Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hermon day 3 - touching the sky

Day 3 of the Hermon survey was fantastic again. The high elevations are so cool. We spent most of the day above 2000 m. Early in the morning we checked the ridges near the upper cable station that were very good. Later on we went down into Bol'an Valley, that is rarely visited by civilians as it is very close to the Syrian border. It was very beautiful and special in the valley but birds were fewer than early in the morning.

By far the most dominant species was Northern Wheatear - we had about 60 breeding pairs in amazing density. They were just all over the place, many of them already with active nests.

Northern Wheatear - ssp. libanotica, 2cy male

Woodlarks were also present in good numbers, with about 20 territories recorded. The males were very vocal. Did you know that Woodlarks have the underwing pattern of a Swainson's Thrush?

Rock Sparrows breed in any kind of crevice - this pair nests on the wall surrounding the cafe of the upper cable station:

On the lower slopes Rock Buntings were present in good numbers, singing and nest-building, like this male with a bill-full of nesting material:

We scored pretty well with high-altitude specialties. We had about 8 pairs of Horned Larks, and three pairs of Crimson-winged finches. The finches were very mobile and difficult to photograph. In fact I had hard time photographing today, nothing really came close.

Crimson-winged Finch - so distant but so pretty!

Horned Lark - ssp. bicornis

Other highlights included four pairs of Rock Thrush, two pairs of Spectacled Warbler, one flyover Hill Sparrow (Amir) and many more. However we couldn't find Irania and Upcher's Warbler - perhaps too early this high up. Hope to improve that on our next visit in June.

I am not a flower expert but there were some beautiful flowers up there. Sun's-eye Tulips flower here two monthes later than in the N Negev.

Many thanks to Lior and Amir for their hard work and company this morning.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Hermon day 2 - Irania

Today I went with my team to survey Mt. Dov, which is a part of Mt. Hermon rarely visited by civilians. This is an extremely sensitive military area, and we were very lucky to get the chance to survey the rich habitats there. The military patrol escorting us was very cooperative and helpful, which was very good.

The first couple of hours in my box were extremely good with lots of birds and many species, and I documented lots of breeding activity. As everywhere in the lower elevations of Mt. Hermon, most dominant species were Lesser Whitethroat and Sombre Tit. I was happy to see two Black-headed Buntings - fresh arrivals, and always great birds to see:

Other highlights included Syrian Serin, Rck Nuthatches, Cretzschmar's Buntings, several Eurasian Cuckoos and Balkan Warbler. Again several breeding pairs of Red-backed Shrike - here is a female:

Migration was much more evident today, with lots of Blackcaps, Willow Warblers and three Golden Orioles on the ground, and massive raptor migration overhead, consisting mainly of Steppe and Honey Buzzards, Lesser Spotted and Booted Eagles, Black Kites and Levant Sparrowhawks.

Just as we were about to leave we spotted a male Irania (White-throated Robin) - I saw it only briefly but heard it singing. I was very happy to find this rare breeder so early and rather low.

Other animals included again Levante Fan-fingered Gecko, a huge Medium Lizard (Lacerta media) that disappeared before i was able to photograph it, and feces of Wolf and Beech Marten.

Many thanks to Dudu for his help and company.

Mystery Chiffchaff update: this afternoon Noam and Amir Ben Dov returned to the site where we had them yesterday. They found a staggering 10 singing males, and had better views that what we had yesterday.I cannot open Amir's RAW images on my computer, so his much better images should be online in a few days. Looking good.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hermon day 1 - boom - Mountain Chiffchaffs!?!?

Day 1 of Hermon breeding survey began with quite a mess. Early in the morning I dropped off Noam and his fantastic kids at their box, and continued to my adjacent box. I descended a steep mountain with my 4X4 down a horrible track, that just became worse and worse, until it eventually disappeared. I had to reverse back up over some very challenging obstacles, until I could U-turn, which took me about 15 minutes. Then another 15 minutes to climp a steep step, and in the process ripped a tire, that we had to change in tough conditions. So the first hour was from hell. Eventually managed to drive towards my box, when it was already very late - hot and windy. We met up with Noam, and he told me "I've just heard a funny chiffchaff...". I stopped and quickly heard the bird too, and immediately my alarm bells went off - sounds like a Mountain Chiffchaff, a song I remembered from xeno-canto! We all started obtaining some views, then photos and recordings. The bird was very mobile and elusive. It was very hard to see but eventually we got very brief but OK views. The bird was striking brown, with no apparent green fringes to secondaries; nice whitish supercilium; whitish throat with some buff wash on breast sides. In the image below the sun was direct but in the field the bill and legs looked solid black. The mantle and rump were rather rich brown. Also the cap.
the song was to my ears different from typical collybita, with a more energetic tempo and winding quality:

The bird responded well to Mountain Chiffchaff playback, and didn't respond to 'normal' Chiffchaff playback.

Thanks to Zohar, Noam's son for this great image - much better than I managed to get: 

After spending about an hour trying to photograph the bird without success, I left Noam and continued to my box. Amazingly, Noam had another three singing bird nearby, and later on I had another about a kilometer away. All birds singing males; at least the male we were able to see performed territorial behavious, including chasing away other (much larger) birds. Incredible.

I am sure that these birds will stir a good ID discussion. Mountain (AKA caucasian) Chiffchaff is extremely rare in Israel, with only two previous records. Which is quite surprising given how close to Israel they breed. Anyway, if these birds are confirmed as Mountain Chiffchaff, this is quite sensational. So guys, bring your comments on! Learning time.

When I eventually began working my box with Dudu, we saw quite many birds. The scenery was quite spectacular, everything still flowering and fresh, so different from around my house where it really feels like summer already. Most dominant were Lesser Whitehtorats and Sombre Tits. Other quality birds were Upcher's Warbler,  a breeding pair of Steppe Buzzards, and a pair of Crag Martins.  Some raptors went overhead, including some levants.

Levante Fan-fingered Gecko Ptyodactylus puiseuxi

 Red-backed Shrike - they breed here

 Levant Sparrowhawk

Looking forward to tomorrow!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Nightjars and gulls

Busy days and nights. Over the last few days I started my Nubian Nightjar monitoring season. I managed to confirm breeding activity in 14 territories at Neot Hakikar. Hope to see the results around the next full moon.

I also spent some time at the Yellow-legged Gull colony in the Zoological Gardens of the Tel Aviv University. This year we started trapping adults - five adults ringed so far. Check the variation in wingtip pattern - from solid black tip to P10 to all-white tip. Note that this white-tipped bird also has black only on the inner webs of P6 and P5. Many thanks to Amir, Noam and Ron for their help. And to Amir also for the images.

Noam & moi

Tomorrow I'm beginning a breeding atlas project on Mt. Hermon. We got permits to visit the most complicated parts of the mountain, and I'm sure we will see lots of cool birds. I have a great team working with me, and I am really looking forward to this week. So stay tuned!

Syrian Serin - from 2010

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Bee Gees

Arad really insisted that the title of this post will be 'The Bee Gees'. First of all, it's his favourite band, and I think they represent many aspects of Arad's personality. But more important, while ringing at Ashdod this morning we used more 2.8 mm rings (BG) than we usually do. They went mainly on Sprossers - we had 29 (almost Ngulia numbers...), but also we had three Barred Warblers and one Olive-tree Warbler.
It was a very busy morning with big numbers (220 in total) of 16 species; unfortunately I had to leave early while we were still trapping well. Mainly Blackcaps, Lesser Whites, Sprossers and Reed Warblers. None were really dominant which made ringing more fun but punching the data in much more difficult. It was nice to catch one Marsh Warbler.

