Hula was quiet, Barn Owl was the only decent bird or mammal. Disappointing start. At dawn we were positioned by the lake and started our daytime birding. The lake itself was quiet because the water level is very high. Still, there was a small flock of terns that flew over the water including Gull-billed, Little and Common, and our first Marbled Ducks. 

The big trees west of the lake were actually quite good with many Golden Orioles and other migrants in the mulberry trees - Great Reed (in the pic below), Barred and Garden Warblers etc. 

The most surprising observation however happened shortly after Jonathan mused over the possibility of finding an African vagrant. We spotted a large bird flying low towards us over the reedbed - what's this!? Bloody hell - a turaco! One of the smaller species, schalow's-style flew quickly over us and disappeared. Obviously an escape but totally crazy to see this bird flying around here.

We continued birding through the open fields picking up some stuff including Lesser Gray Shrike. Nice to see large flocks of migrant Turtle Doves in the fields. More Marbled Ducks were spotted in the canals - I love them.

Because Re'a is an Odonata expert, on top of being a top birder, we did pay a little bit of attention to critters. Re'a recommended that I take a photo of this Levant Clubtail because it is endemic to our region, and because it is so pretty:

Overall birding was slightly quieter than we had hoped for but at least the weather was OK (the day before it was awfully hot) and there were no sirens. We left Agamon Hula at 07:30 with 74 species, semi-pleased with a half-decent list to start the day.

Our next destination was the Petroleum Road running along the western slopes of the Golan Heights. I became more familiar with this region after the discovery of breeding Yellow-throated Sparrows there in 2022. It was so excellent up there. Many quality species, lots of migrants - especially raptors. Highlight was a pair of Yellow-throated Sparrows that eventually gave themselves up after quite a long search. 

Other great birds added to our list were Upcher's and Eastern Orphean Warblers, Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, Cretzschmar's Bunting, Roller, both cuckoos. We really enjoyed birding there. We did have to keep an eye open for rockets and missiles - we made sure to stay away from the danger zone in the far northern end of the road, close to the Lebanese border.

Upcher's Warbler singing

Check that magnificent dark tail

Woodchat Shrike - high density including fresh juveniles

We then drove to some sites in the Golan Heights, picking quality stuff along the way like Black-headed Bunting, Calandra Lark, Little Swift, Great Crested Grebe, Griffon and Egyptian Vulture. 

When we arrived in Susita it was already very hot. The site was developed recently, including a better access road, carpark and cashier for those wanting to walk into the site... INPA who manage this national park and developed it thought it would be a good idea to stick a huge metal horse on the mountain top. The local Long-billed Pipit agrees with that and is using it as its favourite singing spot - can you see it?

We then headed down towards Bet Shean Valley. It was getting really hot and the fatigue was kicking in. Cold drinks and ice cream were necessary to keep us going. When we arrived in Kfar Ruppin, with around 100 species in the bag, it was already properly hot. Check the video here.

Kfar Ruppin and other fishponds in the area provided us with some species of shorebirds and other waterbirds. It was a bit frustrating - there were very large numbers of Ruff, Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint and Ringed Plover, but the variety mixed in among them was minimal. Still we had hundreds of Collared Pratincoles, Temminck's Stints, Whiskered Terns and more. Dead Sea Sparrow is a local specialty and was well appreciated. I love those blackish hind-trousers the males have:

And that was that. I must admit that after several years of doing big days, our motivation to do a full full day, including afternoon and evening, has dwindled a bit. We are content with the amount of effort we put into this mode of birding. We ended the day with a respectable 131 species - see our eBird Trip Report here: https://ebird.org/tripreport/235300
Our daily total is quite OK, given the difficult date for this event here in Israel. Migration slows down, quite dramatically, after May 7th-8th. Also it becomes much hotter by the day. The current date, the 2nd weekend of May, suits better northern countries (North America and northern Europe) but is much more difficult in southern latitudes. The current date choice reduces the level of interest in Global Big Day here in Israel because many birders are already in post-migration mode and couldn't be bothered to go out and see few birds. 
I call here the organisers of Global Big Day and World Migratory Bird Day to consider moving next year's event one week earlier, to the first weekend of May. With climate change that should be a good date even in northern North America and Scandinavia, and certainly a favourable date in the Mediterranean Basin and Middle East for example. 

Hey Jonathan and Re'a - it was another blast of a day, so much fun birding with you guys. Till October 12th, Go Champions!