Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Hermon breeding survey - post mortem

So what began as an epic day of birding on Mt. Hermon, continued with great phone excitement, and ended with acceptence of this a coming dip.
We surveyed today the higher elevations of Mt. Hermon. I worked with Amir and Arad in Bul'an Valley, that is one of the most fascinating birding sites in Israel. The combination of lunar landscape and super breeding birds there makes this place so special. 
Birding and surveying was pretty tough at first - it was very cold and windy up there at 2000 m, but later on the sun started working, and the wind slowed down a bit. Main stars of the morning were four breeding pairs of White-throated Robins - about one third of the entire Israeli breeding population in one small valley. They are much earlier breeding this year compared to last year - last year on this date we had none. Now they were very busy already - possibly with eggs. Stunning birds!

White-throated Robin - male 1

 White-throated Robin - male 2

The robins breed in these small scattered bushes strewn on the barren slopes:

Other highlights were three breeding pairs of Upcher's Warbler, three pairs of Crimson-winged Finches, two pairs of Horned Larks of the local race bicornis, pair each of Rock Thrush and Tawny Pipit, many Woodlarks, and the commonest bird at this elevation - Northern Wheatear of the local race libanotica.

Horned Lark of the local race bicornis

Northern Wheatear of the local race libanotica

View of Bul'an Valley from the overlooking Duvdevan ridge:

Lebanon Lizard (Lacerta laevis) of the endemic Hermon population kulzeri

Some prominent plants - thanks to Ouria Orren and Mimi Ron for their expert ID help:

Montpellier Maple (Acer monspessulanum)

Mullein sp. (Verbascum sp.)

  Foxtail Lilly (Eremurus libanoticus)

Mountain (?) Hound's Tongue (Cynoglossum montanum)

Just before noon I got an excited message from visiting birder and good friend Steve Arlow that he had just found a Chanting Goshawk near Yotvata! At the opposite end of the country! I quickly sent the news out. Soon it was relocated by several birders who were in the area, and it was identified by Itai Shanni as Eastern Chanting Goshawk - amazing first for the WP if accepted! Congrats to Steve on this crazy find! 
However I reckon that the first Israeli record of 'Dark Chanting Goshawk' from 1979 should be revisited.
It soon materialized that the bird is sticking to one specific area, and that I will not be able to go and see it within the next few days. I have reached my maximum capacity of long-distance driving and strenuous days in the field after 1-2 hours of sleep. I've been doing this for almost the whole spring, and today on the way back home from Hermon I really crashed and hit rock bottom - almost fell asleep on the wheel, and felt like shit. I really need to spend some time at home with family and relax a bit. If it stays for a few more days then I might give it a try, but for the time being I have accepted that I am not going to see this bird.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Hermon breeding survey - so here all the migrants are

Long distance driving, cross country birding - two ways to describe my life lately. On Saturday evening I returned from Eilat, and Sunday 02:00 left home towards Mt. Hermon.
Yesterday was day one of the first session of the breeding atlas of Mt. Hermon. We're repeating last years' efforts - I'm sure we will find many differences, mainly because there was virtually no winter snow on the mountain, and plant productivity began very early this year. It seems that birds responded the same and started breeding early as well.
So yesterday I worked with Roei on the steep slope above Majdal Shams, that was very productive last year. Immediately after walking out of the pickup we started hearing tons of migrants - this was really overwhelming, especially after the migrant-less days I had at Eilat. Every tree was dripping with Blackcaps, and there are many trees there. Out of every bush several Thrush Nightingales were calling - I must have had about 150 during the whole morning - almost Ngulia standards! Other species seen in good numbers were about 20 Barred and 30 Willow Warblers.
Not only migrants, also breeding birds performed well - we found almost everything we had expected, and there was good breeding activity of most species. Roei refound the Finsch's Wheatear we had found breeding last year which is great. We had two singing Upcher's Warblers, six breeding pairs of Western Rock Nuthatch, several breeding Creztschmar's Buntings, many breeding Eastern Black-eared Wheatears, some families of Sombre Tit, many next-building Syrian Serins, incuding some inside the village, a pair of Crag Martins - really good and typical Mt. Hermon variety.

Western Rock Nuthatch

 Thrish Nightingale - one of many

Eremostachys laciniata - impressive 1 m tall flower - couldn't find out what the English name is

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Wildlife Monitoring Course - desert habitats

Last day of our field trip to the south. After focusing on monitoring methods in migrant habitats yesterday, today we focused on work in desert habitats. We left early and checked a couple of beautiful open desert sites in the southern Negev. Not too many birds around - Temminck's Lark that showed relatively well to our large group, some Trumpeter Finches, and few migrants. But we had some good reptile and butterfly activity (huge migration of Painted Ladies), and some interesting plants. Very educational day. 

