Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Mystery stonechat

I will make this short, as I am heading out again in few hours.
This morning I went with Rony and Meidad to Nafha, my favourite rarity-hunting site this time of year. Practically the first bird we had when we parked the car at half-light was a sweet little Yellow-browed Warbler - always bliss. Photos are a bit less...

We birded the site for a couple of hours. There were tons of Chiffchaff, quite a few Siskin, Hawfinch, Syrian Serin, but not much of interest other than that (eBird checklist here). Somewhat disappointed we returned to the car. By the car a pair of stonechats were holding a temporary territory. The male was a Siberian, but the female - what was it? From one angle it looked European, from another it looked Siberian. With this in mind, I thought to myself - why can't it be Stejneger's? We started picking up ID features - rich rufous rump with dark shaft streaks to longest uppertail coverts, rather rich mantle, strong bill, short primary projection. These features were pro-Stejneger's, but I was still uneasy with the bird. For a potential first for Israel, we had to get more evidence. I got some positive feedback from European friends based on back-of-camera photos, then a few less encouraging responses. I understand why - the overall appearance is not quite there, possibly - ear coverts not dark enough so no pale throat, strong supercilium, perhaps not rich enough tones - BOC shots were misleading, views in the field became increasingly difficult as temperatures rose and the bird became more shy. These are the only useful photos I manages to take, at long distance, before the battery died:

Without a spare battery, Rony's camera pivoted. Here are some photos, part taken by Rony, part by me using Rony's camera - thank you Rony:

Close inspection of the moult here reveals that this 1cy bird moulted all it's GC and two tertials - unusual for Siberian Stonechat, thanks Yosef!

This is the male Siberian Stonechat it was associating with:

When first studying the bird in the field, and in the first few hours, I was quite hopeful it's a Stejnegers. Then, I started to become more sceptical. Now I am in a neutral position - this is an intriguing bird and it could be either taxa. I want to learn more about it.
Tomorrow I'm returning there to obtain DNA samples - hope it sticks around. Stay posted!

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Global Medium Day

Yesterday Global Big Day team reunited to take part in October 2019 GBD, organised by eBird. Jonathan, Re'a and I were joined by Piki. Rather than darting across the country like we did in May, we decided to focus on the Bet She'an Valley. I had high hopes for the day. The idea of spending a full day birding in this bird rich valley, actually enjoying birding rather than driving around, was very attractive. Things were off to a good start with Barn Owl before dawn. Our dawn birding spot was the fantastic wetland below Kfar Ruppin, by the Jordan River. The first 48 minutes were both productive and enjoyable, with 65 species and quality that included Daurian Shrike, Pallid Harrier, Ferruginous Ducks, Spotted Crake and many more (eBird checklist here). Moreover, the sky was just full of thousands of birds flying in all directions, leaving their roosts to feed in fields and ponds. This pic of Daurian Shrike in half-light is so bad it's almost beautiful:

 We then continued to check alfalfa fields and more fishponds around Kfar Ruppin and Tirat Zvi, but then things starting to go a bit off. On the one hand, this continuing sensation of tens of thousands of birds filling the sky – kites, pelicans, storks, herons, egrets, spoonbills, pipits and wagtails flying in all directions was quite awesome. 

We also connected with some quality species, including Oriental Skylark, Richard's Pipit, Red-crested Pochard and such.

Red-crated Pochard

 However, we witnessed a complete and utter lack of migrants – there was no raptor migration whatsoever, and we missed too many regular passage raptors. The whole niche of woodland/scrub passerines was missing. We failed to find common migrants such as Blackcap! Also shorebirds put on a disappointing show with very low diversity. Combine that with bad luck and regular big day randomness, and we ended the day with a shambolic 130 species. At times birding was slow enough that we had time to appreciate the fascinating wasp Ammophila rubripes:

The day was saved by a proper rarity that showed up nearby. Galit Moshe and Eran Banker expertly found a Paddyfield Warbler in Neve Ur, at the edge of the valley. We headed over there in the early afternoon and enjoyed surprisingly good and prolonged views of this skulker at an impossible habitat. This is the 13th record for Israel but the first field record – respect to Galit and Eran. Thanks aso to Barak who 'kept' it for us.
It was not very easy to photograph, though, especially with the harsh light. Maybe not the best of my images, this is the most demonstrative image I managed, showing the strong supercilium with darker upper border, dark smudge at tip of lower mandible, short primary projection and well-patterned tertials.

