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.

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