Temminck's Lark 

Bosk's Fringe-fingered Lizard (Acanthodactylus boskianus)

 Desert White (Pontia glauconome)

Nice habitat

After we were done had a quick look at Neot Smadar - some migrants in the fields - Tree Pipits, Ortolans, Masked Shrikes etc. Good night.


Friday, April 25, 2014

An almost day

Today our Wildlife Monitoring Course field trip to Eilat continued. Despite the bad weather (hot and dusty and windy) we did see some good birds, and more important - the course was very productive. But I had a few misses and almosts today, which was a bit frustrating.
We started off early with a quick look at KM20 saltpans - the 6000 White-winged Tern that went down to roost there last night were gone, but still quite many shorebirds. Worth noting were Gull-billed Tern, Citrine Wagtail, and 15 Red-necked Phalaropes. Later on we had another 23 and 4 phalaropes elsewhere - good numbers going through now.
Then we went up to the mountains hoping for raptor migration, but becuase of the southerlies we had hardly any raptor migration. We did have one Eleonora's Falcon though, and some scarce passerines - Striolated Bunting and Hooded Wheatear.
Our next stop was IBRCE, where we learned more about how the ringing station operates there. While talking about monitoring issues, some honey buzzards went through overhead. I noticed a large eagle gliding rather low towards us - hey, why is it so pale rufous all over the body and coverts? And why is the tail medium - long? And why does it have pale inner primaries? Damn, it looked really good for a Tawny Eagle  - good structure, and good plumage details, but too brief. The bird glided away and out of view. My camera was in the car and by the time I got it out the bird was gone. Too brief observation of such a big rarity - I will have to leave it like that, as possible.
After a welcome siesta we headed out again in the afternoon. KM19 sewage reservoir was very birdy; nothing exciting but good variety and big numbers of birds. Ducks, shorebirds, gulls etc.

flava Yellow Wagtail 

In the evening we headed down to north beach, that was actually quite good. 3 White-cheeked Terns, 1 Sooty Shearwater, 1 skua that got away but could have been a long-tailed, and about 30 White-eyed Gulls. Impressive flock of about 1500 (?) White-winged Terns was impressive but they were very distant.

White-eyed Gull

Thursday, April 24, 2014


Yesterday was the first day of a four-day field trip of our Wildlife Monitoring Course to the south. We spent most of the day at Hazeva with the research team there. They demonstrated well how they use their intimate data and knowledge of their reserach animals for better conservation of the region. And in addition, of course, the babblers are always very entertaining.

Arabian Babbler & Ayla Rimon

It was very hot so not too many birds around but during the day we had one fast eleonora's Falcon, several Namaqua Doves, quite many Desert Finches and more migrants on the ground. On the way out had this incredible dinosaur-like Egyptian Mastigure (kind of spiny-tailed lizard) - what an animal!

Egyptian Mastigure (Uromastyx aegyptia)

Had a great dinner at the IBRCE with the team there - barbeque and beer - cannot think of a better way to end the day. Thanks to Tzadok, Yael, Liri, Roni and the rest of the team.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Montagu's Harrier

After the pretty dramatic events of yesterday, a relaxed drive through the fields near my house this morning was very welcome. Several Montagu's Harriers were hunting over the wheat fields, including this adult female:

These guys were having a go at each other:

Spur-winged Lapwings

Still big numbers of Turtle Doves going through:

Nice migrant duo - Whinchat and Ortolan:

Zitting Cisticola:

Armageddon birding

Had a very long and pretty crazy day of birding yesterday. Left home at 02:00. Picked Meidad up at Sde Boker and together we headed south towards one of the remotest parts of Israel, in the southern Negev close to the Egyptian border. In this area there are some very good flat vegetated plains and wadis that are important for ground-breeding birds. In spring 2011 we surveyed the area with Shachar Alterman and NPA, and it was quite awesome there. In March this year, this same area experienced some exceptional rainfall, and as a result a productive 'green' patch evolved, that immediately attracted lots of fast-breeding birds. A couple of weeks ago Shachar was there again and had very good early breeding activity. Yesterday we returned there to try and find breeding evidence for some rare species.
Driving down the weather became worse and worse. Gale-force winds plus sandy desert means dust storms - at some points visibility was zero and I had to pull over. We almost u-turned and headed back home becuase in this wind birding is pointless, but we had driven so far already and made such an effort, so we decided to give it a go anyway. After a long hour of tough off-road driving we arrived on site right on time, at first light. Immediately we started hearing lark song up in the sky - first Greater Short-toed and Temminck's Larks, then more species joined in. 

