Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Upcher's Warblers

After quite a long period of doing nothing in the field, officially known as the cucumber season, today I went to have a look in the eastern hills of the Lakhish region. This is a very special area, right at the ecotone (meeting zone) between the Mediterranean habitats of central Israel and the desert habitats of the Negev. This is the southernmost habitat in Israel where natural vegetation away from wadis includes trees - south of there it's only low bushes or grassy steppe. In this habitat the dense Mediterranean scrub typical of the habitats just a few kilometers to the north opens up to grassy hills with scattered low trees and bushes. These are medium-low hills, at an elevation of about 420 m ASL. The dominant bush in this habitat is a local hawthorn, Crataegus aronia. This area is very close to the border with the Palestinian Authority, and sadly the habitat on the Israeli side stands in contrast to the overgrazed and overcut habitat on the Palestinian side. 

There are some interesting species breeding in this area, but the most unique bird is Upcher's Warbler. According to Shirihai's The Birds of Israel, this rare Hippolais breeds locally on Mt. Hermon, and some parts of the eastern Galilee and western slopes of Samaria. I am unaware of recent breeding records from these regions. This population in Lakhish was discovered by Asaf Mayrose during a survey he did here some years ago. He found a rather dense population in the area, and I was curious to see if the new settlements constructed there in recent years had any regional effect on these precious habitats. I checked only a very small area, just one hill, but found a very good density - I had at least four territorial males. I assume the females are on eggs now because I had brief views of only two females. They arrive late from their wintering grounds, and breed much later than most other passerines breeding in the region that are completing their second breeding by now.

Upcher's Warblers are not the most colourful birds in the world but they have lots of character. They have this large, dark tail, and the males give a musical song and perform these lovely glide-song displays. Unfortunately I did not manage to capture images of these flight displays - hopefully next time.
Light conditions were awful early in the morning with heavy clouds, and after the clouds dispersed it instantly became bloody hot, so I must return to improve my results. I did my best to photoshop the colours right, but it was not easy. I hope that in this series of images you can get the feel of the birds' jizz, and its appearence in different light conditions. 

Upcher's Warbler Hippolais languida


One of the males was very inquisitive and came to check me out from a distance of half a meter!

Note the unique bill shape - lower culmen slightly concave:

And a recording of one type of song phrase - originally it was a crap video but here I used only the sound:

Other birds of interest seen this morning were two flyover Black-bellied Sandgrouse, a breeding pair of Eastern Orphean Warbler (southernmost pair in the world?), Rock Sparrows, and a late Barred Warbler. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Black Bush Robin and more

Just a few more images to wrap up my events from Friday. 
Black Bush Robin at Neot Smadar: with this short series of images I hope you can get the feel of this special bird. It kept hopping on the ground with its wings open and tail spread, sometimes showing agression towards a Masked Shrike or Rufous Bush Robin, but sometimes apparently just for fun. I have seen quite many Black Bush Robins in Israel before, but have never witnessed such remarkable behaviour.

Some more words about the goldeneye. Eventually I had to go down and see it after a week it was on site. From the beginning I was quite certain it's a common (very easy to say now) - often I'd rather identify birds through bins and not through a magnifying glass. I mean than if one digs in too deep into microscopic features one might discover scary things about variation.
But after a few days some worrying indications made medecide to travel all the way to see it - interesting calls heard by Shachar and interesting response from David Sibley indicating it might be a barrow's. Something like an insurance tick in case it makes it way into the barrow's camp. Plus nobody managed a proper flight shot, so I had to save the day. In the field the bird seemed interesting indeed but not barrow's, especially after I got some proper flight shots. But, as always, great learning and some interesting points made by James Smith, Martin Garner and David Sibley who all know about goldeneyes much more than I do.
Other birds at KM19 included 1 Black-winged Pratincole, 2 beautiful summer-plumaged Ruddy Turnstone and the resident Bonelli's Eagle.

Ruddy Turnstone

Bonelli's Eagle

Friday, May 18, 2012

Beautiful robin, ugly duckling

This is a very brief post, have to take off very soon, my wife wants to kill me. Hope to post more tomorrow evening. 
Had a quick dash at the goldeneye at Eilat this morning, with a very sweet side-bonus - this superb Black Bush Robin at Neot Smadar sewage, found yesterday by visiting South-African birders Dave & Lynn Deighton. Charismatic, full of character, fascinating behaviour - I wish I could stay with it for more than five minutes:

At KM19 sewage the goldeneye was still present. We surprised each other at short range. I think the flight shot solves the mystery - this must be a Common Goldeneye.

