Saturday, September 29, 2018

Happy hour

It was another day of massive raptor migration today, and my house's position on the main highway rewarded me with brilliant migration overhead. I stepped outside and first bird I saw was a stonking Steppe Eagle, low over my garden. I ran back in to get my camera but I lost it. But there were tons of birds up in the air, so I stayed outside. It was around midday, so birds were very high up. Maybe no as spectacular views as I had a couple of days ago, but it felt so good, bringing back nostalgic memories of the many years I counted raptors for weeks every autumn as part of my job. It was such a great hour, actually 38 minutes of joy, that I think they're worthy of a blogpost. During those 38 minutes I counted 1456 raptors of 13 species. And when this happens in my garden, with a cold beer in my hand, I feel vert content. Main species were Black Kite 608, Lesser Spotted Eagle 454, Levant Sparrowhawk 368. Full eBird Checklist here.

Black Stork

Booted Eagle

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Black Kites, Marsh Harrier and a few Levants

Marsh Harrier

Unlike most other raptors that don't look down when they migrate, Short-toed Eagles often feed on the wing. I watched this youngster leave a stream, drop several hundred meters for a scan after a juicy snake, and moved on.

After 38 minutes I had to get inside (my daughter's birthday), but whenever I found an excuse to look outside the aerial highway was still busy. 

Friday, September 28, 2018

Skyfull of birds

Yesterday early morning I headed over to Ben Shemen forest, to witness the anticipated massive Lesser Spotted eagle take-off. In the previous afternoon massive numbers had been moving until late, so it was expected that they will roost at their traditional roost site. When I got there few eagles were seen perched on treetops. While waiting for the air to heat up and the eagles to take off, I walked around in the adjacent scrub and olive grove, where I enjoyed nice numbers of migrants and some favourite species too:

Eastern Black-eared Wheatear

Tree Pipit

Spotted Flycatcher

Many shrikes around, this male Red-backed Shrike was one of those individuals with some white primary bases:

Masked Shrike

Turkish Meadow Brown

Olive grove and scrub; non-native pine forest in the background where the eagles roost

Then the main show started. When the eagles decided it's warm enough to start searching for thermals, large numbers started pouring over from all directions. The skies were full of birds in all directions. First low, soon they started to gain height using the first thermals of the morning. Some individuals passed very close, allowing the assembled crowd to admire their plumage variation:

Lesser Spotted Eagle, made in 2018

When the thermals started forming very close to where we were positioned, the obligatory 'Whoooo' and 'Wow' were noted.

Soon the eagles were too high for photography, but the continuous stream intensified - many hundreds of eagles that had roosted in the forest were now on the move.
Mixed among them were some other species. There were a fair number of Levant Sparrowhawks, but all larger flocks were very distant and into the sun, so no photos of flocks sadly.

Go Ninja!

This lucky Levant probably made a narrow escape from a Lebanese poacher the day before:

Western Black Kite - 1cy

Dark Booted Eagle (with adult Lesser Spot)

Pale Booted Eagle (with adult Lesser Spot)

Long-legged Buzzard 1cy - possibly a local bird

Other than those species here was a Greater Spotted Eagle, and a group that stood in another spot had an Eleonora's Falcon.
Well that was awesome! Amazing to think that now the birds might be already across the Gulf of Suez after crossing Israel and Sinai. Migration Champions!

Check my full eBird checklist here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Introduction to my new life

At the start of September I moved to a house in a new place for me - Mazkeret Batya. It's a small town in the centre of the country, right at the edge of the huge metropolin of greater Tel Aviv:

My neighbourhood is rather new, and still partially under construction. Most gardens are still barren, and there are few trees. But only few hundred meters from my house is Wadi Ekron that holds some water and has a bit of vegetation. 

Because this is Israel, even a tiny bit of habitat in any random place attracts migrants. And after four years of living in no-migration zone, I appreciate this very much. Very early, every morning, I walk my dog here before schoolrun. It's a lovely little site that holds migrants and has the potential to surprise. I try to eBird every morning, but usually these visits are all too brief, and too early for some species. A typical early morning visit produces fewer migrants, mainly acros that are active from very early, but visits later on produce a wider range of species. Since I started birding there the most prominent migrant was Sedge Warble; Reed, Willow and Savi's Warblers and Red-backed Shrikes are present almost daily. In the early morning I often have nocturnal migrants coming in to land, such as Tree Pipit. Some quality came in the form of Little Crake, and a few Golden Orioles.

Sedge Warbler

Willow Warbler

Red-backed Shrike

There are plenty of dragonflies, butterflies and other wildlife around, but I have not started to deal with them yet. 

Plain Tiger

Common Tortoise

Mazkeret Batya is right on the main autumn raptor migration motorway. Whenever I have time I sit outside and enjoy the supreme views I have to the northern skies, often accompanied by a cold beer. Almost every day there is movement, usually around midday when the stream is very high up and photo-opps are limited. I have had some pretty decent sessions - check this

Lesser Spotted Eagles

Mazkeret Batya is close to some excellent birding areas. Whenever I get the chance I check one of the sites near my home that provide a more 'complete' experience than my limited immediate local patch. Tsor'a Valley has brilliant habitats and is truly packed with birds. On my last visit there I had a Common Rosefinch among many other species, some of them rather colourful. 

