Sunday, February 24, 2019


Yesterday Team Brazil (my brother Gidon, Ami, Eli and myself) reunited and ventured deep into the Negev Desert in search of some unique birds and mammals. Our first stop (Kelach Sinai NR) was very cold and bird activity was rather minimal during the golden hour. We had one brief female MacQueen's Bustard that shot off as soon as it spotted us, a couple of Spectacled Warblers and not too much more. Yet, golden hour is golden hour and one must take photos of what there is available.

Desert Wheatear 

Isabelline Wheatear - especially males are rather attractive now with this peachy breast

Dorcas Gazelle

After a quick breakfast picnic we headed south of Ezuz, towards one of the remotest desert sections of the country. We had some nice birds - Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Asian Desert Warbler and Bar-tailed Lark. Crested Lark is so common in cultivated areas, suburbia and even urban settings, but in the desert it looks much better:

What we were really after was dancing MacQueen's Bustard (AKA Asian Houbara Bustard). It is globally Vulnerable, also in Israel they're in trouble, classified as Endangered. We scanned vast areas that used to host numerous dancing males, but saw only three, testament of their worrying state in Israel. Some of the old faithful boys were not present, which was rather sad. Eventually we connected with a male who seemed quite confident with us. We watched him for a while doing normal bird stuff - feeding, preening and walking around.

It was getting warm and we had low expectations from him in the way of dancing - he also looked rather young with unimpressive black neck sides. But then we experienced that special moment. He halted, stretched his neck up to look quite impressive:

Suddenly, within two seconds, he transformed from a normal-looking birds into an alien, puffing his neck feathers up to cover his head:

This is really a video job, which I did not shoot. I have many photos of this transformation - will try to construct something together from the images soon. I have witnessed this kind of transformation with Great Bustard a few years ago - bustards are such fascinating yet odd birds.

And off he was, dancing across his chosen arena to impress an invisible female, waving his swagger all over the place, looking kind of dumb (and the shape of a cockatoo on his forehead) but apparently very full of himself. At first he performed near a horrible barbed wire laying on the ground:

Then he stopped, turned around and for a few second returned to look like a normal bird:

But only for few seconds - he puffed himself up again and returned to dance, thankfully away from that barbed wire this time:

Eventually he danced out of view and we let him be. The whole act lasted for a minute or two, and those were moments of true joy for us. To share such an intimate moment with a threatened and so unique bird is very special. I can complain about the poor photography - light conditions were horrible, he was a bit distant and that barbed wire, but I guess I shouldn't.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

21 hours

Yesterday was extremely long. I left home very early, met up with Piki and together we sailed down towards the Dead Sea. Despite the dire state of the shrinking Dead Sea, Climate Change, Sixth Extinction, Donald Trump etc., I find the view of the sun rising over the Edom Mountains of Jordan, above the Dead Sea, always heartening. 

First thing we birded Wadi Mishmar. After a couple of good winter floods, vegetation in the wadi looks great. The Ochradenus bacatus bushes look very happy,  and the Sylvia warblers were feasting on them. 

Most prominent was Sardinian Warbler, several tens, including quite a few of the nominate subspecies. Among them we had at least 9 Cyprus Warblers. At first they weren't easy to pin down, but eventually I managed to get some photos of a few. Still not the perfect photos I'm hoping for, but I guess they ain't too shabby.

Cyprus Warbler, male, in Ochradenus baccatus bush

Cyprus Warbler, female

Also a couple each of Spectacled Warbler and Whitethroat.

Common Whitethroat

Tristram's Starlings were present in some large flocks. One flock mobbed a passing Long-legged Buzzard. Others were just feeding on the baccatus fruit and other fruiting trees in the wadi. I find them uber-charismatic, despite being very common in this part of the country, including trash-bird behaviour at some tourist sites. They are most attractive when they fly, exposing their brilliant wing pattern:

We bumped into Shlomi, another Israeli birder. While exchanging information we spotted a large raptor soaring over the high cliffs:

Cinereous Vulture! What a pleasant surprise (though unknowingly at that moment it had been present for a couple of days at least):

We had a couple of Striolated Bunting flying high over the cliffs, and Shlomi told us of a waterhole up the wadi that they come down to drink in. We walked up there, sat down quietly for a few minutes and indeed a single bunting, a female, graced us with its beautiful presence:

Since my return from the UK, my appreciation for our local species, especially range-restricted species like Tristram's Starling and Fan-tailed Raven, has increased. The aerobatic flight of the ravens, their unique high-pitched calls echoing off the mighty cliffs, is an epic symbol of the Judean Desert.

