Monday, May 31, 2021

Great great

This morning I finally had time to check the Great Snipe showing off at Gan Shmuel. It was found on Friday by Piki et al. Only this morning, after school drop-off, I could head over there. By the time we got there, the sun was high up and light was harsh. The bird was showing very nicely though, feeding out in the open, very unlike their typical cryptic behaviour. This is by far the best-showing individual I have seen in Israel, certainly giving better views than the one I had a couple of weeks ago in Hulda Reservoir that was a real bitch.

This video was taken through Swarovski ATX85 using a Swarovski phone adapter:

Great Snipe is a rare but regular spring migrant here, with an average of 3-4 annually. May is their month. This spring seems to have produced more than average, with about ten records nationally.

Displaying its bill flexibility

Showing off its white tail portions

Just being awesome

Monday, May 24, 2021


Since my recent post I have been out and about quite a bit. I have not seen anything too special, but a few photos and stories accumulated, qualifying for a new cross-country post.

Last week I visited the wonderful Gazelle Valley in Jerusalem with Piki. It really is a special wildlife haven in the middle of the city. The opportunities to photograph Ferruginous Duck are unparalleled. Their babies make the cutest bath ducks.

Little Grebe and Moorhen are trash common, but it's fun to get up close and intimate with them.

Note the dragonfly nymph skin on the left

There were some photo-opps for scarcer species too. This male Little Bittern paused in front of the hide for a few seconds:

Jerusalem is probably Olive-Tree Warbler capital of the world, and Gazelle Valley is an excellent place to see them. 

Gazelle Valley eBird checklist here.

Fast forward a few days, I visited Mt. Hermon for the first time this year. This year we're doing an elaborate breeding bird survey there, repeating an effort from 2013/14. When I worked there on Friday, again with Piki, it was very hot already early in the morning. The view looking down towards the Hula Valley is always breathtaking.

Birding was a bit hard going - bird activity was somewhat low, perhaps because of the heat. Yet, there were many family parties of Western Rock Nuthatch and Sombre Tit, Syrian Serins were active too, and we had a Finsch's Wheatear - the only site in Israel where they breed. In fact, Finsch's Wheatear may be the breeding bird in Israel with the smallest population size - 1-2 pairs... It was a tough day for photography too, and I don't have any good bird photos at all from that morning. Just this OK sound recording of an angry bird:

And a Wall Brown that posed momentarily:

eBird checklist here.

On Saturday, near home, I found an exceptional concentration of Black-winged Kites in a vole-infested field. I have never seen so many together before. At one point I counted 42 around me. Amazing!

16 in this photo - can you see them all?

Most were recently-fledged juveniles:

Some Lesser Kestrels were carrying food back to a nearby breeding colony:

Yesterday I had the rare opportunity to visit a remote oasis in the eastern Negev, made of two springs, Ein Aqrabim and Ein Tzin. This is a beautiful oasis, sadly contaminated by industry upstream.

 Yet, there is water running there, and wildlife responds to that. While bird activity wasn't amazing (eBird checklists here and here), there was evidence (mainly footprints) of intensive mammal activity, including Hyena, Wolf, Fox, Wildcat, Wild Ass, Dorcas Gazelle, Nubian Ibex and Porcupine. I am not sure why there were few birds there. By the swarms of mosquitoes that destroyed us it can be assumed that there's no food shortage. There were last few migrants present, including this exhausted Garden Warbler:

Spotted Flycatcher

Desert Bluetail (Ischnura evansi) - female and male in the background, thanks Re'a

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Global Big Day 2021 - migration madness!

For a few years now, every Global Big Day Jonathan, Re'a and me get together, to represent Champions of the Flyway in this fantastic event organised by eBird. Until now, all our Big Days took place in northern Israel (see e.g. May 2020). Birding is great up there, very varied, lots of quality, but also lots of driving, and normally migration up north is quite slow in spring. This year we decided to change strategy. First, we decided to focus on the far south, to experience the wonders of migration there. Second, we wanted to drive less during the day, so we limited our daytime birding to Eilat and southern Arava only. 

For about a week now, reports have been coming in from Eilat region, of spectacular migration, unprecedented for some species. I was in agony the whole week because I was unable to travel down south to experience the spectacle first-hand. I had to wait until Global Big Day, and I am happy the birds waited for us too. 

Champions of the Flyway team met up at silly o'clock, this year joined by Rony. Driving by Be'er Sheva in the middle of the night, a Corncrake ran across the highway. I almost run it over, we pulled over and watched it running by the road. Crazy stuff, a first taster to what was expecting us later on.

