Wednesday, May 27, 2020

End of spring

It's been a while since my last update here, not for lack of birding - I maintain my daily birding routine, keeping up with my #checklistadaychallenge, now on a streak of 287 days... Somehow, I have been very busy in recent weeks, and weather was quite awful at times, so I took very few photos and have rather few stories to tell. However, here's an accumulation of some random stuff I encountered recently.

Breeding bird atlas work continues, less in the far south, where the desert is drying up, more in the center and north, where Batha birds like this Long-billed Pipit, unusually perched on a bush, are the main stars:

I found Upcher's Warbler breeding at a few sites - still one of Israel's most sensitive breeding birds:

Spring migration has all but ended during the second half of the month. Somehow, only JBO maintains decent numbers of migrants (see this checklist for example) when the rest of the country dries up completely. 

Barred Warbler

This vocal River Warbler was a welcome addition to my year list: 

Jonathan and I chose the hottest day of the year (so far) for a quick visit to Eilat for early morning seawatching.

49 degrees celsius, 120 fahrenheit

It was somewhat quieter than we had hoped for (eBird checklist here), but still nice to be down there. Flying Spoon (AKA Pomarine Skua AKA Pomarine Jaeger) is always a good one:


Despite the heat we managed to connect with Black Scrub-robins in Samar - their stronghold in Israel:


In recent days migration has come to a halt. I have not seen a proper migrant in my recent visits to the patch. Now it's time for summer breeding specialties, and for summer biggies. I am ready.


Sunday, May 10, 2020

Global Big Day May 2020

Yesterday was eBird's Global Big Day, this year coinciding with World Migratory Bird Day. While most of the biding world is still under some kind of lockdown regulations, here in Israel there has been a serious relief of travel restrictions in recent days. Therefore, Team IGBD reunited for another run - Jonathan, Re'a, Nadav (far northern section) and me.
We had developed a plan, quite similar route to what we did in 2019, bar one change - we decided to skip the desert bit, shorten driving distances by staying only in the north. It was a great plan, but what we had not planned was the weather. Weather forecast for yesterday looked a bit windy after 10:00 but nothing too dramatic. Eventually, weather was our main challenge yesterday.
We left home very early to arrive in Hula Valley well before dawn. It took us some searching but before dawn we already had a few owls, including Tawny Owl. When we got to Agamon Hula the wind was already blowing very hard. With the dry air and soil, the wind blew up red dust into the air, creating very difficult birding conditions.



Our most productive hours of dawn went by frustratingly quietly as birds kept a very low profile. We managed somehow Marbled Duck, Golden Oriole and a few other species but the total tally was much lower than expected. Also, because of the fierce wind, the birds and I were not in photography mode at all. Only these European Bee-eaters posed briefly in soft, overcast light.


We left the Hula Valley and headed up towards Mt. Hermon that looked quite clear at the time. What a mistake. By the time we got there, dust storm turned into torrential rain, gale-force winds, 6⁰ C. Horrible birding conditions. We did our very best but saw little. Only in late morning, when we descended to lower elevations, we started seeing and hearing some birds. Eventually we left Mt. Hermon with almost all specialties (Syrian Serin, Sombre Tit, Western Rock Nuthatch etc.) in the bag, but very few species altogether, hardly any migrants. It was almost noon, and we hadn't even reached 100 species yet - quite a blow.

Our next stop was in the northern Golan Heights, where things improved a bit, though the weather was still far from ideal. Black-headed Buntings showed nicely, and Calandra Larks were in flight song over some fields.

Singing in the rain

Black-headed vs. Corn, with raw 'behind the stage' soundtrack. Translated from Hebrew:

Jonathan: No way I can film this handheld (we were sat inside the car, YP)
Yoav: Shhhhhhhh....
Jonathan: Oh, both of them together, arrgghhh,

We continued down towards Lake Kinneret, where improved weather conditions aided us in a productive midday visit to Susita - Long-billed Pipit, Little Swifts, Blackstart and others showed quite efficiently.

In the early afternoon, Kfar Ruppin in Bet She'an Valley was OK (Little Bittern, Pratincoles and few raptors on migration) but other sections of the valley were quiet.
We ended the day on the Mediterranean Coast, at Ma'ayan Tzvi and Ma'agan Michael. The pond that hosted the Three-banded Plover was still shorebird-productive (17 Broad-billed Sands etc.) but several common species were missing. Frustratingly, Ma'agan Michael beach was totally devoid of shorebirds. We had to settle for a romantic sunset, decorated with hundreds of terns flying over the sea.


