Monday, February 24, 2020

Cyprus pilgrimage

This morning Meidad and me paid Wadi Mishmar, by the Dead Sea, its annual late February visit, coinciding with peak migration of Cyprus Warbler. Soon after we started walking in, we heard a deep, distant raven croak and then spotted two Common Ravens perched on a dead tree in the distance - nice start.



We started checking the lush Taily Weed (Ochradenus baccatus) bushesץ At first it was big numbers of Sardinian Warblers; then as we continued climbing up the dry wadi bed, we encountered more and more Cyprus Warblers, giving their metallic chattering from deep inside bushes:



During the first hour or so, we encountered so many Cyprus Warblers, which was great, but from a photographic point of view they were real bastards, giving frustratingly bad views like this


or like this

or like this

Eventually I bumped into a male who wanted to play ball. I first spotted him looking all gorgeous in an acacia tree:


Then he decided to make the decent move and flew straight towards me:


And settled for a couple of minutes in a bush just few meters away, feasting on what the bush has to offer - fruit, arthropods, pollen. He was just brilliant. What a performer.





We ended up with 22 Cyprus Warblers - good tally. There were a few more migrants in the wadi - both cuckoos, Eastern Orphean, good fun. eBird checklist here.

On the way back home spent a midday hour in Lahav NR, which looks stunning now, flowers wall to wall, good birds singing, I had a good time.

Pink Butterfly Orchid

Finsch's Wheatear with Poppy Anemones in the background

Corn Bunting singing on Branched Ashpodel

Spectacled Warbler on Dominican Sage, accompanied by Xerocrassa seetzeni snails (thanks Nitai)



eBird checklist here.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Lesser Short-toed Larks

This morning I went surveying/working/birding with Jonathan and Piki southwest of Be'er Sheva, in an area of Loess plains and low hills, called Neot Hovav. It's a unique bit of open semi-desert, in the backyard of the horrible petrochemical industrial estate, Ramat Hovav. This is one of the few places in Israel where Lesser Short-toed Lark breeds regularly, and now is the time for male song and display. We arrived there shortly after dawn. Stepping out of the car, the scenery first strikes as rather unimpressive:


After a quick coffee and couple of minutes of listening, we heard and then saw our first lessers, circling high up in the sky:



Then, with some patience, we found them on the ground, feeding, displaying and running around; rather difficult to photograph well.




Often flying up, giving their scratchy call:

The males were busy displaying an courting. When they chased one after another, they often briefly landed on bushes to sing, again not cooperating for photography:



And off again...

Perhaps not the most spectacular lark of Israel, I find them very attractive. Small, pallid, delicate, elegant and unique. In Israel it's regarded as Vulnerable, due to it's shrinking population as a result of habitat loss, especially in the Loess plains of the northern Negev.

Lesser Short-toed Lark was certainly the dominant species at this habitat. We counted 22 birds. Other than that not too many other birds (eBird checklist here), Spectacled Warblers, and this lilith Little Owl:

On the way back home we stopped briefly to greet the Lesser Kestrels back on their roadside cliff along the Be'er Sheva Bypass:


Monday, February 17, 2020

Minigoose

This morning I monitored a couple of reservoirs a bit south of the center. Both were ugly, plastic-coated so I had low expectations for quality. The first, Negba, was indeed fairly quiet. When I arrived at the second, Sderot, I initially saw lots of Shoveler and Mallard. I started scanning, and in the middle of the first scope view was a diminutive goose - boom! With a tiny bill, yellow eyering, huge white forehead it was clearly a Lesser White-fronted Goose! I was very pleased with myself, got the news out and obtained some documentation, as it swam happily, at relatively decent distance with ducks and coots:



Digiscoped through Swarovski TAX85

However, after a while I became 'worried' that it could be the same individual from Mash'en reservoir (that I saw there just a few days ago), which is 18km away, as the goose flies. I had to shoot off to a meeting, but a friend (Shlomi) checked Mash'en later on and couldn't find the goose there. Therefore, 'my' goose is most likely the same individual. Slightly disappointing, yet this is still a great bird (about 10 records in Israel), and I did enjoy the thrill of 'self-finding' it.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Plastelaviv

This weekend I had a chance to do some urban birding in Tel Aviv. Despite the various opportunities for quality birding Tel Aviv metropolitan has on offer, my main target was a species I had never had a chance to document, or even spend quality-time with: Vinous-breasted Starling. This Category C colonised Israel more or less at the same time as Common Myna, in the late 1990's or early 2000's. It had some good years in greater Tel Aviv (see e.g. this study). However, unlike its Southeast-Asian congener, after a few good years, it seems that in recent years its population is in decline, and in fact they are not that widespread anymore. This morning I had some success photographing them in the western side of Hayarkon Park. I know, plastic fantastic and all that stuff; yet, they are on the Israel (and WP) list, and fine birds they are. Thanks to local birder Anat for gen.




Urban park birding

With the famous Reading chimney in the background


Plastic X 2

Typical pre-migration Tel Aviv eBird checklists, yesterday in Jaffa, today in Reading Park, Ha-Banim Park.


Friday, February 7, 2020

Wild thrush chase

On January 14th, Tzoor Magen found a lovely male Black-throated Thrush near his home in Tzur Hadassa:



I have seen only one Black-throated Thrush in Israel before, in January 2011:


Therefore, I was keen to see this beauty, so I headed there next morning, zilch. Later on that day, of course, it was refound. I returned a second time, the bird was refound while I was a kilometer away, I missed it.
The bird continues to show, some even got great pics of it. My motivation only increases. Why?
Last week I returned with Jonathan. Finally, we had brief views, twice, in flight; enough for a year-tick, but no photos. Still hungry.


Yesterday I went back with an old friend, Uri. Again, the briefest of views, no chance for a photo. It is a great area to bird in the winter - lots of finches, thrushes, warblers - pretty birdy up there. Makes missing the thrush, or at least not photographing it, a bit easier. And the valley is very beautiful now, wildflowers and all.
Will I try again? Most probably.


Thursday, January 30, 2020

Lynx-quest

Returned last night from five days in Spain, the fourth installment of our 'Big Cat Quest' (after Tiger, Lion-Cheetah-Leopard, Jaguar). While Iberian Lynx is at most an honorary Big Cat, it still is rare, beautiful and attractive, hence our interest. The team stayed the same - Amir, Eli, my brother Gidon and myself. We teamed up with Simon / Inglorious Bustards and stayed up in Los Piños, on the edge of Parque Naturel de la Sierre de Andujar.
On the way south we first stopped for a look at Laguna de Navaseca, about halfway between Madrid and Andujar - ideal birding stop with lots of birds, including many White-headed Ducks already getting into business:


Then it was up to the impressive Parque Natural de la Sierra de Andujar. We had planned to dedicate three full days and another morning for Lynx. Because of foul weather and various other limitations we spent much less time up on the mountain. 

Foul weather

When the sun did come out, we enjoyed spectacular Andujar scenery.


Embalse del Encinarejo


Sunset over Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Cabeza

When planning the trip I got the impression that Lynx was almost guaranteed with the amount of time we had planned to spend. In practice, we had to work very hard to get just a glimpse of this phantom cat. We spent most of our time at La Lancha, that seems to be the place for Lynx nowadays. On our final afternoon, in fading light, news came through of a male that was spotted down the road. We sped there, joining a rather large crowd assembled there.


After a nerve-wrecking wait the large macho was finally spotted patrolling his territory slowly, thanks to a mischief of mobbing magpies. He was distant, and my camera didn't cope well with the harsh conditions. Check this abstract illustration called 'Lynx walking majestically by a bush'.


Amir, however, managed to obtain some decent footage:


Adrenalin levels were high, and we were pretty chuffed. However, sadly, not all of our team managed to connect with the cat, and viewing conditions for those who saw it were far from ideal. We left the mountain with a slightly bitter taste, and hunger for another visit.

Birding was good, especially when the sun was out, highlights being Spanish Eagle, Cinereous Vulture, Iberian Green Woodpecker, Rock Bunting, Dartford Warbler and generally large numbers of finches. Check this representative eBird checklist.

Spanish Eagle

Cinereous Vulture

Supporting mammalian cast was Spanish ibex near the dam, including these two playful young males:


We broke the long journey back to Madrid and home in some familiar agro-steppe habitat south of Tembleque (thanks Remco!). We found there large flocks of Great Bustards, Little Bustards, Calandra Larks and other birds sheltering from the horrendous weather.

Avutardas

As always, big, wet bessos to the team for yet another great trip. Harder work this time, but fun nevertheless. Thanks to Simon and Niki for support before and during the trip.