Friday, October 22, 2021

My brother the birder

For Birdability Week, organised by Birdability, I want to share here the inspiring story of my brother Gidon. 

My brother Gidon is three and a half years older than me. He started birding just before I did - we were both under 10. Thanks to his infectious enthusiasm about wildlife and birding, my childhood growing up in Jerusalem was all outdoors. We trained as birders and ringers together, and spent long periods together in the field. My brother was always up there for me, leading the way, pushing boundaries. He co-founded the wonderful Nili and David Jerusalem Bird Observatory, with Amir Balaban, back in 1994. He served as head of the Israel Ringing Center for many years. Here is Gidon, in the early 1990s, ringing an Eagle Owl near Jerusalem.

Here he is in eastern Turkey, in June 2013. We climbed up Mt. Ararat searching for Caspian Snowcock.

Thanks Amir for the snap


In 2015 Gidon was diagnosed with a horrible, terminal neurodegenerative disease, ALS. His disease develops in a medium, steady pace. When he was diagnosed he lived in Vancouver, where he worked as a fellow in a leading hospital (his main profession is cardiologist). In May 2016 I went to visit Gidon and his family in Vancouver, with Amir. Back then his disease was demonstrated mainly in weakness in one of his legs. This affected his walking and stability, but all in all his mobility was reasonable.

Here he is during a trip we took to Vancouver Island. He had just spotted our first Orca of the trip.

Back then, the idea to embark on a Big Cat quest was born. Though Gidon had travelled the world extensively when he was young and healthy, he failed to connect with several Big Cat species. I remember that in July 1999, when Gidon came to visit me while I was travelling in Pacific Russia, we walked through a forest full of buntings and leaf-warblers. When we reached a stream that crossed our path, we noticed big, wet, paw prints, still wet from crossing the stream. We missed an Amur Tiger by minutes. Therefore, Gidon was keen to see as many Big Cats as long as he could travel. One day I may write a book about our travels (too many adventures to share here). 

By early 2017 Gidon's condition worsened. He was already using a mobility chair (scooter), but could somehow walk short distances using two sticks. In February 2017 we travelled to India. The team included, Gidon, Amir, Eli (Gidon's close friend who's also a medical doctor) and me. We already had to plan the trip according to Gidon's limited mobility. It was a challenge to climb into and out of the safari vehicles. Walking forest trails was out of the picture basically. We planned the trip well, and had breathtaking encounters with Bengal Tigers in Ranthambhore NP.  Kaziranga NP was incredible too.

Here are Gidon and Eli in a tea estate near Kaziranga NP, searching for Blue-naped Pitta.

In November 2017 I visited Israel (before my return from UK to Israel). I met up with Gidon and Amir, and we birded the Negev. It was a special year for rare wheatears and we enjoyed them along the Uvda Valley road. Gidon was unable to walk then, so birding was limited to roadside stuff. Thankfully the wheatears were kind to us, and showed well just by the road.

Red-rumped Wheatear

Basalt Wheatear

Our next trip together was to South Africa, in February 2018. This time it was a family trip, introducing the children to their family roots in Cape Town. Of course, we had planned the trip to connect with Lion and Cheetah. By then, Gidon could barely stand up using sticks. The safari-drive tempo worked better with his mobility challenges. Of course, we planned our trip to South Africa bringing into consideration his disabilities.
An important consideration in planning birding and outdoor activities is Gidon's ability to use optics. For birders without disabilities, the simple actions of lifting binoculars up to the eyes, or tilting the head to look through a telescope, are trivial. For birders with disabilities that affect the use of arms and hands, this is not trivial at all. In South Africa, Gidon still had just enough muscle power in his arms to lift binoculars up. Here he is in Hluhluwe Game Reserve:

Honorary Big Cat

Our next Big Cat assignment took us to the world-famous Pantanal in Brazil, in November 2018. Again, the crew included Gidon, Amir, Eli and me. Our main target was Jaguar. For this, we used boats specially adapted to Gidon's condition, with the help of awesome friends from Panthera. By then Gidon could barely stand up, so getting him into a boat was a big challenge. Despite the challenges, we had wonderful experiences with Jaguar. Of course, the stunning wildlife of the Pantanal includes much more than Jaguar - it was a dream come true to visit there.
Check Gidon's smile seconds after our first Jaguar encounter - worth all the efforts to get him there:

After a few days in Pantanal we headed north to spend another few days birding the Atlantic Forest with Marco Silva. There are few accessible accommodation options in Brazil, which made us adjust our itinerary so we stay at a suitable location. Few forest trails were accessible to Gidon. A visit to Sitio Folha Seca, to admire the hummingbird feeding operation, was both rewarding and suitable for Gidon - birds are extremely close there.

