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.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Blogging debts

With all the roller excitement, a few birding activities from recent days have been left out. Maybe not as exciting as a first for Israel, but birding has certainly been good. On Thursday, a few hours before news of the roller broke, I went birding with Meidad in Tel Aviv before our staff meeting at our headquarters. Early on we birded Hatzuk Beach coastal scrub, which was alright despite a noticeable departure of migrants. There were still plenty of shrikes, wheatears and warblers.

Typical Tel Aviv urban birding scene - Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, Northern Wheatear and Whinchat:

There were some young Honey Buzzards flying around - presumably birds that crossed over the Mediterranean. Much smaller numbers do this compared to the 500K that migrate further east overland, but still there are a few every morning there, often escorted out by the local Hooded Crows:

A few days ago I sold my big lens, ahead of a move to a modern system. More news on this to come. In the meanwhile, I am using my old 400mm f/5.6. I feel a bit crippled by the lack of focal length, and it is not as sharp as the big lens, but the advantages for shooting birds in flight are apparent.

Masked Shrike

Eastern Black-eared Wheatear

We did our best to relocate an Icterine Warbler that had been present for a few days (which I need for my yearlist), without success. eBird checklist for the morning here.

We had little time left for the Pacific Golden Plover that had returned for the third consecutive year to nearby Tel Barukh beach. By the time we got there, the beach was already super busy, so we found the bird roosting exactly at the same quiet spot where I had it last year, through the fence and into the sun.

Supporting cast was this adult male Rueppell's Warbler in nearby scrub. Uncommon in autumn (much scarcer than spring), but this is their time of year, and the coastal scrub patches north of Tel Aviv are certainly a good place for them.

eBird checklist here.

A couple of days earlier, before a meeting, I had a couple of hours to bird Ma'agan Michael with my boss (lucky me, how many people can do that?). The Red Knot was still present, I added Black Tern and Mediterranean Gull to my yearlist, and all in all had a good time. Ma'agan Michael (77 spp) and Ma'ayan Tzvi (57 spp) eBird checklists here and here respectively.

Med Gull with friends

Whiskered Tern

White-winged Tern

Friday, September 13, 2019

Boom! Mega Broad-billed Roller!

Yesterday afternoon news broke of another astonishing first for Israel - Broad-billed Roller, found by Gabriel Levitzky in his kibbutz, Karmiya, south of Ashkelon. My heart skipped a beat and my jaw dropped - what a mega bird, first for WP and first modern record (previous records were in Cape Verde Islands in 1897 and 1924, per Tarsiger). I was on my way to a family event, and simply could not go! Aargh! Of course my good friends who twitched the bird successfully sent me lots of happy photos. But I kept my cool and waited for this morning. I picked my brother up from Jerusalem, and with our two elders we headed down to the south. We arrived there a bit late, to the negative news that the bird was nowhere to be found. We scanned the kibbutz and nearby woodland for a couple of negative hours.Thoughts of a painful dip crept into my mind, when it was refound inside the kibbutz. We raced there and sighed with relief when the bird was perched high on top a tall Eucalptus. Phew...

We watched the bird in awe for a while, from a carpark between houses... At first it was not doing much, then it started moving around a bit. It looked very well, in perfect shape, and not really disturbed by humans because of its tall perches. 

After getting a first set of photos, somewhat distant and shaky, it was time to improve the results. This was not going to be a photo competition winner with the bird constantly perched on top of tall trees against the sky, but with some patience the bird started foraging more actively and eventually ended up at least on lower trees. 

Broad-billed Roller (Eurystomus glaucurus) - first for Israel

I think it belongs to the northern subspecies afer or aethiopicus, due to its darker central tail feathers and blotchy underparts

Bill is very broad indeed!

What a bird!

Quite amazing to watch a second first for Israel within few weeks, shortly after receiving another African gem - White-throated Bee-eater. The broad-billed Roller breeds across Africa, including the Sahel zone and arid parts of NE Africa, and migrates internally in Africa. Quite similar distribution and movements to the bee-eater - did they arrive riding the same winds?

Many thanks to Gabriel for this great find, and to the lovely people of Kibbutz Karmiya for hosting the party so generously. My brother Gidon and the boys Uri and Shachar were great companions - cheers!
While scanning the kibbutz for the roller we saw some fine birds. Then they were of no interest whatsoever, but now I can appreciate the orioles, hobbies and other stuff we had. eBird checklist here.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Happy migration days

It's this time of year in Israel when migration is at its best. Skies are full of soaring birds, and on the ground passerines are everywhere. This morning migration seemed to peak, with a huge fallout. It was literally raining birds - wheatears, buntings, pipits, wagtails and warblers dropping down from the sky, darting beetween houses and gardens where I live. Exciting stuff.
Yesterday morning Hulda Reservoir (with Piki) was really good. Our humble contribution to World Shorebirds Day included fair numbers of shorebirds, but passerines were the real attraction. The reservoirs' vegetated banks were exploding with migrants, mainly Willow and Savi's Warblers. Hard to imagine how many Willow Warblers pass through Israel these days. Great fun. eBird checklist here.

Willow Warbler

Lesser Grey Shrike

Zitting Cisticola

Later on my family celebrated a birthday at the JBO. I crept into the bird hide for a short while. It was hot but it really busy: birds were constantly coming in to drink and feed (eBird checklist here). Best was a 1cy Collared Flycatcher. Prominent migrant in spring, in autumn they are rather scarce.

Common Nightingale