Friday, December 31, 2010

Special review - the best of 2010

The year started off rather quietly with no real rarities to go for after I went for the Red-throated Divers in the last days of 2009. Ron Haran found a few Siberian Buff-bellied Pipits at the northern Dead Sea that were nice to see:

This Cory's Shearwater spent a few days close offshore at Ashdod and offered superb views. Why is it not a borealis that has no records in Israel accepted yet? Note the extensive and well-marked black on the primary tips, and very pale yellow bill:

I spent the best part of March guiding the at International Birdwatching Festival at Eilat. It was a fascinating period with superb migration and lots of good birds. The most intriguing was this putative Lesser Sand-plover (what else could it be being so small?).
Another good bird I had but too briefly was a Blyth's Pipit of which I have no images. This Pied Wheatear at Yotvata was another festival highlight:

I spent much of the spring working for the atlas project in Nizzana and the Arava. The excellent winter rainfall strongly affected breeding bird populations in both regions. I didn't find any Asian desert Warblers breeding but they were present in good numbers at Nizzana:

Spectacled Warblers had a fantastic breeding season:

Also sandgrouse fared well. Here are some Pin-tails:

Later in the spring a large breeding influx of Hill Sparrows arrived in southern Israel and thousands of pairs bred successfully:
In the Arava larks were the main attraction. We found a good breeding concentration of Arabian Dunn's Larks:

And also the nomadic Thick-billed Larks had a super breeding season:

Also the resident but rare Hoopoe Larks had the best breeding season for many years:

During the spring and summer I continued monitoring the critically endangered Nubian Nightjar population at Kikar Sdom:

In mid-summer a huge drinking spot for seedeaters in the high Negev Mts. was discovered, and it produced a couple of interesting ringing sessions with huge numbers of Hill Sparrows, Desert Larks and Trumpeter Finches:

The annual ringing session on Mt. Hermon was the busiest ever and produced most local specialties such as this Western Rock Nuthatch:

This Black-winged Kite at Nizzana in late August was the first of an impressive national influx that involved about 15 birds, most belonged to the Asian form vociferus:

In September and October migrating shorebirds were the main attraction. This confiding Bar-tailed Godwit at Ashdod was a good one:

Late October and November had the adrenalin pumping with good arrivals of Siberian species. Best bird of the autumn (and year?) for me was this beautiful Black-throated Accentor ringed at Netiv Halamed'He, Israel's 2nd:

Another excellent bird I had in early November was an Eyebrowed Thrush at the JBO, but it was too brief and no images of it. Other good birds were this Isabelline Shrike at Ashdod:

Yellow-browed Warbler at Tsor'a:

Grey Phalarope at Eilat:

And Siberian Buff-bellied Pipit again in the northern Dead Sea:

I spent most of December in Kenya, with one of the highlights being the beautiful Crab Plovers at Mida Creek:

I wish everyone a sucessfull 2011, with lots of good birds and images!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A bit more from Kenya - Mida Creek shorebird ringing

The second part of my Kenya trip was dedicated to shorebird ringing at Mida Creek with Colin Jackson and his team. Moonlight was a bit too strong, which reduced our catches, but that allowed us to process the birds with less pressure, and I was able to study some of the species in detail.
Of course the hightlight of the whole session was ringing Crab Plovers. These buggers can bite! Great birds to handle though. Hopefully these colour rings will provide new information about their seasonal movements.

I was especially interested in the identification of Lesser Sand-plovers of both forms - mongolus and atrifrons, and their separation from Greater Sand-plovers. We handled about 50 of each group, and I watched a few hundred more in the field. I must admit that I found most ID features mentioned in literature quite useless, even in the hand. Width of wingbar was very variable in both species. In some, the feature mentioned in literature, that lessers have a more even wingbar while on greaters wingbar is more prominent on inner primaries, was evident, like in the image below. However, some greaters had a much longer and broader wingbar, and in both species wingbar pattern was strongly dependent on wear. I couldn't find any difference in tail pattern and in pattern of the rump.
Lesser (above) and Greater (below) Sand-plovers

Head shape and bill shape were both very variable in both species and I found these features totally useless. Some lessers had very long, pointed bills. Some greaters had pretty rounded heads.
Lesser (above) and Greater (below) Sand-plovers
Lesser (left) and Greater (right) Sand-plovers

Look at this head shape and bill profile of an atrifrons Lesser Sand-plover. How would you describe it? More angular? Less angular? Long bill? Slender? Pointed? Developed gonydeal angle? Useless...
The only features that I found usefull in separating lessers from greaters were size, and leg colour. Lessers have black legs, greaters have green legs. 100% reliable in all the birds I checked. The problem is with dirty legs, like the KM20 bird in March had. But if you are sure you have the true leg colour - this should be the best feature.
About size: this is very usefull and reliable when you have both species together, or when you have very good experience of comparing birds side by side. In the hand it's very easy of course, but even in the field it was very easy for me after watching them for several hours. I saw no birds that were intermediate in size. I am sure such individuals exist, but must be very rare. Of course when encountering a lone vagrant this might cause a real headache, but to me perception of size (small vs. big) was straightforward and easy to apply in the field.
Reviewing all of this, I am sure that the March bird duirng the festival was a Lesser Sand-plover - sorry Hadoram for the blasphemy.
Terek Sandpiper


Thanks Colin for the great time!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Dead Sea birding

Spent today birding with my good friend Gert Ottens. We started off early and headed to Ein Gedi field school where a Kurdish Wheatear has been showing on and off for the last couple of weeks. Today was its day off. We met Gal Shon there, and together we searched the field school and its vicinity for a couple of hours but found nothing. The only semi-interesting bird we had among the commoner desert species was a female Blue Rock Thrush.