Our final international assignment (to date) was just before COVID-19 pandemic halted world travel. We flew to southern Spain in late January 2020, where with our Flyway Family siblings Inglorious Bustards we tried to connect with Iberian Lynx in Sierra de Andujar. By then, Gidon's condition had deteriorated dramatically. Now seated in a wheelchair (rather than scooter), and more tragically, hardly able to lift up binoculars. Gidon's energy levels and stamina reached a new low. It was a tough trip, made even more difficult by various unexpected events, including Gidon catching pneumonia. Eventually, on our final morning, we had views of an Iberian Lynx at long range. Sadly, Gidon was unable to stabilise his binoculars, and he failed to see the cat. It was an extremely frustrating moment; after all the difficulties of getting Gidon up that mountain, he couldn't see the lynx.

Since then we have been unable to travel outside of Israel. First, because of COVID. Second, because Gidon's condition is now so frail, that the logistics of international travel make it (almost) impossible for him to fly. I write 'almost' because I still hope that in the near future, we will do the impossible and travel somewhere. Sadly, Gidon won't be able to see any more large cat species. Initial plans we had for Puma in Torres del Paine, or Snow Leopard in Tibet, have become irrelevant. Gidon's lungs won't withstand high altitude anymore. Additionally, Gidon needs to be within short driving distance from a modern medical facility, and requires stable, reliable power supply to sustain him. Since our last trip to Spain, I have tried, usually with Amir, to take Gidon to as many places as possible in Israel. We plan our trips according to Gidon's accessibility requirements. Not many high quality birding sites in Israel are fully accessible. Nowadays, Gidon is unable to lift up binoculars or even tilt his head to look through a telescope. So Gidon requires birding sites that have big birds (Agamon Hula for instance). Gidon is a keen ringer; now unable to handle birds himself, his interest and knowledge of ringing hasn't declined. And it's a great opportunity for him to see birds from up close. Thankfully Gidon has the Jerusalem bird Observatory - he visits there multiple times a week, and is still deeply involved in the monitoring and research work carried out there. Together we visited IBRCE  - Eilat Bird Park, that is fully accessible too. The ringing station is, and also the wonderful walking trails and hides are. The team working there, lead by Noam Weiss, always go a long way to help and assist.

We also visited Ashalim Reservoir, a wonderful site with a good lookout but the distances are large. I attempted to connect a lightweight scope, Viking 12-36x 50mm Swallow Compact Telescope, connected to his wheelchair by a complex system of clamps and adapters. It's a good scope, and the system looks good in the photos, but eventually wasn't very useful, mainly because Gidon was unable to tilt his head in the exact angle needed to look through the scope. We tried also to show Gidon birds through my scope, connected to my phone with an adapter. That didn't work well either - sunlight on the screen makes it difficult to use. That was very frustrating at times.

At KM20 flamingo pools north of Eilat - the rough tracks between the saltpans aren't suitable for Gidon's wheelchair

In July 2021 we joined a ringing team working on Mt. Hermon for a wonderful session, enjoying Mt. Hermon's special birds, including this Syrian Serin held by Yael:

I somehow managed to get Gidon look through the scope at Israel's first Three-banded Plover in Ha'Maapil fishponds. It was very challenging to adapt the scope inside the specialised vehicle, in the exact angle for Gidon to look through the scope at the constantly moving plover:

In June 2021, Kan 11 TV channel broadcasted a piece they did on Gidon and his inspiring story. I am also in there... If you want to get to know Gidon better, consider watching this story. Unfortunately for most of the world it's in Hebrew, but I think you can get the main idea. You can watch it on Youtube (I am not sure whether it works outside of Israel), or through their website, from minute 54 onward. 

