Thursday, April 4, 2024

Champions of the Flyway 2024

On Monday (April 1st) it was Champions of the Flyway again, for the 11th year. It was a strange one, all-Israeli, without the international component. Because of the war we didn't even try to engage with the international birding community - not easy to be an Israeli organisation or individual these days. Despite the ongoing war situation, we decided to go ahead with the Israeli race this year for several reasons. First, the conservation project, to support Nature Tanzania's work in tackling illegal killing of White Storks and other birds, is so important that we were determined to raise whatever funds we can through COTF. Second, the race is a central event for the local birding community, bringing together so many people and connecting the birding community with conservation. It was great to be part of the leading team of COTF, with Alen and Noam but very strange without Jonathan Meyrav. You were missed, bro!

I headed down to Eilat on Sunday, March 31s, the day before the race. The weather turned terribly hot and migrant numbers on the ground were very low. In Yotvata sewage there were a few migrants, shorebirds, wagtails and pipits, best of the bunch was a Little Crake. In hot and windy Canada Park, this male Collared Flycatcher (one of my favourite birds) was the only migrant of note.

Over at the IBRCE we did a live birding webinar, broadcasting from the JBO (Dror), Hula (Nadav) and IBRCE (Daniel and Moritz ringing, I was out with my scope). You can watch the webinar recording here. I had phone issues (demonstrated also in the attached video below), so I contributed only visual, without sound. But it went OK I think. Outside of the zoom there were some nice birds in the park, including Whimbrel, Gull-billed Terns, a pale-morph Western Reef-Heron and Citrine Wagtails. Identifying this pale morph is a bit more challenging - note the dagger-shaped, non-black bill, and less black and yellow legs. It was also slightly larger that an adjacent Little Egret:

Citrine Wagtail

Whimbrel, Whiskered Terns, Glossy Ibis, Caspian Tern, Gull-billed Terns:

In the evening at North Beach the Brown Booby was sitting distantly on a buoy, and I saw my first White-cheeked Tern of the year.

Race day (April 1st) started in an unexpected way:

With this wake-up call (siren) teams sprang into action. I spent the whole day out in the field, with teams, making sure they are working well and seeing as many birds as possible. First thing in the morning I headed up to in Uvda Valley, that was actually quite good with decent numbers of migrants. The habitat looks great there - one of the few productive spots in the Negev this year. Most of the Negev is stone-dry, literally, after a rain-less winter.

My birding started well with a Striped Hyena that disappeared behind a ridge just as I got my camera on it... I had Bar-tailed and Med Short-toed Larks there, and another lark that got away and was probably Arabian. 

In Neot Smadar sewage a male Semi-collared Fly showed nicely:

Heading down towards the Arava valley, I intercepted a fantastic stream of migrating raptors, mainly Steppe Buzzards - thousands of them! Somehow, photos of such migration spectacles are always underwhelming; it is impossible (for me) to capture the size and power of this awesome experience.

During the hottest hours (it was already above 40 C / 104 F) I checked some sites near Eilat, including IBRCE and the football pitches. The most impressive creature that I photographed was this poisonous grasshopper Poekilocerus bufonius, here on its poisonous plant host - Sodom's Apple Calotropis procera.

In the afternoon teams started to concentrate in the Eilat sites. At KM20 Flamingo Pools there were many shorebirds and ducks, including two Red-necked Phalaropes and Collared Pratincoles. So great to see the kids and teens in action:

At North Beach the classic evening gathering of teams was photogenic as ever:

After dark we opened the finish line at the IBRCE and worked with the incoming teams until midnight.

On Tuesday (April 2nd) before the closing events I used the early morning for a little birding, with Itai and Meidad. In Holland Park it was nice to find a 'wild' Black Scrub-Robin (unlike the sedentary 'feral' ones in Samar).

At quick whizz through the IBRCE produced a columbinus Greater Sand-plover and a female Oriental Honey-Buzzard. I am still bewildered by their rapid expansion in Eilat - they have become a regular feature of birding here almost year-round. Note that in this photo the bird is half-gliding, therefore the first finger is tucked in.

Then it was the traditional group photo at North beach, classically interrupted by a passing Eurasian Curlew:

And a proper photo by Yuval Dax - thank you to all who participated!

The award ceremony was exciting and emotional as ever. Five titles were awarded to different teams - Guardians of the Flyway (most fundraising) to Women in Steppe, Knights of the Flyway to the young Bee-eaters (most noise and impact towards the cause), Green Champions of the Flyway to the Francolins (on foot in the heat!), IBRCE Champions of the Flyway to the Woodchat Shrikes (full day in the park), and classic Champions of the Flyway to the Desert Owls, led by Nitay Hayun, with an excellent score of 152 species! They received Zeiss binoculars, donated by Zeiss Birding - thank you! The Desert Owls are a brilliant team - exceptional birders and fine young lads - from L to R Yagel Yamin, Nitay, Beeri Abramov and Amit Spivack. This photo and the next are also by Yuval - thanks!

