Sunday, November 26, 2017


For Israeli birders, any crossbill is special. Even Common Crossbill is a good rarity in Israel. A good  October arrival of Parrot Crossbills on Shetland and Orkney promised some hope for East Anglian birders, and a few days ago this promise materialised when Richard Allen brilliantly found a group in Thetford Forest. Yesterday I could not go, but this morning I was there very early, too early... It was bloody cold!

Real time was 06:58

But soon after first light finches were moving around. I met up with Ash there, and after a short while of shivering and waiting around, the crossbills did the decent thing: a flock of 13 crossbills sp. flew up to their favourite stand of Scots Pines in the carpark of St. Helen's picnic site. The flight calls sounded good, and when I got my bins on them, sat on the top of the tree - oh that massive bill! Boom! After a moment of relief and thankfulness for our good luck, we took some mandatory half-dark record shots:

Then we made a circuit around the tree to get better views with the rising sun in our backs. Another three Parrots Crossbills joined to form up the flock of 16 seen yesterday. They didn't stay long enough to be fully lit by the sun, but the views were certainly better. The colours on my camera didn't come through very well - some males were brilliant red.

They had a unique habit of plucking whole pine cones and stripping them - I don't know Common Crossbills well enough but apparently they don't do that?

Colours in this short phonecoped video through my Swarovski ATX95 came out somewhat better:

Despite my frozen fingers, somehow I managed to sound-record them with my phone as they moved off at 07:45. Link to Xeno-Canto here. Many thanks to  Dave for his help in processing the file.

I like this spot! There were quite a few birds around the picnic site. Nobody feeds the bird there like three years ago, but still it was a fun morning. I am really happy with these birds - a global lifer for me. Fingers crossed for Two-barred (or even White-winged!) later on this winter.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Birding the Holy City

Back home in the UK now, and I have one last post to share from my short visit to Israel. After the quick trip down south, I was based in Jerusalem. I was very very busy but managed to squeeze in some fine birding inside the city of Jerusalem. Growing up as a birder in Jerusalem, the context and perspective are complicated - the city has transformed completely from semi-wild to uber-urban. However, the two major birding sites within the city - Jerusalem Bird Observatory (JBO) and Gazelle Valley, have both become city hubs, both for wildlife and for people. My dear friend Amir and my brother Gidon get major credit for enterpreneuring and establishing those miracles of wildlife inside the city.
I had a morning at JBO with my brother and Amir. Ringing was on the slow side, as expected this time of year, but variety was great. It is a good year for 'northern' finches coming to winter in Israel, and we had nice numbers (in the field) of Hawfinch, Brambling and Siskin. Some were caught too. A lovely Bluethroat worked the edge of the pond just below the hide. Very enjoyable.

Hawfinch - male

Brambling - 1cy male

Bluethroat - 1cy female

Starred Agama (Stellagama stellio)

We are very proud of our online ringing portal - I reckon it's the best in the world. And the automatic ringing summary looks superb - don't you think?

Every time I visit the Gazelle Valley (in too large intervals) I am impressed by how careful management can create wildlife scenes that were unimaginable before. As a kid, I grew up in dry Jerusalem. Finding a duck or any other waterbird was almost as exciting as finding a ticking Asian bunting. Nowadays, the wetland system at the Gazelle Valley regularly hosts waterfowl in winter, Little Grebes and other resident waterbirds breed there, and the habitat looks simply brilliant. I spent a cold and rainy hour there but it was great fun. No amazing rarities, just solid birding in the center of the city.

'Caucasian' Water Pipit

Syrian Woodpecker

The gazelle herd performed well...

Before heading home spent a short while with my mate Jonathan in his village near Modi'in. Lots of Hawfinches there too. 

Looking forward to my next visit to my homeland - Champions of the Flyway in March 2018. Or as Jonathan says, bring it!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Wheatear Central

This morning Amir, Gidon and I headed down to Uvda Valley in the far south. I know we were a bit late joining the party, but the presence of two headline birds next to each other didn't leave us a choice. We left at 02:30 to get there by first light. We soon located the first star - Red-rumped Wheatear. First views were against the rising sun:

then we re-positioned ourselves, to get the bird in the golden early morning light. What a stunning bird. It was so beautifully tame. Evidently unimpressed by us, coming to hunt for beetles literally between our feet. It is difficult to personify birds, but I felt it was actively playing with us. Looking us straight in the eye, flying directly towards us while keeping eye contact, following us wherever we went. Fantastic experience.