To conclude, birding with Gidon has changed my concept about birding with disabilities. In the past, when I birded daily, I was totally unaware of accessibility considerations. I never thought about the simple actions of lifting binoculars up, or looking through a scope. I also never faced issues staying in the field for hours. Now, my views have changed. When I am birding with my brother, the careful planning, the slow pace of birding, the accessibility of trails and the distance to birds all become fundamental. The birding community in Israel is small, and there's only a handful of birders with disabilities. I hope that Gidon's story will elevate accessibility for birders with disabilities into the agenda of birding and wildlife experiencing in Israel. Many new birding sites are being planned these days. Almost every city has an infrastructure of urban wildlife sites. Accessibility needs to be a major component of the planning process.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Global Big Day and Pin-tailed Snipe

Yesterday was Global Big Day, organised by eBird, part of the international events of Global Bird Weekend and World Migratory Bird Day. Our team 'Champions of the Flyway' traditionally included Jonathan, Re'a and me.

Initially, we had plans for a selective Big Day, focused on special specialties only, at a slower pace. Eventually, we changed our plans and returned to a proper, ambitious full Big Day effort, the way it should be done.

We left our homes in central Israel in the early hours to arrive in the Hula Valley enough time before dawn for some night birding. Our traditional Tawny Owl was waiting for us at the entrance to Hula NR. A night drive in the Agamon failed to produce other new owls (only Barn) or a nightjar, but produced a surprising, late Golden Oriole - our only one for the whole day, spotted by Re'a roosting in a big tree.

Several Jungle Cats were hunting in the dark, including this poser:

At day break, we were positioned at the southern end of the Agamon, and enjoyed this scene, now complete with crane cacophony:

The Agamon and adjacent fields were fantastic (eBird checklist here). Huge numbers of birds. many species, good quality including Moustached Warbler, Black Francolin, Pallid Harrier. A cut alfalfa field was coated with hundreds of Yellow Wagtails, and even larger numbers of Corn Bunting. Several Red-footed Falcons were hunting over the ploughed fields.

Red-footed Falcon

Montagu's Harrier

We quickly visited Lehavot Habashan fishponds - it would have been rude to leave the Hula Valley without seeing Marbled Teal. There were still good numbers of Marbled Teal there, 108, alongside a nice selection of shorebirds (eBird checklist here).

We left the Hula Valley satisfied with 114 species under our belt. When we arrived at Susita it was already very hot. Birding was tough, we missed Long-billed Pipit but added a few good species. While birding there news broke of a Pin-tailed Snipe in central Israel, close to home. We contemplated the option of altering our route to twitch the snipe. In an act of maturity and responsibility we decided to stick to Plan A and continue as planned. This came with some disappointment, as Jonathan and I are doing a Big Year. 

Global Big Day is timed to suit best N American birders' calendar. In Israel, both October and May Big Days happen when the weather is very hot. Yesterday was no exception, and when we arrived in the Bet She'an Valley the temperatures were soaring towards 40 degrees, making birding difficult. What to do when it's so hot? We walked a couple of alfalfa fields, failed to find Oriental Skylark but added Richard's pipit and a surprise Spectacled Warbler. We were melting. Bad choice. Birding the fishponds, for waterbirds, stationary, made more sense (eBird checklist here). The White-tailed Lapwing remained in it's wonderful pond that hosted many new shorebirds for the day. There were some raptors up in the air, though we failed to intercept a proper stream of raptor migration the whole day. Light conditions were harsh, and we were in a hurry, so I didn't take any photos. Jonathan shot this video of the wonderful pond with the lapwing: 

We left Bet Shean Valley with 142 species and headed cross-country towards the Dead Sea.

Ein Gedi NR carpark was exploding with humans rather than birds. Still, some nice desert species were present, including Fan-tailed Raven.

Note that the bird in the center is ringed:

Ashalim Reservoir is a stunning location, and I love birding there. It provided us with a few good species, including Dead Sea Sparrow and African Swamphen (eBird checklist here).

Late in the afternoon we arrived at Heimar Reservoir. Immediately we enjoyed a fantastic show by Sooty Falcons, at least four of them, hunting hirundines high up. Top quality birds. Just before dusk we Re'a struck again - Isabelline Shrike! Boom! Very nice surprise.