In the northern Arava Valley we met up with a family of Pharaoh Eagle Owl. They were distant and we had no time to waste on sophisticated night photography, so I came out with these atmospheric shots, as the moon rose over the mountains of Jordan across the Rift Valley.

Pumped up, we arrived just before dawn at our first birding site of the day, Wadi Hemda. Just off the road I missed a dodgy obstacle, and got us majestically bogged in the sand for an hour. Luckily we managed to draw the attention of passers-by, and were salvaged by a wonderful couple heading back home from a vacation in Eilat.

We wasted a precious hour of dawn birding at Wadi Hemda on this car shit, but during the process we witnessed the first signs of massive migration - there were MANY migrants in the roadside vegetation and adjacent dry wadi. Finally we were mobile and on site, and it was beautiful out there, as always.

Quickly we got our desired desert specialties - Temminck's, Hoopoe and Bar-tailed Larks, Spotted Sandgrouse, Desert Wheatear - great stuff. Thick-billed and Arabian Larks seem to have departed in recent weeks. 

Desert Wheatear

The dry wadi was full of migrants. When we got back to the car, there were 6 Sylvia warblers hiding under the car, and a Red-backed Shrike perched on the mirror. Insane.

Red-backed Shrike

eBird checklist here.

We then headed south, hoping to get as much birding done before the heat becomes unbearable. Our first stop was at the gate of Kibbutz Yahel. A male White-throated Robin was hiding behind a flower pot. Our first River Warbler of the day was killed by a Red-backed Shrike in front of us. Redstarts, flycatchers, warblers, pipits - simply wow. I apologise for theexcessive use of superlatives in this post - it really was all of the above superlatives.

White-throated Robin - male; sorry for shit photo but what a cool bird!

Spotted Flycatcher

eBird checklist here.

Our next stop was perhaps the best of the trip - Neot Smadar. The fields and the sewage farm were exploding with birds. It was already getting late and hot, but bird activity was unbelievable. The trees were literally pouring with warblers and redstarts. Flycatchers, Whinchats and shrikes were perched on almost every sprinkler. And there were Corn Crakes. Normally shy and scarce, this week has seen an unprecedented arrival in the south. Tens reported at many sites. We had three running around in the open, never seen anything like that. And River Warblers everywhere. Four (!) more White-throated Robins. An unforgettable moment with Lesser Grey Shrike, Rufous-tailed Rock thrush and White-throated Robin in one binocular view. So many birds around. The birding experience was comparable to the most amazing birding day I had on May 1st 2012

Corn Crake

Couldn't get the Irania in the frame

eBird checklists for Neot Smadar fields and sewage here and here.

Yotvata was just as good. It was getting really hot, and bird activity was starting to drop a bit, but still there were impressive scenes. 13 River Warblers in a cut wheat field. 300 Eastern Olivaceous Warblers in a small overgrown field. More Corn Crakes, one being munched by a Booted Eagle. The sewage ponds were packed with birds too, including another White-throated Robin and flock of 12 Little Bitterns.

Classic River Warbler habitat

Corn Crake and its Booted Eagle friend

eBird checklists for northern fields, circular field and sewage.

At Kibbutz Samar we failed to find Black Scrub-Robin - it was too hot, but still incredibly birdy, including eight Corn Crakes together on the kibbutz lawn. Sikkkkk. eBird checklist here.

We had a bit of down time at IBRCE in the early afternoon. It was extremely hot (over 40's) and we needed a bit of rest. After a quick power nap and a coffee, we walked around the park, adding new birds. 

29 Red-necked Phals were especially accommodating:


Oriental Honey-Buzzard, likely one of the local birds

eBird checklist here.

A quick stop at KM19 sewage didn't add too much (eBird checklist here). How fitting it was to watch almost 200 Turtle Doves sat on wires for our #yearofthedove campaign.

KM20 saltpans are always productive, and they didn't disappoint this time either.

KM20 scenes


Many Broad-billed Sands around:

The most beautiful individual kept its distance:

Curlew Sands are so gorgeous:

We found a male lutea Yellow Wagtail, best bird of the day for sure. This subspecies is very rare in Israel, not even annual. I have seen a few before, but never so well and never had a chance to photograph like this. What a stonker.

eBird checklist here.

KM20 saltpans were wonderful, but we were still missing several shorebirds, and had not managed to see a single European Honey Buzzard. Somehow we managed not to intercept the stream all day - peak days for their migration. So we had another quick look in the ponds and canal between IBRCE and North Beach - packed with shorebirds and at last Honey Buzzards came down for a drink.

eBird checklist here.

