Monday, March 31, 2014

Champions of the Flyway - here we go!

The race begins in less than an hour. Excitement is at its peak. Last minute briefs to the teams. Good luck to everyone!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Champions of the Flyway - scouting day

Today was a really great day. Met up with all the teams who came over for the Champions of the Flyway bird race next week. Lots of old friends and lots of new ones - we had much fun and enjoyed good birding. For us leaders (Jonathan and myself) it was a tough day because our main target for today was scouting - showing the sites, talking about key species and best startegies. We had planned to make it up to Sde Boker but never made it up there because at every site we stopped there were so many good birds that the teams refused to return to the bus.
We started off at North Beach with Brown Booby, Striated Heron and Western Reef Egret. Then we checked KM20 saltpans that were packed with birds - many shorebrds including five Red-necked Phals, Citrine Wagtail, Namaqua Dove, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater etc. After breakfast we headed up to Yotvata fields. The Caspian Plover didn't show but lots of other stuff. Then up to Neot Smadar - the Pied Bushcaht was still there, plus we had a Richard's Pipit.

Pied Bushchat

Then a midday visit to Uvda Valley was more productive than I expected with six Crowned Sandgrouse, and many wheatears and some Tawny Pipits.  Lunch stop at Yahel - lots of migrants in the garden there including Wryneck. 

Spur-winged Lapwing - a bird I rarely photograph

An afternoon visit to Wadi Ya'alon was great fun - it was hopping with migrants: six Sylvia species including about six rueppells, Masked Shrikes, bluethroat atc. 
On the way back stopped quickly at Yotvata sewage that was packed with migrants as well. Lots of pipits and wagtails (including at least four citrines), shorebirds, Little Crake and just before leaving I found what was for me bird of the day - this very striking looking White Wagtail: very striking wing pattern with extensive white GC, MC and tertials, darker grey mantle than other albas, and grey flanks and breast sides. I don't know much about White Wagtail taxa, but from what I could find on the web this bird might fit eastern forms persica and dukhunensis. More on this to come.

Putative Siberian / Persian Wagtail Motacilla alba dukhunensis / persica

Watching the wagtail at Yotvata

Friday, March 28, 2014

Eilat Festival update - what a day!

Yesterday was a bird-packed day. Hadn't done the day list yet, but I hope the bird racers next week will have such a good time!
My tour began in the late morning, so I started birding solo early. First north beach - lots of Finns and some birds too. The Brown Booby was patrolling along the Jordanian border, one Arctic Skua flew over, Barbary Falcon was after the Garganeys, two Heuglin's Gulls etc.

Brown Booby

Then I quickly checked KM20 saltpans - lots of shorebirds but nothing more exciting than Greater Sand-plover and Marsh Sandpipers. Outside the saltpans had this lovely flock of European Bee-eaters - added much-needed colour to migration: 

Before breakfast quickly checked Ofira Park which was surprisingly good with Semicollared Flycatcher, a few Wrynecks, several Tree Pipits etc.

Semicollared Flycatcher


After breakfast our long-distance tour began. Our first stop was at Yotvata - a Caspian Plover had been fund earlier on by British birders. We got to ths site and all the clients were on the bird quickly. It was a fine male, but it crouched down in the middle of a dry field, and viewing it through heavy heat haze was, well, you know... Here is a poor record shot of him:

While watching the plover good raptor migartion was happening overhead - Steppe and Booted Eagles, Several Lesser Kestrels plus lots of the commoner species.

Steppe Eagle

After Yotvata we drove to Hazeva where we met up with Ayla and Andrew who work there on the babblers. They took us to see a habituated group, which was great. But the main attraction was a pair of Arabian Warblers that showed very well - not the best images I have of them but the views were very good, and again - satisfied clients.

Arabian Warbler

Supporting cast was several desert Finches, Eastern Orphean Warblers, and raptors included two Eastern Imperial Eagles and a stunning male Pallid Harrier.

Desert Finch 

Eastern Imperial Eagle - into the sun - this one had jesses on his legs, must have escaped from trappers

On the way out bumped into this obliging female Namaqua Dove:

Then we drove up to the Judean Desert. We first went into a beautiful wadi. We climbed down before dusk and did some general birding in the wadi, that was fun with typical desert species and tons of raptors coming down to roost on the tall cliffs. After dusk we had a pair of Hume's Owl calling and communicating with each other. Rather early the male flew over our heads and we all had great flight views, and later on we all saw him very well, holding a rodent in his mouth. I was holding the torch (as always) so here is a great phonescoped shot by IBRCE volunteer Bas Kok  - thanks Bas for letting me to use your image here:

Very statisfied we left the wadi, and after dinner we headed down to Neot Hakikar. We arrived there when it was already too cold and dark, so there were no nightjars foraging whatsoever. After a couple of hours of intensive searching we had to give up but just before leaving we enjoyed several singing Nubian Nightjars around us - nice experience (though I'd rather see one than hear three...). However a major bonus was a Pharaoh Eagle Owl that gave several brief views.
The tour ended very late and the clients got back to Eilat very late at night, after a long but satisfying 'Rambo Tour'.
Many thanks to my co-leaders - Naom, Meidad and Paul, and to the IBRCE volunteers for the good company in the car.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Eilat Festival - Pied Bushchat - boom!

