Saturday, June 30, 2012

Turkish delight 3 - Iraq Babblers @ Birecik

After the fish owl success, we took an internal flight to Adana, collected a car and drove to Birecik - excellent highway so very fast and comfortable drive. Arrived at Birecik in the afternoon, checked in at the Mirkelam and drove straight away to the gravel pits on the western side of the Euphrates. We went there to search for target species # 2: Iraq Babbler. First recorded in Turkey only in 2006, they are now easy to see in the reedbeds of the gravel pits. On the first afternoon the weather was bad - very strong wind and thunderstorm plus rain, but next morning we easily located a family group of an adult plus four juveniles rather quickly (lifer #2). They are very sweet birds, very small and delicate compared to our brute Arabian Babbler. They really reminded me of Thick-billed Warblers - small, rounded wings and long tail, open face. We saw them very well as they were moving through the reedbed, feeding and doing some babbler-stuff like preening each other and socializing. We had brilliant views but I did not manage to get any good images - we were there twice in the very early morning, before sunrise, for rather brief visits (good excuses, ha?).

Iraq Babbler - juvenile

The reedbed there is good for passerines and other reedbed-birds.Unlike European birders visiting there, we did not get very excited by Dead Sea Sparrow, Black Francolin, Little Bittern and Great Reed Warbler, but still plenty of other good birds around. Unfortunately there is massive shooting taking place there, which made the visit less enjoyable. As a result we saw nothing larger than a passerine - no ducks, swamphens, herons, nothing. I hope Doga (BirdLife Turkey) do something quickly to protect this special site.
I did enjoy watching Menetries's Warblers there. Plenty of families were seen in the scruby edges of the reedbed at the gravel pits, and along the Ibis Center wadi (see next post). I managed to photograph only some 2cy males - note the very worn and brown remiges and GC. These are of the duller subspecies rubescens.

Menetries's Warbler - 2cy male


Another serious attraction at Birecik is the Northern Bald Ibis project (lifer #3, though slightly dodgy - see below). Critically Endangered, the population breeding at Birecik has enormous global importance. Once breeding inside town, now all 20-30 pairs (150 birds in total) breed in the colony on the cliff of the center. Sadly, each year the whole wild population needs to get trapped and prevented from migrating, as the risk is too high - massive hunting in all countries they need to migrate through means zero survival rates.

Northern Bald Ibis

Euphrates & Birecik

The Ibises are evident almost anywhere in town:

From Ashdod to Hantsholm

Received good news from the Israeli Ringing Center regarding a Lesser Whitethroat I ringed in October 2011 that was controlled in Hantsholm, Nordjylland, Denmark some days ago. 
Lesser Whitethroat is a classic loop-migrant. Massive numbers pass north through Israel in spring, but in autumn they probably take a more westerly route going south to Africa. However apparently even the smaller numbers in Israel in autumn are from W European origin. We have many controls of spring birds making their way NW to W Europe, but very few autumn controls.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Turkish delight 2 - Brown Fish Owls @ Oymapinar Reservoir

The main motivation for this Turkey trip was Brown Fish Owl. Until the 1970's Brown Fish Owl bred in riverine forest in northern Israel, but they were shot till the last one in 1975 and became extinct. I started birding just a few years later, so this is quite a mythical bird for me to see. I saw plenty in SE Asia but to see it here in the WP, and so close to Israel, is very exciting.
We took a boat tour with Ozcan Kilic of Vigotours - he certainly did the job, the boat was comfortable and suitable for this trip. Level of guiding (info treasmitted by the guide) was rather minimal though. Ozcan picked us up from our hotel at Yesil Vadi early in the morning. We drove to Oymapinar Reservoir, and sailed a boat to Grand Canyon (I think it's grand and not green but not sure...). No California Condors were seen. There is another pair of owls that bred in Little Canyon but apparenly their chicks had already fledged and we went for the Grand Canyon family.
The owls were found exactly where they were supposed to be. We were all very thrilled to see them - dream bird. So powerful and so beautiful. We had both adults (female huge! Like a bloody Steller's Sea Eagle) and one juvenile. The juv was in full size and already flying but apparently still attached to its parents.
At first light they were still moving around quite a bit, including flights accross the gorge, but light was too bad for my camera. Some nice poses on an exposed rock:

Brown Fish Owl - adult female

Later on they all settled down to roost - one adult out of sight, the second on an exposed branch, and the juvenile inside a Nerium oleander bush.

