Sunday, October 20, 2019

Global Medium Day

Yesterday Global Big Day team reunited to take part in October 2019 GBD, organised by eBird. Jonathan, Re'a and I were joined by Piki. Rather than darting across the country like we did in May, we decided to focus on the Bet She'an Valley. I had high hopes for the day. The idea of spending a full day birding in this bird rich valley, actually enjoying birding rather than driving around, was very attractive. Things were off to a good start with Barn Owl before dawn. Our dawn birding spot was the fantastic wetland below Kfar Ruppin, by the Jordan River. The first 48 minutes were both productive and enjoyable, with 65 species and quality that included Daurian Shrike, Pallid Harrier, Ferruginous Ducks, Spotted Crake and many more (eBird checklist here). Moreover, the sky was just full of thousands of birds flying in all directions, leaving their roosts to feed in fields and ponds. This pic of Daurian Shrike in half-light is so bad it's almost beautiful:

 We then continued to check alfalfa fields and more fishponds around Kfar Ruppin and Tirat Zvi, but then things starting to go a bit off. On the one hand, this continuing sensation of tens of thousands of birds filling the sky – kites, pelicans, storks, herons, egrets, spoonbills, pipits and wagtails flying in all directions was quite awesome. 

We also connected with some quality species, including Oriental Skylark, Richard's Pipit, Red-crested Pochard and such.

Red-crated Pochard

 However, we witnessed a complete and utter lack of migrants – there was no raptor migration whatsoever, and we missed too many regular passage raptors. The whole niche of woodland/scrub passerines was missing. We failed to find common migrants such as Blackcap! Also shorebirds put on a disappointing show with very low diversity. Combine that with bad luck and regular big day randomness, and we ended the day with a shambolic 130 species. At times birding was slow enough that we had time to appreciate the fascinating wasp Ammophila rubripes:

The day was saved by a proper rarity that showed up nearby. Galit Moshe and Eran Banker expertly found a Paddyfield Warbler in Neve Ur, at the edge of the valley. We headed over there in the early afternoon and enjoyed surprisingly good and prolonged views of this skulker at an impossible habitat. This is the 13th record for Israel but the first field record – respect to Galit and Eran. Thanks aso to Barak who 'kept' it for us.
It was not very easy to photograph, though, especially with the harsh light. Maybe not the best of my images, this is the most demonstrative image I managed, showing the strong supercilium with darker upper border, dark smudge at tip of lower mandible, short primary projection and well-patterned tertials.

The abandoned fishfarm, now overgrown with reeds and tamarix, provides fantastic habitats for birds. Even in the heat of the day we managed 64 species there (eBird checklist here).

This concludes another Global Big Day. I assume that some readers of this blog will sense it was actually a brilliant day, but our personal feeling was different. But hey ho, that’s how big days go. And of course, in a broader view, it was a full day of high-intensity birding, with great birders who I am lucky to call my friends. Many thanks to Piki, Re'a and Jonathan for their huge efforts and for the good fun and laughs. Hats off to eBird for organising another wonderful international event. And as always, my gratitude is to Swarovski Optik for allowing me to use the best optics in the world.
Here's to the next GBD!

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

First Responder's dilemma

Today while getting some work done at home the familiar Rare Bird Alert went off - Long-billed Dowitcher at Ma'agan Michael! I was super keen to see this species in Israel after missing two during my years in the UK. To go or not to go? There was no 100% confirmation yet, but as a First Responder I had no time to hesitate. I hit the road almost instantly - it's just 1.5 hours up the road, and I have a list to keep! While driving up I talked to those who reported it and circulated a poor photo that didn't teach much. When I got there, the beach was actually surprisingly quiet with human activity, which was very welcome after my last visit. There were plenty of birds on the beach, but no dowitcher to be found. I walked up and down the beach checking all coastal lagoons, and all fishponds too, to no avail. I did my best to stay focused on dowitcher-searching but was distracted by an Eleonora's Falcon that zoomed past at great speed, two Bar-tailed Godwits, Heuglin's Gull, Citrine Wagtails and in general enjoyable birding (86 species; eBird checklist here).

