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


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