Sunday, December 30, 2018

Best of 2018

It's that time of year again - my annual summary is here. It was a bit of a hectic year, in which I completed my PhD and relocated with my family from the UK back to Israel. I resumed my work for Israel Ornithological Center, and also started working for Rockjumper. Fortunately, I managed to travel to South Africa and Brazil this year, while appreciating local wildlife in the UK and in Israel. In this special post I will provide a month-by-month overview of my wildlife highlights, including links back to original blogposts. Here we go:


On New Year's Day I already got one of my personal favourite images of the year. A visit to Winterton with my good friends Terry and Marie provided a lovely experience with Snow Buntings:

Towards the end of the month I got my first WP tick of the year - a Spotted Sandpiper in Nottinghmashire:


My main wildlife activities of the month happened in fabulous South Africa where I traveled with my sons. I met up with my family from Israel, and together we spent 8 brilliant days on the ground. In Cape Town we enjoyed very good birding:

Cape Sugarbird

Then in Hluhluwe and in Kruger we enjoyed spectacular wildlife. Seeing Wild Dogs was a lifelong ambition - it was an exciting encounter:

As expected, mammals and birds were aplenty, and photographic opportunities were great:


Southern Ground Hornbill


Spotted Hyenas


At the end of February, the Beast from the East hit the UK hard, and my birding was limited to Fieldfares coming to apples I placed out for them in my snow covered Norwich garden. After the roads were cleared, I twitched a much-wanted bird, not far from home - Snowy Owl. It was a most enjoyable family twitch, though my photos aren't great. My friend Graham got much better photos the next day.

In late march I traveled to Israel to help out with Champions of the Flyway. On my way down south I picked up a lifer and Israeli tick, Persian Wheatear on Mt Amasa:

Champions itself was, as always, exciting and inspiring. Birding was great - colours and movements were especially appreciated after the long, cold northern winter.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

I was pleased to find this stunning Turkestan Shrike at Yotvata:

Eilat Mts.


After I returned from Israel I had to work like crazy to submit my PhD thesis. As son as I did, I headed over to Carlton Marshes to twitch this American Bittern - horrible views but one lucky twitcher I was:


Now relieved after submitting my thesis, I had more time on my hands. However, May birding was awfully slow, so (as expected) I resorted to twitching... My second medium-distance twitch of the year involved a quickie to southwestern Wales for this beautiful Green Heron:

In late May I enjoyed a singing Greenish Warbler at my favourite Norfolk RSPB reserve, Titchwell:


In early June half term holiday we paid a traditional visit to our friends in Yorkshire. We were after breeding seabirds, rockpooling with the maestro and stunning coastal scenery - and that's exactly what we got:



When I returned to Norfolk, I dipped on a Moltoni's Warbler on Blakeney Point, but as a consolation prize found a Paddyfield Warbler. It won't get accepted as my find, but who cares.

Then another much-desired lifer showed up close to home - Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Potter Heigham, a horrible photo of a fine bird:

During the quiet summer months I re-developed my interest in moths, some at home (#bathroommoths) and some courtesy of my personal moth trainer James. I photographed too many moths to show here, so here's a collage of my favourites - (from top left) Buff Ermine, Elephant Hawk Moth, Many-plume Moth wing detail, Common Emerald, Swallow-tailed Moth, Sallow Kitten, Streamer, Small Clouded Brindle, Lychnis, Pine Hawk Moth, Small Blood Vein and Lime Hawk Moth. 


In July we started preparing for our return to Israel. After successfully passing my PhD viva, we went on a final European mini-adventure to northern Sweden. My only lifer there involved a sunny midnight encounter with a gorgeous family of Northern Hawk Owls - real crackers.

My final WP tick in the UK came from Snettisham, where I worked hard to twitch a Semipalmated Sandpiper among the clouds of shorebirds.


In mid August we said goodbye to the UK and returned to Israel. I still miss very much my previous life there, and all the good birds (which I summarised in a post here). But life has to move on and in Israel there's no time to lag behind. Shortly after my return Amir took me down to Eilat to Twitch Israel's 3rd Yellow-billed Kite that was courteous enough to linger for me:

I still am in the process of rediscovering the quality of birding in Israel. Some big changes to the local avifauna occurred during my four year absence. One prominent change is the rapid proliferation of Black-winged Kites - they are everywhere!


I tried to make the most out of autumn birding during this month. Not far from where I live there are some excellent birding sites, especially Tsor'a Valley that exploded with birds during September and October. 

I finally got to lay down my oldest and worst bogey bird - this diminutive Pink-backed Pelican in the Hula Reserve was excellent:


Migration continued to excite me during October. I enjoyed fantastic raptor migration over my house, including heavy passages of Honey Buzzards and Lesser Spotted Eagles:

Just around the block from my house I discovered a sweet little local patch - wadi Ekron that runs through my town, Mazkeret Batya. I walk with my dog there almost every day, and put in quite an effort to see as many birds there as possible. I wrote about my patch in this blogpost. Through the autumn, it produced some decent goodies, including Hume's Leaf Warbler, Common Rosefinch, and Olive-backed and Richard's Pipits. I will write a mini-analysis of my efforts here soon.

Richard's Pipit

Common Rosefinch

A successful trip down to the Negev Mts. produced some quality birds, including a flighty Little Bunting and this cooperative Caspian Stonechat:

Little Bunting

Towards the end of the month another first for Israel appeared - Buff-breasted Sandpiper, just north of Tel Aviv. I twitched it on its first morning after discovery - a fine bird.


In late october and early November I put on some birding effort in Tel Aviv. I spent several morning waiting for big vismig arrivals (which never arrived), but was rewarded by this Pacific Golden Plover:

A trip to the southern Arava produced some good birds. Strangely, this Red Fox photo from that day was one of my most popular on social media.

In mid month I went on a short trip to Brazil with my brother and two more friends, Amir and Eli. It was my first visit to Latin America - I was blown away by the birding there. Our main target was Jaguar; we spent 3 days in the Pantanal and enjoyed fantastic encounters with this majestic beast.

Giant River Otters were pretty awesome too

There are too many birding highlights to display here, so here are just a couple of favourites:

Hyacinth Macaw

White-headed Water Tyrant

Then we spent another three days birding the Atlantic Forest in Sao Paulo and Cuiaba states. Highlight was the Critically Endangered Sao Paulo Antwren:

I was a real sucker for colourful tanagers sitting on bananas (Green-headed, Brazilian, Red-necked and Blue Dacnys):

And other peculiar birds like this Red-legged Seriema:

Back in Israel, I twitched another first for Israel, the fourth of the year (if accepted...), Barnacle Goose at Agamon Hula:


In December I was super busy, but managed one last good bird towards the end of the year - Pine Bunting in Jerusalem

Some numbers: According to eBird taxonomy, in 2018 I saw 866 bird species worldwide in 287 checklists (updated this morning; what will tomorrow bring?). In Israel I saw 302 species, mainly since mid August, which ain't to shabby. My blog activity increased to 77 posts in 2018, higher than my three previous years in the UK. 

As you can see, this was an intensive and varied year. As always, all this birding would not have been possible without the help and friendship of many friends, prominently James, Mark, Amir and Jonathan but so many others, and the never-ending love and support I receive from my family. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart. 
I am happy that my blog activity is picking up, now that I have returned to Israel, and look forward to another year of discovery. Can't wait till spring! My new year resolution is to participate in the eBird Checklist-a-day Challenge, which will hopefully produced many blogposts. Currently, with two international trips planned in 2019, leading for Rockjumper (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in May-June, and Nepal in December), and maybe another one or two private or work-related trips, this is bound to be a busy year.

Thanks to all of my followers and readers - your support means so much to me. 

I wish you all a lovely 2019 - may we make this world a slightly better place for humans and for wildlife.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Pine and Gold

Yesterday morning I visited Tzurim Valley NP in north-east Jerusalem. It's a unique little urban wildlife site, a beautiful valley sandwiched between the Old City, Mt. Scopus and Mt. of Olives. The political context is so complex, but I do my best to focus on the wildlife and stunning scenery. In winter, its ancient olive groves attract finches and other seed eaters; the large deciduous pistachio trees are perfect shelters for these birds.

Panoramic view from the top - Old City and Dome of the Rock on the left, Mt. Scopus on the right

About a week ago my friend Piki found a lovey male Pine Bunting there. It's a traditional site for this rare winter visitor - until few years back, every winter a flock of 30-40 Yellowhammers would normally host one or two Pine Buntings. Sadly, the Yellowhammer flock deserted the valley, so this lone Pine Bunting observation was a welcome surprise. I have a long history with this species in Israel - I am old enough to have experienced decent numbers in the late 1980's. Every childhood winter in Jerusalem, I'd appreciate 15-20 Pine Buntings in a beautiful valley not far from the house in which I grew up. Now this valley is lost under concrete and asphalt. I clearly remember a flock of 70 Pine Buntings within a flock of hundreds of Yellowhammers up on Mt. Hermon ages ago - these sights and sounds are lost too. In recent decade both Yellowhammer and Pine Bunting numbers have dwindled considerably in Israel, and Pine Bunting has become quite a novice species, especially such a lovely male.

Back to late 2018, I had a plan to connect with the bunting, and hopefully even get a decent photo -  I had no photos of it in Israel. I even had an ambitious wish to photograph it with the backdrop of the Dome of the Rock... I met up with Amir early and we started working the valley down, together with a couple more birders. At first it was cold deep in the shaded valley, but some finches were already feeding on the slopes with the spectacular backdrop of the Dome of the Rock.

Then the sun started shining on the northern slope, bringing it back to life, and finch activity increased there. We worked the skittish finch flock down in the olive grove very carefully for quite a while, without a sign of the bunting. I had a flyover 'funny' serin - either Syrian or Red-fronted (their flight calls are very similar to my ear), a few Siskin, Dunnock, Brambling but the star bird wasn't on show. I sat down to eat my sandwich, then heard the familiar bunting rattle. Sandwich back into the bag, and I went around the corner to see THE bunting sat up nicely on a pistachio about 40 meters away. What a stunner! The deep rufous rump and horn-coloured bill shining at me, beautiful facial pattern so lovely to see. I fired off a few initial photos - this is a large crop:

Then I figured out that a few steps to the left and I have my killer shot - bingo!

The bird perched for a mere 30 seconds, then flew off rattling for no apparent reason. I was joined by the others, and we had several more distant and rather brief views of the bunting - it was shy and mobile. But personally I can't complain.

Here it is, demonstrating its lovely rufous flank streaks and white belly:

Feeding on the ground with a Chaffinch:

Full eBird checklist here. A few more bird photos:

Syrian Woodpecker climbing up an olive trunk

European Stonechat doing the decent thing

Black Redstart

In the afternoon I had some work to do in the Dead Sea region - such a contrasting environment, only 30 minutes away. In one of the few unfenced date plantations several Mountain Gazelles were feeding:

After dusk we had two Pallid Scops Owls calling nearby - no views. Can't wait till June.