Czech-ringed Black Stork in a lovely fishpond by the kibbutz

Thursday, October 10, 2019

yakutensis Willow Warbler

This morning I birded with Jonathan at Hatzuk, north of Tel Aviv. Overall migrant numbers were not huge, yet it was an enjoyable session. Most interesting was this striking Phylloscopus. When we saw it first, we thought it was a Siberian Chiffchaff, because of its dark bill and legs, and overall 'cute' look. I was slightly concerned by the lack of any greenish tinge to secondaries and tail, but agreed that it was a chiff. When I checked images later on, I figured out it was a Willow Warbler, based on the long primary projection and lack of emargination on P6. Legs are rather on the dark side, but I guess they are indeed brown rather than black. Furthermore, I suggest it was in fact an apparent yakutensis, and not acredula, because of the complete lack of yellowish tinges to underparts, and some diffuse mottling on ear coverts and breast. Those were the initial views - very frosty-looking:

Check long primary projection and lack of any yellowish or greenish tinge, including undertail coverts:

Bloody camera wouldn't focus at he moment of truth, sorry:

Blow-up of wing formula - lack of emargination on P6 clinches the ID as Willow Warbler:

I have posted here a few yakutensis candidates in the past - see here and here. I find them sexy as hell, certainly worth looking for in Western Europe. yakutensis is one of those under-studied taxa. A recent study by Sokolovskis et al. (2019) of Lund University showed that there are some phenotypic differences between yakutensis and European taxa, but large variation in phenotypes makes these of little use in the field. Furthermore, genetic information did not show differences either. Yet the authors suggest to keep three subspecies as valid, based on different migration strategies shown by stable isotopes. Interesting stuff!
There is little field experience with yakutensis away from breeding grounds - Israel in October is certainly a good place to explore this mystery!

Putative yakutensis Willow Warbler, Ashdod, October 2011

Other quality birds included a very mobile Desert Wheatear,  and a Citrine wagtail.

eBird checklist here. Thanks to Barak Granit for help with ID, and to Jonathan for good company. No selfie today!Thanks to Petteri Lehikoinen for pointing me towards the fascinating recent study.

Monday, October 7, 2019

The first that got away

I had a meeting in Eilat today, conveniently timed for late morning so I could bird en route. First thing I was at Neot Smadar. I arrived there with low expectations - in recent years this site tends to be quiet. However, as I got out of the car, the air was alive with bird calls - pipits, shrikes, redstarts - very nice. I birded the fields with pleasure - Richard's Pipit flew over calling, Corn Crake, oddly alive and well, jumped up from the tall alfalfa, a Sooty Falcon zoomed through, and a Black-winged Kite that's less common in this part of the country perched up on wires:

At a spot with some Willow Warblers I tried the trick that rarely works, and played potential vagrant music. Booted Warbler - nothing. Dusky Warbler - nothing. Greenish Warbler - instant response, boom! I heard one classic Greenish Warbler call and immediately switched off my player. I heard another call, a call that I know so well, nice and clear, up somewhere in a tree a few meters away. I switched on my sound recorder - but nothing! Two calls is all I heard. I was all pumped up and searched for the bird but frustratingly saw only willows. I tried hard to find the bird or get some vocal response, but nothing at all. After about an hour I gave up and had to leave. Shame. There are no records of Greenish warbler in Israel, yet. I am 100% confident this was a Greenish Warbler - this is a call I know very well and I heard it perfectly. However, I know that for a country first some kind of documentation is necessary. Therefore, no cigar today.
eBird checklist here.

With Adrenalin still pumping, but feeling disappointed, I moved on to Yotvata circular field (rather dry and empty) and on to Eilat, where an Oriental Honey Buzzard casually flew over the road by the IBRCE.
After the meeting I went over to KM20 saltpans, that were full of shorebirds - quite impressive actually, haven't seen the saltpans like that for a long time. It was very hot and windy, not ideal conditions for careful scanning through the hundreds of Little Stints. Best I could come up with were a couple of Broad-billed Sandpipers and a Red-necked Phalarope. eBird checklist here.

