Saturday, June 29, 2013

Back to cucumber season

Back to mid-summer Israeli reality. Hot and humid and few birds about. The next few weeks are expected to be rather quiet but I will do my best to produce some posts every now and then. I will have to be pretty creative until migration picks up in a few weeks.

Stone Curlews are common nocturnal birds in Israel. I hear them every evening calling from the fields around my village. But in the last few days one bird has been favouring a large lawn near my house. I guess that after all humans go to sleep at night it arrives there to look for juicy mole crickets or something like that, and it lingers into the early morning hours until the first humans walk their dogs or take their kids to the adjacent kindergarten. I have only seen it early in the morning, never later.

Outstanding bird and look at that brilliant eye!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Turkey day 4 - buchanani!

Our final morning in E Turkey was very short and sweet. We flew out of Van at noon, and we had to wash and return our rental car on time, so that left little time for birding. We headed off early towards the 'famous' valley about 45 minutes SE of Van, following a tip from Tor Olsen via Silas. Took road D975 until we passed beyond Zernek Baraji. We parked the car beside the main road ( 38.342960°N  43.757780°E), and started walking east. The secondary river (don't know its name), convering into the larger river (Zernek I think), was roaring and was very noisy, so we climbed up the top of the southern ridge and walked on the top, above the river, in order to be able to hear something. The first minutes were rather quiet bar a pair of noisy Ruddy Shelducks that flew around. But very soon we picked up our first Grey-necked Bunting - a pair feeding in the nest. Eventually we had in a small area four pairs, all quite close to each other, all very busy with breeding activity. I was so happy to see them - I have been looking for them in Israel for so many years now. They breed so close to Israel but still have never been reocrded in Israel yet - I suppose they get overlooked among the huge numbers of Ortolans and Cretzschmar's we get here on migration. I was surprised how distinctive they are, even the females. Craking birds!

Grey-necked Bunting - male



Grey-necked Bunting - female - unfortunately I don't have better images

While watching the buntings we also had some Mongolian Finches - first again some flyover views but eventually we got a pair on the deck. Pretty brief and pretty distant, but good enough views. Crap record shots though. Need to improve that next time...

Mongolian Finch - male

Mongolian Finch - female


This is special habitat, very arid, possibly as a result of overgrazing and soil degredation.

We had many more good birds around - a pair of Trumpeter Finches, Finsch's Wheatears, Western Rock Nuthatches. A pair of Semi-collared Flycathcers was breeding in the riparian forest on the other side of the river. This valley was in fact the first place in Turkey we had any reptiles at all - quite many Caucasian Agamas and some fast lizards I wasn't able to identify.

Caucasian Agama (Laudakia caucasia)

Not sure - I think this is Balkan Marbled White (Melanargia larissa):

We saw further east and south some very interesting habitats - wet valleys and wetlands, but we had no time to explore the area. Very beautiful landscape.

We headed back to Van, had breakfast and flew out to Istanbul. We had some hours to kill around Istanbul - traffic was too heavy to head into the city so we went to the beach for some seafood, and then back home.

To conclude, this was a great little trip. For three days on the ground I think we did pretty well (131 species, without a proper wetland), and managed not to get our wives and bosses too pissed by disappearing for only a short while. We found Turkey very pleasent, very beautiful, good roads, friendly people and nice food. Many thanks to my partners during this trip, Amir and Gidon. We had a great time together and had lots of laughs. They were excellent birding (Gidon) and photography (Amir) companions. Looking forward to our next trip together.
Thanks also to Silas Olofson, Emin Yoğurtcuoğlu and Michael Opitz for their valuable help in planning this trip.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Turkey day 3 - Işak Paşa to Van Gölü - colours and quality

For me it felt like an overall slower day, but looking back and reading at this post gives me the impression of a cracking day. Anyway, after the exhausting climb up Mt. Ararat the previous day, we started off early on June 22nd and first went to check the area around Işak Paşa castle south of Doğubayazit. This is a well known site for Grey-necked Bunting and Mongolian Finch. We saw no buntings at all, and of Mongolian Finch we had only some brief flyby views. So what did we see?
First we birded along the good track heading south from the castle to the grassy upland plains. As anywhere else in this region, Black-headed Bunting was the most obvious species. I saw so many during our trip and this was the first (and last) one I photographed: 

We tried really hard to locate Mr. buchananni, but all we could find were Ortolans - they were everywhere. We got worried and started suspecting that all previous birders misidentified them... 