These two are full frame:

Stunning performance by such a rarity - this is only the 5th record for Israel, found by Eilat birder Shachar Shalev and an old Finnish friend Jani Vastamäki. Not an Israeli tick for me - I saw the famous pair that bred in 1988, as a kid, so no photos back then. I was very happy to reconnect with this lovely bird, so beautifully. Amazingly, a few later Shachar found another pair in the Arava valley. We had no time to visit them today - will they stay to breed too?

Amir stayed with the Red-rumped starlet for a bit longer when I left to find the Basalt Wheatear before the light turned too harsh. After first satisfying view of this incredibly rare bird, I understood it was just as tame and 'playful' as the Red-rumped Wheatear. Again, catching caterpillars between my feet, eyeing me constantly, singing at me - what a stunner!

I failed miserably to get a decent jump shot - the normal excuse of my old camera, and probably old photographer too... These are the least rubbish shots I got:

Wow. Just wow. Again, I have positive history with this global rarity - another individual posed nicely for me back in 2012. It was a memorable experience - back then it was a mythic rarity, and I enjoyed watching it with Martin Garner. Now it has become slightly more regular in winter in Israel. But this experience was up a next level. The intimacy, the interaction between us, without 'special' aids - just the bird's will and character - magical experience. It is still unclear what is the taxonomic position of this fascinating taxon. I say - full species!

It was a lovely early morning but soon it heated up and the light became too harsh for proper photography. We birded the valley a bit - it was pretty good with Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouse, lots of larks including 80 Temminck's and some Bar-tails, Tawny Pipits etc. Most striking was the huge amount of wheatears - just everywhere. Seven species - not bad! Check out our eBird checklist.

Crowned Sandgrouse - male

and female

Temminck's Larks

We then headed to Neot Smadar for some refreshments. The fields were pretty quiet, so we spent a few minutes admiring Blue Pansies (Junonia Orithya here Lang - funny name). Lovely little butterflies. By then light was very harsh already.

Last stop was at Nafcha. It was midday, very hot and we were out of breath. We saw little, but added out 8th wheatear of the day, northern.
And then we headed back home. What a fabulous morning.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Israel quickie

Arrived in Israel yesterday for few days of family, meetings and some birds. Today I had a chance to go birding with my boss - isn't it good to meet your boss with bins around the neck and camera on shoulder? We had a short but enjoyable hour in Tsor'a. Lots of pipits and larks in the alfalfa fields, and by the reservoir lots of Chiffchaffs etc. Can't complain - check our eBird checklist. Few birds posed but was nice to see this stunning Caspian Stonechat and a flyby Hen Harrier, looking for rodents:

Caspian Stonechat - 1cy male 

My old camera got confused by the harsh light conditions and got the exposure wrong (or is it my fault by shooting in AV and not M?):

Hen Harrier 1cy

Monday, November 13, 2017


Went to Cley this morning for a few hours of seawatching. With winds predicted to be like this, there wasn't really another option:

Got there early to secure a spot inside the shelter. I was first! But the wind was too westerly in the first part of the morning, so rather few birds and pretty distant.  And it was bloody freezing. From about 08:30 the wind became a bit more northerly and birding improved somewhat. Still, less than I had expected though things did improve in the afternoon and are expected to be even better tomorrow morning. When I will be at work.
So what did I see? Highlights were one Little Auk, one Arctic Skua and 11 Bonxie, 5 Red-breasted Mergansers, 11 Red-throated Divers and one possible Great Northern, and almost 40 Snow Buntings flying west in a few groups along the shingle without stopping. Here's my eBird checklist with the full list. Sadly I was so cold that I did not notice my camera settings were completely wrong. I screwed up a few seaduck shots.

 Great Skuas

8 Snow Buntings flying to Blakeney Point

Had to leave early for family commitments. On the way out looked for brents but couldn't find any viewable from the road. Had a very quick scan through pinkfeet for something else but found nothing:

Seawatching at Cley is funny. It's actually two (or more) separate seawatches. Those inside the shelter and those outside the shelter, using the shelter as a shelter from the wind... Funnily, a good friend stood outside all morning, 5 meters away from me, and we both didn't know. Even inside the shelter some people stick their eyes in the scope and never call out birds or at best mumble something undecipherable - I wonder what those people saw today.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Redwing and Bullfinch

Short. Simple. Beautiful.
Joined a wee morning session with UEA ringing group. We had a few Redwings (super birds), a Bullfinch (a personal favourite) and not much else.