Saturday, September 25, 2021

I am a migration junkie

It's this time of year here in Israel, that makes me face the truth: I am a migration junkie. No, it's not peak season for rarities. I don't travel to far flung corners of the country. But I feel very lucky on a daily basis. I can experience high-intensity migration near home, every morning. I am addicted to migration watching, and I must get my daily dose. Thankfully, it's holiday season here now, which makes my mornings a bit more flexible. However, this time of the morning that I need to stop neglecting my normal human obligations, tear myself apart from migration (temporarily), pack up my gear up and head back home is so difficult. Too often I am late being back for breakfast or for errands or for something else, apologising, but actually all I want is to head back out to the field and absorb more migration. More migration. More migration. Up in the sky, down in the bushes, along the muddy banks - migrants are everywhere and I just can't have enough. 

Every morning I am out before dawn, aiming to be 'on site' at the crack of dawn. That's the magic period, when migrants drop out of the sky after a long night of migration; vocal species making themselves apparent - pipits, wagtails, larks, buntings. Beautiful, small dark silhouettes emerging in the half-light, calling 'Tzip' or 'Chup' or 'Trrrr'. I sharpen my ears, try to identify every soft call. This is so cool.

Then I spend the next hour or two of 'standard' birding, checking for migrants in the vegetation, enjoying the awesome variety and numbers. Those migrants that don't call readily on active migration are now in full show. Red-backed Shrikes, Whinchats, Willow Warblers. Swarms of hirundines and bee-eaters swerve as they hawk for flying insects. Early rising harriers, sparrowhawks and falcons are after them.

Then, when the temperatures rise, raptor migration intensifies. These are peak days for Lesser Spotted Eagle and Levant Sparrowhawk; European Honey Buzzard and Black Kite pass through in good numbers too. Migration continues over my house all day long, but I can't spend full days watching the skies anymore. I did that for many years, when I worked for the annual autumn raptor migration count between mid August and mid October in the 2000's. Now I am a responsible adult (am I?), with adult responsibilities, but all I want is to bird and bird and bird, witness this exciting, fascinating, exhilarating miracle of migration. Year after year, season after season. Remind myself that despite all the horrible damage that we cause to our beautiful planet, nature can persist, if just given the chance.

Here are a few photos that aim to demonstrate some of the feelings I expressed above:

Western Yellow Wagtails on the move

European Turtle-Dove on its first migration. Migrate safe young hero

Red-backed Shrike looking very sexy

Gotta love a Whinchat

Early Morning European Honey-Buzzard

Late morning Oriental Honey-Buzzard

Early morning Montagu's Harrier

Part of a flock of 320 Levant Sparrowhawks

Young Lesser Spotted Eagle

The moon photobombed by Lesser Spotted Eagles

Booted Eagle is unique among other migrating raptors, by its habit to hunt during migration. Most other species fly over Israel without looking down. It is not unusual to watch a Booted Eagle migrating with other raptors (here with a Levant Sparrowhawk)

Suddenly it leaves the stream, and stoops down from high altitude at huge speed towards a flock of pigeons in a field below

Flying past the moon

A few days ago I had another adrenalin-packed experience. I was watching a Hobby flying idly over Hulda Reservoir

Suddenly it changed direction and increased speed - obviously it had spotted something in mid air

I stayed focused on the Hobby; only at home on the computer screen I noticed it was after a small passerine presumably on active migration. Unbelievable how the falcon located and locked on that tiny warbler.

This is a tight crop - I assume this incident happened at 70-80 m above ground. Here the Hobby closed in on the poor warbler:

The Hobby made a super-fast maneuver and tried to snatch the warbler - I think this is a Sedge Warbler. This happened so fast; I didn't see the warbler at all; I don't know whether the warbler managed to get away. I couldn't see the falcon flying away with anything, so I think the warbler survived. Wow.

Here are a few representative eBird checklists from recent days 10 minutes from home:

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Swinhoe's Storm-petrels and...