In the field, three Little Bitterns, Little Crake and Water Rail kept dodging our nets the whole morning. Some Levants were seen taking off in the morning.

Many thanks to Arad, Miriam and Roei for their hard work this morning.

Barred Warbler - 2cy male

Olive-tree Warbler

The Bee Gees - image taken from their Wikipedia page

Friday, April 19, 2013

Ringing course - Sde Boker

Thursday - Friday conducted a ringing course at Sde Boker, on behalf of Ramat HaNegev Birding Center (AKA Meidad). I really enjoyed the course - all trainees were very nice and very good - hope they will take it on from there and continue training. We had pretty good ringing Friday morning at darren's ringing station, and good birding overall, though while guiding this course I really had little time for birding or photography, and I had only my petite 400 mm lens with me. Apart for loads of Blackcaps, we had a very nice variety - nightingales of both species, Wood Warblers, Tree Pipits, Ortolans etc.

Wood Warbler


While practicing mistnets at the memorial park, we noticed that there were just thousands of Blackcaps there, pouring down from evey tree. Many B&W flycatchers were darting all over the place, and loads of Tree Pipits, Masked Shrikes, Ortolans etc. made me really want to ring there properly. Unfortunately this site receives too many visitors and it's impossible to ring there. 

Collared Flycatcher

Today while ringing we had a European Nightjar at dawn, Black-bellied Sandgrouse flying overhead, big flock of White Storks, griffons flying around, many Alpine and Pallid Swifts hawking for insects around us - never a dull moment.
Alpine Swift

Many thanks to Darren, Meidad, Eran and Anton for their expert help and support during the course.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I'm birding in the rain

Unusual weather today - it already felt like summer was here, but now we have a serious weather system hitting us. Lots of rain today, cold and windy, so tried some seawatching at Ashkelon first. Wind was too southerly so few birds but still had one 2cy Gannet, 1 distant 'Cory's' Shearwater, 1 Common and several Sandwich Terns, and some distant gulls.
Then I went to Ashdod ponds. Still quite many gulls, about 100 large gulls. Mainly 80 fuscus, with fewer heuglini, armenicus, michahellis and cachinnans. Only one (Norwegian) colour ring. Then I found an injured baltic just as it started pouring again. The gull swam into one of the smelly ponds, and I went after it in my undies. Had a great time (rain + sewage = fun) but eventually caught the gull. It had a Finnish metal ring on. Must be an old bird. I took it to the NPA wildlife hospital. Unfortunately it was in a very bad state (ugly tumors all over its face and inside the throat) and the gull had to be put down to sleep. Poor bird.

Norwegian-ringed Baltic Gull

Siberian Gull - huge bird

Caspian Gull - late adult; unhappy bird

Funny Gull

In the evening I was invited to watch the release of a female Striped Hyena. It was found a month ago by my neighbour after it was trapped in a noose trap laid by a Thai worker. It was badly injured and was taken to the NPA wildlife Hospital for treatement. It recovered well and was released today back into the wild, not far from my house. When found it was lactating, so sadly its cubs are gone, but it is encouraging to see such a majestic animal recovering and returning to the wild. Respect to the wildlife hospital team! It was almost dark when it was released hence the blurry shots.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Short-eared Owl

No, this is not a Short-eared Owl, it's a Short-toed Eagle. But while doing an atlas box this morning with Rafi Paz at Lahav reserve we flushed a Short-eared Owl from the ground; found no nest, probably a late migrant. Managed to confirm breeding of Long-billed Pipit (three territories), about 10 families of Spectacled Warbler, some in second breeding cycle - those were the highlights.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

WP rarities

Yesterday met up with a multi-national team: Greenland (tick!), Denmark, UK, and Belgium. Among them I had two WP celebs - David Monticelli and Vincent Legrand. We had enjoyable afternoon birding at Neot Hakikar with 10 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, some Namaqua Doves, Clamorous Reed Warblers etc. Later on we had another successful night tour.

