Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Tien Shan blast

Today our Rockjumper group had a blast of a day in the Tien Shan mountains above Almaty. It was our acclimatisation day, so we birded mid-elevations, up to about 2600 m.

Big Almaty Lake

Tien Shan birding

Quality birds just kept on coming. Highlights included Ibisbill - 2 adults attending at least one super-cute fluffy chick, brief views of White-browed Tit Warbler (TBC tomorrow...), initial distant views of Himalayan Snowcock (TBC tomorrow...), Eversmann's Redstart, Himalayan Rubythroat, Brown Dipper, Black-throated Accentor, White-winged Grosbeak and Red-mantled Rosefinch. Fantastic. Can't wait to get up higher tomorrow!

Himalayan Rubythroat - what a cracker

Eversmann's Redstart

Brown Dipper - any aquatic experts out there can identify what it's caught?

Black-throated Accentor

Red-mantled Rosefinch

White-winged Grosbeak

Ibisbill - sorry about the heat haze. No public access to where they were, so distant photos.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

First days in Kazakhstan

Our Rockjumper group's first days in Kazakhstan have been excellent. I will expand more when I get back home; in the meanwhile, here's a quick on-the-road summary:
We stayed in Taukum Desert, in a camp near Kenshengel for two nights. En route we stopped at Lake Sorbulaq that was teeming with birds - waterfowl, shorebirds, pelicans (Great White and Dalmatian), and most impressive was a colony of about 10K pairs of Rosy Starlings by the lake shore. Incredible. In Hebrew their name translates to 'Locust Starling' - now I understand why. We keep seeing many huge colonies and flocks of thousands.

Dalmatian Pelican

In the Taukum Desert we connected well with our main target species, Caspian Plover and MacQueen's Bustard. The plovers were with chicks so we kept a fair distance away from them. Scope views were great. So cool to see them on their breeding grounds, after having them both on their wintering grounds in East Africa, and on migration in Israel.

Also Greater Sand-Plovers breed on the semi-desert plains:

Many Black-bellied Sandgrouse were seen, but no other sandgrouse species:

I especially enjoyed the dawn chorus (starting at 02:30!), with a multitude of lark song (Calandra, Bimacs, Greater, Lesser and Asian Short-toed), Isabelline Wheatears and Red-headed Buntings. Fantastic.

Classy bird

Quite many raptors in the desert - eagles, harriers, and a bunch of vultures feeding on a dead cow.

Cinereous Vulture

A visit to Turanga Forest delivered the goods - the sought-after and beautiful Saxaul Sparrow, Yellow-eyed Pigeon and Azure Tit.

Saxy Sparrow 

Azure Tit

Now we're close to China-Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan birder triangle - tomorrow should be good!

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The best of Uzbekistan

I am already in Kazakhstan now with my Rockjumper group. There are many good things to say about Uzbekistan, but internet connection is not one of them. Tonight, in Almaty, is my first encounter with at least partial wifi for the last few days. I have many stories to tell ad photos to share about our week in Uzbekistan, most of which will be when I return home. In the meanwhile, here's an impressio of what I felt was our best day of birding in Uzbekistan. We birded the whole day at and near Takhta-Karacha mountain pass. The first hour of the morning at the pass was brilliant - great birds just kept coming, in golden light. It was really fun. We continued birding the pass after another lovely picnic breakfast, then descended and checked some lower elevations. Besides the Rufous-tailed Flyctacher I wrote about in my previous post, we had so many more birding highlights:

Eastern Rock Nuthatch - bird with an attitude

White-throated Robin

Stunning Red-headed Bunting

Hume's Short-toed Lark

Upcher's Warbler

Finsch's Wheatear

Indian Paradise Flycatcher

Lammergeir photobombed by Pamir Mts.

Several large flocks of Rosy Starling went over the pass very quickly:

More photos on this eBird checklist.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Rusty-tailed Flycatcher near Samarkand

This morning our Rockjumper tour went up to the mountains south of Samarkand. We had a fantastic morning around Takhta-Karacha mountain pass, at about 1700 m. We saw so many wonderful birds, including Eastern Rock Nuthatch, Irania, Upcher's Warbler, Indian Paradise flycatcher, Red-headed and White-capped Buntings, 'vittata' Pied Wheatear, Lammergeier, Grey-headed Goldfinch, Hume's Lesser Short-toed Lark and many more. Just check this mouthwatering eBird checklist - bliss. No time to edit more photos tonight, more to follow. The most surprising find was a Rusty-tailed Flycatcher. Timur expertly first heard it singing, then all the group enjoyed great views of it. Rusty-tailed Flycatcher is a Himalayan-breeding species that extends its range NW to Tajikistan and just into SE Uzbekistan. It winters in SW India. Apparently this is the first record for Samarkand region. It normally occurs in higher elevations and in thicker forest. Possibly this is a migrant rather than a breeder. Not the most colourful bird of the day, but certainly of high quality.

Rufous-tailed Flycatcher (Ficedula ruficauda)

Monday, May 20, 2019

Uzbekistan quick update

I am now in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Arrived in this fabulous country four days ago, leading a tour for Rockjumper. We have had many fantastic birding experiences up till now. Internet connection here is very problematic, so I will be very brief now and will expand when I can.

Pander's Ground Jay doing what it says on the tin

White-capped Bunting

Yellow-breasted (Azure) Tit

White-winged Woodpecker

Himalayan White Wagtail

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Upcher's Warblers 2019

This morning I went out birding with Piki, Micha and Stefan in E Lakhish hills. It was my first visit to this wonderful part of the country since my return from the UK.

