Monday, October 26, 2020

Special book review: Ageing and Sexing of Migratory East Asian Passerines

 A few days ago I received this wonderful new book, sent to me by Avium Förlaga Swedish publisher: Ageing and Sexing of Migratory East Asian Passerines.

Authors: Gabriel Norevik, Magnus Hellström, Dongping Liu and Bo Petterson.

423 pp, 1420 colour photographs, text in English and Chinese.

The book arrived in a huge box, amply coated and protected. It is a large book, handbook-sized; at 31*24.5 cm, weighing 2.4 kg, it does not fit in a ringer's box, nor into a backpack. Its price tag of £94.99 on NHBS, and SEK899 on Natur Bokhandeln make it rather heavy for the individual ringer and birder. The book is aimed towards use at ringing stations and bird observatories with generous shelf space and a book budget, or as a reference for 'well-established' field ornithologists, ringers and birders, returning home or to the office from the field. The book covers (only) 62 species, those most prominent at East Asian migration hotspots like Beidahe, where research for this book took place. The other side of the detail versus size trade-off is a huge selection of superb, neat, full-size, hi-res images, covering different ages and sexes. Species accounts typically include 20-30 images per species! The different sections for specific identification, moult, ageing and sexing in autumn and spring, organised in a standard structure, make the information accessible and easy to find. Check this splendid account of an elegant bunting (p.361):

This book was produced through a collaboration between Swedish and Chinese ringers. The text is bilingual, with all text appearing side-by-side, English in left column, Chinese in right. I have no problem with that at all, understanding that the book is there for Chinese and Chinese-reading ringers to use. The introduction contains important information about the basics of bird ringing, including bird topography and terminology in moult. This is crucial, because advanced ringing literature readily available to European ringers for decades, such as Svensson's Identification Guide to European Passerines, first published in 1970 and updated since (maybe even a 5th edition one day?), are unavailable to Chinese ringers, especially if they can't read English. Hopefully, this publication will aid Chinese ringers to catch up in detail and professionalism with their Swedish partners.

It becomes clear when reading the text, concise and coherent, and viewing the photos, sharp, illustrative and instructive, that this book is of the highest professional standards. It includes some pieces of information that may seem trivial to advanced ringers. For example, the sections on feather positions and wing length (p. 23) are there for ringers during their training process:

However, the book mainly contains top-quality data and information about moult, identification and ageing that will increase its appeal to the most serious ringers and birders. This book is based upon years of research, collecting data from thousands of birds, photographing and documenting, mainly at the world-famous migration hub of Beidahe in eastern China. It is evident that the expertise developed by generations of top-class Swedish ringers was transferred to the rich avifaunal region of the Orient. I have not had the chance to read each and every word in the entire text. However, I read very carefully accounts of species I am well familiar with, and found the text to be very accurate, detailed and coherent. I assume this level is maintained throughout the book. I did not spot any errors, though I am sure there are few, as in any detail-packed book.

I wrote above 'only 62 species', because this is another aspect of the trade-off between detail and size. The book focuses only on a small subset of species, and does not include information on many other species of migratory East Asian passerines that were left out. I understand this decision, but acknowledge that this is not a full reference book for the region, unlike those available for European ringers, such as Demongin's 2016 Identification Guide to Birds in the Hand (see my review in Dutch Birding). There's still a need for a full reference for in-hand identification, ageing and sexing of East Asian passerines, migratory and non-migratory, which hopefully will get published in the not-so-distant future.

In my opinion the essence of the book is in the photos, and this is its main advantage. As mentioned above, the book contains many photographs, and they are spectacular. From personal experience, I can testify that producing such high-quality photographs of birds in the hand, standardised in colour balance and position, neat and tidy, is a huge and extremely challenging task. Almost without exception, I think the authors succeeded in this task. I am especially impressed by the photos demonstrating moult limits, that are often extremely slight and difficult to illustrate in photos. A good example for clear display of tricky-to-spot moult limit is Brambling (p. 293):

Another good example for display of moult limit is in Grey-backed Thrush (p. 361):

In photographic guides, accurate colour balance is important too, for example when comparing feathers of young birds versus adults. I found colour separation very good, well-printed, and accurate, for example the difference in base colour of Siberian Accentor coverts of different generations (p. 256):

There are very few exceptions to this, where colour balance is not optimal, for example photos of Eastern Crowned Warbler (p. 81) that are too bright yellow-green:

The ability to display feather wear in photographs is not a trivial task either. In this book, variation in wear is well-displayed, for example in Black-faced Bunting wing photos (p. 384):

While this is mainly a book for ringers, aiding identification, sexing and ageing in the hand, it will surely become popular among avid birders in Europe and North America, keen on finding/identifying/twitching East Asian vagrants on e.g. islands such as Shetland, Scilly, Helgoland, Ouessant, Utsira, Attu and Farralon. The specific identification text and photo section is useful for this. I also found the comparative plates of species-groups very illustrative and helpful, for example grey flycatchers (p. 410-411):

I hope that American birders will cope well with ringing autumn moult grey colours, and use of calendar-years and European moult terminology.

