Friday, March 30, 2018

Champions of the Flyway - final days

After all COTF teams handed in their lists and we got everything sorted for the awards ceremony, I had time for few hours of sleep. But I could not sleep in on my last morning in Eilat, especially with so many sites I had no time to visit this week. Dawn found me in Holland Park. At first it was quiet with both birds and birders; then things livened up with quite many migrants and some fresh colour thrown in the mix too. The famous Caparis decidua bushes at the top of the wadi were packed with common warblers, and one Rueppel's. Several Balkan Warblers called loudly from the nearby acaciae. A male Striolated Bunting sang beautifully from a nearby rocky slope. Suddenly the distinctive call of Blue-cheeked Bee-eater echoed back from the hills - and here they were, three brilliant beauties. Not too rare but always breathtaking.

Lucky shot with my shambolic camera

For a moment they interacted with their little cousins, now called Arabian Green Bee-eaters - not too shabby either:

Holland Park holds large numbers of Blue-spotted Arab, attracted to Salvadora persica bushes - small and stunning butterfly.

Then it was the traditional group photo at North Beach, constantly interrupted by passing birds:

The award ceremony was a celebration of global comradeship and hope. Well done to the award winners - Birding Ecotours World Youth Birders with their record-breaking score and #Gees, Zeiss Yorkshire Terriers for out-of-this-world fundraising, Leica Welsh Red Kites for being so prominent in getting the message out, but a special shout-out to all the kids and women who took part in the race, especially Team Spectacled who received an award for their special efforts and contribution, and Little Bastards who came second with an amazing high score (183 species!). Noam and the Israeli - Palestinian team Palestine Sunbirders did an incredible job too, showing the world that Palestinians and Israelis can do great things together. Of course, the true winners are the birds of the flyway, this year receiving much-needed protection from our comrades in Serbia and Croatia. Good luck guys with your important work.

So proud to be part of the team making this inspirational project happen, year after year. My contribution to the project is rather minimal, so hats off mainly to Jonathan, Dan and IBRCE for doing the major part. Many thanks to all those who donated to the cause - you are all stars! And to our supporters in BirdLife International, Swarovski Optik, Leica and Zeiss.

After the race I headed up to Jerusalem to spend little time with my family there. In my final morning I had to see some birds and spent an hour at JBO. Good to meet up there with most of team JBO / Manomet Rocking Redstart who certainly rocked the flyway with their efforts.



Black-capped Je

Happy Passover and Easter to all my followers!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Champions of the Flyway - day 4 - race day

Sitting here in Schiphol Airport waiting for my next flight back home, and my head is still buzzing with Israeli birds and people. What an amazing climax to the pre-race days. It was a tough day with high temperatures and strong winds, but there were more migrants around than in previous days. I spent the day race with teams in the field, helping teams to get on birds, to stay focused and to keep motivated. Pre-dawn I was with some teams at IBRCE. Sadly the Lesser White-fronted Goose did not roost there that night. After dawn I went up to Seifim Plains but had to stop to admire the fabulous raptor migration low over the Eilat Mts. I saw a many hundred Steppe Buzzards in few minutes - daily total counted by IBRCE team was over 40,000. I failed to photograph impressive thermals / kettles.

Buck Ibex not understanding what all the fuss is about

Sunrise in Eilat Mts.

Seifim Plains were fairly quiet but we had there one Bimaculated Lark and several wheatar species. Late in the morning I went with Jonathan to Yotvata. The Turkestan Shrike settled down in a pumpkin field that was whopping with birds, mainly wheatears (lots of Black-ears) and about 50 Lesser Kestrels. The shrike looked good in sunlight rather than dust-storm light. 

Short-toed Lark

Spanish Sparrows

In the early afternoon I went to have a quick look at a White-tailed Lapwing that had been found near IBRCE. It looked pretty knackered in the heat, and light was very harsh for photography. Fine bird nevertheless.

Then teams started to assemble in KM20 saltpans, picking up important species. We did our best to assist the teams struggling with time to find the key species quickly. The Lesser Flamingo was showing alright in the afternoon sunlight:

Wind-swept Glossy Ibises

In the evening North Beach held many teams, using the last minutes of light to catch up with North Beach regulars.

Heuglin's Gull

After dark some teams went for more nightbirding, but I had to attend early retiring teams and play the Bad Cop role. My night ended very late after all the teams had returned and handed in their lists. Incredible efforts!
To be continued...

