Monday, December 28, 2020

Summary of 2020 - a birding year to remember

Like everyone else, 2020 was the craziest, weirdest and most intense year of my life. I feel quite lucky though. While my country is going down the drain, failing miserably to deal with the COVID pandemic, special circumstances actually allowed me to up my birding game, at least in Israel.

How to summarise such an eventful year, with so many wonderful, unexpected wildlife experiences in one post? As in previous years, I will attempt to address the different aspects of my birding year in a thematic manner. So here we go:


Every year, my job involves a reasonable amount of time doing fieldwork in the various projects I coordinate or contribute to. In normal years, most fieldwork is done by freelance birders we hire. This year, when COVID19 pandemic broke, my organisation (BirdLife Israel) went into financial crisis mode. Many field projects were cancelled, but those that were already budgeted went on, without the contribution of freelance birders to the fieldwork effort. Therefore, the entire fieldwork load was divided by the few permanent staff. For me, it meant that between March and July, I basically shut down all other aspects of my work (and life), and devoted my time to fieldwork, day in day out. And I can't complain. It was a fantastic field season. The previous winter brought exceptional rainfall to the desert, the weather was beautiful, and the birds responded well. I focused mainly on two big projects, breeding birds of Nizzana region, and the national Breeding Bird Atlas. This brought me to some of the best parts of the country. During our first lockdown in spring, it was just wonderful to be out, empty roads, seeing nobody, in many places wildlife bounced back thanks to little human disturbance. And I was there, armed with my Essential Work permit, able to document it all; from the top of Mt. Hermon to the deepest Arava Valley, day and night, I consider myself lucky to have my job.

Greater Hoopoe-lark in display

White-throated Robin

Cretzschmar's Bunting

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin

Arabian Warbler

Nubian Nightjar (what a night it was!)

My patch and local birding

It was a slower year on my patch, Nahal Ekron, that runs through my town. In 2020, I recorded 146 species on patch (down from 164 in 2019), and submitted 104 eBird checklists (down from 178!). This drop in effort is a result of me spending many more mornings away, doing fieldwork. I also spent more time exploring nearby birding sites, such as the wonderful Hulda Reservoir or the super-productive Tal Shahar alfalfa field, that supplied many quality birding sessions. Also, I can testify that I feel a slight drop in my motivation to work my patch so intensively as in 2019. In my first full year on patch, 2019, I refined my appreciation of patch birding, discovered hidden gems and deepened my knowledge. In 2020 I felt (falsely of course) that there was less to discover, I already knew the site so well. Surprises came though, in the form of migrants and rare visitors. I added Yellow-browed Warbler in October and a few other fine species to the site list, but nothing mega yet.

European Serin, Nahal Ekron


As you should know, eBird has taken over my life. I participate in the Checklist-a-Day Challenge. Like in previous years, my daily eBirding challenge consists of what I call proper birding - bins on neck, working a patch of good habitat for at least 30 minutes. A couple of days ago I reached a nice little milestone, 500 days checklist streak. The last day I didn't do any birding was August 14th, 2019

This year my concept of daily proper daily was challenged, when two mishaps prevented me from birding properly: In early October I injured my eye, and couldn't see anything for a couple of days. Then, I did my best: I sat in my garden and did a vocal-only checklist. Fast forward, a few days ago I went into isolation after being exposed to a birder friend who was COVID-positive. So until my isolation ends, my birding is limited again to my garden, this time with visual watching
Will this streak ever end? I don't know. Maybe this is some kind of inspiration:

Jonathan and I also participated in both eBird's Global Big Days, in May  and in October, with Re'a. The October one was part of Global Birding Weekend. It was good fun!

Big Year

I had not planned to do a Big Year in 2020. However, sometime during spring, while birding with my brother, capsule-mate, colleague, partner Jonathan, we noted that our year lists were growing in a satisfactory speed, thanks to our excessive time in the field. We made a mutual decision to try and hit it hard this year, and held hands till the year ended. It has been one helluva year... Jonathan and I were out together so much, supported each other, enthused each other, and we ended up with almost identical lists. We worked hard in the field and saw almost all the regularly-occurring species in Israel. 

Then it was down to rarities. I found only one major rarity this year, Pin-tailed Snipe in Tal Shahar. Other than that, I didn't find any more major rarities this year, but enjoyed my share of good stuff, finding Little Bunting, Hume's Warbler, Audouin's Gull, Red Knot.

From a twitching and listing POV, it was a bumper year, providing me with six Israel ticks - Blyth's Pipit, Three-banded Plover, Wilson's Storm-Petrel, Persian Shearwater, Wilson's Phalarope and Red-necked Grebe. Three of the six (pipit, petrel and grebe) were birds I missed during my years in the UK, so it felt very good to catch up on these. The country had three national firsts in 2020, two of which I saw (plover and phalarope, couldn't go for the African Crake in January). Especially during the latter quarter of the year, a fantastic run of biggies really had us run all over - American Golden Plover, Bateleur, Greater Painted-Snipe and the above ticks were all quality.