Ortolan - male

Ortolan - female

Still we had many good birds there. Some brief Mongolian and Crimson-winged Finches, Twite, quite many White-winged Snowfinches, and one singing male Common Rosefinch that showed rather well, our only rosefinch of the trip:

We had some Red-fronted Serins around the palace, again showing too well - in fact one landed for a second on my lens when I was trying to photograph it:

Quite many Whinchats breeding on the grassy plains:

This is dedicated to my Israeli followers:


Again, good numbers of Western Rock Nuthatces and Eastern Black-eared Wheatears were seen breeding on the rocky hills, as well as our only Hill Sparrows of the trip. A pair of Golden Eagles breeds on the cliff just around the corner from the castle.

Unfortunately, here like everywhere else in E Turkey, signs of intensive huting pressure were very evident, with few mammals and lots of pellets: 

Işak Paşa castle - Doğubayazit in the background

After drinking coffee with millions of holidaying Turks at the castle gardens, we headed back south. A short stop at Tendurek moutain pass produced a very very cooperative Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush. Who said that only in the tropics you get colourful birds?

Tai Chi training 

 And then he came to check us out:

 And even sang a little for us:

At Çaldiran we met some new Kurdish friends over lunch:

When planning this trip, I used info and tips from some good friends. But I learned that I need to double-check my info, as I made a stupid mistake. There are two Nemrut Daği's in Turkey - one with a crater, overlooking the west shore of Van Gölü, and another some hundreds of km west (where Kurdish Wheatear breeds). I discovered that only when we were on the road heading to the wrong Nemrut Daği. Anyway the trip was much longer than we expected, and we decided to give Nemrut Crater a miss. Next time. We focused on reedbeds around the lake for Paddyfield Warbler. First we checked a small reedbed along the road on the N shore of the lake, that looked good (  38.780481° N   42.608487° E). Indeed there was some paddyfield activity there but it was too hot and we saw very little. A family of Armenian Stonechats showed there - the female was terribly worn. What a dark-looking bird!

That's one of the two recently-fledged juveniles of the Armenian Stonechat:

Then we followed a tip from Emin and headed to a fantastic site in the NW corner of the lake, just south of Ahlat ( 38.733648° N  42.441921°E). This is a very interesting and diverse wetland, with a matrix of small canals and patches of reeds and bullrush. We had plenty of Paddyfield Warblers there, some of them showing very well, especially in the small clumps in the NE side. All were adults - I suppose the young have not fledged yet, and very worn.But still good looking acros, as good as acros can get...

Paddyfield Warblers

I know this is out of focus but note the distinctive wing formula - very short and deeply notched P2, and P4 well emarginated (probably also P5), creating a very short, rounded and fingered wing structure. Dark distal half to lower mandible was very prominent too.

Other good birds at this site included a pair of Ruddy Shelduck, some Moustached Warblers, Bearded Reedlings and Penduline Tits. In the end we made one hell of a circuit to see Paddyfield Warbler; I'm sure there are sites much closer to Van, but it was nice to be there. 
After we were done there we started heading back to Van along the south shore of the lake. Beyond Tatvan we used the last minutes of sunlight to check a patch of scrub / degraded forest ( 38.455103° N  42.323805° E). There are few dense patches of forest or scrub in the Van region, and it was good to bird there for a short while. I am not sure whether the tress there are natural or planted (oaks and polar), but this site is very different from anywhere else in Van region. We didn't have anything special there, just some singing Nightingales among other common forest birds, but this site looks promising and certainly worth another check. I played Phylloscopus music but nothing responded...
In Van we stayed at the pretty shabby Medi Hotel, quite close to the airport.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Turkey day 2 - Ağri Daği - no valley too deep, no mountain too high

Our second day (21st June) began with a rush - we found out that Turkey didn't discover the advantages of Summer Time, and when we woke up at 04:00 there was good light already... We drove from Iğdir via Aralik to the small village of Yenidoğan ( 39.775916° N  44.380396° E). In the plains below the village there were many larks, including Horned and Lesser Short-toed, Finsch's Wheatear and singing Tawny Pipits.

Tawny Pipit

Our main target bird Caspian Snowcock - this high-altitude chicken is difficult to see in Van region, but Emin told me it's possible... Ağri Daği, AKA Mt. Ararat, is one of the few sites in Van region for this species. This is the highest peak in the Middle East, at 5104 m. A very impressive peak indeed. Climbing it reminded me of the period I spent up in the Himalaya some years ago.

We started ascending from the village which is at about 1750 m. The sky was grey and it was very cold. In the village we had a male Semi-collared Flycatcher. As we started walking it began drizzling, and then raining, and then raining hard. Climbing the mountain with my heavy camera gear in the rain was not much fun. After not too long we decided to descend back down to the car - the weather really looked grim, but then the rain stopped for a while and we decided to give it a go. Above the village there's nice habitat with scattered rosebushes - good for White-throated Robins and of course Black-headed Buntings. BHB were possibly the commonest birds on our trip, and their song was for sure the soundtrack of the trip.
In this beautiful valley, and especially above the tree line, at about 2000 m, there were many breeding pairs of Iranias, including a nice nest we found with eggs.