Broad-billed Sandpiper - 1cy 

Those supercillia...

On the way back I stopped at Neot Smadar for another go, but it was still very hot and windy, and bird activity was low. Of course there was no further sign of the suspect. Fingers crossed it will be refound in the next few days!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Sodom and Gomorrah

This morning I went with Piki to Ma'agan Michael. Over the last few days an accumulation of some quality shorebirds on the beach developed there, which required my attention. I don't know why, but there are no empty fishponds this year. As a result, all shorebirds are concentrated on the few beach lagoons. It's Jewish New Year holiday now, which means that the always busy beach is extra busy now. When we arrived early, there were already tens of people, dogs, cyclists, powered parachutes, boats - complete mayhem. Unfortunately, also a few photographers and birders were a bit too assertive approaching the shorebirds. And some beach-goers seemed to enjoy deliberately flushing the birds. The poor birds were up in the air constantly, first fleeing from lagoon to lagoon, then they gave up on foraging and went to rest on offshore rocks. Until they were flushed from there by fishermen too.

Typical scenes on the beach today - image courtesy of Piki Ish Shalom

It was a real pity because that fair concentration of shorebirds contained good species (locally): 3 Bar-tailed Godwits, Red Knot, Broad-billed Sandpiper, 6 Citrine Wagtails and a good potential to host a vagrant among the hundreds of calidrids and plovers. But viewing them was difficult because all birds took off repeatedly, offering mainly flight views.

Bar-tailed Godwits

Red Knot, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Little Stints

Citrine Wagtail

Just as we decided to leave this hopeless scene, I spotted at a distance a young gull that looked promising for Audouin's Gull. Just too distant. Frustratingly, when we approached but it was still too far away, it disappeared before the ID was clinched. Hope it reappears.
It is a shame that this globally important bird area suffers from such disturbance. Personally, I can't roll my eyes and say passively 'something needs to be done'. That's my job; I need to do that something myself, with my colleagues. Fingers crossed some ideas there will work out in the future. At the moment, the birds and birders need to wait until the Jewish festival season is over, for some relief on the beach.
eBird checklist here. Thanks to Piki for the company.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Birding Cornell

I visited Cornell Lab of Ornithology a few days ago with my boss and colleagues, for a full day of meetings. But with a Cooper's Hawk zooming past the window, or views like these out of the meeting room windows

how can one not want to go birding? Especially when our Cornell collaborators are some of the keenest birders in North America. On Monday early morning we walked Sapsucker Woods reserve by the Lab. Lovely walk, not too many migrants around but clearly some Zugunruhe among the birds, ahead of a weather change and wind shift. With some efforts we managed to find a nice selection of migrant warblers, including Hooded, Maggy and this REV:

On the lake, a young Pied-billed Grebe seemed rather out-of-place (this photo was taken through Lab windows):

eBird checklist for Sapsucker Woods here.

Next night the weather finally shifted and radar images showed heavy passage to our northwest. We headed out much before dawn for nocturnal listening, which was slower than we had expected - probably rain showers to our west knocked birds down. Still it was good fun listening out for Tzits and Tzicks, a distant Barred Owl vocalised and shorebirds were on the move too. eBird checklist here.

After dawn we birded Roy H. Park Preserve and a couple more nearby sites, which performed a bit below expectations but was still OK. Several warblers, thrushes, sparrows and others. I struggled a bit with my new camera, all I got was this Red-breasted Nuthatch:

And a female Hooded Warbler

Three eBird checklists for the morning, from Roy H., Cornell community gardens and pond.
Many thanks to Ian and Chris for great birding and for eBirding...

Thursday, September 26, 2019

So. Many. Birds.

