Sunday, May 15, 2022

Global Big Day May 2022

Another Global Big Day done and dusted for Team Champions of the Flyway: Jonathan, Re'a and me. This time it was a bit different. Several factors affected our decision to focus more on quality rather than on quantity: 

1. Late date, May 14th, meant that here, in more southern latitudes, migration is almost over (hey eBird! Next year at the beginning of May, please!).

2. The late date translated into higher temperatures. We were unlucky with a serious heatwave hitting Israel. Morning weather was OK but from noon weather switched to quite horrible.

3. Stamina, or rather lack of: After several years of doing die-hard big days for Global Big Day (see our recent effort in October 2021, for example), we (I?) lacked motivation to rock it in full blast for a full 24-hr effort.

Re lack of stamina, we met up at 02:30 and headed north. First stop was in the Hula Valley, where the pre-dawn session produced three owls: Tawny, Scops and Barn, plus quite many Eurasian Nightjars. We also encountered four different Jungle Cats; one of them, in the picture here snoozing on a wheat bale, had a GPS-collar on, attached by INPA researchers.

Can't believe I took, downloaded and edited this photo of A Eurasian Nightjar

At dawn we were joined by Nadav. Together we birded around the Agamon Hula park, which was OK but lacked migrants. Still, we got lots of good stuff, including Marbled Teal, Black Francolin, Golden Oriole, Lesser Gray Shrike, Dead Sea Sparrow and many more. Jonathan was responsible for social media.

I was responsible for birding 馃槈

This Red-backed Shrike looked very posh in the early morning sunlight:

Most interesting birds of the morning were Rosy Starlings. It is a scarce bird in Israel. Typically, in Mid May, small flocks of Rosy Starling arrive to Agamon Hula to feast on mulberries. Several small flocks were reported in recent days, and indeed there were starlings around. At first light we had a few singles flying over, then we bumped into several small groups, all very mobile. 

We left the Hula valley with 80 species, not bad I guess. Originally we had managed to obtain a special permit to visit Bul'an Valley in the highest section of Mt. Hermon, one of the most amazing sites in Israel for breeding birds, home to White-throated Robin, Asian Crimson-winged Finch and other wonderful and rare breeding species. See an example of how wonderful it is in this post from June 2019. This valley is normally off limits due to its proximity to Syria and security sensitivity, but for important survey work special permits are granted. Our original plan was to collect there valuable breeding data, not in big day manner, so we obtained the permit and were joined by INPA staff. The visit to Bul'an Valley was planned to be the highlight of our Big Day. Plans don't always materialise. When we reached the military checkpoint to the upper platform, we were refused entry. We were together with INPA staff but nothing helped. We wasted 1.5 valuable hours of morning birding at the gate, trying to negotiate with the military, without success. By the time we gave up, our motivation levels received a serious blow. We continued to bird around the lower cable station and drinking pools, and in fact connected with the Hermon specialties - Syrian Serin, Western Rock Nuthatch, Upcher's and Eastern Bonelli's Warbler, Rock Bunting, Eastern Black Redstart. But all of this birding was done with a soundtrack of our complaints and negative talk after the unplanned change in plans.

When I do Big Days my focus is on finding birds so my senses are devoted to that, and there is little time to spend on photography during such a whirlwind of a day. Therefore my photos from this Big Day are few and, well, not great. 

Syrian Serin on the beautiful bloom of the hawthorn Crataegus azarolus

Short-toed Eagle

This year there was more snow than normal, later into spring, so spring development of plants, arthropods and breeding behaviour of birds seems to be late. There were certainly fewer butterflies than I'm used to this time of year. Frayer's Fritillary was the commonest:

Clouded Yellow

After we were done on Mt. Hermon we headed down to the Golan Heights, picking up specialties and stuff along the way, including Chaffinch (very localised breeder), Calandra Lark, Great Crested Grebe (only a handful of pairs breed in Israel), Black-headed Buntings.

Calandra Lark looking away - they breed here in vineyards

After midday the weather deteriorated fast. The temperatures rose to 42 degrees, and the wind was horrible. We likened the weather conditions to the hot wind coming out when opening an oven door on turbo mode. It was really nasty. A stop at Susita was close to torture, though somehow we added there Long-billed Pipit and Blackstart. That was the end of our Big Day - we were quite exhausted by the heat, and found shelter in the air-conditioned car.

