Sunday, December 31, 2023

Best of 2023 - special review

On October 7th a war broke between Israel and Hamas. I have refrained from writing directly about the war, here and on my social media channels. However, the war certainly affected my life, directly and as part of a national trauma. The horror is so deep that I struggle to remember life before the war. When I browsed through the images I took during 2023, selecting those that would be displayed in this traditional annual summary, distant memories of innocent birding came back to me. Memories of birding without being alert (the wrong kind of alert), without the sounds of sirens and explosions in the background, without the heavy weight of grief and tension and a wounded heart. Looking back, the nine months of the year before the war weren't bad at all, actually pretty awesome. Even during the war, between family and work, I continued birding as hard as I could - nature healing at its purest. In this special summary, and this year it really is special, I will look back at the highlights of my birding year, in Israel and overseas. Here we go:

Birding in Israel

This year I was birding at full speed, as always. I didn't try to do a Big Year, but I did my best to see as many birds as possible without doing a proper Big Year. Does that comprehend? I'm not sure. I was out and about all the time, trying to enjoy what Israel has to offer. In 2023 I saw 391 species, which is a pretty good total I reckon. Less than in my 2021 Big Year effort (402), this is my second best annual total, so I am pleased with what I saw. 
Of course, eBird shapes my mode of birding considerably. I am keeping my birding streak - last week I celebrated a nice milestone of five years of consecutive birding (see below). In 2023 I submitted 600 checklists, and uploaded to Macaulay Library 407 photos, 47 sound recordings and 92 videos. 

In 2023 I had four IL lifers. I saw a Black-faced Bunting in February at Ma'ayan Zvi, and a Booted Warbler in August in Ma'agan Michael. I got good views of both but didn't get any photos of either, sadly. Hey, a tick is a tick. Another two IL ticks were Gray-headed Swamphen (I actually did see one in 2002 but it wasn't accepted by IRDC) in HaMa'apil in October, and perhaps the cherry on the top of my birding cake - Pacific Diver on December 30th, yesterday

There were lots of other great bird during the year. First rarity of the year was a Pied Bushchat near Maor in the Heffer Valley:

A proper winter storm that received the tempting name 'Barbara' brought in to our shores phenomenal numbers of Leach's Storm-Petrel, among other seabirds - great fun. February 8th was their peak - I saw 61 in less than two hours off Palmachim:

One storm-petrel I captured on video created a bit of a debate on its identity - I left it storm-petrel sp., for the time being:

A Three-banded Plover was found in the Jizreel Valley in February. On the way to Kfar Ruppin for work I made a quick detour to watch it - it's probably one of the wide-ranging long-staying individuals that roamed in northern Israel - possibly the same individual that was seen in Georgia recently!

It was a beautiful morning in Hazore'a fishponds, that provided beautiful views of Black Francolins, not rare but certainly stunning!

Masked Wagtail was another stunner in late February, not a full species but a very distinctive subspecies - my 2nd ever in Israel. This one frequented a beach car park in Maagan Michael, utilizing the garbage bin leftovers. 

Then spring sprang and migration picked up. Such a thrill every year to watch the returning migrants. Rüppell's Warbler is one of those spring migrants that makes me smile the most.

The Eilat Birding Festival followed by Champions of the Flyway provided me with an action-packed week of non-stop birding!

My mate Mark stayed over for a few days after COTF. Our time together was brightened up by this lovely Semicollared Flycatcher in Ashkelon:

Now that I am director of BirdLife Israel I have all the good reasons to travel down to Eilat frequently, to visit Noam Weiss and the team of Eilat Birding Center. This sacrifice provides me with fantastic birding opportunity. In early May I got this photo of European Bee-eater - one of my favourite photos of the year:

My office is in Tel Aviv. It location offers me with opportunities to explore the environs and enjoy some of the wildlife in the metropolin. Golden Jackals are abundant in Hayarkon Park, they are very tame and offer great photo opps.

A mega-rare Mediterranean Monk Seal frequented a busy Tel Aviv beach in May and attracted hordes of nature enthusiasts and the general public too. It became so popular that it was named Julia. It was a mammal lifer for me.

Keeping an eBird checklist and birding streak requires significant effort. I did my best to maximize my effort within a 10km radius from my house. However, there are some great birding sites just outside of the 10km radius, suitable for a pre-work morning session for streak maintenance and enjoyable birding. Kfar Harif reservoir is one of those sites. It hosts in summer breeding Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robins that are in serious decline in central Israel.