Fan-tailed Raven

On the way out we spent a couple of minutes with an oddly-plumaged Blackstart. I'm not sure whether it's oil-stained or melanistic. In real life it felt much darker than how it looks in these images.

Golden Spiny Mouse - indeed golden and spiny

While there were saddeningly few Eurasian Griffons, it was nice to have a 3-vulture species morning, including Egyptian Vulture. There were first signs of soaring bird migration, with a northbound movement of Black Kites, first mini-flock of 8 White Storks and a single Black Stork. Soon it will be thousands. Wadi Mishmar eBird checklist here.

Our next stop was Heimar Reservoir. We met up there with two Swiss friends, Martin and Michael. Another very pleasant surprise was a stonking male Daurian Shrike that hopped on the ugly fence surrounding the reservoir - what a beautiful bird:

Full frame


Getting the priorities right - at this location these could be 'wild-type' Rock Pigeons:

There was also a maurus Siberian Stonechat, Penduline Tit, Dead Sea Sparrows and some migrant hirundines - Red-rumped, Barn and House Martins. eBird checklist here.

Then we moved on down the road to Navit Pools. I don't fully understand why, but this site is absolutely jam-packed with birds. Contrastingly, adjacent reservoirs are quite empty. Navit Pools had many hundreds of ducks, including 20 Fudge Ducks (they breed there), 4 African Swamphens and much more. Combine that with stunning scenery and one gets 47 minutes of fun (eBird checklist here).

Then we continued down into the bottom of the valley at Ne'ot Hakikar. It was a beautiful, mild, moonlit evening. Nubian Nightjars were very active: we had at least 9 individuals, including a few that put on quite a show. Over the years I have had countless intimate encounters with these fascinating birds, yet every time the excitement is still on. Wow.

'Tamarisk' Nubian Nightjar

On the way back home we had rather casual encounters with (heard only) Desert Owl by the main road, Egyptian Nightjar and Pallid Scops Owl. Back home, 21 hours after leaving, I felt quite satisfied, and totally knackered.
Piki, Martin, Michael - thanks.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

South coast

Today I worked with NPA marine rangers on seabird identification near Ashkelon. There were no proper seabirds around, so we made do with gull identification. Can't get any better than that. We spent a bit of time inside Ashkelon NP, then checked for some gull rafts inside the coal depot. At one secluded spot a nice mixed group contained, among the striking Pallas's Gulls, a few other taxa, especially fuscus and heuglini. A metal-ringed cachinnans, metal ringed Pallas's and two darvic ringed fuscus were out there, but frustratingly too distant to read.

Armenian Gull is less frequent down the southern coast compared to the northern coast and northern valleys where it is the 'default' large gull. As spring comes, adults like this gradually lose the diagnostic black bill band. I have seen individuals with a more convincing P3 pattern, but the overall solid black wingtip (very limited grey tongues on P7/8) and deeply hooked bill leave no doubt that it's armenicus:

Large numbers of Loggerhead Sea Turtles were washed up dead or dying on the coast over the last few weeks. This one was washed up on the beach this morning.

Some of the few remaining Mountain Gazelles still roam on the vegetated coastal dunes. Sad to see numbers of this globally Endangered mammal dwindling.

Thanks to Guy (NPA) and his team for a great day out.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

My rosefinch

It's still around, my subtle beauty. This morning it finally posed albeit briefly. Perched for a few snaps and disappeared somewhere - still not familiar with all of its hiding spots. I think I am the only birder who has seen it - a few others tried and failed.

It is interesting (for very few of us, admittedly) to note that this bird has asymmetric tertial moult: On its left wing longest tertial is unmoulted, on right wing it is moulted.

Amidst a few days of unsettled weather, this morning was perfectly still and bird activity was great at my local patch. I had higher numbers than my winter average of Chiffchaff, Bluethroat and Blackcap. A Wryneck that I have seen a couple of times during the winter showed nicely. Reed Warblers are back. Full eBird checklist here.

White-throated Kingfisher

Lots of wildflowers now, including the stunning Blue Lupins.