Our total for yesterday was 122 species, 16 eBird checklists. Our lowest score ever on a Big Day. Yet we saw some good birds; additionally, any day with a visit to Mt. Hermon is good a good one. And as always, we had lots of fun - thanks to my mates Jonathan and Re'a, and Nadav who joined us for the Agamon section.

I created a Trip Report for yesterday's Big Day effort. I really enjoy this new feature by eBird - very useful and well designed. The link is here.

Till October Big Day, over and out.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Milestone celebrations

Today I celebrated a special milestone, 1000 days of consecutive birding. In 2019 I started my participation in eBird’s Checklist-a-Day-Challenge. I elaborated by increasing my effort, not only submitting any checklist, but by actually going birding every day. I developed my personal definition of meaningful birding – at least 30 minutes of proper birding, fully absorbed in birding, with binoculars around my neck. On August 15th 2019, while I was in the UK for a family visit, I had a one-day glitch that disrupted a 234-days long streak, and started counting again. Since August 16th 2019 I have birded properly every day, and today was my 1000th day. This streak has taken me through the entire COVID-19 pandemic… Now, birding and eBird is solidly a part of my being – I just have to go birding every day, and I hope I always will.

I celebrated this birding milestone by an early morning visit with my dog Bamba to my very local patch, Nahal Ekron. My alarm rang at 05:30, I started birding at 05:49. I walked 0.84 km one way, and then walked back the same route. 

The track takes me along the Ekron stream, that runs here in a ditch and has reeds growing on the shoulders. There are some scattered trees on the shoulders, and adjacent gardens of houses flanking the stream are attractive to birds too. The annual vegetation has mostly dried up by now. The walk one way and then back took me 54 minutes, which is longer than my average, because today I carried my camera and spent few minutes on photography. I normally don’t carry my camera when I visit my local patch. Today I decided to carry it, to celebrate the milestone and also because yesterday I had a close camera-less encounter with a Little Bittern, and had to make do with a ropey phone photo taken through my bins.

It was an OK morning session (eBird checklist here), a solid 40 species, without any crazy highlights but a few things that made me happy:

·       There were many babies out today, including my first-of-year Red-rumped Swallow, Goldfinch and Linnet. Linnets breed in nearby vineyards and orchards; a family party flew over the stream.

·       A large mulberry tree and adjacent huge Blue Jacaranda were full of warblers, higher-than-average numbers of Blackcap and some Garden Warblers too. There were two Barred Warblers (not Two-barred Warblers) flying in and out of the tree. They were too quick, or I was too slow, so this is the only reasonable photo I managed of one of them, likely a young female. The number of warblers seemed higher than normal, representing the massive migration experienced in different parts of the country.

·       Swifts! I love swifts. My love of swifts perhaps isn’t so strongly expressed as Hanna’s, but they certainly make me very happy with their utter awesomeness.

·       This soundtrack:

Then in the afternoon I submitted another checklist. It was my grandmother's memorial anniversary - she passed away 27 years ago. My family gathered in the main cemetery of Jerusalem, including my brother. This cemetery is not very well vegetated so there weren't many birds. Yet, the Linnets there made me happy, and sad - perhaps one of the last pairs breeding in Jerusalem; they used to be much more widespread. Alpine Swifts, Short-toed eagle, a Willow Warbler hoouiting, it was OK I guess. eBird checklist here. Does anyone else record birds during memorial services?

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Life and death on the sand dunes

Yesterday Meidad and I ventured out deep into the desert for fieldwork. We are completing a large-scale project mapping breeding birds for our atlas. We both worked in the Agur Sands NR, which is in fact the very extralimital extension of the Sahara sand belt that stretches across Africa into Sinai and the western Negev.

The habitat includes mobile sand dunes dotted with some bushes, and the valley floors are coated with a layer of Loess soil where there's a bit more plant productivity. Admittedly, sand dunes aren't the richest desert habitat for breeding birds in Israel. However, it is an important habitat for some threatened breeding species (more in these below), especially after good winter rains, as we had this past winter. Sandy habitats are certainly a biodiversity hotspot for psammophile organisms such as rodents and reptiles. Walking across the pure sand dunes in the early morning, it is always impressive to see how much nocturnal activity there was - every afternoon the wind swipes the sand dunes clean. Don't know what happened to my phone camera, however I quite like this monochromatic effect... In this photo there are tracks of Crowned Leafnose Snake (Lytorhynchus diadema), several gerbiles, jerboa and many beetles.