Our last new bird of the day was Long-eared Owl, a squeaky juvenile back in central Israel.

Our day total was 137 species. Quite poor compared to 164 last year. However, I think that despite the challenging weather conditions we did rather well. We certainly did our best, and on paper our route was good. Next time we might try another combo though.

Huge thanks and kudos to my team mates, Jonathan, Re'a and Nadav. The tough conditions didn't turn our spirits down, and it was a blast, as always. Thanks also to Swarovski Optik Nature for their ongoing support. Here's to GBD2021!

Sunday, May 3, 2020

My Eilat fix

In most springs I spend a considerable amount of time in Eilat, around COTF - Eilat Bird festival, and other opportunities to bird in this incredible migration hotspot. This year, as soon as COVID-19 pandemic broke, COTF and festival were cancelled, and Eilat was sealed off completely to outsiders. Only on Thursday lockdown was lifted, and I took the opportunity to spend some time there with Jonathan. In the morning we actually did a ringing session at Ashalim Reservoir, in the southern dead Sea.


This site experienced a severe contamination event a couple of years ago. We're participating in a research that checks the presence of pollutants in feather of local birds. Ringing was somewhat slow, but this stunning male Collared Flycatcher certainly brightened our morning!


After we were done we headed south towards Eilat. We were left heartbroken after finding this beautiful young female Striped Hyena roadkilled. So sad.


A quick stop at Yotvata produced many Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters:


Down at Eilat, we birded the traditional sites - it was so good to be back. Passerine migration was a bit slow, bar Blackcaps that were everywhere. However, KM20 saltpans were exploding with shorebirds (eBird checklist here). There were lots of good species there too, including incredible numbers of Broad-billed Sands, Red-necked Phalaropes, and the star was a Terek Sandpiper found by Shachar:



Jonathan and I did a live birding session for Swarvoski Optik. We had found the perfect spot, tons of close shorebirds, and just as we started the live session a Peregrine decided to land exactly there and flushed everything - frustrating! Still it was good fun.

Namaqua Doves - just for fun

In the late afternoon there was a terrific descent of raptors to roost down in the valley, mainly on Aqaba side. Thousands and thousands of Euro Honey-Buzzards and Levants drifted low, in golden evening light - fantastic. One of the local Oriental Honeys was seen too. At dusk, seven Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse flew over IBRCE to drink in Aqaba, excellent end to the looooong day.

Next morning (Friday) we started off at IBRCE, where Levants were darting between the trees, leaving the small passerines startled.

Quite many Honey Buzzards had roosted in the park too.

A surprising dark morph Clamorous Reed Warbler showed very well at Lake Anita:


Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin is such a cool bird

Back at KM20, the terek was still around, but despite trying really hard, we failed to pull some real quality out of the hundreds of Little Stints. Here are seven (out of 26) Broad-billed Sands, with some friends:


Again, excellent raptor migration developed overhead.


The raptors drifted north, and we followed them, leaving back home too early due to domestic commitments. Till next time...

Friday, April 24, 2020

3B Plover revisited

This morning I met up with Jonathan and Piki at Ma'ayan Tzvi and Ma'agan Michael. Following the exciting discovery of the first Three-banded Plover for Israel, several other good shorebirds accumulated in the same dried-up fishpond, which required our attention. Weather was unstable today, and light conditions were not great. First thing when we arrived on site, Jonathan spotted the lover, which was cool as it had been reported missing for about a week now. It showed very well, now perhaps more relaxed after a few traumatic twitching days. Lovely bird, it was great to watch it forage peacefully and even heard it vocalise (crappy sound recording in eBird checklist here).


As we walked quietly along the vegetated bank, a small passerine flicked in the vegetation ahead. It was cool how Jonathan's brain and mine processed what we saw at the same speed, as we both exclaimed simultaneously 'Icterine Warbler!'. Sadly, it was very mobile an we lost it quickly, without a photo. The fishpond indeed hosted good shorebirds, including Bar-tailed Godwit, nine Broad-billed Sandpipers and Collared Pratincole. Broad-billed Sands are so pretty now.


Thanks to Corona Lockdown, we witnessed a very relaxed family party of Wild Boar:



Northern Wheatear is common; this one posed so nicely that it demanded documentation:



Down on the Ma'agan Michael beach, several quality shorebirds showed nicely, including three Whimbrel and two Greater Sand-plovers:




Admittedly, there were few migrant landbirds on the ground. Moving through, however, were fine numbers of hirundines and Spanish Sparrows. eBird checklist here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

An amateur digiscoper's guide to video stabilization

I want to introduce fellow birders to a super-neat option I became familiar with some time ago (thanks M). With improving phone cameras, and high-quality scopes (like my Swarovski ATX85), shooting digiscoped phone videos has become an option again - most suitable for field documentation. I find myself shooting more videos recently, especially now that eBird/Macaulay Library enabled video upload.
However, very often videos come out horribly shaky, in windy conditions, or when a phone adapter is not used, or when hands are shaking and heart is beating fast while watching a rarity. This is a brilliant solution, using a widget built-in in Google Photos app, easy to use, free, readily available in the field on every Android phone (I assume there are similar solutions on iOS phones). Now, shaky videos can be salvaged, and used for documentation purposes.

This is a step-by-step guide how I stabilize my videos.

Step 1 - shoot that shaky video




This is a short Woodchat Shrike video I shot a few days ago during authorized fieldwork. Quite awful, isn't it?

Step 2 - open Google Photos on your phone, in Google Apps


Step 2 - open that shaky video in Google Photos

Step 3 - press Stabilize icon


Step 4 - Stabilize

This process often takes 10-20 seconds, depends on video length. The app crops the video slightly, keeping the object perfectly still in the center. I assume that the shakier the video is, the tighter crop is necessary. 


Step 5 - Save Copy

This process takes a few seconds as well, depending on your internet connection. 



Step 6 - ta da! Magic. You're done.

Now the stabilized video can be used - it is saved in your phone gallery.



Sunday, April 12, 2020

Essential travel

Strange day today. Started the day monitoring a few reservoirs, under authorisation, as part of an important national project. No special highlights, just nice weather and a few fine birds, including my first Collared Pratincoles of the year (harsh light masking the rufous underwing coverts)


Just as I was done with the final reservoir, the RBA alert went off, CODE RED. Three-banded Plover at Ma'ayan Tzvi!!! WTF!?! 


I didn't even think about Covid-19 implications or anything else, just full steam ahead. Got there quickly, thankfully roads are quite empty now... I joined the few others already on site, and quickly connected with the bird. Fantastic stuff. Great views though horrible light conditions for photography, with heat haze and harsh midday sun. Beautiful bird in immaculate plumage; those red eyes...



Mini twitch during COVID-19 times, socially distancing

I had no time for a full circuit of Ma'agan Michael, just a quick drive around the plover's fishpond that produced quite a nice list (eBird checklist here).

On the way back home, I started receiving concerned messages and phone calls, challenging my celebration of this bird during lockdown. I acknowledge the complexity of this situation, yet I cannot see myself not going to twitch this bird. Regarding the others who came for the twitch - each person made their own decision, and I cannot vouch for them. 

Saturday, April 11, 2020

B&W fall

Yesterday I worked in yet another remote wadi deep in the desert, this time in the high Negev Mts. west of Mitzpe Ramon. Same routine: leave home at silly o'clock, drive deep into the desert on rough 4X4 tracks, then walk the polygon and do point counts. Then drive back to road, and back home. Routine might sound a bit boring, but when I am treated to scenery like this, I can't complain:


Breeding birds were doing well, feasting on caterpillars in the lush wadis. Mourning Wheatear, Trumpeter Finch, Desert Lark and Scrub Warbler are the dominant species in this habitat, all evidently having a good breeding season. Scarcer breeding species included Lesser Short-toed Lark, Spectacled Warbler and Isabelline Wheatear.

Baby Mourning Wheatear

All along the walk on the hills, good numbers of Tawny and Tree pipits, and Ortolans were moving around. As we descended from the hills towards the lush wadi, it became clear that there's a big fall of migrants. The first Collared Flycatcher was spotted perched high up on a cliff. Then another, and another, and another, all in non-habitat, a small grassy wadi with scattered low bushes. Then quickly a Wryneck, Whinchat, Pied Fly, Wood Warbler, Redstart, nightingales, tens of Sylvia warblers - migration magic. More and more migrants kept showing up as we moved along the wadi. Scenes of five Collared Flys in one bush. Or another tiny bush hosting Collared Fly, Redstart, Nightingale and Wood Warbler. Like a total amateur, my camera battery died just then... While my main task was to record breeding evidence of local birds, it was such fun to dive in to this migration experience and forget all about breeding bird atlas...

One of many Collared Flycatchers

Wood Warbler

This fall of B&W flycatchers, possibly unprecedented, is generating a lot of interest in Israel:


Besides birds, there was some butterfly interest as well. I am not a butterfly expert, but the person I was working with yesterday is, and he introduced me to a range-restricted, interesting butterfly: Bladder Senna Blue (Lolana alfierii), that is specific to the bush Bladder Senna (Colutea istria), sometimes associated with the biblical Senna bush. 


In Israel the bush and butterfly are found only in this region. The bush is now in full flower, attracting lots of insects and birds. Each bush we checked attracted tons of Sylvia warblers and several individuals of this little butterfly, though most were found perched on the ground besides the bushes.





Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Nomads

As part of my breeding bird atlas work duties, on Saturday I visited with Jonathan a wonderful, pristine desert wadi deep in the Arava desert. Our target was larks: In previous years with above-average rainfall like this year, this wadi hosted rare nomad breeding larks, especially Thick-billed and Arabian Dunn's. We arrived there at first light, and were greeted immediately by the sweet, melancholic song of Hoopoe Lark as soon as we stepped out the the car. A highlight of desert birding in Israel in my opinion. Before sunrise we had brief views of a lark with a dark tail - could it be Dunn's? Too brief, to be sure. But as we walked on and covered more ground, we found a pair on the ground, the male singing and displaying - boom! They were not easy to document, very shy and mobile. I managed to get a rubbish record digiscoped video - here are two videograbs:



During the morning we had in total 5-6 singing males. Great to have them back - no breeding in Israel since 2015. Following our observation, singing males were found also by Itai and Meidad at a few more sites in the Arava and Negev, and there's an influx going on in northern and central Israel. Interesting to see how this season unfolds - whether this will develop into a serious breeding event or not. Where we visited, breeding density wasn't as high as in the famous 2010 breeding event. Hopefully, despite lockdown limiting our ability to explore desert regions, we will be able to get a better understanding of the scale of this event.


There were many other larks present, including Temminck's, Bar-tailed and Lesser Short-toed .Unlike the rather shy Dunn's, Hoopoe Larks were super active. We found seven breeding pairs, including confirmed breeding - highest density of this rare breeding lark I have ever seen in Israel. Because of their sensitivity, I gave them space and avoided close encounters, so not the greatest photos.


Compilation of a displaying male, sadly the camera lost focus on descent


Same photo uncropped - a bit of habitat


Monday, March 30, 2020

Unlockdown birding

While the entire country is in near-complete lockdown, I still do fieldwork. Paradoxically, while so many people in Israel and worldwide and out of work, I work even harder now, trying to get as much fieldwork done, to compensate for missing seasonal field technicians, before lockdown regulations tighten even further. I get to work in solitude, in wonderful habitats, during this lovely time of year - lucky me. I worked in Tzafit Hills NR, not far from home. Beautiful landscape, home to Mountain Gazelles


Many orchids, dominated by Long-lipped Serapias


And lots of migrants and good breeding birds, such as Cretzchmar's Buntings, looking pretty in early morning sun


Down south I worked in some remote desert sites, finding breeding evidence for several important species. It was fun to see this lone Squacco Heron flying solo over the desert, then landed in a small patch of suitable habitat - roadside barrier:




I enjoyed birding in Mitzpe Ramon park, normally very busy with people, now deserted and packed with birds, including two Syrian Serins


This morning I ringed at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, that is experiencing a great migration season; sadly ringing activity is limited now by the capacity of permanent staff like myself. JBO is looking good now, with trees packed with birds. Most dominant this morning were Siskin and Hawfinch - huge numbers of both. Check this soundscape, of a flock of 180 Siskin chattering to each other:

Subalpine Warbler is always a treat:


As was my first-of-year Collared Flycatcher:


Fantastic orchids in flower there now:

Galilee Orchid

Three-toothed Orchid

Yellow Bee-orchid

Champions of the Flyway starts soon - will do my best tomorrow!