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Champions of the Flyway day 3

Final day of preparations before the big day. From a birding point of view, it was a quieter day with fewer migrants and strong winds, but overall very enjoyable. Started off early in Ovda Valley with the Rockjumpers. Pretty hard-going with low bird densities but somehow we managed to get most target species there. Hardly anything posed for photography; only this Mourning Wheatear was OK:

Screwed up the jump shot

After breakfast I checked some city parks. Ofira was sweet as always with a nice selection of migrants. This female Caspian Stonechat was nice to study. In this photo tail looks all-dark:

Here the white tail bases are exposed when tail-flicking:

I failed its jump shots as well:

Ofira Park classics included 2 Wryneck:

2 Cretzschmar's Buntings (I know I may get some grief because of this bunting. The head was not green, it's not an Ortolan, this is a photo artifact in difficult light conditions):

And two Tree Pipits:

Diner & Bar - typical shrike habitat:

After our swap meeting at IBRCE, that was interrupted several times by passing birds I went back to North Beach. There was a constant arrival of hirundines, wagtails, shorebirds and harriers flying in low over the sea which was cool. We also had this flying fish carrying a Caspian Tern:


Just over an hour till the race start - good luck to everyone competing!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Champions of the Flyway day 2 - Turkestan Shrike!

Headed out early with Tom and Dan to Yotvata. Weather was quite pleasant to start with. Birding was pleasant too, with fair number of 'ground' birds (larks, pipits and wagtails), several harriers cruising over the fields, and relative highlights that didn't show well in the form of Richard's Pipit, Lesser Short-toed Lark and Sibe Stonechat. Then the weather started to deteriorate rapidly. Southerlies picked up quick, and a horrible sand storm began. Just as we were about to leave the area because it became unbearable, we bumped into a - 'Hey - Turkestan Shrike!' I exclaimed first... We were as surprised as the shrike with this encounter from 5 meters - by the time Tommy and I picked our cameras up it shot off. After a tense minute of searching we found it sheltering from the storm in a bush. We secured some shots and backed off; a minute later the shrike literally blew with the wind and we thought it was gone - luckily it was relocated not far away and twitched by many. In the afternoon it showed pretty well - see Shimon Shiff's awesome photos with SX50 on Facebook. Great stuff!

Blowing a hooley as they call it in Norfolk

Desert Finch

Spanish Sparrows

We escaped from the sand storm towards Eilat, and found shelter at IBRCE. We had a short and sweet walk there with 8 Red-necked Phals, 2 Citrine Wags and an interesting cormorant, that I can't see why it's not lucidus - more on it to follow.

Red-necked Phalaropes

Citrine Wagtail

It's spring, he shouts, it's spring!

Putative White-breasted Cormorant

In the afternoon I drove around with Jonathan. The wind switched to northerly but was still blowing like hell. To be honest, there were very few migrants around. A quick circuit of the southern KM20 pond didn't produce much. 3 Collared Pratincoles were almost exciting. Too many birders there so we left.

In the evening another inspiring event - this time the official opening event at IBRCE (thanks for hosting!). Great spirit and enthusiasm - proud to be part of this global community.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Champions of the Flyway day 1

Arrived late last night, and this morning I hit Mt. Amasa very early, hoping that the Persian Wheatear had stayed another night. I met up there with a few more birders, and after some searching we did find it. Phew. Thank you for being so patient with me. Very glad with this tick - actually a global lifer. I found it much more striking than I had imagined. It is very big, with a unique elongated silhouette, resembling Hooded Wheatear with that long bill. Very different from the cute and rounded Kurdistan Wheatear. It did not play ball photography-wise, but I guess I can't complain. Here it is - Israel's second Persian Wheatear:

With Northern Wheatear

I had such a lovely time there. As I have written before, this is one of my favourite places to be in Israel this time of year. The habitat is so beautiful. It actually took the birds a while to become active, but eventually we had brilliant activity. Superb soundscape of Long-billed Pipits and Cuckoos singing, lots of wheatears flying around, sylvias in every bush - just great.

Beautiful flowering Phlomis Platystegia


Eastern Scrub Warbler

Common Whitethroat and its wee cousin, Spectacled Warbler

Stonking male Woodchat Shrike singing his head off, without opening the bill

Quite a few Blue Rock Thrushes around; also two Rufous-tailed but no photos of them

Corn Bunting

I had to leave early to get to Eilat on time. Had a quick, productive stop at Navit Pools with Baillon's & Little Crakes, Dead Sea Sparrows, Clamorous Warblers and Ferruginous Ducks. Then I continued heading south, but stopped all the time to admire the wonderful raptor migration. Weather was unstable today and the raptors were flying very low even at noon. I was excited as if I am a European birder. Well, maybe I am.

Down at Eilat, it was good to meet up with all my friends. In the afternoon did some selfies at KM20 saltpans, and even saw some birds there, including the long-stayer Lesser Flamingo.

Most uninspiring mega ever

Greater Sand with Little Stint

I'm sexy and I know it

In the evening we had a fantastic COTF event, 'Future of the Flyways', supported by Leica. Inspiring stuff and good fun. Socializing is great, but I can't wait to go out birding in the morning! Bring it on!