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...

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Birds and butterflies

This morning I worked at Ma'agan Michael. In short, we are developing there a restoration project, in which we have reached an agreement with the kibbutz to manage a large section of their fish farm for biodiversity rather than fish production. The project is funded partially by Israel Ministry of Tourism. We are now in the 'Before' stage. Through monitoring, we hope to show what are best-practices for wetland restoration. Anyway, today was my monthly visit there. En route to my first point-count location, I drove past the same pond where Little Gulls put on a show last time - today the show was even better, with 19 (!) birds, in perfect, soft morning light - quite enjoyable. I just love them. This seems to be a good winter for them, yet 19 is an exceptional count.

Several more images in today's eBird checklist.

One White-winged Tern was showing the wee gulls how it's done

Birding was quite good, though migration wasn't pronounced yet, only few true migrants - Isabelline Wheatear and some hirundines. On the beach I found this Czech-ringed Black Stork (no details yet):

When editing the photo, I accidentally clicked the 'Black-and-White' button - came out quite nice, don't you think?

On the beach there was a nice gull gathering. I kept my distance not to disturb them - they suffer enough disturbance on this busy beach. Good numbers of Pallas's Gulls, quite a few Caspians (sorry for the poor footage):

On the rocks at the mouth of Taninim stream, a shy Bar-tailed Godwit was sheltering from the wind, Eurasian Curlew did its thing and there were a few Greater Sand-Plovers already getting into summer plumage:

Butterfly season has started here. After I was done at Ma'agan Michael, I had just enough time for a quick look for a special butterfly on a hill nearby. The hill is home for Levantine Vernal Copper, one of 14 protected butterflies in Israel. It is specific to Milk-vetch Astragalus macrocarpus, a rare and threatened plant in Israel too. The wind bas blowing quite hard, which kept them low. Still they are wonderful butterflies.

Not many other butterflies on the wing, because of the wind. This Green-striped White was perched on the Milk-vetch:

Monday, February 15, 2021


Back in December, in the midst of the Yank Attack, a Lesser Yellowlegs was found in Ein Hamifratz fishponds, north of Haifa, by Daniel Melamed. It was hardly available, just early next day, but I couldn't go, and then it was lost. I was hoping it would be refound somewhere, but it didn't. Until Saturday, when Yaron Baser brought it back from the ashes, about 15 km south, just north of Haifa, in Kfar Hamaccabi WTP. On Saturday I was hiking with my family, and couldn't go. Yesterday I worked in the Judean Desert, and couldn't go. I had to hold my breath, risky... until this morning. I was up there before 07:00 with Piki, Jonathan and Arad, and the bird showed quite quickly. At first it was in a horrible-looking, plastic-lined sewage pond, showing through a fence, into the sun. Less than ideal conditions but OK views, and a great bird to see. Later on, 'normal' people went into the sewage compound to work, and the bird moved to a nicer-looking reservoir, closer, with nice background. Great view, fantastic bird.

Haifa skyline in the background

Nice to hear it call

This is the 3rd record for Israel. I did see the second for Israel, back in September 2009 in the Bet She'an Valley, just before I started up this blog. So it was good to reconnect with such a quality bird.

Congrats again to Daniel who found the bird originally, and to Yaron who refound it.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Split birding

This morning I worked in Neot Hovav, south of Be'er Sheva. This is a lovely area of Loess plains. tree-less, dominated by a bush with an awkward English name - Shaggy Sparrow-Wort (Thymelaea hirsuta). 

This is the home for Lesser Short-toed Lark. They are not common breeders in Israel, in fact on our Red List (VU). They breed in patches of suitable habitat in the northern Negev, Nizzana region, Negev Mt., and more opportunistically in S Negev and Arava, when conditions are right. Neot Hovav is one of the best places to see them, certainly the most accessible and closest to the center of the country. In the early morning, the air is filled with their song. 

This sound recording is from the same site last year:

In the desert, breeding activity starts early, and this morning the larks were already busy displaying, courting and chasing each other. They are typically shy and not easy to photograph. This photo gives a nice impression of the habitat, but another meter forward and the bird was off.

I surveyed these plains and found quite a few Lesser Short-toes, all very busy with early stages of breeding activity. Few of them allowed me slightly closer views.

My interest in Lesser Short-toed Larks grew recently, with the looming split of the Lesser Short-toed Lark complex into three or four species. In their excellent study, Per Alström et al. used data on morphology, vocalisations and genetics to build a strong case for this split, already accepted by IOC, soon to be accepted by eBird/Clements. Relevant to Israel are two taxa - Mediterranean Short-toed Lark (Alaudala rufescens) and Turkestan Short-toed Lark (A. heinei). 

Lesser Short-toed Lark breeding range and taxa, from: Shirihai and Svensson (2018) Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds. Helm, London.

The breeding population in Israel belongs to rufescens group. This is demonstrated by their tiny bill and fine, rather faint breast streaking:

*Images from February 2020, Neot Hovav*

Moderately long primary projection:

Tail pattern fits rufescens, with apparently all-white R6 (outer tail feather) - photo from this morning:

heinei group are scarce or rare migrants and winter visitors in Israel. In my experience, they typically occur in October and November, often away from the breeding areas. I have not paid enough attention to them in the past - many records are of flyovers calling. I also cannot recall the differences in calls between the taxa. I will from now on. I have only one photo of two birds that were part of a flock of migrants in November 2011 in Nizzana - they could be heinei, with bolder breast streaking and perhaps longer primary projection:

Need to work harder on this armchair tick.

Back to this morning, other birds included a single Richard's Pipit in a flock of tawnys, Spectacled Warbler, and the regulars. eBird checklist here.

Arabian Great Grey Shrike

Isabelline Wheatear