The abandoned fishfarm, now overgrown with reeds and tamarix, provides fantastic habitats for birds. Even in the heat of the day we managed 64 species there (eBird checklist here).

This concludes another Global Big Day. I assume that some readers of this blog will sense it was actually a brilliant day, but our personal feeling was different. But hey ho, that’s how big days go. And of course, in a broader view, it was a full day of high-intensity birding, with great birders who I am lucky to call my friends. Many thanks to Piki, Re'a and Jonathan for their huge efforts and for the good fun and laughs. Hats off to eBird for organising another wonderful international event. And as always, my gratitude is to Swarovski Optik for allowing me to use the best optics in the world.
Here's to the next GBD!

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

First Responder's dilemma

Today while getting some work done at home the familiar Rare Bird Alert went off - Long-billed Dowitcher at Ma'agan Michael! I was super keen to see this species in Israel after missing two during my years in the UK. To go or not to go? There was no 100% confirmation yet, but as a First Responder I had no time to hesitate. I hit the road almost instantly - it's just 1.5 hours up the road, and I have a list to keep! While driving up I talked to those who reported it and circulated a poor photo that didn't teach much. When I got there, the beach was actually surprisingly quiet with human activity, which was very welcome after my last visit. There were plenty of birds on the beach, but no dowitcher to be found. I walked up and down the beach checking all coastal lagoons, and all fishponds too, to no avail. I did my best to stay focused on dowitcher-searching but was distracted by an Eleonora's Falcon that zoomed past at great speed, two Bar-tailed Godwits, Heuglin's Gull, Citrine Wagtails and in general enjoyable birding (86 species; eBird checklist here).

Czech-ringed Black Stork in a lovely fishpond by the kibbutz

Thursday, October 10, 2019

yakutensis Willow Warbler

This morning I birded with Jonathan at Hatzuk, north of Tel Aviv. Overall migrant numbers were not huge, yet it was an enjoyable session. Most interesting was this striking Phylloscopus. When we saw it first, we thought it was a Siberian Chiffchaff, because of its dark bill and legs, and overall 'cute' look. I was slightly concerned by the lack of any greenish tinge to secondaries and tail, but agreed that it was a chiff. When I checked images later on, I figured out it was a Willow Warbler, based on the long primary projection and lack of emargination on P6. Legs are rather on the dark side, but I guess they are indeed brown rather than black. Furthermore, I suggest it was in fact an apparent yakutensis, and not acredula, because of the complete lack of yellowish tinges to underparts, and some diffuse mottling on ear coverts and breast. Those were the initial views - very frosty-looking:

Check long primary projection and lack of any yellowish or greenish tinge, including undertail coverts:

Bloody camera wouldn't focus at he moment of truth, sorry:

Blow-up of wing formula - lack of emargination on P6 clinches the ID as Willow Warbler:

I have posted here a few yakutensis candidates in the past - see here and here. I find them sexy as hell, certainly worth looking for in Western Europe. yakutensis is one of those under-studied taxa. A recent study by Sokolovskis et al. (2019) of Lund University showed that there are some phenotypic differences between yakutensis and European taxa, but large variation in phenotypes makes these of little use in the field. Furthermore, genetic information did not show differences either. Yet the authors suggest to keep three subspecies as valid, based on different migration strategies shown by stable isotopes. Interesting stuff!
There is little field experience with yakutensis away from breeding grounds - Israel in October is certainly a good place to explore this mystery!

Putative yakutensis Willow Warbler, Ashdod, October 2011

Other quality birds included a very mobile Desert Wheatear,  and a Citrine wagtail.

eBird checklist here. Thanks to Barak Granit for help with ID, and to Jonathan for good company. No selfie today!Thanks to Petteri Lehikoinen for pointing me towards the fascinating recent study.