 Yesterday I joined a pelagic trip off Eilat, deep in the Gulf of Aqaba. We left relatively late in the morning, which left time for an hour of birding first thing at IBRCE. To be at IBRCE we (Amir, Piki, Rony and I) had to leave home stupidly early. I always enjoy visiting the IBRCE - certainly worth the sleepless night. IBRCE offered, as always, enjoyable birding, great hospitality and I always have huge respect for the brilliant team working there. Birding was good fun with a Eurasian Nightjar ringed, Citrine Wagtail, Little Bitterns and lots of shrikes (eBird checklist here). Thanks Rony for the nightjar photo.

Our aim for the pelagic trip was to follow up on Noam Weiss's stimulating pelagic a few days earlier, where he reported a larger and heavier dark-rumped storm-petrel, raising the possibility of Matsudaira's Storm-petrel (read Noam's write-up here). Eventually we set off at 08:00, made our way very close to the border triangle with Egypt and Jordan, and started chumming a fair distance north of the border. The northerly wind was blowing harder that the forecast had predicted, so the chum slick slipped quickly south too close and beyond the border. We scanned the sea and the chum slick back and forth, again and again, excitement and anticipation slowly transforming into despair. It took a good two hours of seeing nothing until Noam yelled first 'storm-petrel!'. Adrenalin levels peaked - it was very distant, at the very far end of the chum slick, on or beyond the international border, but we had a dark-rumped storm-petrel! We had prolonged views of the bird, trying to get as much on it as possible, then it was joined by a second! Little by little, despite the distance, we managed to get enough details to figure out they were both Swinhoe's Storm-petrels: small size, small bill, narrow tail fork. Nothing out of the ordinary. Still very nice but quite normal - over the last decade it became evident that Swinhoe's is a regular summer visitor to the waters off Eilat. I was happy though - year bird for me, and my first photos of the species in Israel and globally. My photos are poor indeed - the birds were always distant, and they're tiny; these are the few photos that included anything but beautiful blue sea and white wave crests.

Swinhoe's Storm-petrels in tandem

Blow up of the photo above, showing nice coverts panel and pale primary bases

Small and delicate, without significant tail fork

Here are a couple of photos courtesy of Amir Balaban, better than mine

The two birds continued to feed on the slick in tandem for a while, zipping back and forth across the now large chum slick, sometimes dropping down to feed, occasionally approaching a bit. Then we noticed a third bird! It consistently kept its distance from the two Swinhoe's in tandem. Frustratingly, it always stayed at the very far end of the chum slick and never approached our boat even a little. It was very difficult to get any details on the bird. A couple of times it gave an impression that it is perhaps larger and heavier (a few of us called that out independently), but we never saw the third bird close enough and in direct comparison with the two Swinhoe's; it was too distant for any detailed views, nonetheless for photos. Eventually, the chum slick drifted too far south, across the Egyptian border, and we had to leave the slick and the birds. 

We established a second chum slick further north, and after a while two Swinhoe's Storm-petrels visited it, typically flying past quite high and in direct flight vector. Sadly, the third, unidentified bird never reappeared. Somewhat disappointed, we tried and tried until it was time to head back. Amazingly, the commonest seabird family we saw during the entire pelagic was storm-petrels. Other than that, we had only two White-cheeked Terns and that's it. eBird checklist here.

The way back to Eilat was characterised by mixed feelings. On the one hand, how bad can a day with two Swinhoe's Storm-petrels in the Western Palearctic be? On the other hand, we were unable to resolve Noam's mystery, and were frustrated by that third, unidentified bird that slipped away. 

Thanks to all the team on board, especially to the organisers Rami and Amir.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

New Year Birding

It's Rosh Hashana here - Jewish New Year, which means a three-day-long holiday, that translates into more time for birding... These are fantastic migration days in Israel, and I try to make the most of it without driving too far. 

