Saturday, April 10, 2021

Eilat plover mystery

 On Thursday I spent the morning in Eilat with Jonathan, Arad and Rony. In fact we left home on Wednesday before midnight, and made our way down south picking up some night birds along the way. None posed for photos, but this Desert Hedgehog, the largest of Israel's three hedgehog species, was quite lovely:

At first light we started birding at Seifim Plains. I had quite high expectations from this site - reports from recent weeks described the place as heaving with birds. It was very quiet in fact - not many larks singing, few migrant wheatears (no sign of the pied seen there the day before) - eBird checklist here.

Hooded Wheatear 2cy male

At IBRCE things were not much busier - a significant exodus of birds happened the night before... Nothing special to report on the bird side, some year birds (Levant Sparrowhawk, Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, Red-necked Phalaropes) - eBird checklist here. This fine Schokari Sand Racer was very cool to watch:

Then we moved on to KM20 saltpans for the disputed sand plover. It was waiting for us at the entrance to the saltpans, and showed well. This bird was found by Shachar Shalev on March 27th, and it's ID isn't final yet (IMO). Our initial reaction when seeing the bird, especially the long bill, was 'whoa, this can't be a Lesser Sand-Plover'. But then, at closer inspection, we started to have other thoughts. Re size, though slightly larger than Kentish Plover, it was certainly in the 'small and delicate plover' camp, comparable with kentish and ringed, rather than 'beast plover' camp. Then, in all angles, it's seemingly clean legs were black or blackish, not green. With no signs of moult into summer plumage whatsoever, I find this a solid candidate for Lesser Sand-Plover, but happy to be proven otherwise. 

Photos by Rony Livne:

Digiscoped photos and video by Jonathan Meyrav, taken through Swarovski Optik ATX85:

I agree it has a long legs, large head and long bill, but from my experience, there's so much variation in both species in these features that I'm not sure how relevant they are. Same for leg extension and wingbar pattern. See my insights on identification of Lesser and Greater Sand-Plovers in Kenya here and here.

The mental process regarding the identification of this bird reminds me of the process we went through with the 2010 Lesser Sand-Plover. When seeing the photos taken by the finders, we were eluded by the longish bill. It wasn't until we saw the bird in the field that we realised how small it is. 

It is interesting that almost everyone who saw this bird identified it as Lesser Sand-Plover, while those identifying it from photos say it's a greater. In any case, this is a great bird to study - more to come!

After we had enough of the sand plover, we continued to check the saltpans that were packed with shorebirds, gulls, wagtails, pipits and generally very lively (eBird checklist here). It was entertaining to watch a variety of Western Yellow Wagtails chase after swarms of shore flies (Ephydridae) coating the banks:

feldegg-type (with some green stuff on head, and flies on back)

Typical feldegg with more solid black head

thunbergi? Or dombrowski? Very small supercilium on a blue head

Typical flava with more developed supercilium

On the way home we paid a quick visit to the Black Scrub-Robins in Kibbutz Samar, this one ringed as part of a study on their movements and colonisation:

Thanks to Jonathan, Rony and Arad for the company, vibes and use of photos.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sometimes it works...

This morning I left early to try for a Caspian Plover west of Hatzerim, that had been found by Olga Chagina a few days ago. I may have left home too early because when I arrived it was still dark. At least I saw some Jerboas driving in. This is the same area where I had the Dotterels a few weeks ago. When there was enough light I started scanning the plains. And the plains were very plain. For those who know this site, when it's quiet, it's VERY quiet. I spent more than an hour working the area carefully, and saw very little on the ground. A lovely flock of Lesser Kestrels that were hunting for beetles off the ground or low bushes were the main point of interest. A Merlin was darting across the plains too. Up in the air, many Greater-Short-toed Larks and Tawny pipits were on the move. But no plovers were to be found whatsoever. I started to lose hope and headed back out. On the way out I spotted in the distance a flock of Cream-coloured Coursers. I edged closer, hoping that shorebirds show solidarity with each other. Hey, what are these smaller, darker plovers? Are they? Yes! Not one but four Caspian Plovers!

I stayed put. The birds started moving closer...

Eventually offering brilliant views. I knew others would try for them, so I didn't apply pressure on them and kept a safe distance; not quite close enough for proper photos to be taken, but I guess I can't complain...

As far as I could tell, the group consisted of two adult males, a young male, and a female.

