Thursday, March 31, 2011

Back to normal

Not that I am complaining - my normal life is pretty good. After the fun but intensive festival week it was good to get back to my normal life that this time of the year means mainly atlas work in Nizzana.
In recent days I did some atlas boxes in the Nizzana area, deep in the desert. Things are actually getting busier there, with breeding species showing some activity and more migrants around. I encounter the usual fantastic selection in most of my boxes - bustards, coursers, all four sandgrouse species, plenty of Lesser Short-toed Larks and smaller numbers of Temminck's and Bar-tails, etc.

MacQueen's Bustard

This is my brave Mazda that takes me to places where no birder has birded before:

Even though there was very little rain this winter in the region, some bushes and annuals are in bloom now. This is Zygophyllum dumosum, one of the dominant species in the plant communities on the hills and slopes:

Retama raetam bushes are colouring the wadis in white:

Monday, March 28, 2011

Eilat festival - days 7,8 and summary

The last couple of days of the festival were really exhausting and I had no energy to write daily updates. So here we go. Saturday was another good day. I led the Arava morning tour. We started off at KM76, and as we got off the van I heard a distant Hoopoe Lark singing from across the Jordanian border but we were unable to see it. Not too many migrants around but we had great views of a pair of Cream-coloured Coursers and some Spotted Sandgrouse were flying around. Eastern Stonechat was the only migrant worth noting. Yotvata fields were good as always with lots of larks and pipits. Booted Eagles were stooping on birds all the time, and we heard one Oriental Skylark.
In the afternoon I did the traditional Dead-Sea Sparrow visit to KM19 - quite a few of our guests were very eager to get them before going back home. There was a nice flock of about 50 birds in these dry reeds:

Yesterday was the closing day of the festival. Jonathan and I led a short morning tour near Eilat, focusing on some 'holes' in our festival list. First we got in touch with a female Semicollared Flycatcher in the Eilot date plantations. All our guests had good scope views. We then drove on to the Eilat marina where we found two Striated Herons. Both were young birds:

This bird behaved like a kingfisher - it dived from this rope into the water after a fish: Later on we tried for Hooded Wheatear in the Eilat mountains. We couldn't find the bloody birds but enjoyed the scenery and tranquility of the desert.

The festival was a great success, much thanks to the great efforts and organization of Dan and Jonathan. As a part of the team I had a great week, met lots of great people and saw terrific birds. Migration was a bit on the slow side but still very impressive. We had a festival total of 224 species - not bad for a relatively slow week!

All the guests I talked to were very pleased and went back home with a great smile on their face and a plan for their next visit to Israel, so that made all the effort worth while.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Eilat festival update - day 6

Finally the intensity and action of the last week are showing on me, and I had difficulties getting myself out of bed this morning after the late night I had yesterday. Eventually I started off at north beach, where I met up with Barak. As there were no birds about, we started talking and got very sentimental about all the great birds we had seen there, and how quiet it actually is this week. But that's birding - being masochistic, torturing yourself about birds that will never show again. The few birds we had included a Gull-billed Tern, one Siberian Gull and a distant skua sp. We spent the rest of the morning birding the traditional Eilat sites. At first it was very quiet but slowly things began to warm up. Weather was very weird - cold and cloudy and completely still. Windless Eilat? What? Photography in such faint light was challenging, but I enjoyed this soft light and had some good practice. Anyway, the first decent bird of the day was a nice adult Broad-billed Sandpiper I found south of the IBRCE, an early bird. It's moulting out of winter plumage, that's why it's still so pallid.

Broad-billed Sandpiper

We then drove on towards KM19 sewage farm and cowsheds. We tried to relocate the putative Rufous Turtle Dove that had been reported there earlier this week. We were somewhat disappointed because we soon found it and confirmed its' ID as a worn Eurasian Turtle Dove. Anyway, we started birding in the area and it was actually very enjoyable, with lots of common migrants - especially hirundines and wagtails, but good numbers of wheatears, shrikes, warblers etc as well. 100 Dead Sea Sparrows were very nice. I paid a quick visit to the crakes at the sewage farm, for the first time this week without a group. I sat there for five minutes and this gorgeous male was as confiding as always:

Little Crake

At KM20 saltpans there was a clear feeling of fresh arrivals. Nothing too exciting but nice birding again.

Greater Flamingo

A large arrival of Northern Wheatears was very apparent, with big numbers all day long.

