Sunday, June 30, 2019

Best of Central Asia - reptiles

During our recent Rockjumper tour to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, we encountered not only birds but also some cool reptiles. Most reptiles were seen in the Kyzylkum Desert of Uzbekistan, where the sandy desert habitats support a good diversity of species. We had a few more species in the Taukum Desert of Kazakhstan as well, again in sandy habitats. I am no great Herpetologist myself. Luckily, my co-leader in Uzbekistan, Timur, certainly is, and he did a stellar job finding and identifying reptiles for us. Timur also assisted with ID of reptiles we encountered in Kazakhstan. Thanks Timur!

Aralo-Caspian Racerunner (Eremia intermedia)

Rapid Racerunner (Eremias velox)

Reticulated Racerunner (Eremias grammica)

This large Caspian Desert Monitor (Varanus griseus caspius) ran across the road near the Ground Jay site. The pale tail tip is diagnostic for this subspecies.

Lichtenstein's Toad-headed Agama (Phrynocephalus interscapularis)

Steppe Agama (Trapelus sanguinolentus) - common in Taukum Desert

 Steppe Tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii)

Friday, June 28, 2019

Baby boom

Yesterday morning I went with Amir up to Bul'an Valley, one of the most magical spot in Israel. This high-altitude valley, over 2000 m asl, hosts some of the best breeding birds in Israel and is one of my favourites.

Panoramic view before climbing down into the valley, on the right. Syria on the left

This site is off-limits to civilians because of it's security sensitivity - it's practically on the border with Syria and the military won't have civilians roam there. Lucky me, with my job I get special access to these sites, escorted by the military. We were there in preparations for a large breeding bird survey next year. I haven't visited there since May 2014. May to early June is certainly the optimal season for a visit there - we were a bit late. There were many recently-fledged chicks of all species, but they were mobile, the males were quieter and in general it felt like we missed the party by a bit. But all in all it was a fantastic early morning - well worth the 02:00 departure...

The biggest ornithological importance of the Bul'an Valley is the concentration of White-throated Robins - probably more than anywhere else on the mountain (and in Israel). We saw two families, but they were very shy and mobile, and I didn't manage even a record shot. Very different from previous late April-early May visits when the males were showing off properly.
This is their breeding habitat - scattered oak, Montpellier Maple and Pine Scented Rose bushes on open hillsides. Upcher's Warbler families were also seen here - again no photos this time.

Horned Larks were seen in smaller numbers than expected - I guess they have dispersed already. This sweet baby showed nicely early on:

There were many families of Northern and Eastern Black-eared Wheatears - the most prominent birds in the valley. This is a baby Northern Wheatear.

Large numbers of Linnet and Syrian Serin were moving around - many young still fed by their parents. This is the lesser known plumage of Syrian Serin - juvenile:

On a Montpellier Maple bush

Several semirufus Black Redstart families were seen - didn't manage the parents. This is another big baby.

A few families of Red-backed Shrike breed in the valley too:

This male was photobombed by this day-flying tigermoth that was super abundant - Amata mestralii

Rock Sparrows breed late, and were still feeding chicks inside crevices:

No singing males heard, but a single recently-fledged Pale Rockfinch/Hill Sparrow/Pale Rock Sparrow came in to drink in a small puddle:

As well as more Syrian Serins (this is an adult male), and few buntings (Rock, Black-headed and Cretzschmar's).

Tawny pipits were very active singing and displaying, and I saw also one female carrying food. This male is descending from a high-altitude song flight.

When the sun went up, lots of insects became active, and lizards too. Very common was the endemic Lacerta kuzleri - can't find it's English name:


Full tail

I had little time and focus for butterflies, though this site is one of the most exciting in Israel for butterfly enthusiasts. I photographed these, including luckily some endemics:

Queen of Spain Fritillary

Mt. Hermon Fritillary (endemic)

Large Wall Brown

Mt. Hermon Juno Blue (Polyommatus j. juno) - endemic subspecies

Almost-sharp Hummingbird Hawkmoth nectaring on a Centranthus longiflorus bush

eBird checklist for Bul'an Valley here - so much quality, and no invasive species!