Caspian Plover - female

Caspian Plover - 2cy male and adult male

They were too quick for my poor digiscoping skills

Caspian Plover is one of my favourite birds. Sadly, they have become increasingly rare in Israel, reflecting their negative global population trend. I remember that as a kid in the 1980's, flocks of tens were seen each spring. Now, in some years there isn't a single spring record nationally. In 2020, the only bird was one that hung around in the Bet She'an Valley in autumn. So I was very pleased to see a small flock. In the afternoon, birders who revisited the area had seven! This flat, dry desert plateau seems to be a real magnet for dryland plovers. In recent weeks, besides the Dotterels and Caspian, also Greater Sand-Plover and Kentish Plovers were seen there.

I must pay respect to the local hosts, CCCs:

In great contrast to the first quiet hour, this area where I found the plovers was actually very productive. Several large lark flocks were on the ground, containing also a couple of Bimacs. There were plenty of Tawny Pipits and wheatears too. FOY Whinchat was very welcome.

On the way out, at the edge of the cultivated zone, I bumped into a stonking, uber-friendly Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush. He was really something special. Thank you mate.

More photos in this morning's eBird checklist here.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Shag on the beach

What a stupid, yet unavoidable title... This morning I worked at Ma'agan Michael. Weather was unstable, hot, dusty and windy. Yet it was a pretty good morning. While driving in, two gulls nearly gave me a heart attack. This leucistic Black-headed Gull almost cased a major hear attack:

Then another gull flew by, a large one, and almost gave me a minor heart attack - probably Yellow-legged:

A Caspian Tern was on the beach, rather scarce, and was joined by the above leucistic gull:

There were many migrants around - big numbers of Yellow Wagtails, many warblers, and a few wheatears, including Isabelline and Black-eared:

Among the many herons, there was a light gray morph Little Egret:

Other notable birds were my first-of-year Gull-billed and Common Terns, Citrine Wagtails, Little Gulls and more. 97 species in total, not bad (eBird checklist here).
Just as I was wrapping up the morning session, the 'Rare Bird Alert' alarm went off - Hadoram had just found Israel's second Shag! It was in Ashkelon, about 2 hours drive, and I had to be home by 13:00.  I did see the first, back in 2005. However, back then, views were quite awful, and I understood that this individual was behaving like a top model. Cutting it very fine, I decided to go for it - a big rarity, and I was hoping for good views. I drove through traffic, communicating with friends out there, reporting that the bird is chilled, so I was too. When I arrived at Ashkelon NP, I met Jonathan at the carpark heading out. He pointed towards the rock where the bird was supposed to perch, but I couldn't see it. I walked down to the beach quickly, and fellow twitchers there pointed towards the bird as it was swimming south and away, very close to shore. I abandoned my scope and backpack, and started running on the beach, trying to catch up with the Shag. Eventually I did - it was fishing in small rockpools, showing at very close distance but it was constantly moving south. After a few minutes I gave up, and let it drift south. I lost it in the distance - wow, that was close! Had I arrived five minutes later I'd be very disappointed. Eventually it returned north to the original spot a few hours later.
Congratulations to Hadoram for such a cool bird!

Check that bill length!

It is curious that Shag is such a monster rarity in Israel. They breed in Cyprus, less than 400 km away, which shouldn't be a big deal for a marine species. Yet, they are probably highly sedentary and rarely move. Interesting.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

March rambling and scrambling

March is my favourite month for birding in Israel. Everything is so green, flowering, singing and wonderful. I wish I could spend every day out in the field, but work and family commitments reduce my fieldwork time to 2-3 mornings a week... guess I can't complain. I have seen some nice stuff in recent days, nothing worthy of a solo blogpost IMO. therefore, here's an accumulation of habitats, birds, mammals and butterflies from recently.

A visit to Lahav Reserve in the northern Negev with Meidad was slightly quiet on the bird front (eBird checklist here) - maybe too early still? Too cold? But the reserve, with its batha habitat, is so beautiful now, which made up for the relative lack of birds. Still, many Spectacled Warbler busy breeding, Finsch's Wheatears, Long-billed Pipits - not too bad.

Finsch's Wheatear

A few mornings ago I visited the hills west of Hatzerim, where Dotterel normally winter. Only 20 kilometers southwest, but so different and dry. 

I was hoping to catch up with the Dotterel flock they before they depart, the one single flock in Israel. Are they already wearing their spectacular summer dress? 
Another cold desert morning, scanning the plains for tiny dots. I picked up the flock quite early, and kept a safe distance from them, not to flush them. They were rather sleepy - I was expecting them to be more restless before migration. Only few birds started developing some colour - most were still in winter plumage.