To conclude, I find this book an important reference for ringers, essential for East Asian ringers, but also for European and North American ringers and birders. It is instructive, of high-quality, attractive and accurate. It is indeed big, heavy and expensive; yet, even in our changing world of online publications, I find this book an important addition on any keen book shelf.

Thanks to Avium Förlag for generously providing me with this opportunity to review the book.


Sunday, October 18, 2020

October Big Day

Yesterday the IL big day team (Jonathan, Re'a and me) reunited for our bi-annual mad dash across the country. Despite doing it for several years now, our motivation is still high. This year, eBird October Big Day was merged with Global Birding Weekend, and we were happy to support both efforts.

As in previous big days, focus of the day was on hi-speed birding, and there were few opportunities for photography. We left home in the middle of the night, ticked Barn Owl en route, and arrived at the gate of Hula Nature Reserve well before dawn, to quickly hear Tawny Owls. We entered Agamon Hula when it was still dark, and were rewarded by great views (but awful photos) of a majestic Eurasian Eagle-Owl, not too common down in the valley. 


Early morning birding was good in the Agamon - plenty of birds around (82 spp), nothing special but Sibe stonechats, Black Francolin, Stock Dove and soundtrack of newly-arrived cranes were all quality. The weather was lovely and cool - in fact it was the first time this season that I wore an extra layer.

Siberian Stonechat ssp. hemprichii

A quick stop at Lahavot Habashan produced Marbled Teals. Up on Mt. Hermon birding was fairly quiet - despite the dry weather relatively few birds came in to drink at the pools. Nevertheless, we cleaned up Hermon specialties quickly and efficiently - Syrian Serin, Sombre Tit, Western Rock Nuthatch etc.


Syrian Serin - sorry, messages came in to my phone

After we descended from Mt. Hermon, temperatures were already high. We needed to work quite hard to find birds in this heat but I think we did rather well (and thank god for car air conditioning).  On Mt. Hermonit we found a male Finsch's Wheatear. In Susita it was so hot that we feared the Long-billed Pipit running across the road would burn his feet.


When we arrived at Kfar Ruppin, at the bottom of Bet Shean Valley, the heat was really challenging, for both birds and humans. However, with hard work and good gen we found most specialties we were after, and somehow managed to enjoy good birds obscured behind the clouds of Black Kites everywhere: Daurian (Isabeline) Shrike, 3 Oriental Skylarks, Richard's Pipit, Dead Sea Sparrow.

Heading west we quickly stopped for some gulls in Heftziba where a lovely dark morph Eurasian Marsh-Harrier flew past.


Our last birding site for the afternoon was HaMa'apil fishponds. We quickly got on to the Greater Painted-snipe that had been present for about three weeks now, standing motionless at the corner of its favourite little pond. Lovely bird, and especially for me it was a big moment of relief. Ashamedly, In recent weeks I have been up there a few times already, failing to find the skulker each time. So it was very well received.


Our day ended with 151 species, quite respectable I think. Certainly much better than the 130 of October 2019 or the 137 of May 2020. Yet, I think that the potential is much higher - again we missed good raptor diversity, and passerine migration on the slow side. Let's see what we do next year.

Thanks a bunch to my team, Re'a and Jonathan, for another successful Global Big Day. Fun and laughs all day long, you guys rock! It was a privilege, as always, to use the supreme optics provided by Swarovski Optik. Makes finding birds so much easier! 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The best show in town

 Sorry for neglecting my blog recently. Busy weeks, lockdown, lots of stuff going on. I have been out daily to marvel at the spectacle of migration, up in the sky and on the ground. It has really been great. However, to my eyes, one of the best shows Israel has to offer is the congregation of fresh-looking desert birds, post post-breeding moult, at desert springs. A while ago I went with Amir to Ein Salvadora, a famous little spring north of Ein Gedi. It holds water year-round, in stunning location, with soaring cliffs and the Dead Sea in the backdrop. It's a tiny spring, just a few drops of water trickling out from a crack in a wall, concealed behind a large Salvadora persica bush. That's enough to attract birds and mammals from far afield. It's not an easy site for photography - one needs to keep a fair distance away from the spring in order not to disturb the animals, and the drinking spot is in deep shade, red light reflecting from the surrounding sandstone rocks.

