Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Empty skies

I had a strange day yesterday. I was very fortunate to visit one of Israel's remotest corners, Ardon Valley in the central Negev, which is the southeastern section of Ramon Crater. This nature reserve is strictly closed off to the public and is visited by NPA rangers only few times a year. Yesterday I joined the local NPA ranger for a thorough scan of the mighty cliffs surrounding the pristine desert valley, in an attempt to find the last few breeding pairs of Golden Eagle in the desert. Sadly, despite our best efforts, we found nothing at all. In fact we saw no raptors whatsoever yesterday. Really depressing. It is possible that yesterday we were unlucky (again), but the state of many breeding raptors in Israel is dire and I fear that our experience yesterday reflects the overall situation.
With the absence of raptors, we had to focus on the beauty of the valley - scenery is truly stunning. We had quite many mammals - again large numbers of Dorcas Gazelle, and also Onager (Asian Wild Ass). We saw only one but by the enormous amounts of their poo it is evident they are doing well there.

Besides absent raptors, bird activity was slowish but OK. Some quality birds seen were Sinai Rosefinch, Striolated Bunting, Asian Desert and Cyprus Warblers. This 'lilith' Little Owl was the closest thing to a raptor I saw yesterday:

Burrowing Owl wannabe

eBird checklist here.

If I were a botanist or geologist, yesterday would have been a fantastic day. There were some lovely desert flower along the wadi:

Astragalus dactylocarpus

Desert Lotus (Lotus lanuginosus)

 Retama raetam

Dike - vertical magmatic intrusion

My trusted Swarovski ATX95 was jobless, but is always photogenic

Coffee time

Ardon Valley panorama

Many thanks to Yedidya and Naama from NPA for a beautiful day, despite the negative results. Hope for better luck next time.

Saturday, January 26, 2019


This weekend I took part in an avi-blitz organised by (in no particular order) Israel Ornithological Center, IBRCE, Eilot Regional Council and Nature and Parks Authority. Over 30 teams took part in this effort. We surveyed remote corners of the southern Negev and Arava, seldom visited by birders. Many of these areas are deep within military firing zones, so access is restricted only to weekends. It was great fun, though my polygons were less productive. On both days I worked deep in the desert west of Neot Smadar. Yesterday was rather quiet (eBird checklist here), though I managed to find an uncooperative pair of Arabian Warblers at a new site in the far west of their predicted range, possibly the westernmost territory in the world?

Otherwise, away from the acacia wadi, birds were very few. The desert is extremely dry here, and the few birds concentrate where some productivity may be found. Good to absorb some desert serenity.

Somehow I managed to hear a distant singing Temminck's Lark; Spotted Sandgrouse flew by somewhere and that's it. I was really impressed by the huge numbers of Dorcas Gazelles on both days - we had over 100 yesterday and 60 today. They were generally tame and confident, implying that there is little poaching in this region if any.

As horny as they get

Check those huge rear toes on this Bosc's fringed-toed Lizard

Almost qualifies as a good bird - Poekilocerus bufonius

**This fascinating insect is venomous - it spits poison at predators, the poison is produced from the poisinous bush Pergularia tomentosa on which it is perched in this photo - thanks Avner for the info** 

After we were done we headed down to Eilat for some recreational birding. Again I failed locating both personal photography targets - Oriental Honey Buzzard and Lesser White-fronted Goose. No show. We checked the traditional sites, KM19 sewage and IBRCE. Nothing special, just the regular wintering birds plus local rarities and scarcities:

The now resident, funny Pygmy Cormorant at IBRCE

Rare in winter, this Gull-billed Tern spends the winter at IBRCE

One of four LEOs roosting at IBRCE

Caspian Stonechat just north of the park

Banana posture

Today I worked a polygon in the same general area. As we entered the area we had an Adrenalin-pumping early morning encounter with a pack of 9 Wolves - such fantastic animals.

Again there were rather few birds around (eBird checklist here). Only bird of interest was a fine male Cyprus Warbler that didn't pose well enough.

Those undertail coverts...

Huge thanks to the organisers Noam, Itai, Libby and Eran, to Eli who helped design the fieldwork. Hai Bar staff hosted us wonderfully - thanks! Kudos to all the hard-working skilled teams who did a stellar job. Till next year!

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

47 minutes of joy

Spent the day in the Hula Valley today with some colleagues. We are seeking for solutions for an upcoming ecological crisis, in which man-made water bodies - fishponds and water reservoirs, that are so important to wildlife, are being transformed into industrial production sites, drained or covered with infrastructure. In an otherwise rather depressing day, I managed to produce another five eBird checklists, towards my Checklist-a-day challenge. Best bit of the day was 47 minutes of birding with Nadav in the Agamon, waiting for our boss who was having a meeting. We enjoyed good views of the now long-staying Barnacle Goose, the first for Israel (if accepted bla bla). After playing hide and seek with observers during its first couple of weeks in the Agamon, now it is easy as pie.

Who's your daddy?