Yesterday (Tuesday) I was hoping to enjoy a good take-off of Honey Buzzards off the hills above Tzor'a in the Sorek Valley. 300K Honey Buzzards passed over Israel in recent days, and I was hoping for good conditions. I started early with Bamba, and enjoyed lovely autumn weather, much needed after the brutally-hot summer. 

The alfalfa fields in the bottom of the valley were packed with birds, especially the recently-cut sections. 450 Yellow Wagtails were busy providing ecosystem services (i.e. feeding on Egyptian Cotton Leafworm caterpillars), always spectacular to see. Among the wagtails were a few pipits (tree and tawny), Greater Short-toed Larks, Cretzschmar's and Ortolan Buntings, Rollers, Whinchats and Wheatears. Fantastic.

A single, beautiful, gingery juvenile Montagu's Harrier was sat in the field, chilling before moving on:

I then met up with Gidon, Amir and Dan and we continued birding together. The surrounding scrub and WTP provided excellent habitat for many more migrants. Tons of hirundines, many shrikes, warblers. It was fun (eBird checklist here). Before leaving I spotted two young Bonelli's Eagles. They were strongly associated with each other, probably siblings. They flew around for a while, playing around with pigeons and generally being immature. 

They gained some height, and circled with a Marsh Harrier. Suddenly, both eagles decided to have a go at the harrier - we thought they were going to predate on it. Eventually the encounter left the harrier destroyed, with injured wings and an injured leg, but still alive as it migrated on, somehow. The attack itself took few seconds - I managed to capture only a secondary encounter. Incredible to watch.

Sadly, young Bonelli's Eagles are really stupid when it comes to electric pylons, and they are especially susceptible to electrocution. This valley is a bit of a dead zone for these threatened eagles (CR in Israel). See for example here the sad story of a tagged eagle I found dead a year ago. Frustratingly, Israel Electric Corporation doesn't do enough to protect pylons against electrocution.

Eventually, the main Honey Buzzard stream passed to our west, and we say only few take off. However, when I got back home it was flooding straight over. In 32 minutes of sitting outside I counted 4420 Honey Buzzards (and quite a few other raptors) - always incredible to watch. eBird checklist here. How lucky I am to live bang on the main highway. The only problem is that when they arrive over my house they are normally very high and the light is harsh, providing difficult conditions for photography.

This morning (Wednesday) I had time only for a short session at nearby Tal Shahar, a bit west of Tzor'a. It was short but uber-productive and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Again, there was a huge, even larger, flock of Yellow Wagtails in the alfalfa. I estimated 550 but it could have been much more. Check this video  - I hope you can absorb the sensation of walking through the alfalfa, with clouds of wagtails jumping at my feet. You can also appreciate the habitat in the Sorek Valley where I bird often. Also, this video demonstrates that we are in the transition period between feldegg (early migrants) and flava, compare the two call types - clear (flava) and rasping (fledegg).

These are shrike days in Israel. Indeed, there were many shrikes in the surrounding scrub, mainly Red-backed and fewer Lesser Greys etc. I really love Lesser Grey Shrike - especially the young birds look so good to my eyes. None of them posed long enough for a proper video, all they allowed me was a hasty jumpshot. 

Again, the wagtail flock contained welcome guests, and the scrub provided a wonderful array of migrants, all lovely and so welcome. Migrate on safely you little heroes. eBird checklist here.

On Monday I did something a bit different. I went with Piki to Tel Barukh beach in Tel Aviv, where the Pacific Golden Plover returned for its sixth winter - see previous encounters here (2020) and here (2019). It is fascinating how this individual rarity survives, trapped somewhere far west of its original flyway, and returns to the same rocks on one of the busiest beaches in Israel. And it was a new addition to my Year List...

There were quite a few migrants moving around within the abandoned Sde Dov airport grounds, nothing massive (eBird checklist here). We hadn't enough time to enjoy some of the better habitats nearby, or watch active migration over the sea, reported by that other birders. But I guess we couldn't complain.