Joined the Eilat Festival today, and it was a super day indeed. Headed south in the morning, and through the C Negev (Sde boker area) there was very good Lesser Spotted Eagle migration going on - I had several hundreds, including some nice thermals:

Lesser Spotted Eagles and Steppe Buzzard

Did a couple more stops along the way but saw very little, including Neot Smadar that was practically dead when I drove through the fields and groves. Arrived at Eilat around lunchtime, and while I was having a bite I got a call from Igal Simantov saying he had just found a Pied Bushchat at Neot Smadar! Where I was just an hour before! And missed it! 
I led the afternoon tour, so we all headed towards the bushchat site and it was on show when we got there. Not as well as it did before - it had flown in and away across the kibbutz fence before we arrived, but it was still showing on a dead tree with some doves. All the guests were very happy with this fantastic mega (well done Igal!). Even though it's lost some of its magic in Israel - 7th record and third in three years (see here for instance), but in a WP context it is still a huge rarity, and some very keen WP listers were happy to see it. I guess a couple hundred birders connected with it during the afternoon. 

Pied Bushchat and Laughing Dove

The bushchat twitch took us longer than I expected, so we had time only for KM19 sewage before dusk. The reservoir was packed with birds, and as always there was very nice movement there before dusk. Highlights included 3 longstaying Ferruginous Ducks, some Garganeys, 2 Black-necked Grebes, several Citrine Wagtails, 2 Ospreys, and this adult Gull-billed Tern that flew past after sunset: 

Our main target for the evening was Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse. A very large group of birders assembled at the ponds at dusk, and it was a good experience to see everyone sat quietly in the right place in order not to disturb the birds coming in to drink - quite a challenge with such a large group but it all worked well. After dusk three sandgrouse came in to drink - typically very late. Great end to an exciting day!

 Artistic impression of male Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The return of the Cicada-birds

Started off early this morning and did an atlas box near Meitar in the N Negev. Last year I also checked this box and it was really good. Today I had a very difficult time there. Perhaps the negative effect of overgrazing, perhaps the grey and cold weather, I had there very few breeding birds. In fact I saw almost all species I was expecting to (Long-billed Pipit, Black-eared Wheatear, Spectacled Warbler) but in very low densities, and even the few birds I saw didn't cooperate for photography.
So I left rather early, half-depressed, and decided to go and enjoy some better birding at nearby Mt. Amasa, north of Arad. How I enjoy these days when I open the car door and the first bird I hear is this:

Hill Sparrow

I had about 20 singing males, many displaying and showing territorial behaviour. They are new arrivals - when Meidad had checked this site a couple of days ago he had just two or three. It rained well in this area and the habitat looks very good - hope they will stay and breed like they had done several times in recent decade.
Lots of other quality birds around - 2 Cinereous Bunting (very mobile again), 1 female Subalpine Warbler, 1 Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush and many Blues, good numbers of Eastern Black-eared Wheatears and Rock Sparrows, Scrub Warblers etc.

Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush from a mile away

Blue Rock Thrush - female

 Eastern Black-eared Wheatear

Raptor migration was quite slow - only a trickle of Steppe Buzzards and Black Kites, but there was a lovely flock of c. 50 migrant Lesser Kestrels on the ground, feeding frantically on beatles. Such beautiful falcons.

Tomorrow I'm joining the Eilat Festival team - pity I had to miss the first few days but I am sure I will have a great time there. Stay posted.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Herbal twitch

First field day of our wildlife monitoring course, near Modi'in. Started off relatively late so mainly common breeding birds but again great overhead migration with highlights being Pallid Harrier and Booted Eagle. In the afternoon did some botanical surveying training with Ouria - it was great. Ouria took us twitching a rare plant that was found nearby a few days ago - funny to twitch a flower that cannot fly or hide. But it is an impressive plant indeed - a nice bunch of them in a field.

Onosma gigantea - couldn't find the English name

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Mixed bag

Had a great morning at Lahav North NR again today - did another breeding atlas box and had double pleasure - good show of the breeding species, and tons of migrants on the ground and up in the air. Started off early - the air was cool and clear, and immediately I was surrounded by three singing Long-billed Pipits. Had a very good morning for them with six territories, including a nest I found - no Cuckoo chicks in it, just three sweet LBP chicks (Cuckoos parazitise Long-billed Pipits in Israel).

Long-billed Pipit

Pair of Long-billed Pipits

 In early morning light

Other breeding species included many families of Spectacled Warbler, several pairs of territorial Cretzschmar's Buntings among the many tens of apparent migrants - difficult to tell who's breeding and who's passing through. Had only one singing Eastern Black-eared Wheatear - I was expecting more pairs:

Corn Buntings are ubiquitous in the reserve:

Many migrants were on the ground early in the morning. Highlights were flyover Cinereous Bunting and Syrian Serin, 15 Tree Pipits, and this singing male Rueppell's Warbler:

Two Blue Rock Thrushes - very pretty but demonstrated no breeding activity whatsoever:

Two lingering Finsch's Wheatears: 

At about 08:30 the air heated up and the skies quickly filled up with migrating birds. Really impressive migration for the next couple of hours till I left - a few thousand White Storks, tons of Black Kites, 200 Lesser Spotted Eagles and 150 Short-toed Eagles, few hundred Steppe Buzzards, thousands of swifts (common, alpine and pallid) - fantastic. Sadly many of these won't make it through Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and the Caucasus - check this video and many other horrifying images here. The Champions of the Flyway birdrace in a couple of weeks is fundraising together with BirdLife International to prevent this - please contribute to this important cause!

 Lesser Spotted Eagle 

Short-toed Eagle

This long-legged Buzzard is one of the local breeding pair

Desert Fritillary (Melitaea deserticola)