Brown Fish Owl - adult male

Brown Fish Owl - juvenile

We stayed there for about half an hour. The light did not improve much and all images were taken in very difficult condition, hence the mediocre results.
There were lots of other birds seen and heard during the trip. There's a nice colony of Yellow-legged Gull on an island at the entrance to the canyon, with one Baltic Gull among them. On the gorge wall we saw and heard Western Rock and Krueper's Nuthatches, Rock Buntings, Crag Martins etc. Rony enriched the aquatic fauna by dropping his flash into the water.

Grand Canyon

We had a good time on the boat. We were joined by some British celebrities - Lee Evans, Garry Bagnell and Keith Vinicombe (the latter identified only retrospectively from photographs).

So with Brown Fish Owl in the bag our trip was already a great success, and from here it could only improve. And it improved indeed...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Turkish delight 1 - Krueper's Nuthatch @ Akseki

So as you understood, I went on a short weekend-trip to Turkey (Thursday to Sunday) with three of my friends - Rami Mizrahi, Amir Balaban and Rony Livne. Our main target was Brown Fish Owl, but we decided to look for some more good birds in this beautiful, huge country. It was my first visit to Turkey, and I really enjoyed it. I am sure I will return many more times.
We landed around noon at Antalya, collected a car from the airport and drove off directly towards Akseki in the mountains above Antalya. Driving up we saw lots of proper habitat much closer to Antalya, but the 'fire-protection' site west of Akseki is well-known and very good. We birded there for about three hours and had a very productive time. We say about 15-20 Krueper's Nuthatch (lifer #1) - lovely birds. They were very active and vocal, but not easy to photograph, running along the canopy branches of the tall conifers. All I managed was this lousy record shot:

Krueper's Nuthatch - male

Another key species we saw in good numbers was Short-toed Treecreeper. I had seen it many times in Europe before, but it was a lifer for Rami and Rony. We had about 15 of these.

Short-toed Treecreeper (correct way up)

Other good birds included Balkan Warbler, Masked Shrike, Mistle Thrush and Sombre Tit. Coal Tits (good for us Israelis) were common and we had some families.

Coal Tit

Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca)

Rony and Rami

 Amir doing it the right way

Next episode - Brown Fish Owl...

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Turkish appetizer

Waiting at the airport in Antalya, Turkey, for my flight back home. It will take me a few more posts to present what I have to show from my short trip here - it was quick but very, very sweet. Here's a taster of what I will post in the next few days, so stay tuned:

Brown Fish Owl

Iraq Babbler

Chestnut-shouldered Petronia

Eastern Rock Nuthatch

Thursday, June 14, 2012

If this is cucmber season then bring me more cucumbers

This morning I joined my mate Asaf Mayrose and NPA ranger Uri Kaizer for a monitoring session in E Lakhish region, where I had the upcher's a few weeks ago. Asaf is doing this monitoring to describe the effects of the recent developement (3 new settlements!) on the breeding bird community there.
We had a nice morning. We moved between different points, did some point counts and transects. We managed to see most red-data breeding species we hoped for - Upcher's Warbler (one family), Spectacled Warbler (two families), Long-billed Pipit, and several families of Black-eared Wheatears.

The young Spectacled Warblers are really cute now - very rounded head, large eye and small bill. They haven't started their post-juvenile moult yet and look very fresh.

Spectacled Warbler - recently-fledged juvenile

On the other hand the adults are very worn and scruffy-looking; they're in the middle of post-breeding moult.

Spectacled Warbler - 2cy+ female

The local breeding pair of Long-legged Buzzards raised two young. The male is a very pretty rufous-morph; he flew around showing-off and screaming like a big boss:


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Arabian Warblers

Yesterday I surveyed a site in the Arava where Oded keynan had seen in recent years successfull breeding of Arabian Warbler. Though not globally endangered, in Israel it's one of our rarest breeding birds with about 15 pairs, most in the last remaining bits of acacia savana in the N Arava Valley.
It was a very beautiful morning with lovely desert scenery and lots of common breeding birds. At first light I was there with Oded, and quickly we heard a singing male Arabian Warbler. It very quickly disappeared and it took me some time to relocate it. I watched it for some time until I discovered its family - I saw both adults and one full-size juvenile. Later on Oded had another singing male in a different part of the reserve, but by the time I got there it was gone.
Arabian Warblers are incredible passerines - they have huge territories, and they just don't stop flying. I witnessed the family fly almost 1 km - just for fun, with no apparent reason. It was very hard work to track them down, and of course to photograph, which was almost impossible. I attach these two images just to demonstrate how difficult it is. I didn't even put my name on them - if anyone wants to steal them - go ahead, fell free.

