Saturday, January 21, 2023

Bamba

My dear dog Bamba passed away on Wednesday. Bamba was my loyal birding companion for 12 years, and much of my birding in recent years, including the eBird checklist streak I am keeping, is thanks to her. She motivated me to wake up before dawn every morning for the past 1491 days, and head out birding. 

Bamba joined our family in February 2011. We adopted her when she was about one year old. Very quickly she learned how to behave at home, and with me in the field. In the field she was very quiet and attentive to my behaviour. She walked at my pace, and stopped when I stopped. I never had to train her, she simply learned through her sensitivity and intelligence. Bamba joined me everywhere - surveying and ringing, birding and twitching. This photo was taken in January 2014 by Jonathan Meyrav while we were birding together in the Arava Valley. She loved Jonathan very much.

Bamba learned very quickly that birds are out of the question for her and never ever showed any interest in them. When I was ringing, Bamba had a special role, to chase cats, mongoose and other predators away from the nets. She was very efficient at that.

During the years before we moved to the UK, Bamba had already become accustomed to my birding habits, and joined me very often. I was doing lots of fieldwork back then - all the more fun for Bamba. This photo was taken by Tuvia Kahn in May 2014 while surveying breeding birds on Mt. Hermon. My point-count root that day went right along the Syrian border, in a very sensitive location where normally civilians aren't allowed, hence the military escort. Check the blogpost I wrote on that day here.


White-throated Robin

When we moved to the UK, my birding style changed, and so did Bamba's lifestyle. In Israel she'd go with me to work almost every day, and she didn't need 'official' walks - she was outdoors all the time. In the UK her life became structured around our daily walks, often to the nearest park where we met with other dog and their humans. I birded less often, sometimes only on weekends. I did take her birding with me sometimes in the UK, however in a few incidents I felt hostility from other birders towards us, so quite often I didn't take her with me birding. This is from a rare twitch where she joined me, albeit an unusual twitch. It was a trip to Holkham beach to see a Snowy Owl, with the entire family and our friends Mark and Amity. What an epic photo.

In August 2018 we returned to Israel and I returned to do fieldwork at BirdLife Israel, much to Bamba's delight. Again, she was a trusted field companion for me. With her ageing a bit, she became less energetic and even quieter and more comfortable when out in the field with me. Check her out in this photo taken by Meidad Goren in December 2019 (blogpost here), patiently waiting behind me while I photograph a Basalt Wheatear, knowing exactly what to do:



One of Bamba's favourite places was the Nili and David Jerusalem Bird Observatory. I work there quite often, and she always loved spending time at the JBO. Taking her role of keeping cats away very seriously, interacting with the staff and volunteers, sleeping under the ringing table - she was at her element there. Very often we'd meet up there with Arik, Amir Balaban's dog - they became very good friends.


Amir, Arik & Bamba

Our last visit to the JBO was on her last day of life. We left home early, opened the nets up, ringed birds, worked with the staff and volunteers, guided visitors - Bamba was so happy there. These two images were taken on Bamba's final morning, Wednesday 18th January 2023. That evening Bamba collapsed and never got up.



Since my return to Israel and especially since I started my daily birding streak in December 2018, I devote much more birding time to my local sites, those that I can visit on foot from home. This birding activity was always combined with morning walks with Bamba. She needed her walk, I needed my birding - perfect win-win situation. With Bamba, I deepened my knowledge and understanding of my local sites. To date, I have submitted 508 checklists from my primary local site, Nahal Ekron, since my first visit there on September 6th, 2018. This means at least 508 walks with her there. I am not sure how it will be to bird there without her. 

May 2022

There's one nice tale to tell about Bamba and birding. As mentioned above, Bamba takes her job to chase away cats and other predators very seriously. In recent years, and especially since we started birding in Nahal Ekron regularly, that is infested by domestic and stray cats, Bamba learned to identify alarm calls of birds, especially of Graceful Prinias, when they locate a cat. Bamba would hear them calling in excitement, follow the calls to locate the skulking cat and chase it away, back home. I was very proud of her for that.

March 2022, Judean Hills

September 2021, Tal Shachar

Posing beautifully among rare Fritillaria persica flowers, Mt. Amasa, March 2020

That's it, time to say goodbye. I miss Bamba very much. Since her death, instinctively I search for her at her favourite corners. Certainly, my birding without her will change. How will it evolve? I don't know yet. For sure, it will be much lonelier. Rest in peace, my beautiful, amazing dog. 