Close to the entrance the Hume's leaf warbler that had been found a few days ago was very mobile and active:

I quite enjoyed this quick bout of birding, without really checking any of the habitats. Eagles, cranes, sunshine. Not bad. eBird checklist here.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Murphy's Rosefinch

Back in Novembr 2018 I found a Common Rosefinch in my local patch, Nahal Ekron in Mazkeret Batya, 200 m from my house. On that first encounter I managed to obtain record shots, not the best quality but not too bad. Since then, presumably the same individual has been showing on and off at the same area. I keep seeing it every week or so, but it keeps frustrating me. I walk there with my dog almost every morning. I rarely carry my camera for this walk - too heavy. However, at all instances when I found good birds at this site I was without my camera. I always had to run back home for the camera. But this rosefinch keeps playing games with me. When I'm innocently walking my dog, the bloody bird typically shows up on a thistle 4 meters away, porning itself completely. This is a representative phone photo from a few days ago:

Pissed off, I run back home for the camera, return 5 minutes later to discover the bird had gone. Aaarrrghhh! This morning it happened again. Despite unstable weather and relatively few birds, the rosefinch was there, exposed like a top model. I decided that today is the day. A few minutes later when I returned with the camera, at first it was the usual drill - no sign! Only after a good 20 minutes of hectic search if flew out of a garden back to the dry vegetation by the stream. I managed to get some photos of it, still not perfect, but at least today Murphy was partially defeated.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Down south

Yesterday I headed down south with Jonathan. We had some work to do, and combined that with kind of birding, or rather cherry-picking that largely went wrong. We started off at frozen Ovda Valley - 4
 C is quite extreme in Israeli standards. As expected, bird activity was rather limited early on until the sun finally started heating the environment up. For the second time this winter I failed to find the Basalt Wheatear - what's its story? Sometimes it porns itself completely, on other occasions it's absent - I have no idea where it disappears to. Its chosen corner of the valley looks very dry and unproductive this year - last year it was crawling with beetles and stuff. The main section of the valley, near the 'Black Hills', was a bit better. Asian Desert Warbler, 12 Bar-tailed and 6 Temminck's Larks, wheatears and a distant herd of 15 Onager kept us entertained.

Busy Bar-tailed lark

Mourning Wheatear; one individual showed features of persica (dirty cap, dusky flanks, limited wing panel) but wouldn't pose for photos

Basalt wannabe - White-crowned Wheatear 

nana wannabe - super pallid young female Spectacled Warbler

Ovda eBird checklist is here.

On the way further down to Eilat we stopped briefly at Neot Smadar. No sign of the Hume's Leaf Warbler; Blue Pansy mini population somehow persists there:

In Eilat I had two photographic targets - Oriental Honey Buzzard and Lesser White-fronted Goose. Somewhat predictably, we failed to locate both species. We added some species to our growing year list, and clocked on local rarities - namely Pygmy Cormorant and Gull-billed Tern at IBRCE

Pygmy Cormorant - first documented record for Eilat?

We added Booted and Eastern Imperial Eagle, Citrine Wagtail, Dead Sea Sparrows while driving around, scanning the skies, ponds and plantations to no avail, but no other highlights. On the way back home, still on the theme of adding species to our year list, we stopped at Elifaz Reservoir for the Red-breasted Merganser, that was unimpressively sleeping distantly at the center of the huge reservoir (eBird checklist here):

Red-breasted Merganser, Pale Crag-Martin and Great Crested Grebe miles away

Last stop on the way back home was at Samar - fine views of a favourite species, Black Scrub-Robin. Superb way to end a long and overall enjoyable day.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Ma'agan Michael gulls

Today I had some time in Ma'agan Michael before a meeting (it often works out like that...). A serious storm developed overnight so I had some expectations for a short but productive seawatching session. I arrived at Crocodilopolis, an ancient mound just south of MM to discover that the gale-force wind was blowing from the wrong direction, SSE. What time I spent scanning the sea was fruitless - I did not see a single seabird. Therefore I focused on gulls and shorebirds on the beach. Nadav joined me. Several gull species were moving up and down the beach - Armenian, Yellow-legged, Caspian, Pallas's, Siberian, Slender-billed and Black-headed. Shorebirds sheltered on the beach behind the mound, including 11 Greater Sand-plovers and fair numbers of Kentish. Check my eBird checklist here. Light conditions were surprisingly good for a storm, so I enjoyed some relaxed photography.

Pallas's Gulls - have I mentioned before that they are the best gulls?

Yellow-legged Gull

I found this colour-ringed Armenian Gull roosting on the beach. In fact it is a bird I ringed back in April 2014 and released at ashdod (thanks Yosef & Amir for reminding me). It was rehabilitated at the Israeli Wildlife Hospital after a case of Botulism, and seen several times since at Ashdod and MM. I wrote an article after its release for the Israel Birding Portal; it includes a video of the release, featuring my son Noam, then 4.5 years old...

Sandwich Terns

Slender-billed and Black-headed Gulls

Slender-billed Gull

Grey Plovers

Huge numbers of Great Cormorants

Fishing shoals stranded in the rockpools