Wilson's Phalarope

Our yearlist journey had its ups and downs. With all the end-of-year rarities it felt really good, but then this isolation came and hampered our efforts. In any case, as for this moment I have 388 species in Israel this year, up from 370 last year. Jonathan has almost identical numbers. I might get a chance to do a little more birding on the last day of 2020, when my isolation is over; it ain't over till it's over!


Champions of the Flyway

In most years, Champions of the Flyway is one of the highest peaks of my birding year. This year it happened when the COVID pandemic escalated fast, and we quickly had to adjust the structure of the competition. Eventually, it was a global celebration, bringing together birders from around the world, as described beautifully by my mate Mark. I had a bizarre day, travelling cross country to swap cars, chanced upon a Cyprus Wheatear and experienced some crazy migration near home.

Cyprus Wheatear

Butterflies and other taxa

With all the time out in the field, it is difficult to ignore other taxa, even for a hardcore birder like myself. During the year I developed a growing interest in butterflies, largely inspired by Piki. Butterflies are wonderful, I confess, but the true reason why I started photographing more butterflies is because I changed my photo gear. Back in September 2019 I sold my trusty Canon 500mm f/4, and replaced it with Olympus OM-D EMiii + Olympus 300m f/4. 

In hindsight, it was a problematic decision. I am happy I don't need to carry the heavy 500 on my shoulder anymore. However, I am disappointed with the choice of this body. I simply cannot get good enough shots with it in dynamic field conditions. Especially I miss too many birds in flight, and the effective focal length is just too short. The main advantage of the new kit is a very short minimal focusing distance, 1.4 m. Not quite a macro lens, still very good for butterfly photography, especially when they're large, shy and mobile. With this new situation, I resorted to do more digi-videos for birds, and zoomed in to focus more in butterflies and flowers. Here are some of my favourites from 2020.

Jerusalem Fritillary

Lolana alfierii


Mt. Hermon Fritillary

Southern White Admiral

Old World Swallowtail

Two-tailed Pasha

False Apollo

Galilee Orchid

Nubian Ibex

International travel

In most year, international travel is a major component of my annual review. Not this year. Without knowing it would be our sole international trip this year, Amir, my brother Gidon, Eli and me travelled to Spain in late January, in search of Iberian Lynx. It was a tough trip, we somehow managed to see Lynx but not in quality. There were some Ok birds too, but it was a short trip. 

I had two Rockjumper tours planned for this year, Bolivia in June and Colombia in September. Obviously, both were canceled. What will happen in 2021 I don't know. I miss international travel very much, and hope that in my annual review of 2021, colourful birds from various parts of the world will return to feature heavily.

The blog

This year I published only 44 posts (excluding this one), down from an annual mean of 130 in the golden years of 2010 - 2013, and 73 during 2014-2019. When I celebrated 10 years of operating this blog, back in September 2019, I asked for feedback from my readers. I received feedback that people are less interested nowadays in tales of  'today I went birding here and there, saw this and that and got these great photos'. This is understandable, with all the birding information running in real-time on various social media channels. Also I invest more time nowadays on Instagram, Twitter an Facebook; I write articles for several websites; and then I have a family and a job... In the end, there's less time available for updating the blog, and also my attitude towards it has changed a bit. It is still my baby, now 11 years old. But as the blog matures, and grows to be a teenager, I give it more space. I try to write only on major birding events, I add more varied media, and in the end the blog is still alive. I hope that in the coming years my loyal followers (thank you!), and new ones, will continue to enjoy what I post here on the blog, and in other channels.

Acknowledgments and thanks

As always, my adventures this year were rarely solo. Many good friends joined me for wonderful days in the field. As mentioned above, Jonathan was my number one. We did fieldwork together, we went birding together, we twitched together and got exposed to COVID-positive together... Thanks amigo. Not to forget all the other good friends who were part of m birding year - Piki, Meidad, Amir, Arad, Nadav, Rony, Re'a and many others. Thank you boys and girls!

With all this birding going on, it's hard to believe I keep a job. Thanks go to my boss, Dan Alon, and colleagues, for tolerating my birding obsession. I do bird for work, but I bird much more than that. Without the support of Dan and colleagues, this would not have been possible. Thank you.

As always, I am grateful to Swarovski Optik for providing me with the best optics in the world. This year I got to try the new binoculars, Swarovski Optik NL Pure 12x42 - they're amazing!

My family, above all, is the engine to my birding. I hope that in the bottom line I am not such a bad husband/father as it may seem reading the lines above. From the bottom of my heart, Adva, Uri, Noam, Libby and not to forget Bamba (my most loyal field companion, who doesn't refuse to get photogarphed) - love you all to bits, and thank you!

I hope you survived through this long summary. Thank you for your support, have a wonderful 2021! Can't wait to start the yearlist again...

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Yank attack

I barely recovered from the trip down to Eilat for the American Goldy, when news broke yesterday of another monster yank in Israel, this time a Wilson's Phalarope at Sde Eliyahu in the Bet Shean Valley, the first record for Israel! Chen Rozen found it - well done to Chen, it's not the first first under his belt. Timing was very problematic yesterday, so I decided not to go straight away because I'd reach there just around dusk. In any case, half an hour before dark the bird was seen flying off high and far to the north... 

It was a short sleepless night, and I met up with Amir very early. We drove in the dark to arrive at Sde Eliyahu for dawn. To our disappointment, when it became light enough to identify birds, we discovered the phalarope was not present. There were tons of other birds, including a roost of 1000 Pygmy Cormorants, Pallas's Gulls, thousands of kites, storks, herons, pelicans and all the goods Bet She'an Valley has to offer (eBird checklist here). But that wasn't enough to compensate for the looming dip. I frantically checked several other reservoirs nearby, hoping to relocate it, as did others. No sign. We decided to head back to the original location, hoping it would return at some point. Nothing. We were drinking consolation coffee before the drive back, already reciting the familiar dip phrases of 'it's part of the game', 'maybe there will be another chance', 'lucky I don't need it for my WP list'. Halfway through the cuppa, suddenly the phalarope reappeared right underneath where we were standing on the tall bank. Boom! Coffee cups tossed aside, scopes and cameras back into action. I managed a few quick snaps and a short video before it took off, to our relief it just landed in the center of the muddy reservoir a short disance away. 

For the next hour or so all 40 of us (huge twitch in Israel standards) enjoyed good scope views of this lovely bird. It spent most of its time with a group of Marsh Sandpipers, demonstrating well how similar they look, when their legs are in the water. When it walked out of the water, it displayed its short yellow legs and round belly, reminding me of Terek Sandpiper jizz. 

What a relief! And what a fantastic bird. Indeed, I have seen one before in the WP - heading back from the Acadian Flycatcher twitch at Dungeness we caught up with one at RSPB Vange Marshes.

Random Osprey action

I got back home before noon, and had a good siesta. When I switched on my phone, I found an email from Daniel Melamed, asking for confirmation of a Lesser Yellowlegs - insane! This yank attack is totally unprecedented here in yank-less Israel.

Please wait till Monday. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The final lap

This strange year is coming to an end soon, which is shaping my birding mode. I continue birding to the max, trying to maintain my birding streak and expand my year list as much as I can, within reason. I am not doing a Big Year per se - quit job, divorce, drop everything and run type, but I am doing my best, holding hands with Jonathan. In 2019 I ended up with 370, so my target to improve this annual total was reached already a few weeks ago, now I'm on 382... At this point, additions obviously include only good stuff, including Goldcrest, Buff-bellied Pipit, Saker. 

This super-early morning I drove down to Eilat with Jonathan and Yotam. Our main target was the American Golden Plover found by Shachar Shalev a few days ago, the third for Israel. I have seen it in Israel before, the first one, back in 2008. Yet, it's a mega bird here, and we needed it for our year list... Eilat is defined as a 'Green COVID Island', meaning that only those showing relevant COVID tests can enter the city. We had not managed to get tested prior the trip down south, so we used an instant testing depot at Yotvata, thankfully all three of us came out negative...

We arrived to North Beach at first light. While Jonathan was faffing around with his gear in the car, Yotam and I walked down to the beach, and quickly found the Brown Booby perched on a distant border buoy - an appropriate support cast. I called Jonathan over, got my digiscoping kit ready for a quick video, when the bloody booby decided to take off and disappeared into the early morning haze far in the east. Poor Jonathan. 

However, our main target performed better. We found the AGP quickly, within a large group of smaller plovers. A bit distant for proper photography, but very good conditions for scope views and videos, in beautiful, crisp early morning light. Lovely bird, very distinctive with that huge supercilium, long wings and gray tones.

A walk around the IBRCE was fairly quiet, quite typically for this time of year, yet there were some nice birds (eBird checklist here), including this funky Western Reef Egret:

After a celebratory coffee with IBRCE staff we continued to KM20, very quiet there, only this Hooded Wheatear brightened up the scene slightly, despite looking away:

We had a few other birding plans but the weather deteriorated, wind picked up dust and birding was not pleasant. En route home we stopped for 30 seconds at Yelek Cistern, rosefinches and stuff. Casual

Thanks Jonathan, Yotam and Bamba for sharing this long day. 

Two weeks to go - will I add any more birds? Fingers crossed.

Good night.