Even though I have much more to tell I have to sign off - stay tuned for tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Another breeding pair of Black-winged Kites!

A few days ago Rafi Paz found a breeding pair of Black-winged Kites while bike-riding near Rosh Ha'ayin, in the E Dan region, just 15 minutes from Tel Aviv. The pair successfully raised three young; by their behaviour I guess they fledged about 2-3 weeks ago. Today I saw two youngsters; both parents and their big brother were missing. Could the parents be busy with another cycle already? The Hula pair did three consecutive and very tight breeding cycles.
The two birds were great fun - hunting in amazing success rate for recently fledged juveniles - during two hours I saw each one of them take at least three voles from the nearby field. Apparently they are very skilled hunters. Check the poor vole in this image:

Black-winged Kite

Photo-wise it was pretty difficult as mostly they perched on ugly pylons or wires, but only occasionally on trees.

Already at this tender age showing dark secondaries - indicating their Asian origin?

The 'colonization' of Black-winged Kites in Israel is quite amazing. From a mega rarity until 10 years ago, it has become a nice bird to see, not much more, all over the country. This is the second breeding pair in Israel, after the Hula pair. I predict that in a decade we will have lots of breeding pairs all over the country.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

No, it's not over yet

Very good ringing at Ashdod today - still lots of migrants, nice variety, first fledglings of local breeding species, some old returning Reed Warblers. Had a really nice time. Still lots of Blackcaps but among them many Garden and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers. Three Olive-trees, 2 Barred and some other fine birds.

Olive-tree Warbler

Barred Warbler - 3cy+ female

Garden Warbler

Spotted Flycatcher

Many thanks to my team this morning - Shlomo, Arad and Miriam.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Is it over yet?

After hectic March and April, may seems to be much slower. Still lots of migrants around but nothing like in early May. Some nice additions to my ever-growing garden list - Olive-tree and River Warblers. Looking back at this spring, it is amazing how few true rarities we've had here. Basalt Wheatear and vittata, but that's it really. I still have some hope for the coming week or two to produce a good shorebird perhaps, Great Knot anyone?
I resumed my project on our Yellow-legged Gull population with Amir. We ringed already some chicks and one adult female - my first adult YLG. Not too much fieldwork planned for the next few weeks otherwise. Getting ready for a Fish Owl trip to Turkey in July with some mates.
So this is the wing pattern of michahellis breeding in the E Med: P10 almost completely white with a thin black subterminal band, P9 with medium-sized white mirror, substantial black to P5 with tiny black spot on P4. Deep grey moons on P8 and P7.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Top to bottom

Last days have been very busy and involved lots of driving, as usual. I spent the weekend up in the north with my elder son Uri. On Friday we went ringing at Hula lake with the HVRS team - Dotan, Nadav etc. This special morning was in memory of my dear friend Amit Geffen who passed away in 2007. Amit was a great young birder and photographer. It was very inspiring to meet all of Amit's family and friend.
Ringing was very very busy - the acro factory working in full blast. But in between the acros some nice birds. In the near vicinity the pair of Black-winged Kites are breeding again. Thousands of Sand Martin up in the air. Pelicans and storks taking off. Great fun. 

Little Bittern - male

Barred Wobbler - 2cy male

Corn Bunting

On Saturckday morning I went with Uri to the highest place in Israel - Mt. Hermon. The scenery was beautiful but it was very very cold with lots of snow still on the higher elevations. As normal in this season, birds were rather few but still I saw or heard many of the Hermon specialties - Sombre Tit, Upcher's Warbler, Horned Lark, Syrian Serin, Rock Bunting and Raven - most in flight or just heard. No chance for photography. semirufus Black Redstarts were more active than other species:

Yesterday I went to check some important habitats in Nizzana - Ezuz region. It was a terrible morning with just no birds at all! It was amazing to see or hear so few birds. No bustards at all, one family of coursers, few BB sandgrouse, and that's it. No interesting migrants at Ezuz park or at the sewage ponds.