Little Green Bee-eater - so much more beautiful than a bloody wheatear!

Seawatching over the Dead Sea produced zero Fea's Petrels.
The rest of the morning was spent at Wadi Mishmar that held four large flock of Lesser Israeli Hikers but very few birds; some noisy Trumpeter Finches were the only reason for joy.
Then we decided to try our luck with Buff-bellied Pipits near Kalya, where we found two unringed birds (Ron ringed one there last month). They kept their distance from us so no images but we had good scope views.
A quick look at Tsor'a on the way to ship Gert back to his wife by train produced one Quail.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Birding Tsavo West NP

This long post is dedicated to my dear friend Thomas Krumenacker, whom I am doing my best not to disappoint...
During the week of ringing at Ngulia, we had most of the afternoons free for Safari birding in the park. Tsavo West is a true birding national park, as it has much less game observable compared to other NP's in Kenya like Masai Mara. This is because the park is covered in dense bush, that makes spotting wildlife very difficult. But birding was excellent, with a great variety of species. Most of the birding is done from the vehicle of course, with a few specific spots where walking is permitted.
Unfortunately, weather was pretty bad for photography during most of our stay - rainy and cloudy. That's why I have so few (dark) images, and the background is so lush green, which is quite unusual for the semi-arid Tsavo West. So here we go:
Quite close to the lodge a pair of Wahlberg's Eagles held territory, and this was their favorite perching tree. Here one of the pair is being mobbed by a Northern White-headed Shrike:
White-winged Widows are very common in the grassy bits of the park:
Red-and-Yellow Barbets are pretty birds! This one posed nicely in the rare golden afternoon sun:

Any casual drive through the park produces millions of weavers, starlings and finches. Among the more local species were these Black-headed Social Weavers:

Rodents and reptiles must have a hard life in the park, as predators are perched on almost every bush. Pale Chanting Goshawk is the commonest raptor in the park:
Long-tailed Fiscals are very obvious, perched high on top of bushes:
Apart for offering very good birding, Tsavo West is simply beautiful! This is the view out of my room window:

This is my gang birding out of the car while I was being a bad boy:

And Ron giving a detailed description of we he had just seen. By the hand movement I can guess it was a rhino:

One amazing thing about Africa is that birds are often so tame there. Our jeep had a hole in the exhaust pipe the size of a tennis ball. One of the park rangers said he could hear us approaching from 10 kms away... But still birds were totally oblivious towards us. Here are a few close-ups. First, a male Golden Pipit that appeared in one of my earlier post, one of the better passerines in this part of the world. Note the moulted mantle feathers, contrasting to the older scapulars:

In Israel they're so shy! In Africa they are so tame, and common too. On some days we witnessed active migration of hundreds of these guys.
Eurasian Roller
These are among the commonest birds in the park, but a close-up reveals how stunning they are:
Yellow-necked Spurfowl
In the slightly more arid and open parts of the park we encountered Seceretarybirds, or as Jonathan described them well "vulture-stork-eagle-heron-something":

Despite the thick cover, we found some Hartlaub's, Black-bellied and Crested Bustards.
Black-bellied Bustard
Crested Bustard

And we had also a few encounters with Black-faced Sandgrouse. The red soil is just fantastic!
Even though the whole park was very wet with water puddles everywhere, permanent water sources were very attractive. The pools along Rhino Valley offered the best birding in the park. The had many kingfishers, crakes and many water-related passerines. A selection of Palaearctic waders added volume to our list, and besides them we had this couple of Water Dikkops:

Grey-headed Kingfisher was the commonest among the four species we had:
This Tawny Eagle sat very close to us:
Even the tiny pool at the lodge attracted many birds. On our first day this Hamerkop arrived, and enjoyed the many tadpoles in the small pool:

This is a crop of the above image, showing the last seconds in the life of a tadpole that will never metamorphose into a frog:

Mzima Springs, in the south of the park, are an important water source for the human population of SE Kenya. But at the source, a beautiful aquatic habitat is well preserved, and holds a large variety of mammals and birds. African Golden Weavers were building their nests above the water:

And we had close views of African Darter:

And Long-tailed Cormorant:

A small group of Vervet Monkeys accompanied us during our walk at the springs:

This lactating baby had a nasty-looking sore on its shoulder:

Birding at Mzima Springs:

And just a few more animals of the park. Tsavo West is known for its Leopards, and indeed we had daily encounters with these majestic stalkers; often too brief and too dark, but always breathtaking:
This is a Gemsbok, a large Oryx-like antelope:
Red-headed Rock Agamas are very common everywhere:
And of course, Elephants, always amusing until they charge at your vehicle: