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!

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Desert Social Distancing

Last week I worked for a couple of days in the desert. Solo birding seems to be the best way of Social Distancing for me. Weather was quite tough actually, very cold and harsh winds. This did reduce breeding activity of some species, but eventually I encountered most species I had expected, including MacQueen's Bustards, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Cream-coloured Courser, Bar-tailed Lark and Pale Rockfinch. At some spots also many migrants. Desert serenity is the best solution (for me) to deal with this Corona pandemic.

Trumpeter Finch in wonderful desert bloom, following exceptional winter rain

Streaked Scrub-Warbler carrying a spider to a recently-fledged young

Fine example of Sahara Great Grey Shrike

Eastern Bonelli's Warbler - quite many around

At Be'erotayim Grove the hume's Warbler is still present. Bloody camera didn't focus

Part of a small flock of Lesser Kestrels foraging on beetles in this flowering meadow

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Bogey bird down

Amidst the Corona craziness, this morning I managed to get myself to Arsuf. My target was a Blyth's Pipit that had been found a few days ago by Eyal Shochat - possibly a returning bird. I couldn't go until this morning, which made me quite restless over the weekend. I had a bitter history with this species in Israel, having been out of the country for all twitchable ones, and being unable to nail two birds I am sure I found myself (while leading a tour in 2010, and in my magic field in 2011). Till this morning. I met up with Rony early, and we stared working a lovely grassy field buzzing with birds, not dissimilar to a Mongolian steppe:

After few minutes of walking through wet grass we flushed the bird, it gave a nice call (I was unprepared with my sound recording gear) and showed well in flight:

Showing diagnostic pattern on T5, with limited white, wedge-shaped:

It joined its two Richard's friends, and the trio offered good comparative views of size and structure. Also, check the pattern of T5 on this Richard's - all white:

We were joined by a few more birders, and we spent some time with the birds and eventually were treated to good views of the Blyth's perched out in the open:

There were seven pipit species present - not bad; with an Olive-backed a few days ago and Long-billed at a few sites, it has been a good pipit week.
There were lots of birds and some good ones around (eBird checklist here) - three Sibe Stonechats, Oriental Skylark, Rueppell's Warbler etc.

Glad to put this one to rest - now I'm worried about birding and twitching in this Corona crisis. Stay safe.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Happy spring

Best way to avoid Coronavirus and to stay mentally healthy is birding, isn't it? That's exactly what I did this morning, only in my case it's also work. I worked/birded in Tel Krayot/Mt. Amasa area. It was a fine morning, together with good friends Barak, Roni, Oded, Avi and Ron.
We started off early at the archaeological site of Tel Krayot (eBird checklist here). Most prominent were Blue rock-Thrushes - they were everywhere. They breed here, I even found a nest with eggs. Sadly, birds at this site are quite skittish - too much disturbance from herders I guess, so please accept these photos as habitat shots...

Nearby, Nahal Tov was pretty good. Highlight was this stonking male Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush, showing its better side in this photo:

Numbers of Cretzschmar's Bunting are still a bit low, and we found no hoped-for Cinereous Bunting. However, can't complain about Cretzschmar's Bunting...

In this sound recording, a male gives some typical sharp calls and a short song sequence, then when a another bunting flew over he gave these soft bubbly contact calls:

There was some raptor migration up in the air, three Eurasian Crag-Martins flew by, and a single Syrian Serin did the same.

Beautiful flowers everywhere, including many Sharon Tulip:

On the way out, I stopped to admire impressive carpets of Lion's Leaf (Leontice leontopetalum) and Persian Lilly (Fritillaria persica):

Persian Lilly

Bamba posing

Sunday, March 8, 2020


Yesterday I surveyed different sections of Hameishar plains for the Atlas project, together with Rony and Leor. This sensitive military zone is off bounds on weekdays, so the safest day to visit without the risk of being kicked out is Saturday. Leaving home super early, we arrived at the first section, Wadi Trashim, shortly after dawn. Stepping out of the car, I was pleased to experience exactly what I was hoping for - air full of bird song, and bushes topped with perched birds. Brilliant. We started walking and picking up good birds in the exceptionally lush wadi - so subtly beautiful.

The soundscape was made up mainly by lark song - Lesser Short-toed, Crested, Temminck's and Bar-tailed, all busy in breeding activity, and also many Spectacled Warblers, giving their little display flights. Lesser Short-toed Lark is an opportunistic breeder here, only in years when rainfall is high and local productivity creates good breeding conditions, like this year:

Also breeding density of Spectacled Warbler seemed higher than average here:

There were lots of migrants too: a large flock of Greater Short-toed Larks, many common pipits, and goodies including Oriental Skylark, Richard's Pipit, Citrine Wagtail and Siberian Stonechat.

It was really great there (check eBird checklist here) but it was time to move on. We checked other sections in the south of the Plains, and experienced very different conditions compared to the northern section - extremely dry, with hardly any fresh germination, almost nothing, and perennials looking dry and dormant too. However this might change in the next week or two - large amounts of rain fell there in recent days, and may produce rapid germination of annuals and revival of perennials, hopefully followed by large-scale breeding events like last year (check here and here). Back to now and here, this recent rain event created some large puddles. When we drove up to one of the sites, we noticed that one of the puddles attracted massive numbers of Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse - simply fantastic. They were actually very tame and confident, and some walked very close to our car. The whole vocal and visual commotion, of birds coming and going, was wonderful to experience. 

Birding southwest and southeast sections of Hameishar was rather quiet and dry, and it was getting hot; we still managed to document breeding of Temminck's and Bar-tailed Larks, Desert and Isabelline Wheatears and enjoy some migrants like this cooperative Woodchat Shrike perched on a Spiny Zilla bush:

Many thanks to Rony and Leor for company.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Morning glory

This morning, before a meeting, I had tome for some Atlas fieldwork, not far from home. I surveyed Tzor'a Ridge, which is a low rise (320 m asl) 'towering' over the Tzor'a/Soreq Valley (120 m asl). It's a small remnant patch of Batha habitat, dominated by Thorny Burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum) with scattered bushes, mainly Spiny Hawthorn. Sadly, in this region most Batha-covered hills were either built over or planted with non-native conifers.

I didn't develop much expectations from this short morning session. My main target was Long-billed Pipit (it's not a known site for them, Batha patch too small) but one was photographed there in autumn; I was also hoping to see some other returning summer visitors like Woodchat Shrike or Cretzschmar's Bunting. Eventually I saw none, but it was a most enjoyable morning, with lovely warm weather, beautiful flowers and lots of migrants. 
Perhaps under-rated among the hordes of uber-sexy sylvias passing through now, I find Eastern Orphean Warbler very attractive. Not the most colourful of all, but certainly a quality bird, especially when this male showed so well:

Other sylvias were 6 Rüppell's Warblers, some of them showed very well. No matter how many I see, and how cheesy they are, it's always good fun to enjoy a good macho.

A female Blue Rock Thrush was sweet:

Me and this Short-toed Eagle were surprised by each other as I climbed over the crest of the hill:

I am quite certain (but not 100% sure) that this kestrel is a lesser - claws not black (though not milky yellow), long wings, tiny bill, faint moustache, finely spotted breast, V-shaped scapulars and mantle feathers, faded barring on coverts and tertials. But I maybe off and it's just a Common Kestrel.

eBird checklist here.
Many orchids were flowering, most common species (Pink Butterfly-Orchid, Carmel Bee-Orchid); this Early Spider-Orchid was almost as good as a bird:

Carmel Bee-Orchid

Pink Butterfly-Orchid