White-throated Robin

Light conditions were quite awful. I had to shoot on ultra-high iso. Thank god for Topaz DeNoise... 
There were lots of good birds above the tree line - Ring Ouzels and Mistle Thrushes, one brief male Armenian Stonechat, saw our first Alpine Choughs etc. At this altitude we had quite many Western Rock Nuthatches. They look so different compared to ours here in Israel. Is this ssp. rupicola?

Western Rock Nuthatch

The next stretch in our climb was pretty tough, scrambling up a narrow, boulder-strewn gorge. finally we climbed up to a nice valley, that had many birds in and around it, at about 2300 m. For some moments the clouds opened up a bit and we could partly see the peak, but soon it became dark and very wet again... 

Present in good numbers at this altitude were these total gems - Red-fronted Serins. They are rare winter visitors to N Israel, so for us they were really special. Such fantastic little birds, they allowed very close views and if light was better I could have had some winning images... but I cannot complain. 

Red-fronted Serins

Female in the center


Male (left) and female (right)


Mixed with them were some Twite: 

Rock Buntings are also common everywhere in E Turkey:

From 2300 m and up we started seeing Radde's Accentors. They were feeding young, and many males were still singing. It took me some time to realize that their song is almost identical to that of Black Redstart. It was very windy at this altitude, so the recording didn't come out very impressive I'm afraid:

Radde's Accentor

A pair of lammergeiers patrolled over the valley. At one moment Amir was pretty knackered and lay down in the grass to rest for a short while. One of the Lammergeiers made a quick U-turn and came down to check Amir out - 90 kg aren't too heavy for them I reckon... Also a pair of Golden Eagles breeds somewhere there - they were cruising around too. I am sure that their main food is the abundant Asia Minor Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus xanthoprymnus) - pretty numerous in the highlands.


On the big cliffs big flocks of choughs were seen - mainly Alpine but also some Red-billed Choughs. At about 2700 m we had a pair of Alpine Accentors, and then we just climbed and climbed as much as we could in the steep gorge, stopping every few minutes under a boulder to shelter from the rain, and also to catch our breath - the altitude certainly affected us. I played snowcock calls in full volume, we scanned the cliffs and both slopes very hard. At one time I heard a bird responding - my heart almost leaped out of my chest - but it was too high above the cliffs, in the plateaus above the herd-line, and we were unable to see it. Apart for this one-time vocal encounter we didn't see any snowcocks. But the experience of being so high up, the thin air, mighty peaks surrounding us, was really powerful.

 Looking back down the valley, from about 3100 m... 

 High-altitude birding - Gidon

Slightly disappointed by not connecting well enough with the snowcock, but very pleased with all the other good birds we saw, we started descending back. We climbed up to a grassy plateau, where walking down was much easier than in the rocky valley. And of course as we started descending the sun came out and the weather became great. Fo the first time we had stunning views of the peak:

Fewer birds were seen on the grassy plateau, mainly because of the very intensive presence of large herds, their herders carrying hunting rifles, surrounded by mighty dogs, so obviously wildlife is scarce in the area heavily grazed. Still we had quite many larks and some more Ring Ouzels.

Eurasian Skylark - ssp. armenica

Horned Lark - ssp. penicillata, male

Horned Lark, ssp. penicillata, female

When we got back down to the plains, totally exhausted by the long and tough trek, the view of the two peaks - Büyük (big) Ağri Daği on the right and Küçük (little) Ağri Daği was breathtaking.

To conclude, it was a great day filled with quality birding, but failing to see our main target bird was disappointing. For those who want to see snowcocks at this site, you need to climb much higher than we did, mainly to avoid the herds and their herders, that are a big problem for wildlife up there. One alternative is to start walking very early from Yenidoğan and climb up the grassy plateau rather than up the gorge (there are several walking trails used by the herds climbing up from the village), and reach about 3500-3700 m, above the cliffs and higher than the herds. Birding along the walk up would be less rewarding, but chances for snowcock would be higher. Another alternative would be to climb up from Yenidoğan and camp at about 3500 m, on the grassy slopes. I guess chances for snowcock are best early in the morning, before the herds reach up there. I know nothing about safety issues in that region, i.e. how safe it would be to camp up there. Doing it the way we did offers good birding opportunities up the gorge, but chances for snowcock are lower.

We spent the night at Golden Hill Hotel in Doğubayazit - excellent hotel!