In the evening I had a very successful nightjar excursion with Mr. Dov Litvinoff, mayor of Tamar regional council. I took him and a few of the leading farmers from the agricultural communities there to see 'my' nightjars and to discuss ways to better protect their habitat. I was joined by two large-caliber figures - Yossi Leshem and Dan Alon. We had amazing views of no less than seven Nubian Nightjars, some Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters before dusk, huge bat activity, and I think that even the toughest farmer was moved by the almost spiritual experience of watching one of Israel's rarest birds, at the lowest place on earth, in full moon.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Migration explosion

Yesterday I had one of my most amazing migration days in Israel ever. I had a couple of meeting at Eilat around midday, so I made an early start and spent the morning birding in the greater Eilat area. I started off at Neot Smadar. The place had outrageous numbers of birds - several species were just exploding. I will give you some numbers I estimated during my 1.5 hours there, all from the car, to demonstrate what I mean by 'exploding': Blackcap 1000's, Lesser Whitethroat 1000, Olivaceous Warbler 200, Spotted Flycatcher 150, Ortolan 300, Tree Pipit 250, Willow Warbler 50, Whinchat 50, Red-backed Shrike 70, Masked Shrike 100, 1000's of hirundines of six species and lots more - all of this in some small fields! Just unbelievable. I have never seen so many passerines in such a small area before. I had the feeling that because there were so many birds I was actually seeing nothing and missing lots of good stuff. I was just skimming the surface and I felt I had no chance to find anything interesting. Still I had among the warblers some barred, olive-tree and upcher's. Let alone photography - I had no time for real photography; all the images below are very casual shots taken while driving around. 

Red-backed Shrike - many beautiful males among the huge numbers

One of many Masked Shrikes

About 15 Great Reed Warblers

Spotted Flycatcher on every sprinkler

About 50 Rufous Bush Robins

One of seven (!) Rock Thrushes


Very late Stonechat among the many Whinchats

One of many Tree Pipits

Good numbers of Tawny Pipits too

And of course hundreds of Yellow Wagtails

There were some large flocks of tired Bee-eaters on the ground, feeding on bee-hives.

Christmas tree

Several juv. Montagu's Harriers were knocking about, plus Eleonora's and Barbary Falcon

After a pretty short mind-blowing time at Neot Smadar I felt I had to go to a place with less birds, where I have a chance to find something good. I drove down to Keture but the place was exploding with birds too. Damn. Hundreds of Ortolans, wagtails (incl. 1 citrine), pipits etc.

Namaqua Doves

Still many Isabelline Wheatears around

At about 08:00 an enormous passage of raptors began overhead - many thousands of Honey Buzzards and among them lots of eagles, hundreds of Levant Sparrowhawks, Black Stroks etc. It was getting hot so many Honey Buzzards were coming down to drink behind the sewage ponds providing good photo opps:

Then I continued to yotvata. Just as I arrived I got a call from Itai who had just found an Arabian Dunn's Lark - excellent bird! We soon relocated it and it behaved quite well. As far as I know none bred in Israel this year; wonder where this nomad is heading to.

Arabian Dunn's Lark

The Yotvata fields also were exploding with birds - about 1000 Ortolans, and lots of other stuff.

Eastern Black-eared Wheatear

Collared Pratincole - one of two

At the smelly sewage ponds 300(!)  Yellow Wagtails, and tons of pipits, shrikes, wheatears etc.

Temminck's Stint - adult moulting into summer plumage

Before my meetings I had time for a quick look at KM20 saltpans. Thousands of shorebirds there, among them at least 16 Broad-billed Sandpipers, 38 Red-necked Phalaropes, 1 Greater Sandplover, 1 Curlew Sand etc.

3 Broad-billed Sandpipers

Some White-winged Terns were typically collecting insects from the water surface. Light conditions were awful but they're such nice birds, aren't they?

After the meeting I went with Itai to north beach. Many hundreds of Common and other terns, but despite the southern wind nothing special showed up. Still I added some nice birds to my day list - the two Brown Boobies still present, 1 Sooty Shearwater, some White-eyed Gulls etc.

What a day! Just for fun I counted my day list - 126 species! And that's without trying too hard and with half a day of meetings. Wow.