Arabian Warbler

Thanks to Oded Keynan the babbler man.

Monday, June 4, 2012

More nightjar stuff

last night I returned to Neot Hakikar to complete my monitoring duties for this season. I was joined by Jens from Denmark. We met up early enough for some afternnon birding. First we went to check whether the local Sooty Falcons have already returned to their territory, and indeed we found the male there. He was doing nothing and looked quite bored - perhaps the female has not returned yet. This is my humble attempt to phonescope it:

Sooty Falcon - male

Down in the valley, a small marsh had some good birds in it. Late migrants included Whiskered Tern and Great Egret. Good local birds included many Namaqua Doves, Clamorous Reed Warblers, Little Bitterns and a single Indian Silverbill.

Whiskered Tern

After nightfall we started working on Nubian Nightjar territories I hadn't visited the previous night. Again, we had a fantastic show - all nightjar families were in place and were very active in the perfect conditions - full moon, pleasent temperatures, no wind and massive moth activity. We also returned to some territories that needed a second look, and I was very happy to see at least four families with recently-fledged youngs.

Nubian Nightjar - adult (sorry about the clipped tail)

Nubian Nightjar - recently-fledged juvenile

Unfortunately we were not able to relocate the egyptians, but I hope to return there again next week. 

In total, this is a good breeding season for the nightjars, and now it's my job to protect as much of the habitat as possible. The next few months are expected to be critical and dramatic with the planning process reaching its climax - I hope to bring good news soon.
Thanks to Jens for his great company and help during the long night.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Rage against the machine

Last night I was out monitoring Nubian Nightjar. It was a long and eventful night, and after working with these nightjars for almost a decade now, for me this was a climax - both biologically and emotionally.

I started off near Hazeva, in the Shezaf Reserve. I met up with Yitzhak Ben Mocha and Oded Keynan, who had recently some anecdotal observations of Nubian nightjars in the reserve. Amazingly we found two or three pairs in full breeding activity - they were missing from this area for about 20 years as a result of massive destruction of their habitat there. We found them last night in small patches of suitable habitat; one site was rehabilitated a few years ago by some locals including Oded, and it was great to see the results of this work. More on this to come.
One great bonus was a superb observation of a wolf, sitting around and watching us.

After I was done there I continued to Neot Hakikar, arriving at about 23:00. Weather was fantastic, moonlight powerful, and nightjar activity was at its peak. This was the best night I have ever had there - I saw 14 pairs, out of about 20 pairs breeding there. Every possible territory I checked held a territorial pair. Most pairs were busy courting and mating - second cycle I guess. I did not see any youngs with parents at all, I assume they have dispersed already.
Sadly, two of the pairs I had are doomed - they chose to breed in a minefield that will be cleared next month. It was so sad for me to see them. Nightjars, like all swift-relatives, live for many years. I know these pairs intimately - I had transmitters on both pairs during my MSc research some years ago, and yesterday I saw a ringed bird - must be one of them. They are like old friends of mine and I almost started crying when they were courting, hovering and calling, right over my head and two meters away from me on the ground, not knowing that very soon their nests wil be chopped up and they will have to move somewhere else. To think that in just a few weeks their habitat will get torn to bits is just terrible, but apparently nothing can be done against it.
One very exciting find last night was a breeding pair of Egyptian Nightjars - this is the first indication of breeding in Israel since 1991. I will follow up on these birds during the next few nights.

Apart for not having anyone to share these experiences with me, I had nobody to hold the torch for me. So I discovered that it is very difficult to take photographs when one has to hold one's torch by oneself. This is the least-terrible image I managed. I have some sound recording too, hope to overcome the technical obstacles of editing the sound files soon.