We started working the five km-long wadi and flanking plains - luckily the wind dropped and birding conditions became rather pleasent. But it was tough for photography - very dark clouds. I am not used to shoot in such high iso in Israel...
Most impressive were Temminck's Lark - we had 13 singing males along this wadi - very good density of this scarce lark. In addition I had two feeding females - breeding confirmed...

Temminck's Lark - male

Bar-tailed Larks were present in good numbers - we had about 13-15 singing males, and again several feeding birds. No proper photos this time but I managed to get a reasonable sound-recording. It's the first Middle-Eastern sound recording uploaded to Xeno Canto as far as I know - very different from N African birds. 

Bar-tailed Lark

Other larks we had were several families of Crested Larks, and few singing male Greater and Lesser Short-toed Larks, but we couldn't find any further breeding indications of those. We couldn't relocate the Hoopoe Larks Shachar had here a couple of weeks ago, but by the time we got to the area where he had them, the weather deteriorated again, so they might still be there.
Another good find was a breeding female MacQueen's Bustard - she was walking and hiding in the way they do when they have young chicks with them. We left her alone not to disturb her too much but I am confiden she had chicks with her. In  addition we had another small group of seven males. They were either non-breeding or post-breeding males; in this time of year they are often seen in small groups. This group might have walked accross the border from Sinai - sadly they were very shy and jumpy, despite being safe in the only country on this planet where they aren't hunted to extinction.
The stronghold of MacQueen's Bustards in Israel is in the Nizzana region, with about 30-40 breeding pairs there. In the rest of the Negev they are present in very lower densities, so this concentration of eight birds at one site was quite impressive. 

MacQueen's Bustards

Other good local birds we had were several Cream-coloured Coursers, and some flyover Spotted Sandgrouse.
There were quite many migrants around - mainly pipits and wagtails, but in the few bushes there were some common warblers and shrikes of three species - Masked, woodchat and Red-backed.

Masked Shrike 

Probably because of the crazy winds there was virtually no raptor migration. We had quite many Lesser Kestrels feeding along the wadi, and this smart 2cy male Montagus Harrier cruising low:

Not too many other animals - a few Dorcas Gazelles and one impressive Spiny-tailed Lizard that jumped back into his den before I got my camera on him.

Dorcas Gazelle

Thanks to the cloud cover the temperatures remained reasonably pleasent the whole morning, but before we left the storm resumed, wind built up again, and an impressive thuder storm hit us - so we escaped back into the car, and back home.

Thanks Meidad for the great company!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Thursday night live

It's Passover in Israel now, and the kids are on holiday, so as their father I have the duty to entertain them. Trying to fullfil this role in my life, last night we went out camping in the forest behind our village. Nice area - mixed forest surrounded by open fields and some remnants of natural scrubby habitat. As we were setting our tents up, we encountered this unwanted neighbour - he had to relocate to a new residence... Not dangerous to humans but very painful bite.

Large-clawed (AKA Israeli Gold) Scorpion Scorpio maurus fuscus

After dark the forest became alive. Jackals howled, foxes barked, and I had good owl activity: one Long-eared was singing for most of the evening nearby, a distant Eagle Owl was calling too, and a Barn Owl flew over several times. Heard some nocturnal migration - mainly Tree Pipits and Ortolans. It was very nice to have good activity of fireflies - not sure which species but the genus here is Lampyris. Rather early - they usually become active in July - August.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Full moon party

Spent the evening monitoring Nubian Nightjars yesterday, using the (almost) full moon for peak breeding activity of the nightjars. Afternoon birding with Alain from France and his Mrs. was pleasent and pretty relaxed. This very optimistic Osprey was trying in vain to fish in the industrial evaporation ponds:

One young Black Stork was hunting for frogs in some better habitat:

Also there 1-2 Little Crakes, some Little Bitterns, several Clamorous Reed Warblers singing, but best were four Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters that appeared a few minutes too late after the sun had already gone down...

At dusk we were positioned for the evening, and soon enough started hearing singing Nubian Nightjars:

We started counting singing males, which is the best indication I have for breeding of these endangered birds. By the time I was completely done sometime after midnight, I had 31 singing males, plus several more foraging birds. I checked about two thirds of the habitat, so I expect that the total number of singing males will be similar to last year. From the results I had last night, most territories were occupied, which is good.

 Nubian Nightjar - shame about the black pipe

Thanks to Alain for his help.