We climbed up the mountain trail before dawn, to position ourselves at an appropriate spot as soon as birds started to arrive. And they did, in big numbers. All quality. All so pretty and fresh. Those arriving in biggest numbers were Trumpeter Finch - fantastic breeding season for them all over the Israeli desert, so many youngsters around. Hundreds came in to drink, arriving in flocks, normally first perched on the rocks above the spring before descending to the water.

Another dominant species was Striolated Bunting - hundreds came in to drink too. Most were young birds, demonstrating the excellent breeding season they had. 








Sinai Rosefinch is another highly-prized specialty of this site. It is scarcer, and shier, than the other species. They spent more time perched up on the walls above the spring, and chose secluded spots for drinking. Again, most were young birds, adults, especially males in lower proportions. Still, out of the 75 birds in total, quite a few were pink jems.



Trumpeter and rosefinch


Desert Lark came in to drink in hundreds too:



Overhead, a Barbary Falcon cruised above the cliffs, a pair of Common Ravens kronked around, and a lone Long-legged Buzzard circled.

Kronk-kronk!



A large herd of Nubian Ibex came down to drink and hung around the spring. The herd included a dominant bull, showing off his swagger, dominating younger males and chasing after females:




Soon it became too hot for animals and humans, we headed back down to our car and back to civilisation. It certainly felt better up by the spring.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Mig mig

Migration is peaking now in Israel. The weather is still quite awful - midday temperatures soar into the mid 30's, but the early mornings offer some respite and are pleasant enough for birds and for birders. I keep going out birding every morning, even now during our second lockdown. I have fieldwork to do, and anti-poaching duties, which thankfully keep me outdoors. 

The fields and reservoirs near home are packed full with birds, offering some hope that we have not screwed the world up completely, yet. Often, early morning birding sessions end up with an impressive tally (check this representative checklist for example). Willow Warblers numbers are very low, but other species groups seem to be doing OK - shrikes, buntings, chats. Young Lesser Gray Shrikes are seen in numbers now - very neat birds:

Numbers of Cretzschmar's and Ortolans and even now - Cretzs still around in force:


Raptor migration is very prominent now. Luckily, I live on the main highway. Unlucky for me, I need to spend most hours of the day working indoors - wish I could sit outside all day with a cold beer and stare at the skies. However, every time I stick my head out of the air-conditioned house between 10:00 and 15:00 and look up there are convoys up in the sky, of Lesser Spotted Eagle, Levant Sparrowhawk, Honey Buzzard, Black Kite and many other species (check this checklist for example).

Lesser Spotted Eagle and two levants

Part of a flock of 800 Levant Sparrowhawks

It's a good time of year for shorebirds too. A visit to Ma'agan Michael offered good views of Bar-tailed Godwits - scarce in Israel:


Gan Shmuel fishponds hosted a Pectoral Sandpiper - I had to go and visit. 15th for Israel, I have seen a few before but always nice to connect with:

Pec Sand with friends

Best bird I found recently was yesterday - while birding with Piki in Tal Shachar (good fun!) we flushed a snipe from under our feet - it gave a familiar call, taking me back to November 1998 - Pin-tailed Snipe! In flight we noticed that there was no trailing edge, it was stocky with a short bill, but if flew away and out of sight. Sadly no photo but satisfying birding moment! We couldn't relocate it - hope it shows up again.

Sadly, not all of my work includes happy birding moments. On Friday I was called to retrieve a transmitter of a dead Bonelli's Eagle not far from home, and asses the cause of death. No need for detective work to make this assessment:

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Super duper

On Monday I left home too early, to make it on time to a boat trip out of Eilat. At first light, while cruising through Hameishar Plains, I noticed a lovely herd of Onager by the road - had to stop and film them quickly. It was really dark; only on the computer screen I noticed there were some birds in the frame too - a Woodchat Shrike, and perhaps another shrike in the foreground:


A quick birding stop at Neot Smadar revealed a nice variety of migrants, albeit in small numbers - wagtails, hirundines, shrikes, wheatears, buntings, warblers - not bad. eBird checklist here.