European Roller and European Bee-eaters

There are several reservoirs nearby my home, that in winter hold important numbers of ducks, notably up to 10% of the global population of White-headed Duck. Of note are Hulda Reservoir, and the sewage works of Matash Ayalon. They are fun to visit year-round.

In a couple of weeks raptor migration will be over, but new birds will arrive. I am looking forward to this turnover, and will keep reporting here and on eBird. Stay tuned.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Bogey bird laid to rest

During my four years in the UK I had some painful moments when birds I needed for my Israeli list showed up. Prime example was Pink-backed Pelican. It is actually not THAT rare in Israel, with about 14 records. It was also never a difficult bird to see in Israel. Some individuals were actually long-stayers, but I was always away when they occurred. It remained my bogey bird - that big gap in the list. Then came those four years when I was in the UK - several individuals porned themselves completely, as if just to spite me.
A couple of weeks ago a young Pink-backed Pelican was photographed in the Hula Nature Reserve (identified retrospectively from photos). I started revving the engine, but no further news. Then a few days ago, the same photographer did not identify it in the field, again. News from the reserve staff confirmed it has taken up residence in the reserve, so game on for me.
Yesterday I finally had the opportunity to go. Early morning report from the reserve was worrying - it was seen taking off with a passing flock of migrant Great White Pelicans. I decided to take my chances (rather than drive down to Eilat to dip on Arctic Warbler) and headed up to the Hula Valley. I forged through holiday traffic, and made it to the reserve two hours before closing time. Luckily, my connections with the reserve staff offered me a unique opportunity to see the mini pelican from up-close. It was just about viewable from the public boardwalk, a looooong way away across the main lake. This is how it looked like - you will have to trust me on this, it's the second bird from the right.

So here it is. My Israeli list is +1. Bogey bird laid to rest.

Though I was totally focused on the pelican, and it was a very hot day, the reserve was in good form with loads of birds, and the skies were full too. Check my eBird checklist here.

Friday, September 14, 2018

'Dark morph Little Egret'

Yestreday I had a meeting at Ma'agan Michael - perfect excuse for some birding at this fantastic site. I could not leave home properly early so managed only a lazy drive-around in the late morning heat with Nadav. Yet it was a productive 1hr 43mins (see my eBird checklist here). Highlights were a Black Tern, and two Penduline Tits. Most 'interesting' was this apparent dark morph Little Egret, that has been present there for a couple of weeks at least. It was a bit distant, and stood up in an awkward posture, extending its neck. Yet, still with this neck extension, it lacks the obvious angular shape of Western Reef Egret. While bill seems to be on the long side, it is pretty thin and very straight, unlike the dagger-shape of Western Reef Egret. The slightly blotchy head pattern looks quite typical to those 'dark morph Little Egrets' I found on the web.

Its legs were properly dark, lacking the yellow stuff Western Reef Egret often has on the rear tarsus. In flight, it showed white outer webs to primaries, and some white scapulars.

All in all this bird structurally looks like a rather standard Little Egret, and bare parts look OK too. But what is it?

The provenance of dark morph Little Egret is still a bit of a mystery and I have not found any genetic studies confirming the existence of this dark morph,  excluding a hybrid Western Reef Egret. There's a slightly old 1995 paper in British Birds by Dubois and Yesou (see here) suggesting that such a morph does exist, but a recent 2017 Ducth Birding article by Koparde and Yesou suggests that at least those similar-looking individuals in the Indian Subcontinent and hybrids. There are proven records of hybrids around the Mediterranean. Is this bird a hybrid too? Or does the dark morph Little Egret actually exist?

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Migration days

These are very busy days of migration over Israel. Every time I lift my head up there is something up in the air - Honey Buzzards, Pelicans, White and Black Storks, Bee-eaters, Alpine Swifts, Red-rumped Swallows - such a treat. I missed the massive stream of Honey Buzzards that passed further east of me, but still casually had nice numbers, mixed with Black Kites, Marsh Harriers and first Lesser Spotted Eagle and Levant Sparrowhawks.

This morning I went ringing at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. Typically for September, numbers weren't huge, but species richness was great. Walking around I had both Thrush and Common Nightingales, nice concentration of Masked and Red-backed Shrikes, Barred Warbler etc. A Nightjar was flushed out of its roost (accidentally) but wasn't relocated. many of the above ended up at the ringing table. My eBird checklist is here, while the ringing totals are below.

Eastern Orphean Warbler (adult male)

Masked Shrike

Spotted Flycatcher

Towards the end of the morning a member of the public brought to us a crash-landed Corncrake she picked up from her street, just before the cats did... It was very exhausted but luckily unscathed. After a quick examination it was sent of to a wildlife hospital - hopefully it will make it and get released soon so it can migrate on.