As the days are already very hot now, we started super early when it was actually quite chilly (7 C!). As we stepped out of the car we immediately heard Long-billed Pipits singing and families of Spectacled Warbler trrrrrrrring. Our main interest was in Upcher's Warblers - this is one of the few parts of the country where they breed. We covered some ground and ended up with at least five territories - quite good density. Apart for one male who was super active - singing and displaying like a boss, other individuals kept a low profile and were rather quiet - stayed low in the bushes and did not vocalise. I managed one half-decent photo of this quality breeding species, and a couple more distant shots of the Big Macho.

I have had close encounters with this species before (see here for example), so I did not invest too much time in photography. 
Other birds typical for this habitat were Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, Cretzschmar's Bunting and Woodchat Shrikes. Add to that a sprinkle of late migrants, and you end up with a decent morning of birding (eBird checklist here).

Woodchat Shrike

Turtle Dove - such a joy and at the same time so sad to see them

Palpares libelluloides - thanks Avner

Thanks to P, K & S for a great morning.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Global Big Day

Yesterday I teamed up with Jonathan and Re'a to take part in Global Big Day. Our plan was to record as many species as possible, and also to connect with some specialties that are less likely to get recorded elsewhere. We did not plan our route too carefully, as this was not a competition but a challenge, and we were prepared to adjust and be spontaneous if necessary. Still, our plan was pretty ambitious - it included cross-country, night-to-night birding. I set off after 02:00 to meet up with the others. Just outside my town a European Nightjar was sat on the road - good start! We then drove al the way up to the Hula Valley. In Ayelet Hashachar we had a vocal family of Tawny Owls, but failed to find other owls. Luckily Jonathan had scops and long-eared before we met up.

Tawny Owl

We were joined by Hula-man Nadav for an hour of dawn birding at Agamon Hula which was pretty sweet. 76 species, highlights included White-tailed Eagle, Black Francolin, Marbled Duck, Golden Oriole, Spotted Crake and many more (eBird checklist here). Perhaps most impressive was a phenomenal roost take-off of Sand Martins. We VERY conservatively estimated 20K, but in the car quietly suggested six-figures. Quite a spectacle. A jungle Cat that trotted along in front of our car at dawn was sweet too.

From there it was up to Mt. Hermon. We first birded the slope above Majdal Shams. We clocked on first Hermon specialties quickly, most importantly Syrian Serin that I don't think was recorded elsewhere in the world. This area was also productive for quality migrants - Barred Warbler and Wood Warbler. eBird checklist here.

Wood Warbler

As soon as the military checkpoint opened up we sped up the mountain towards the lower cable station. We did a quick, clean sweep of Hermon specialties, including Western Rock Nuthatch and Sombre Tit (eBird checklist here). Even though we rushed it, it was still fantastic to take in the breathtaking scenery and cool temperatures at this altitude, where spring blossom has not diminished yet.

Rock Bunting

Too close

Next stop was at Susita, overlooking Lake Kineret. We quickly found there Long-billed Pipit and other batha specialties, and enjoyed a bit of raptor migration (eBird checklist here). During the entire Big Day we never connected with proper raptor migration - shame. Then it was on to Kfar Ruppin in the Bet Shean Valley. By then it was scorching hot and bird activity was relatively low. Took us a while till we found a good fishpond that contained many shorebirds, though variety was somewhat minimal ('only' 60 species in an hour of birding). Roller, Osprey, Curlew Sands were some notable birds - eBird checklist here.

Then it was the long, exhausting drive all the way to Ein Gedi. We easily found almost all desert birds we looked for - Fan-tailed raven, Barbary Falcon, Sand Partridge, Arabian Babbler etc. (eBird checklist here). Things were looking pretty good!

Fan-tailed Raven

We ended our daytime birding with two wetlands in the southern Dead Sea region - Heimar reservoir (Dead Sea Sparrow etc., eBird checklist here), and beautiful Navit Pools that were productive as ever - African Swamphen, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, shorebirds etc. (eBird checklist here).

Stonking male Dead-Sea Sparrow

Brilliant Arabian Green Bee-eater

Too close - see below

After dusk we efficiently connected with two iconic nightbirds - Nubian Nightjar and Desert Owl (is it the first time ever Tawny and Desert Tawny were sen in one day?) - a fitting end to an epic day. 

Our cumulative total was 164 species - Jonathan missed few species Re'a and me saw before meeting up, and vice versa (my personal total was 160). It was so much fun - good, solid birding all day long. Our route was a bit extreme - I drove 870 km, and of course we ran out of time and had to skip one site (Mt. Amasa). But all in all I think we did pretty well. As in any Big Day, we missed many silly birds (such as Great White Pelican, Scrub Warbler), saw few birds we hadn't expected (Wood Warbler), enjoyed bird-rich sites and casual flybys and 100 kmph gifts (Raven, Little Swift) - that's what Big Days are made of.

A few thanks to summarize:

Jonathan, Re'a and Nadav - you guys rock. I thoroughly enjoyed spending the day with you, we never stopped laughing and our spirits were high throughout (when you were awake...). Thank you!

eBird Central organized this amazing event - I feel privileged to work with you guys and call some of you my friends.

Swarovski Optik - thanks, as always, for giving me the opportunity to use your supreme optics, that certainly made the difference.

See you in #GBD2020!