A trip up north in late May for some work on Mt. Hermon happened in perfect timing to be present when Yosef Kiat ringed this Chestnut-shouldered Petronia. They returned to breed in the Golan Heights again this summer - it seems that we have a new regularly breeding bird species in Israel

Rony Livne generated a very local twitch in late June - Basra Reed-Warbler in Kfar Menachem - 12 km from home...

Another good reason for me to travel down to Eilat is to develop my boys' scuba diving skills. One might call it a win-win situation. A couple of combined scuba diving and birding trips in summer were much appreciated because it is a wonderful time for seabirding. The sea was boiling with fish, and the birds had a great time. In this picture there's a Bridled Tern with White-cheeked and Common Terns, and an Arctic Tern somewhere in there too.

A monitoring pelagic with Noam and INPA team into the gulf was fun because I got good photos of Swinhoe's Storm-Petrel.

I highly appreciate the Eilat locals - White-eyed Gull and Striated Heron:

Then it was autumn and shorebirds started moving south. Yavne 1 ponds are probably the best shorebirds site in central Israel, only 13 km from home. In this pic, Little Stint, Dunlin, Ruff, Common Ringed Plover, Redshank and Teal. 

While searching for the Booted Warbler found by Igal in Maagan Michael in late August, a small group of Whimbrel flew past, including this interesting individual that showed features close to the enigmatic taxon alboxillaris:
In September migration picked up nicely, and I absorbed it all in. Looking back, it was a wonderful, innocent month.

In early October I flew to Kenya (more on this below). Then the war broke, and the rest of october was very gloomy. I did maintain my eBird streak, but struggled hard to elevate myself to travel farther. The Gray-headed Swamphen in HaMa'apil was on the first birding excursion that Piki and I did after the war broke. That part of the country was the only safe place to be, more or less. Thanks Piki for this pic.

In November birding picked up considerably. More and more birders heading out, where it was possible, and started finding good bird. As mentioned before, it is totally crazy to go birding when there are explosions and sirens in the background. This Red Phalarope in Ma'agan Michael was typically obliging:

This Red-breasted Merganser was the first of a relatively nice winter arrival along the Mediterranean Coast. This one was very close to the Lebanese border - we were quickly escorted out by security forces.

Kfar Ruppin fishponds were excellent all autumn, attracting huge numbers of birds, including this sweetie Lesser White-fronted Goose. 

Red-necked Phalarope normally don't overwinter in Israel, so this individual overwintering at Ma'agan Michael deserved lying in the mud for.

What I thought would be the final quality bird of the year was this Basalt Wheatear in the Arava Valley. With this fine bird I celebrated five years of consecutive birding.

The final push on December 30th was super successful with finding the Pacific Diver, and adding Menetries's Warbler. The final new bird for 2023 was a stupid one I hadn't noticed not seeing yet - Crowned Sandgrouse. Like finding a 50 quid note in your trousers pocket after laundry.

10K birding

In 2023 I invested as much as I can in the birding sites within a 10 km radius from my home in Mazkeret Batya. There are several sites within walking distance from home, that I check frequently. My beloved dog and birding companion Bamba passed away in late January. After her passing, it felt very weird to walk these sites without Bamba. As a result, my birding effort in the local sites diminished a bit. Since we adopted our new dog, Lola, in early November, my morning birding walks regained enthusiasm.

Bamba - I miss you so much

Lola - you fill my heart with joy

Nahal Ekron, the stream that runs through my town, is the site I visit most. In 2023 I submitted from there 67 checklists. The all-time site list is now on 200. In 2023 I added six species. No proper rarities this year, just the ordinary, enjoyable stuff. Here's a part of the eBird bar chart produced from my observations at this site:

A bit farther afield, within a radius of 10 km from home, Hulda Reservoir is a fantastic site. Piki and I have a Saturday morning tradition to walk around the reservoir. It really is wonderful there, year-round.

Pacific Golden-Plover - found not by us! On a weekday...

A beautiful Eurasian Hobby that got stuck in November and didn't migrate - probably because of its damaged eye:


With my job as director of BirdLife Israel, fieldwork is much less an integral part of my work. However, I try to do as much fieldwork as I can, because I can contribute that way and spend more time with my team, because I am good at it, and because I enjoy it very much. Fieldwork brings me to wonderful parts of the country and I see good birds that way!