Spot the Namaqua Dove

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Ringer's frustration and excitement

On thursday I had half an hour between meetings and had a quick look at my ringing site in Ashdod, hoping to photograph a crake or two. Not often I bird at my ringing site, usually I ring there, so it was great just to walk around, watch and listen. When arriving on site I witnessed an amazing fall of migrants, with hundreds and hundreds of warblers, pipits, buntings, shrikes, flycatchers, sprossers etc. right inside my catching area, feeding and drinking along my net rides. If I were ringing there that morning I would have had a peak morning (or not, depending on Mr. Murphy). Oh well, next time.

Today I got great news from Poland - Mariusz Dąbek read one of my colour-ringed gulls (U0JD) on a rubbish dump near Sulisławice! I am especially happy as this is perhaps the most interesting and controversial gull I ringed ever. This is also the first international recovery of an Israeli-ringed gull.

I ringed this bird at Ashdod on 10 January 2010 as a 2cy (hatched 2009), together with Amir Ben Dov and Francis Argyle. We trapped only two gulls that morning, but this bird was really worth all the effort.

Here is how it looked like in January 2010:

U0JD has its own special page on gull-research.org where you can see very nicely how it matured winter after winter. When we ringed it we first identified it as fuscus, but as it matured we figured out it's in fact a heuglini. But at the moment it is still labelled under fuscus - hope Mars will correct this soon.

It returned again this winter, and these are Amir's stunning images just before it migrated north, on March 26th 2013:

I wonder what's the status of heuglini in Poland. I am sure this bird will create some interesting ID discussions.

Many thanks again to Mariusz for this great find!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Wow, birding is great fun!

Today, for the first time after so long, I had time for some recreational birding, and hey - it was really enjoyable! Met up with Jonathan early and we drove off to the south. First stop at Hameishar right after sunrise.  Immediately encountered a herd of 12 Asian Wild Asses - nice views!

Asian Wild Ass

Not too many birds around at first but some walking around produced Lesser Short-toed and Bar-tailed Larks, and three Crowned Sandgrouse overhead. On the way out bumped into this family of Temminck's Larks - both parents feeding two recently-fledged juveniles. Very nice.

Temminck's Larks

Next stop was at Neot Smadar. Still not the busiest spring ever but obvious improvement in migrant numbers compared to March. Most prominent were Tree Pipits with very good numbers (about 80-100 in two small fields). Also many Ortolans present.

Tree Pipit

Then we headed down to Yotvata sewage, where Black Bush Robin action is at its peak. Yesterday three were seen there together, and this morning at least two showed well, maybe three. It was already hot and the birds evidently didn't have much patience for more photographers, so no spectacular images to present here, but they are always such super birds to watch. This pair was busy in what I interpret as breeding activity - singing, territorial behaviour, displaying etc. 

Black Bush Robin

On several occasions I heard the female give a very peculiar call - perhaps alarm call. Didn't manage to get a proper recording unfortunately; here's something: 

There were lots of other birds at the sewage ponds and adjacent acacia scrub - many Yellow Wags, various shorebirds, Squacco Herons, many shrikes, nightingales, Rufouns Bush Robins, one male Collared Flycathcer etc.

European Bee-eater

Balkan Warbler

Namaqua Dove

Overhead impressive raptor migration was happening - mainly Steppe Buzzards of course but some other bits and bobs, including my first Honey Buzzard of the season and this Booted Eagle:

Then I continued to check some more smelly sewage ponds, that produced nothing too interesting. At Ketura a Great Reed Warbler, many Redstarts, nightingales etc.

Little Ringed Plover

Unlucky Cretzschmar's

Then I went to Lotan for a couple of meetings. This Hooded Wheatear greeted me on my way in, giving Lotan very good PR! Good to meet Gary and his team who had just arrived.

Hooded Wheatear

Inside Lotan still pretty quiet but a long-staying Semi-collared Flycatcher showed rather well: