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...

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