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.

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