23+20=RBS


I met up with Noam at IBRCE, where I parked my car as we had arranged to drive together to the dock where our boat was moored. When I stepped out of the car, Noam walked towards me out of the ringing hut smiling from cheek to cheek, holding a bird. Menetries's Warbler! Fantastic bird, extremely early (they're even rarer in autumn than in spring, usually in November), perfect timing for me... Time for a quick snap, under pressure, we had to shoot off; wrong camera settings and harsh light make the tail look less pitch-black and overall more warm-toned than it was in real life. 

Menetries's Warbler, 1cy, IBRCE, 7 September 2020. Pinkish flush on breast may suggest it belongs to ssp. mystacea

Then it was time for the main show. I joined the monthly pelagic monitoring trip, organised by INPA and IBRCE. On the boat were INPA's Chen and Eran, and IBRCE's Noam and Iris.We set off from Eilat at 08:30, and headed out towards our regular spot, as close as possible to the border triangle Israel - Egypt - Jordan. Strong northerlies made the sea relatively rough (not like southern ocean rough, but there were white crests), which made scanning rather challenging. We spent over three hours chumming, nada. Nothing came in to check the chum, and there were no seabirds around us at all. As we started talking about a pack-up and retreat, suddenly a storm-petrel was spotted fluttering over the slick, out of nowhere. It spent few seconds over the slick, about 50 m away, good light conditions. It showed a small size and big white rump extending down to undertail coverts - Wilson's Petrel! It happened all too fast for any photos to be taken, sadly. The storm-petrel then continued south and landed on the water, too far to get any details on it. We tried to edge towards it, but were immediately called out by the navy, warning us not to drift across the border. We waited for a while, hoping the bird would return to check the slick, but it didn't and we lost contact with it.

Wilson's and I have a bit of history together. The first record for Israel, in 1983, was before I started birding. Then 33 years of nothing, until in September 2016 Noam blasted with a fantastic record. In 2017, another tasty record, this time two were seen. During these years I lived in the UK, and watched with envy my friend's lists growing. These records suggested that Wilson's Storm-Petrel (and Swinhoe's) is a regular summer/autumn visitor to the Gulf of Aqaba. In 2018, shortly after my return to Israel, I tried a couple of times. Blank. In 2019, again, nothing, 'just' a Swinhoe's. July 2020 - again, a single bird recorded by Noam and INPA, photo by Gal Marinov: 

In August one more try - swinhoe's again but no wilson's. I didn't give up, and I'm glad I didn't - finally Wilson's Storm-Petrel is on my list.

We returned to shore, Noam smiling from cheek to cheek for the second time that day. It became very hot (43 C), I was very tired and wanted to get back home. Despite these, KM20 saltpans lured me for a quick check. I did not regret. The pans were exploding with shorebirds - best form I have seen them in many years. Many thousands of shorebirds, huge numbers of Little Stint and Ringed Plover, several more species in impressive numbers, quality in the form of two Terek Sands, four Black-winged Pratincloes, six Broad-billed Sands, a Red-necked Phalarope - very good fun. I wish I had more time in better conditions - not easy to quickly pick up a semiP in strong wind and scorching heat. Next time. ebird checklist here.

Class of September 2020, from left: Common Redshank, Wood Sandpiper, Terek Sandpiper, Western Yellow wagtail, Common Ringed Plover, Marsh Sandpiper


Thanks agaim to Noam, Iris and IBRCE team, and to Eran and Chen of INPA - I wish us all many more successful days like this one.


Thursday, September 3, 2020

PGP

This morning I paid a mandatory visit to the returning Pacific Golden-Plover in Tel Aviv (needed it for my yearlist...). This individual returned a couple of weeks ago for its fourth winter - in previous years it stayed until March. Over the years it has become so tame and tolerant to humans - it just stood there. Beautiful bird.

Before the sun was up


Golden light



I checked the nearby coastal scrub strip for migrants. There were some shrikes, wheatears, whinchats etc. - nice selection but small numbers.

eBird checklists for beach and scrub.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Greater Sand-plover

Taken in Haifa a few days ago, early morning during a family holiday. I spent a few enjoyable minutes during the golden hour, as it fed on inverts in rockpools. 

Greater Sand-plover is a rather common non-breeding visitor to coastal Israel, seen mainly on rocky strips. They arrive back from their rather near breeding grounds (as close as Syria, apparently) already in late June, and stay with us until late May. In August they're already in full non-breeding plumage, which is a good ID feature vs. Lesser Sand-plover. As are its green legs.