Monday, October 7, 2019

The first that got away

I had a meeting in Eilat today, conveniently timed for late morning so I could bird en route. First thing I was at Neot Smadar. I arrived there with low expectations - in recent years this site tends to be quiet. However, as I got out of the car, the air was alive with bird calls - pipits, shrikes, redstarts - very nice. I birded the fields with pleasure - Richard's Pipit flew over calling, Corn Crake, oddly alive and well, jumped up from the tall alfalfa, a Sooty Falcon zoomed through, and a Black-winged Kite that's less common in this part of the country perched up on wires:

At a spot with some Willow Warblers I tried the trick that rarely works, and played potential vagrant music. Booted Warbler - nothing. Dusky Warbler - nothing. Greenish Warbler - instant response, boom! I heard one classic Greenish Warbler call and immediately switched off my player. I heard another call, a call that I know so well, nice and clear, up somewhere in a tree a few meters away. I switched on my sound recorder - but nothing! Two calls is all I heard. I was all pumped up and searched for the bird but frustratingly saw only willows. I tried hard to find the bird or get some vocal response, but nothing at all. After about an hour I gave up and had to leave. Shame. There are no records of Greenish warbler in Israel, yet. I am 100% confident this was a Greenish Warbler - this is a call I know very well and I heard it perfectly. However, I know that for a country first some kind of documentation is necessary. Therefore, no cigar today.
eBird checklist here.

With Adrenalin still pumping, but feeling disappointed, I moved on to Yotvata circular field (rather dry and empty) and on to Eilat, where an Oriental Honey Buzzard casually flew over the road by the IBRCE.
After the meeting I went over to KM20 saltpans, that were full of shorebirds - quite impressive actually, haven't seen the saltpans like that for a long time. It was very hot and windy, not ideal conditions for careful scanning through the hundreds of Little Stints. Best I could come up with were a couple of Broad-billed Sandpipers and a Red-necked Phalarope. eBird checklist here.

Broad-billed Sandpiper - 1cy 

Those supercillia...

On the way back I stopped at Neot Smadar for another go, but it was still very hot and windy, and bird activity was low. Of course there was no further sign of the suspect. Fingers crossed it will be refound in the next few days!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Sodom and Gomorrah

This morning I went with Piki to Ma'agan Michael. Over the last few days an accumulation of some quality shorebirds on the beach developed there, which required my attention. I don't know why, but there are no empty fishponds this year. As a result, all shorebirds are concentrated on the few beach lagoons. It's Jewish New Year holiday now, which means that the always busy beach is extra busy now. When we arrived early, there were already tens of people, dogs, cyclists, powered parachutes, boats - complete mayhem. Unfortunately, also a few photographers and birders were a bit too assertive approaching the shorebirds. And some beach-goers seemed to enjoy deliberately flushing the birds. The poor birds were up in the air constantly, first fleeing from lagoon to lagoon, then they gave up on foraging and went to rest on offshore rocks. Until they were flushed from there by fishermen too.

Typical scenes on the beach today - image courtesy of Piki Ish Shalom

It was a real pity because that fair concentration of shorebirds contained good species (locally): 3 Bar-tailed Godwits, Red Knot, Broad-billed Sandpiper, 6 Citrine Wagtails and a good potential to host a vagrant among the hundreds of calidrids and plovers. But viewing them was difficult because all birds took off repeatedly, offering mainly flight views.

Bar-tailed Godwits

Red Knot, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Little Stints

Citrine Wagtail

Just as we decided to leave this hopeless scene, I spotted at a distance a young gull that looked promising for Audouin's Gull. Just too distant. Frustratingly, when we approached but it was still too far away, it disappeared before the ID was clinched. Hope it reappears.
It is a shame that this globally important bird area suffers from such disturbance. Personally, I can't roll my eyes and say passively 'something needs to be done'. That's my job; I need to do that something myself, with my colleagues. Fingers crossed some ideas there will work out in the future. At the moment, the birds and birders need to wait until the Jewish festival season is over, for some relief on the beach.
eBird checklist here. Thanks to Piki for the company.