Friday, January 6, 2023

New year, new list

 No, I'm not doing a Big Year again... Yesterday evening news broke of a Pied Bushchat found by Yishay Ben Adar, near Ma'or, about an hour drive from home, 10th record from Israel, the first major rarity of 2023. I have seen this species in Israel three times before - my first was in 2001, an overwintering female at IBRCE, Eilat, found by James P. Smith. In October 2012 Eyal Shochat found a fantastically cooperative male in Yeruham. Another male found by Igal Siman Tov delighted the Eilat Birding Festival guests in March 2014

Eilat, December 2001 (scan from slide0

Yeruham, October 2012

Neot Smadar, March 2014

Since then, Pied Bushchat hasn't been seen in Israel, so this current one understandably attracted serious attention. Including mine. It's a fine bird, especially in a Western Palearctic context, so why not? When I met up early with Piki and Rony it was pissing it down with rain, pretty grim to be honest. But as we headed north up Route 6, daybreak saw an improving weather. We got there after seven, meeting frustrated birders seeing nothing since dawn. I have birded in strange places before, but this was at another level - on the outskirts of Baqa El-Garbiye, in a small neglected olive grove wedged between a major road and a farm, observing from a bit of rough ground strewn with rubbish and dead livestock, skulls, bones, skins, pretty grotesque. 


Obviously the first birders looked at the wrong spot, as another group (Itamar, Nitay et al.) who checked an adjacent spot soon relocated the bird. We hurried there and started watching the bird at some distance. Light conditions weren't great, and I failed to adjust my camera settings, so my pics are rubbish. Yet it was fun spending time with this gorgeous bird. It was pretty active, catching insects, displaying its white wing patches and huge white belly patch, indicating it belongs to ssp. rossorum, the westernmost population of the species breeding as far west as E Iran.



Eventually the bird moved a bit closer, to everyone's delights, and performed quite well. It was vocal too, I managed to capture some calls using my phone.


2cy male - hatched in 2022


Of course there were some more birds around, that went into the eBird checklist here.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

364

Well, I wasn't expecting THAT

It started yesterday, I headed down to Eilat for a leisurely overnighter of scuba diving. My birding expectations were very limited. En route I stopped at Hameishar for a quick look. It was very dry and pretty quiet. I did find one Asian Desert Warbler but it wouldn't play ball. This Long-legged Buzzard did.


This morning I had a bit of time for pre-breakfast birding before scuba diving. I checked Wadi Zefahot in the Eilat Mts. It was quiet there, a small flock of five Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse was very nice (thanks Piki), but they were super shy.


Commoner desert species weren't shy at all.

White-crowned Wheatear


Blackstart

As I was heading to breakfast Noam Weiss calls me: 'Come quick! I have a Dideric Cuckoo!'. Thanks Noam! I had little time to think, I skipped breakfast and drove to the IBRCE, my heart beating very fast. I arrived while it was being ringed by Shachar - so small! Weighing 24 gr only. Then it was taken to a photo session before being released back to where it was trapped. While taking photos of it an oriental Honey-Buzzard flew over. Classic.

Thanks Amir for the photo




This young male represents the second record for Israel. I actually saw the first one, in March 1994, few hundred meters from the spot it was found today. Barak uploaded this photo on FB - I am not sure who is the photographer. I am on the left, aged 18 with my first scope, Kowa TS1. Barak is second from the right. It was found by Mark Lawlor who volunteered at IBRCE that time.


This brings my annual total of bird species seen in Israel to 364. With less than two hours left, I think now I can call it a final figure.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Best of 2022 - special summary

It's that time of year again, time to look back at what I have been up to in the past year. 2022 was a funny year: It was the first year I didn't go for a Big year challenge - you may remember that in 2020 and 2021 I went for the challenge in full blast (also in 2019 I did a partial Big Year). It was sometimes challenging not to run for every bird, and then came the realisation - 'Hey! I'm not doing a Big Year! How fun is that!'. In 2022 I moved in a different, slightly slower pace, from a birding point of view at least. This was my first full year on the new job as director of BirdLife Israel. Life is very busy now, but not busy enough to stop me from birding. I still bird and eBird daily - my eBird birding streak in now over four years long (1468 today). In this summary I will cover my birding and wildlife highlights of the year, in a thematic manner.

Birding in Israel

My birding year was very enjoyable. Thanks to my work style, and geographic distribution of projects and sites, I was able to bird quite much around the country. Unless something dramatic happens until Saturday night, this year I saw 363 species in Israel. This places me at #3 on the national eBird scoreboard, after Igal Siman Tov (currently 393) and Avner Rinot (390), who both went full blast on their Big Year challenges. Here's a comparative table of my annual totals in recent years:


In 2022 I submitted 590 eBird Israel checklists to date (at least two more will be added until the end of the year), and uploaded to eBird 460 photos, 30 sound recordings and 45 videos. I am quite happy with my 2022 totals, they reflect my strong motivation to go outdoors every day and enjoy the best birding Israel can offer, without running for each and every species. For example, I didn't go for stuff like Goldcrest and Yellowhammer that require long-distance trips specifically for them. I also didn't twitch each and every good birds. I enjoyed high capacity, high quality birding, without the extra pressure of a Big Year. I enjoyed finding my own birds - some of my better finds this year included Little Bunting, Oriental Turtle-Dove, Ruddy Shelduck, Olive-backed Pipit. It was a good year! I kept going quite hard all year, only in summer I slowed down a bit, because of trips to the UK and Kenya (see below). These are my monthly eBird totals:

In 2022 I added three species to my Israel life list, that stands now on approximately 482 (depends on which taxonomy is used): Manx Shearwater in Eilat on May 6th, Yellow-throated Sparrow in the Golan Heights on June 27th, and African Crake in Eilat on December 5th. The discovery of a breeding population of Yellow-throated Sparrow was one of the most amazing birding moments of the year - check my account on our website.