North Beach was pleasant and productive, with three Sooty Shearwaters, two Whimbrel, two White-cheeked Terns and several jaegers. Sadly most of them jaegers were too distant - two seemed the right size and structure for Long-tailed but too distant for positive ID. We were joined by Noam, director of IBRCE. eBird checklist here.

Just before dusk we headed back to IBRCE, and were greeted by six Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse flying over, our last new species for the day. While at North Beach we discovered that our vehicle had a flat tire. We decided to skip further nocturnal adventures, not to risk getting another flat tire without a spare. So then it was the long way back home.

We ended the day with 140 species. Not a massive total - we had higher totals before. However, the migration we witnessed was far more powerful and exhilarating than any mega list. I was deeply impressed, even moved, by the enormous numbers of common migrants. And the unprecedented influx of Irania, River Warbler and Corn Crake is simply mind-blowing. This is perhaps a once-in-a-decade event, so I appreciate it massively.

Thanks to my team, the best team, Champions of the Flyway: Jonathan, Re'a and Rony. It was great fun all day long, fantastic birding and team effort, good laughs - that's why I love doing Big Days so much.

Huge appreciation to organisers of the global event - eBird and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Global Birding add extra meaning to the event. The link with World Migratory Bird Day, celebrated by BirdLife International, is very important for conservation.

As always, thanks to Swarovski Optik for providing us with the best optical gear.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

White-backed Vulture!

Fast forward from yesterday's somewhat morbid post, happy ending after all. This early morning, before a conveniently pre-scheduled meeting in Kfar Ruppin at 07:00, Dan, Avner, Bamba and I had a chance to connect with the White-rumped Vulture, relocated yesterday by Tuvia and seen to go down to roost near Sde Eliyahu. We were a few minutes away when the news came in, that it's already on the compost heaps near Sde Eliyahu. The best observation point on the heaps is from the raised bank of the very same reservoir where the first Wilson's Phalarope for Israel was found in December 2020... We joined a large crowd already assembled, to see the petite vulture sat on a compost heap among hundreds of storks and kites, looking a bit like a Turkey, perfectly lit by the soft early morning light. Here's an uncropped image giving an idea of the setting:

And a cropped version of the same image - White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus), young adult, Sde Eliyahu, Israel, 2 May 2021:

We had little time before the meeting, just enough for taking a couple of video clips through my Swarovski ATX85 scope using a Swarovski phone adapter:

I was doing a quick live Facebook stream, when a bulldozer went into the compound to work and flushed the vulture and storks - check the commotion from 02:20 onward:

The vulture then flew across the valley, displaying its wonderful whitish underwing coverts:

Cropped version

Those dark carpal coverts are very prominent - I think this is another diagnostic feature of White-backed Vulture not mentioned in literature:

Exposing its white back too:

It landed on a prominent Jujube tree, where it remained until we had to leave for the meeting:

Cropped version - check the dark bill, face and legs:

What an amazing bird, another astonishing first for Israel, hot on the heels of the Chinese Pond-Heron. Well done to the initial finder Asaf Mizrahi, INPA ranger who first spotted it on April 29th in the Judean Desert. It must have been on the move then, heading north. Incredibly, it was relocated in the Bet Shean Valley yesterday by Tuvia Kahn, about 70 km north, and thankfully remained until today. According to other birders, it departed north in late morning, and unbelievably was relocated again in the late afternoon, going down to roost near Amiad, north of Lake Kinneret, another 50 km north, by Yoni Vortman. 

Where next? The predicted flight trajectory into Lebanon or Syria is very risky - hope it survives. Not that its global conservation status is great (CR).

I have a bit of history with White-backed Vulture. While doing my PhD fieldwork in Extremadura, Spain in May 2017, I found a funny vulture that later I identified (with the aid of Dick Forsman) as White-backed Vulture. Check the ID features in this post - most are visible on the Israel bird too.

A couple of words about twitching with my boss, Dan Alon. I don't take it lightly. Dan, director of BirdLife Israel, is not an active twitcher himself. Yet, I manage to drag him out for a good twitch every now and then. Today it all fit perfectly with our meeting in Kfar Ruppin, to develop our wetland restoration projects there. This is not the first 'first' I take Dan to twitch - we went together for the Barnacle Goose back in November 2018. BTW, I think Dan is the only person in Israel who saw both recent rare vultures - Lappet-faced Vulture (in Yotvata last week) and White-backed Vulture (today).