Northern Wheatear

I can never resist photographing Little Green Bee-eaters:

Raptor migration was very impressive today with peak numbers going high overhead. On the way out we had this 2cy Greater Spotted Eagle:

This tail-less Alpine Swift gave both of us a heart attack at first:

But it's not a needletail after all...
In the afternoon I led another tour around Eilat. Nothing exceptional but nice birding in great weather. We watched the Broad-billed Sandpiper again, had one Collared Pratincole and a flyover Blue-cheeked Bee-eater.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Eilat festival update - day 5

Just got back from another rambo tour, but before hitting the bed I will share my adventures for today. Started off early with Zev, we headed to the Uvda Vally for some quality larking. And indeed quality was to be seen with mixed flocks containing some great species feeding and flying around the dry wadi. Highlights were 7 flyover Dunn's Larks, hundreds of Thick-bills, tens of Bimacs, 1 Temminck's and 1 Lesser Short-toed. A few bar-tails were singing with all their hearts, but all other larks didn't look as if they're interested in breeding. One Asian Desert Warbler was a good addition to my festival list. This fly-by Hen Harrier was nice:

One of our group was having a great time with the larks:

In the afternoon I led the rambo tour. We headed first to Shezaf NR. It was bloody windy there, and birds were very difficult to find. We did not manage to find Arabian Warbler, but part of our group had a Cyprus Wheatear. 3 flyover Desert Finches were nice too.
By the time we got to Neot Hakikar it started raining, and conditions weren't looking too good for night animals. However driving in we almost hit a Nubian Nightjar sat on the main road, and in the fields we had good views of two more individuals.
In the Judean Desert we had a great show by a pair of Hume's Owls in an impressive canyon. It was actually quite dramatic with a thunderstorm but it only added to the magical atmosphere.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Eilat festival update - day 4

Yet another fantastic day. I began the day with a quick browse through some local sites near the city, that were rather quiet. This handsome male Eastern Black- eared Wheatear was very attractive in the clear early morning sun:

On the way north I received an RBA message about a Menetries's Warbler ringed at the IBRCE. I made a quick detour to see this excellent bird - many thanks to the IBRCE staff!

Menetries's Warbler - 2cy male

And here in the distinctive cocked-tail posture:

I headed with Asaf to Yotvata. As we drove into the fields, we noticed the same Pallid Harrier from yesterday, but this time perched on a better branch (not on a sprinkler like yesterday). It was so friendly and let us get very close. I waited patiently for it to get used to us and do some interesting stuff. For a long time it just sat there, looking and listening:

Pallid Harrier

Then it started scratching:

And shaking:
And stretching:

And then it decided to take off. I was lucky to get these shots. what a stunning bird! It really made my week.

The fields of Yotvata had a similar selection as yesterday, with a notable arrival of Tawny Pipits.
In the afternoon I led a tour to the KM19 sewage farm, which was pretty quiet but the pair of Little Crakes continued to show very well, and we had a male Namaqua Dove and several brief Dead Sea Sparrows.

And one more thing: check Stephen Menzie's terrific videos from the Festival here and here. It's great having Stephen with us, he's certainly working harder than anyone else this week...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Eilat festival update - day 3

What a terrific day! I had the morning off, so I headed towards Yotvata early in the morning. While driving up I noticed these photogenic Black Kites perched on a tree just by the road:

The northern circular field of Yotvata was teaming with birds. Lots and lots of larks, including about 50 Bimacs and two Oriental Skylarks buzzing around. Several harriers of three species (hen, pallid and marsh) were cruising over the field, as was a Barbary Falcon. They kept the birds quite jumpy and weary. This stunning male Pallid Harrier posed nicely though:

It practiced some stretching:
and scratching:
This dark morph Booted Eagle flying overhead further contributed panic to the songbirds in the field:

There were at least four Eastern Stonechats in the field - 2 male variegatus and 2 females:

Among the many Yellow Wagtail, I had this pretty superciliaris :

Greater Short-toed Larks were the commonest bird in the field with many hundreds:

I then moved on to the new constructed wetland of Lotan. These small ponds are excellent and had many birds. I found there this very worn Buff-bellied Pipit. I did not manage to get a decent shot of it, only this record shot:

There was a very pretty male Citrine Wagtail there too, but one of our groups arrived to see the pipit and I was unable to photograph it. At the swimming pool I had this pretty male Caspian Stonechat sat nicely on an Ochradenus baccatus bush:

In the afternoon I led the 'Rambo Tour'. We left Eilat and started heading north. Two minutes before we drove past KM 76 I got a text from Tom Nordblad about a Cyprus Wheatear there - perfect timing (thanks Tom!). We made a tiny detour and found the wheatear quickly; all the group had great views.
We continued to Shezaf NR. We parked our vehicle and almost immediately located an Arabian Warbler in a nearby acacia. It played hard to get for a few minutes but eventually we all got good views of it. I had a funny incident when it flew into a tree and from the other side came out an Eastern Orphean Warbler that almost destroyed my reputation in bird identification... But then the correct bird showed and I could breathe again. 96 noisy Spotted Sandgrouse flying over us added to the excitement.
We drove further north to the southern Judean Desert. For the festival we managed to obtain special permits to enter the NR at night, and after a short walk into an impressive canyon we reached a Hume's Owl territory. Sure enough it started calling instantly and we all enjoyed great views of the male sat on top of a small cliff, calling and posing!
Second target species in the bag, we headed down to Neot Hakikar, and after about 20 seconds of searching found a Nubian Nightjar sat next to us. We enjoyed breathtaking views from down to four meters, and then another bird showed just as well. With an extremely satisfied group we headed back to Eilat, most of the group snoring in the back and myself being entertained by our driver's bizzare stories... Arrived back at the hotel almost twenty hours after I began my day, but with lots of great experiences for one day!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Eilat festival update - day 2

Had a pretty good day today, long and busy. The festival is gaining speed and our groups are seeing excellent birds. I Took the morning tour first to the IBRCE. We had a good selection of migrant passerines, and one Indian Silverbill.

Balkan Warbler
Later on we went up to the Eilat mountains to watch some raptor migration. Take-off was pretty good with a few thousands of Steppe Buzzard mixed with Steppe Eagles, Black kites and a few other species. A short visit to Holland Park was hot and rather quiet but we had good views of one Rueppel's Warbler. Our last stop for the morning was at Ophira Park that produced some quality stuff such as this Wryneck feeding on ants:

While I was driving through the city I had a Corncrake on the main roundabout of the city - cool!
Afternoon at the North Beach was quite good, lots of gulls and ducks flying around. One Oystercatcher was a good bird for us Israelis. I spent some time photographing this obliging Western Reef Egret fishing in the canal - fantastic bird:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Eilat festival update - day 1

It's that time of year again... I joined the festival team today, and am looking forward to an exciting week. Previous festivals produced excellent birds and great birding experiences; I am sure that this festival will not disappoint.
I drove down rather late in the morning, so by the time we (Gal and myself) arrived at Hameyshar it was pretty hot and birdless. We did find 10 Bimaculated Larks though.
After settling down at the hotel, I led the afternoon tour. We visited the KM20 saltpans that were rather quiet but still some good stuff there - Ruddy Shelduck, Caucasian Stonechat and others. The KM19 sewage farm was much better with lots of stuff around. Best were two Little Crakes showing very well and two Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse that arrived at dusk for a drink. A great end to the first day!
The evening activity included a poolside cocktail party, a short introductory film and some words by Jonathan.
I will do my best to post daily updates so stay posted. I promise to have some images tomorrow, I was too lazy today...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Masked Wagtail!

yesterday my dinner was interrupted by an RBA message followed by a flood of text messages and phone calls, informing me that earlier in the afternoon Amir Ben Dov had found (and semi-supressed (-; ) a male Masked Wagtail at Ma'agan Michael. This is the 2nd record for Israel (the first was seen by a single observer in 1989). As this is a very distinctive form that will probably become a species in the near future (and a very beautiful bird), I had no choice but to twitch it today. I made an early start and arrived with Amir Balaban and Ron Haran right on time. we relocated the bird within a few minutes, and were actually happy and ready to head back home within a few minutes... Disgusting twitchers...
The bird was showing very well - it was feeding very actively, and was very territorial against other wagtails and other birds. But photography was not easy - light was shit and the bird kept its distance from us. But eventually I got some decent shots. A few other guys arrived later and the bird kept showing very well for everyone. Hopefully it stays for another day or two - Barak and Shachar are doing Atlas boxes for me in the south this weekend, unable to twitch this bird...

Well done Amir!!!

During the short time spent there we had quite a few quality birds - about 10 Citrine Wagtails (daily total of five wagtails - not bad...), three Gannets feeding offshore, and a Whimbrel flying about.

Egyptian Mongoose