Steppe Gray Shrike found during MacQueen's Bustard work in the Negev with Meidad

Asian Wild Ass also during MacQueen's Bustard work in the Negev

Eurasian Dotterel during breeding bird survey in the Negev

Mourning Wheatear during breeding bird survey in the Negev

I keep up with the summer census of breeding Nubian Nightjar

Breeding Upcher's Warbler during breeding bird survey

Second year of tagging European Turtle-Doves - details here

I ring at the Nili & David Jerusalem Bird Observatory once or twice a month. I love it there.

Barred Warbler

Olive-Tree Warbler


Global birding

In 2023 I travelled outside of Israel three times. I attended Global BirdFair at Rutland in July. It was great fun being part of this amazing global community. I was very proud to present, with Alen, our conservation work, with an emphasis on regional and cross-border work. How naïve we were back then...

With my friends Tim Appleton and Dale Forbes

The birdfair weekend was followed by a couple of days of meetings in London, and a brief visit to Norwich and Norfolk. I casually added a WP tick - in fact I saw two Lesser Scaups, one in Grafham Water and another in Norwich. Check my eBird trip report here.

The best duck

In August I travelled to Catlunya, Spain with my family. We met up with the Chittendens and had a fab time up in the Pyrenees, with Citril Finch, Lammergeier and lots of cool birds breeding in and near the garden of the villa where we were staying. eBird trip report here.

Citril Finch


In October I headed over to Africa, to lead two tours on behalf of Rockjumper Birding Tours - first in Kenya, then in Tanzania. I was really excited to return to Africa and to guiding, after a long covid-forced break. On the second day of the Kenya tour the war broke. I was on the phone with my wife all the time, and it was horrific. Rockjumper arranged a replacement guide, and I flew out of Nairobi when the tour arrived there after the first week. I was very disappointed to miss the second half of the tour into western Kenya - Kakamega, Kisumu and Masai Mara, and to miss the Tanzania tour. I am hugely thankful to Rockjumper for supporting me when I needed their support the most. I am also very appreciative of the supportive spirit I received from the tour clients. In any case, during the week I did spend with the tour we saw lots of incredible birds and mammals. We started in Arabuko-Sokoke forest, where we scored big time with mega views of Sokoke Scops-Owl and Sokoke Pipit.

What. A. Bird.

We also spent time on the coast, where we enjoyed some specialties - Sooty Gull, Crab-Plover and Golden Palm Weaver.

We drove through Tsavo East via Taita hills to Tsavo West. We saw so many fabulous birds and mammals. Not easy to choose the highlights, so please check the trip report on Rockjumper website, and eBird trip report. With 491 bird species, and 44 mammal species seen, it was an excellent tour without doubt!

The bizarre, giraffe-necked Gerenuk

Sunset in Tsavo West

Somali Bunting

Feather details of a Vulturine Guineafowl

The magnificent Golden-breasted Starling

On the way back home I got stuck in Addis Ababa for 24 hours due to cancelled flights (Hamas were shooting missiles towards Ben Gurion airport). It was Global Big Day, so I did my best to add some Ethiopian endemics and Abyssinian birds to the global list.

Ethiopian Cisticola

Abyssinian Thrush

Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher

Summary, new year resolutions and thanks

I hope you enjoyed this annual summary. Certainly, it was one hell of a year. So many amazing things happened but what a catastrophic year eventually. I do hope that 2024 will be better.

What will I be doing in 2024? I will not bird all over, as hard as I did in 2023. I plan to focus on the 10 km radius around my house. I will try to see as many bird species as possible within this radius. Will I succeed in not doing another national Big Year? I also have a few international trips planned - fingers crossed that the security condition here won't compromise these plans.

I send here my deepest love to my family - my wife Adva, and my kids Uri, Noam and Libby. Your support and good spirits mean the world to me. Thank you. Thank you to the large number of friends who go birding with me - Piki, Rony, Jonathan, Arad, Amir and so many more. Special thanks to my team at BirdLife Israel who share lots of birding time with me - at and around fieldwork: Meidad, Nadav, Yotam and Yotam, Alen, Ofri, Noam and Yuval. Thanks to Swarovski Optik that keep supporting me and provide me with the best optics.

Finally, special thanks to all my supporters, followers, readers, in Israel and all over the world. Your support is so important to me. Much appreciated.

I wish all of us a great 2024! Happy New Year!

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