After we were done with the bird counts we roamed a bit along the highest peaks of the Israeli section of Mt. Hermon, exploiting our military pass - fantastic vista of the Syrian section, still some snow left:

Many thanks to Amir for great company and lots of driving. Special thanks to Avner for help in butterfly and plant ID.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Kazakhstan - Sogety Valley

One of the better mornings we had during our Rockjumper 'Best of Central Asia' tour was spent in Sogety Valley, in south east Kazakhstan, close to the border triangle with China and Kyrgyzstan. This arid upland valley, and the surrounding hills and mountains, host some brilliant birds. We spent quite a bit of time on the plains, searching for our big target - Pallas's Sandgrouse.

Personally, Pallas's Sandgrous was one of my most-wanted birds. It seems that recently they have become more difficult, and sadly we failed to find any. I guess more time is needed for them. But even without those sandgrouse, birding was superb. The plains held good numbers of Brandt's Horned Larks:

And few of the famous duo - Desert Wheatear and Asian Desert Warbler, so often seen together:

Desert Wheatear

Asian Desert Warbler

We then headed up towards the hills, where a small spring attracts many birds. It took us a while to reach the spring because our attention was drawn towards several singing Grey-necked Buntings on the hills. The local subspecies neobscura is much duller than cerrutti I saw in E Turkey several years ago, and their song is different. Great birds to see - especially when they are so confiding.

Eventually we made it to the spring and sat down at a safe distance, not to disturb the birds. It was very busy - during the hour or so we were there we had big numbers of Mongolian Finch, several shy Asian Crimson-winged Finches, Rock Sparrows, more Grey-necked Buntings, Black-bellied Sandgrouse - huge fun. 

A pair of Turkestan Shrikes feeding young nearby made lots of noise.

eBird checklist of Sogety Valley and hills is here.

We then headed south towards Temirliq. At Temirliq River a pair of Lesser Grey Shrikes, and a pair of White-crowned Penduline Tits, were nest-building:

Up towards the mountain pass, in a lush rocky gully, we had Meadow Bunting, Siberian Stonechat and a few other birds.

We then headed back towards Almaty, via the impressive Charyn Canyon:

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Summer minimalism

While my head and hard-drive are still buzzing with sights and sounds of Central Asia, back here in Israel reality has been very different. Since I returned I have been absorbed into a super-intensive family situation, that limits my birding to almost zero.
I am still taking part in eBird's Checklist-a-day Challenge. Today is my 176th day in a row of submitting eBird checklists. I know that according to eBird's rules it doesn't need to be every day, a daily average of checklist-per-day is sufficient, but I am challenging myself to have a meaningful birding experience every day. Kind of Bird Therapy.

It is a real challenge to keep birding every day off season. Thankfully, my dog still takes me out for walks very early in the morning to my local patch. It is rather quiet there, and very static, so I need to focus on tiny diversions from the norm. And I appreciate the relative quality of daily average (check this morning's checklist here for example). One day I had an Alpine Swift mixed with my local Common Swifts. Another day a Great Spotted Cuckoo flew over. A late Sedge Warbler was present a few days ago. Little joys. I also invested some effort in finding breeding proof for all local breeding species. For example, nice to see young of the only pair of House Martin in my town now fledged. All in all, this is a tough challenge but early autumn migration is right around the corner - can't wait to see my first Common Kingfisher back!

Whenever I get the chance, I up my birding a bit to some very local sites, where I can bird first thing and return home early. Yesterday I checked Tzor'a - Tal Shahar. Weather was pleasant early on, and there were some birds to be seen. I searched very hard for Rufous-tailed Scrub Robins at a few sites that used to hold them and still look very good, but failed. This species has crashed quite dramatically as a breeding bird in central Israel, and is found in good densities mainly along the Rift valley and in the south. So I had to make do with other fine local breeding birds - Eastern Olivaceous and Clamorous Reed Warblers, large colony of Spanish Sparrows on a huge Ziziphus tree, locally-produced Black-winged Kite, fresh juvenile Woodchat Shrike, many Little Grebe families - not too bad I guess.

Woodchat Shrike

Asian Black-winged Kite made in 2019

Spanish Sparrows

 Little and tiny Grebes

The reservoirs also held a few herons, a couple of Ferruginous Ducks (including this wing-injured male) and a straggler Common Pochard. Here are my eBird checklists for Tal Shahar and Tsor'a Peli reservoir.

Eventually I turned down to look at what most birders do in summer - butterflies. This wee Lesser Fiery Copper was sweet though.