After dusk we checked a nearby site for Nubian Nightjar. It's not their main site, and habitat there isn't optimal, so it wasn't a big surprise we didn't succeed. However, the day was topped by a fantastic Desert Owl hooting in a nearby wadi.

Our daily total was a very satisfying 159 species. This is our best autumn Big Day score so far. This is the second time we do a cross-country effort. In May 2019 our route was even crazier, because it included also Mt. Hermon, and we ended up with 164 species. So our score yesterday is pretty good for our effort I reckon. Of course, like in every Big Day, we missed a good number of silly species, and gained a few 'Wild Cards'. 

Thanks Re'a and Jonathan for another memorable Big Day. It was a day full of quality birding and lots of fun with the best possible team. Thank you guys.
Thanks to the organisers, eBird and Global Birding - always a pleasure to participate in this global event. Thanks to Swarovski Optik for the privilege to use the best optics in the world.

####################### Post-script ##############################

After a well-deserved night sleep, this late morning I went with Jonathan to look for the snipe at Tel Afek. We weren't optimistic. This is a super intensive site, most it it developed for recreation. Yesterday, as the park filled up with hundreds of noisy families, the bird vanished. This early morning many birders searched for it, without success. We birded the park hard, checked all habitats that made some sense for a skulky snipe, without success either. Then Oren Maman called - 'Come quick, I found it!'. It was sitting quietly under a tree in the most intensive section of the park, between picnic tables and screaming kids. We must have walked right past it, as did many other birders. 

It sat there motionless for a while until a screaming kid that ran past it flushed it a short distance. Fantastic views of it. Great year bird, and a good rarity in Israel, with about 14 records only. The identity of this bird was confirmed by call, and by photos of it preening (by Ron Singer), displaying its pin-like outer tail feathers.

Note short tail

Open face

Friday, October 8, 2021

Birds in flight

 My favourite type of birding is on foot. Most often you'd find me walking through habitat, with scope on one shoulder, camera on the other. I think this is an optimal way for general birding, rather than sit in a hide or drive around in a car. This choice has a few outcomes. First, I see many birds, including birds in flight, and identify many birds on call - not easy when you're in a hide or in a car. Second, my photos are often distant (birds often won't let me approach on foot) and often in flight. Especially since I sold my 500mm lens two years ago, I enjoy shooting small birds in flight. In most cases, photos are rubbish and worth nothing. Sometimes, like today, it works slightly better...

This morning I birded with Piki at Tal Shachar, few minutes from home. It was a special morning because it's Piki's birthday today (Happy Birthday!), and because for the first time since March I put on a second layer first thing. At first, birding was a bit slow, but eventually things picked up. The first bird I photographed today was perched in fact, not in flight, this male Red-backed Shrike, too gorgeous to walk past without attention:

The western section of the alfalfa was half-quiet, there were some pipits and wagtails, nothing major, and Marsh, Montagu's and Pallid Harriers cruised over the field.

Pallid Harrier

Eventually we found two Richard's Pipits that flew up, giving that bursting call. 

Jonathan had just arrived with a busload of punters, and one of the pipits flew directly towards the group. Not sure if anyone but Jonathan saw it.

We made it to the eastern section of the field, that was really busy. Yellow Wagtail numbers went down from many hundreds a month ago to just over 100, and pipit numbers are up, many Red-throats and Tree, several Tawny.

Tawny Pipit

Then a small bird flew up from the field, calling that familiar thin and sharp 'Tzip'. I got my bins on it, Piki too, Little Bunting! Boom! Unfortunately it flew off and away, and we lost it in the distant wood. I was very happy to find it - Little Bunting was one of my Big Year targets for October. This is an exceptionally early record.
Happy and motivated, we continued birding in the alfalfa. It was heartwarming to see good numbers of European Rollers, mostly juveniles. They are not doing well in Israel, and are classified as Vulnerable. Also globally (especially in Europe) their status isn't positive. So 12 in a single field was good.

That underwing is simply stunning

Among the many Spur-winged Lapwings there was a single newly-arrived Northern Lapwing.

All in all it was a great morning, eBird checklist here. Thanks Piki!