I got back from a speedy work visit to USA. I met up there with my boss and colleagues that had arrived in the USA before me. Our busy itinerary included meetings with colleagues that luckily are also close friends and top birders. I spent two nights and two mornings at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, Upstate New York (on the birding there in the next blogpost), and one night and morning at Cape May, New Jersey, spending quality time with our partners at Cellular Tracking Technologies. We arrived at Cape May in the evening, and the skies were already full of migrating birds - so cool to hear all of those birds flying over. Radar images got the excitement going towards the morning flight of the next morning - my first at Cape May.

We got up early and indeed tons of birds were moving through the dark skies, pushed closer to the coast by light northwesterlies. We positioned ourselves on the Dyke first thing. As soon as the sun crept up over the horizon, huge numbers of birds were on the move - spectacular. It was a big day, especially for Northern Flickers; warblers flooded though both in quantity and in fantastic variety (23 species!); flocks of Bobolink and Cedar Waxwing moved through; Merlins were darting after low-flying warblers; the tress and bushes were dripping with Blackburnians and Cape Mays stopping for a quick rest before pushing onwards. Truly awesome experience. Adrenaline levels rose even igher when Daniel, one of Cape May Bird Observatory's migration counters yelled "Get on that flycatcher!" - a young Vermillion Flycatcher flew by giving good views, only the 2nd for Cape May. Wow. On the dyke were some of North America's finest birders - huge fun to rub shoulders with them giants on such a great morning.

From a photography point of view, I must admit I struggled quite a bit. A day before heading over to USA I got a new camera system, Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III with Olympus ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO.

The focus system of the new camera is very different to what I was used to from years of working with Canon system. I tried to do some homework on the road, but I still am far from mastering the new system. As a result, I missed lots of shots in an already challenging scenario of tiny warblers shooting through at great speed.

Here are few shots I did manage somehow (some more are in the eBird checklist):

Northern Flicker

Cedar Waxwings

Magnolia Warbler

Northern Waterthrush

It was very hard to tear ourselves away from the spectacle, but we had meetings to attend. We swung by the banding station operated by CMBO, where we inspected the MOTUS system setup. There were some birds in the hand to enjoy too, and warblers were flying over all the time, though it wasn't their busiest banding day. Great to meet up with young Israeli RINGER Yotam, spending the AUTUMN there.

Zebra Warbler

Willow Flycatcher

The meetings were held in Mike's house, where I was constantly distracted by garden activity in the form of Ruby-throated Hummers, Monarchs (big day for them too) and Black Swallowtails.

What an amazing morning it was. More on the Cornell leg in the next post.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Three days

Again, some stuff has piled up on my computer-desk, that needs clearing.
On Monday I had a chance to meet up with Nils who's doing a Big Bat Year, passing through Israel. With two hours to spare, I decided to check wadi Bet Arif near the airport that was actually quite good despite the heat. Migration was on, both on the ground and overhead, and local birds played ball too. Nils even had a mammal lifer (Mountain Gazelle) and a few bird lifers. Rather unexpected was this 2cy Bonelli's Eagle:

Long-billed Pipit

Locally-produced Blue Rock Thrush

eBird checklist here.

Yesterday was Election Day so I had the day off. In the morning I birded with Re'a the alfalfa field and reservoir near Tal Shahar, which was fantastic, as expected at this time of year. Numbers and diversity were really great. Highlights were a Richard's Pipit, Pallid Harrier and 90 species within three hours. eBird checklist here.


This young Peregrine bombed past us, too quick for me to focus

Lots of Savi's everywhere

Alfalfa fields are packed with wagtails and pipits now. In turn, the abundance of potential prey attracts harriers. We had three young Montys (one pictured here) and a blondie Pallid foraging very actively over the field early one before taking off.

This morning I worked with Sivan from NPA north of Ashdod. Highlights were an Oystercatcher and two Whimbrel, and Desert Wheatear among many other wheatears. eBird checklist here.

Not alboxillaris

Northern Wheatears

Lovely Whinchat

Still trying to find out what this dragonfly is

My eBird checklist streak is regaining speed, 35 days now.