Nidua Fringe-fingered Lizard (Acanthodactylus scutellatus) - must be a pregnant female:

Any guesses what this is?

The most dominant breeding bird was Mediterranean Short-toed Lark. These sandy habitats are very important for this threatened species in Israel, especially when plant productivity is relatively high following good winter rainfall. Indeed, I had them in very good density, and their amazing song filled the sky - they are fantastic mimics. Here this male includes Crested Lark in his song, while another flies by calling:

They were busy breeding, including feeding recently-fledged young:

These are three youngsters:

I was alerted by a local Brown-necked Raven about the presence of a raptor - the raven was harassing a migrant Montagu's Harrier that had just caught prey, most likely a recently-fledged Mediterranean Short-toed Lark - life for one, death for another.

Another montys, a female, cruising over the sand dunes hoping to snatch some breakfast before another day of migration:

This certainly isn't prime habitat for terrestrial migrants, but migration here never stops and migrants can be found sheltering even in unhospitable habitats. Migration was in full swing and very evident both up in the air and on the ground. I flushed a Corn Crake off a random sand dune, my first for the season - good to see one alive and well...

There was really good movement of aerial insectivores - swifts, swallows and bee-eaters.

Pallid Swifts

Barn Swallow

Oh, those beautiful European Bee-eaters. Which version do you prefer - the first with all individuals aligned?

Or the second version with one individuals preening and facing the opposite direction?

Buntings, pipits, chats, warblers - so very good. I also had six Pale Rockfinches flying through. 

Eastern Orphean Warbler

Ortolan Bunting

On the way out I surprised a large Desert Monitor sunning itself on my track - male by the contrating colouration:

eBird checklist here.

Unfortunately, the way out was longer than expected as I got stuck trying to climb a track climbing up an extremely tall sand dune. After a couple of hours of failed attempts to free ourselves from the sand, we received help from a passing convoy of friendly ATV'ers. Thank you Yossi et al!

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Just another day in the office

This morning I went out to get some fieldwork done in the northern Negev. We're working there with INPA at a new nature reserve, Loess Plains NR, mapping breeding birds. Most of the reserve is pretty flat Loess plains. My section this morning flanked the Besor River, the main watercourse of the northern Negev, and quite a serious corridor of vegetation in contrast with the barren surroundings. 

I arrived at my section early in the morning, and quickly understood that this morning would be more about migrants than breeding birds. It was a cool and overcast morning after very hot weather yesterday, that must have affected migration. The air was full of birds and bird calls on the move - bee-eaters, hirundines, swifts, pipits, buntings, chats were hopping on tops of bushes - bliss. Down the wadi, the trees were full of birdsong - mainly Eastern Olivaceous Warblers and Turtle Dove. Hundreds of migrant warblers were ticking from the vegetation. Collared Flycatcher, Redstart, Thrush Nightingales, Wryneck - so much good stuff in there. In the distance I spotted a group of falcons hovering over the plains - mixed Red-foots and Lesser Kestrels.



Turtle Dove was present in very high density - there were tens of displaying males parachuting through the air. It was also heartwarming to see many flocks of migrants, some of several tens.

Hundreds of Steppe Buzzards roosted in the reserve by the wadi, especially on the shoulders.

When the air started to heat up they took off, and were joined by other raptors - Lesser Spotted, Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Pallid, Marsh and Montagu's Harriers.

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Booted Eagle

Receiving a warm welcome from the local Brown-necked Ravens:

Lovely 2cy male Montagu's Harrier

After the migrant flocks of European Bee-eaters left, the many breeding pairs became prominent. There was also a pair of Arabian Green Bee-eaters, so beautiful in the soft light.

Then I heard the familiar call of Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. For a few seconds the three species were sat together on the same bush. By the time I picked my camera up the blue-cheeked flew off; later on I relocated it on nearby wires. They have bred in the region in the past - I will follow up.

European (left) and Arabian Green (right) Bee-eaters

Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters

Towards the end a couple of small groups of pelicans went through:

Smaller than the mega flock I had over home on Saturday:

What a fantastic morning to be out. Thank you spring.

eBird checklist here.