Here are some of my favourite photos of 2022, depicting special birding moments:

Yelkouan Shearwater, Palmachim, January

Rueppell's Warbler, Judean Hills, March


White-winged Tern, HaMa'apil, November

Red-throated Pipit, Tel Aviv, December

Palestine Sunbird, Palmachim, December


Birding events during the year included the two Big Days, on May 14th and October 8th (check the eBird trip reports here and here) - both Big Days were exciting and fantastic bird-filled days with our traditional team of Jonathan and Re'a, joined by Piki on October.



In late March and early April I spent some time in Eilat with the Eilat Birding Festival and then Champions of the Flyway. Nothing compares with good spring migration in Eilat - I certainly enjoyed it very much.

Western Yellow Wagtails, Chiffchaffs, Lesser Whitethroat and Crested Lark in Arava Valley, March

Steppe Buzzards over Eilat Mts., April

Caspian Plovers, Eilat, April

Too close encounter with Oriental Honey-Buzzard, Eilat, April

Champions of the Flyway group photo at North Beach, with Jonathan

Fieldwork

In 2022 I continued to do fieldwork, despite taking on more managerial roles. In spring I participated in the breeding bird survey of the sandy regions of the Negev. We found many cool breeding birds there, but my favourite image came from a group of exhausted migrants, European Bee-eaters, resting in the middle of the desert:



In September I organised a team to tag European Turtle-Doves and track them; sadly all four bird went missing after leaving Israel. Before leaving we learned a lot about their daily movements and habitat use - check their dedicated blog here.


With restoration becoming one of the main activities of BirdLife Israel and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, I spent more time this year at our pilot projects in Kfar Ruppin and Ma'agan Michael. At Kfar Ruppin, our restored wetland continues to be great, and has become a regional hotspot for birding. 


Bonelli's Eagle over the reservoir

Local birding

With less travelling and more office work, I resorted more to local birding. I birded my very local patches, those that I walk to from home, on foot 137 mornings this year. Bamba and me enjoyed it very much. I didn't have any great rarities this year, but enjoyed a nice selection of birds.

Siberian Stonechat, one of two birds that overwintered, March

European Goldfinch, April


Within a radius of 10 km from home I birded my local sites as much as possible. Hulda Reservoir continues to be a favourite. Piki and I have a Saturday morning tradition to bird there together - we went there together 21 times in 2022, and saw 167 species.


Lesser Grey Shrike, September

Common Quail from another local site, Na'an Reservoir, October

Global birding

After two years of COVID-related travel deficiency, in 2022 I finally boarded a plane and travelled overseas. The first trip was to a family holiday to the UK in June (check my trip report here). My plan worked, everything clicked together, and I was in the right place at the right time to connect with the majestic Black-browed Albatross at RSPB Bempton Cliffs. Heartstopping views of an awesome bird at a breathtaking reserve, shared with some of my favourite humans in the world - simply perfect.

Albert

Poofin


In September I travelled again to the UK, to attend the 100 years celebrations of BirdLife International and Global Council. It was an excellent trip but I saw no noteworthy birds.
The second trip was to Kenya in July. I travelled there with my son Noam, and with my boss and friend Dan Alon and his son, Noam too. We spent 11 days on the ground in Kenya, visiting Mt. Kenya, Samburu, Nakuru, Masai Mara, Naivasha and Hell's Gate. It was a wonderful trip, in which we were fully immersed in nature, experiencing some of the most extreme wildlife spectacles of the world. We saw 313 bird species (check our trip report here), and many mammals (didn't count mammals, sorry), which was great.

Mt. Kenya

Kikuyu White-eye

Hunter's Cisticola

Baisa Oryx in Samburu NP

Lion

White-throated Bee-eaters

Gerenuk

Lake Nakuru, Lesser Flamingoes

White Rhinos and Red-billed Oxpecker

Black-and White Colobus

Masai Mara - Eland, Common Zebra, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Lappet-faced Vulture

Just a few Wildebeest

Rueppell's and White-backed Vultures

Gray-crested Helmetshrike

Lake Naivasha

Black Heron and African Spoonbill

Long-toed Lapwing

Hell's Gate NP



Secretarybird

Summary and thanks




My deep love and appreciation goes to my family - my wife Adva and kids Uri, Noam and Libby, for not giving up on me yet another year. Bamba, my loyal companion, still happy to go out, albeit a bit slower. As always, the best birding moments were with friends - thank you all - Jonathan, Re'a, Piki, Rony, Meidad, Nadav, Dan, Amir, Barak, Mark, Yotam, Avner, and many others that I forgot. Thanks to Swarovski Optik for providing me with the best optics in the world. Thank you to my supporters and followers in Israel and worldwide - without your support it would have been much less fun.

I wish you all a great 2023, full of great birding experiences and a bit less turmoil, please. Happy New Year!