Sunday, November 28, 2021

Double Turkestan

Healing journal, Day 1. This morning I ventured out into the southern Negev with Rony. I needed some desert bliss (and good birds) to comfort my aching soul. First stop was Neot Smadar. It was cold first thing, and it took the birds some time to wake up. A pallid Hen Harrier flew past, fast, low, wrong settings...

It took us a little while to relocate the Turkestan (AKA Red-tailed) Shrike, but eventually it showed really well, feeding on grasshoppers and chasing other birds. Very smart bird, gives a different impression compared to a normal Isabelline. Dark cold brown upperparts, almost Brown Shrike-like (it isn't), strong supercilium, whitish underparts with limited wash on flanks. Of course identifying 1cy birds of these taxa is challenging, but to my eyes this bird looks good for phoenicuroides.

Our next stop was the northern edge of Uvda Valley, north of Rt.12. We walked down from the road into the dry wadi - very lovely there.

Quickly we noticed that there were huge numbers of larks in the bottom of the wadi. At first we saw lots of Crested Larks, then we started seeing more and more Temminck's Larks, then large flocks starting moving all around us - they were so mobile! 

One of the very few that didn't fly off:

Then I spotted some Thick-billed Larks with them - great! But they were up and off quickly too, 12 in total.

Two Thick-bills with a Temminck's

The lark bonanza continued. I scanned through a flock of Temminck's Larks that momentarily landed. I spotted a 'lesser short-toed lark', got the scope on it - whoa! Dark, heavily-streaked breast, large bill - must be Turkestan Short-toed Lark!! I got Rony on it, we had it on the ground for another five or ten seconds, then the whole flock took flight, up and away, and joined hundreds of larks on the wing - we estimated 300 Temminck's Larks up in the air! No photos, damn. The whole mass moved west and out of sight behind the mountains. The Turkestan encounter was brief, but we enjoyed really good scope views. This is my first 'modern' Turkestan Short-toed Lark in Israel, since the split, so this is very exciting.
We continued birding the wadi which was very enjoyable, with large numbers of Bar-tailed Larks, Asian Desert Warbler, many wheatears - eBird checklist here.

A quick walk through the southern section of Uvda Valley was less productive - it was getting hot and bird activity was reduced. Still high numbers of larks and wheatears (eBird checklist here), including this lovely Desert Wheatear:

The midday heat put us off from further birding, so we made our way back home - a brilliant morning that was.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Uganda called off

If you're following me on social media, you might have noticed this post (similar on Facebook, Instagram):

I was invited by the organisers of African Birding Expo in Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, to attend the event and join the fam trip preceding it, with a wonderful bunch of good friends and excellent birders. I was all pumped up and ready to go, so excited to visit Uganda for the first time. Images of Mountain Gorillas and Shoebills ran through my head.

Last night I headed over to the airport to catch my flight to Uganda via Dubai. News of a new COVID-19 variant, Omicoron, spreading like fire in southern Africa was sitting at the back of my head, also the travel ban Israel imposed on these countries. I started the check-in process, when the person at the check-in counter notified me that Israel had just upgraded the covid status of Uganda, as most African countries, to red. Meaning that there's a travel ban to this country. Technically I could fly because my flight wasn't direct. The check-in attendant warned me of the real and possible grave consequences when I return. I had the worst dilemma - my heart directed me to go and fulfill my dream, and deal with the consequences down the line when they arrive. But my brain, my damn, logical, responsible brain, made the decision to cancel the trip. I was shattered, devastated. I was almost there, then everything collapsed. Cognitively I know I made the right decision. Emotionally, I don't know...

I want to express here my deep gratitude to the organisers of the African Birding Expo. They put it significant efforts to bring me over. I am sure they are disappointed and concerned as well. I hope that the trip and expo will go smoothly, and all travellers will return home safely.

I was invited to the expo to promote birding tourism into this wonderful country. I will do my best to promote birding in Uganda, even if I am not there. The expo organisers and Bird Uganda Safaris team, including Annette and Herbert, were extremely helpful, informative and responsive during the months and weeks before the event. I can highly recommend working with them. The gorillas, chimpanzees and shoebills will have to wait for me until I eventually make it. In the meanwhile, I recommend following the adventures of my fam-trip fellows, George, Ted, Dominic and Hannah and Erik Go Birding.

This era of covid is crushing the birding tourism industry worldwide. I can just hope that this period of escalating chaos will pass, and birding tourism, so important for local communities and conservation efforts, and for my fellow bird tour leaders, will resume without interruptions.

And me? I am OK. I was in a very bad mood for a while, but already went birding in the morning, which is always good for the soul. The checklist streak must continue. Rather than mourn over the lost opportunity in Uganda, I plan to celebrate the birding in Israel. My diary is empty for the next 2.5 weeks, and I have a Big Year to complete.

Friday, November 5, 2021


The past week has been very frustrating for me. Israel is experiencing an amazing run of Asian vagrants, including two national firsts. I have been somewhat involved indirectly with those, but have not seen them. Just to clarify, I claim no credit for these records; all the fame and glory go to the finders.

In the evening of October 31st belated news broke of a Black-faced Bunting that had been ringed in the morning at Hefer Valley Ringing Station:

As soon as photos of a strange bunting went online I thought to myself 'what on earth is this bunting?'. Yosef Kiat was the first to blow the whistle. Frustration #1 - had the bird been identified immediately, perhaps I had a chance to see it?

Next morning (November 1st) I was there first thing. Incredibly, there were just three birders searching - Barak, Avi and me. Imagine this scenario in UK... The weather was horrendous, and we failed to relocate the bunting, not for the lack of trying (eBird checklist here). Frustration #2.

Next day (November 2nd) I had work to do at the JBO, enjoyed a Yellow-browed there and added Woodcock to my yearlist nearby at Gazelle Valley. 

Frustratingly, my birding session at Gazelle Valley was interrupted by belated news, again, that the Black-faced Bunting had been seen again (but identified only retrospectively from photos online) few hours after we had left the previous day, about half a kilometer away from where we searched. Arrrgh! Frustration #4. I sped back to Agamon Hefer, again to meet Barak and a few others. Nothing. No sign. This pretty Caspian Stonechat improved our mood by just a bit.

Next day (November 3rd) I was ringing peacefully near home, when Noam Weiss calls me, in a state of hyperventilation, asking me for help to identify an interesting bunting that had just been caught at IBRCE. I went with Noam over ID features, and we identified it as Chestnut Bunting - another national first, four days after the Black-faced Bunting. Amazing! What's going on? Frustrating to be part of the effort without seeing the bird (frustration #5).

Yesterday (November 4th) I did my monthly point count morning at Ma'agan Michael. It was in fact an excellent morning, tons of birds, so many species (eBird checklist here). I tried really hard but saw nothing more special than a Richard's Pipit. Before leaving I joined Itai Bloch's ringing team for a short while, good fun, until I had to leave.

This morning while birding near Tzor'a, guess who calls me. Itai Bloch. 'Please help me identify this bunting'. I video call Itai on WhatsApp - bloody Rustic Bunting. Arrrrrrgggghhhhh! I was there yesterday! Bastard bird. Frustration #6.

Imperial Eagle 2cy - much better than a bloody bunting

Caspian Stonechat - so much better than a bloody bunting

A short while ago news came from Eilat that the Chestnut Bunting resurfaced and is being seen. There are so many good reasons for me NOT to go for it tomorrow. Don't know if I will. May the force be with me.