A bit closer through my Swarovski scope:

Other birds seen were two Pallid Harriers, a few Cream-coloured Coursers, some singing 'Mediterranean' Lesser Short-toed Larks, Finsch's and many Isabelline Wheatears. eBird checklist here.

On Sunday I worked in the western Ramon crater, searching for breeding raptors with the local INPA ranger. There was very little activity on the cliffs. A brisk northerly didn't help. What we did have was stunning desert scenery and some mammals - Onager and Dorcas Gazelle. 

Compared to last year (see here for example), this part of the desert is very dry this breeding season - I am expecting to find much fewer breeding birds. Down in a sheltered wadi I found a tiny butterfly that's on the most-wanted list for many butterfly enthusiasts in Israel - False Baton Blue. Because of where and how I work (I walk in remote parts of the desert), I have seen them a number of times. Forgive me for the awful photo.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Spring alive

 This morning I had a meeting in Eilat, which is always a good excuse for birding down there. I left home before my elder son went to sleep, and arrived at Yotvata at 04:30. I checked the fields and had two Egyptian Nightjars and a Pharaoh Eagle Owl. I was alone, driving and holding the torch, so failed with photography. I snoozed for 15 minutes before there was just about enough light for birding. The sky was full of pipits and wagtails, and many hirundines and swifts were on the move. There were first splashes of spring - always elating, offering some hope in this screwed-up world. Wabi-sabi style.

eBird checklist here.

Then I continued to Nimra Valley, near Timna. Itai found there a male Menetries's Warbler a few days ago, which I was hoping to connect with - only a few annually in Israel. I met up there with Amit, an excellent young birder, and his dad Guy. We started searching for it, and I was surprised to find a female Menetries's at almost the same spot - very cool. My first views were through the scope - at first it was feeding out in the open. Not a top video but gives the idea:

When Amit and Guy joined me it became a real nightmare and was difficult to observe. We worked carefully and slowly, and bit by bit we managed to see it well enough to confirm ID. Impressively,  Amit managed sharp flight shots as it moved from bush to bush. Thanks for allowing me to share the illustrative photos here (check those tertials!). Later on they saw the male too.

Some nice desert birds and migrants there, including a couple of Rueppell's, Hooded Wheatear, Temminck's Lark and Striolated Buntings. eBird checklist here.

Conveniently, my meeting was at IBRCE, so I had time for a quick walk with Noam. It felt pretty active, birds were on the move. There was a steady trickle of Steppe Eagles, an Oriental Honey Buzzard, Long-eared Owl in roost - quite enjoyable really.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Northern clean-up

 This morning i went up north to catch up with a couple of birds before the winter ends officially. I met up with Re'a and Tamar at Nahal Amud, a traditional site for Wallcreeper. A single bird has been hanging around there for the last few weeks, and seemed to be a bit more reliable than at other sites. Despite being a regular winter visitor, it is such a difficult bird to see in Israel - I think I have dipped on it more times than I have scored. So I was hoping for at least a brief encounter. Anyway, while waiting for Re'a and Tamar at the carpark there was a beautiful dawn chorus including a singing Dunnock - first time I heard it singing in Israel. 

The walk up the valley was lovely - noisy Little Swifts up in the air, Long-billed Pipits and Blue Rock Thrushes in serious breeding activity. It took us a while to locate the Wallcreeper, eventually Tuvia spotted it crawling high up on a cliff face. Success! Fantastic bird to watch, it really put on quite a show, much better than I had expected, crawling and fluttering up the cliffs, searching for arthropods in the cracks and crevices. A group lead by Lior joined the party, it was quite fun. From a photography point of view, when crawling up on the cliff the results were uninspiring. Only when it opened its red wings or flew from rock to rock some value was added to the photos. No money shots this time, I'm afraid, still my first photos of this species in Israel.

An even bigger surprise were at least three Striolated Buntings, far away from their normal desert habitat. This is not the first winter record in this region, implying they might be more regular in winter here. They didn't show any signs of breeding whatsoever.

eBird checklist here.

Then I moved on to Bar'am fishponds, by Hagome' junction, in the Hula Valley. The long-staying Three-banded Plover moved up there a few weeks ago, its next stop after it was found at Ma'ayan Zvi in April 2020, moved to Ha'Maapil fishponds in summer, returned to Ma'ayan Zvi in autumn, and now moved up to the Hula Valley. Where next?

It chose the most ugly, weird, uninspiring location - inside this small net-covered dried pond...