Uplifting to see the engagement and commitment of so many young birders to the project (41 participants under 18!) - not only their participation in the bird race itself. I also witnessed the importance of the conservation component and the connection of the younger participants to a 'bigger' story. I only wish there were more girls in this photo - still a big challenge we need to overcome, how to make birding more inclusive and safer for young girls.

From a birding point of view it may have been one of the quieter Champions, with very high temperatures and low numbers of migrants on the ground. However, this made the race itself even more challenging. With harder work of all teams most expected species were seen (195 species seen in total during the race by all teams) and lots of good species. Check my eBird trip report for the three days here.

From a public POV, as always, this event is so unique and motivational that I am very proud to be part of its leading team. Of course, that lack of international teams decreased the volume of the message, the importance of the battle against the horrible illegal killing of birds, and also decreased the amount of money raised for Nature Tanzania. You can still donate to COTF and support the work carried out by Nature Tanzania to tackle illegal killing of birds - please follow the link here,
Within Israel this still is one of the most prominent birding events of the year, that connects birding with conservation. IBRCE hosted the event and the the team did a stellar job. Huge love and appreciation to Noam and all IBRCE team - Tzadok, Libby, Sasha, Shachar, and Moritz and Daniel who operate the ringing station.

Alen and Noam deserve huge thanks for leading the whole campaign and event, with the online support of Mark Pearson. Hats off - you all did a great job in difficult conditions. Thanks as well to all of my team who came down to participate and help - Yuval, Meidad, Yotam, Ofir and the entire JBO team, and two BirdLife Israel 'affiliates' - Dan Alon and Amir Balaban - thank you all!

See you in Champions of the Flyway 2025! Go Champions!

Saturday, March 23, 2024

From scarce to mega

Wow what a day. My morning started nicely with a visit to a flock of Cinereous Buntings on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Cinereous Bunting is a scarce migrant through Israel, mainly in spring, favouring open rocky slopes. Despite seeing quite many over the years, I have never managed a good photo. This morning I did. Kfar Adumim, where I visited, is a traditional site for them. The flock of five I had were quite mobile and a bit shy, but with some patience I managed a couple of decent photos. Not perfect, but certainly much better than those I had before. I find the subtle males very neat and attractive, not as flashy as their Cretzschmar's relatives but still very beautiful. The birds I saw belong to the more westerly subspecies cineracea, with their grey bellies.

In the afternoon I was caught up in a family event when news came out of an Asian Desert Warbler on a beach near Haifa, found by Sagi Shual. Given the first (and non-twitchable) African Desert Warbler was also in Haifa in spring, alarm bells went off in my head. I asked for the reporter to send me photos, which confirmed my suspicion - it looked spot-on for deserti! I upgraded the news, but sadly I was stuck in the family event and couldn't go immediately. With the advancing afternoon I was totally deflated and gave up on the idea I'd see the bird. When we were done, I checked Waze just out of curiosity. I figured out that I could just make it to the site 10 minutes before sunset - doable, somehow. Thankfully there was no traffic heading that direction. When I got to Haifa my GPS went crazy (because of the war GPS signal is being distorted in different parts of the country) which cost me a wrong turn and an extra ten minutes. From the carpark there was another 15 minutes walk (or 7 minute run in my case) to the bird with the light fading quickly. The sun had already disappeared when I made it breathless to the bird, expertly staked out for me by Ido - thanks! I quickly saw the bird, it was showing well, foraging on the sand dunes and low in the bushes. I really appreciated the supreme optical quality of my 8X NL Pure, performing so well in the dim light, allowing me to pick out the plumage details. I was surprised how striking the bird was, very pale below, so bright gingery above, open face pattern, very yellow legs, and those plain tertials were very distinctive too. Such a sweet little bird, spending lots of time running on the ground. This was a global lifer for me, having not birded (yet) in NW Africa. My first lifer in 2024. My photos are shit - others (that arrived when there was light) have much better photos.

Check those unstreaked tertials!

The warbler utilized the coastal sand dune habitat with scattered bushes

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Spring bliss

This morning was one of those mornings that demonstrate best (to me at least) why I am a birder and how rewarding being a birder can be. I visited Mt. Amasa, at the southern tip of the Judean Mts. This is one of my favourite birding sites in March - the habitat is beautiful, the landscape is stunning, and birding is magnificent. The open, rocky slopes, now covered with flowers, attract juicy migrants, and support healthy populations of quality breeding species. For me, a mid-March visit to Mt. Amasa is really one of the highlights of my birding year in Israel. I know the sites there very well, and I could predict almost precisely what and where I would see. It made no difference - it was a beautiful morning, albeit a bit short (family stuff...).

I met up early with Barak (in the photo above), Avi & Ron. At first we checked around the ruins of Tel Krayot, then descended to the adjacent Wadi Tov. It was a bit cold early on but soon the sweet warm sun lit up some beautiful birds for us. Check out this handsome 2cy male Woodchat Shrike, likely a migrant (not quite in breeding habitat), glowing in the soft early morning light:

There were really nice numbers of Cretzschmar's Buntings, several flocks moving through and quite many hopping on the rocks. They do breed here but despite some males bursting into their sweet 'Si-si-seee' song, I think they were mostly migrants.



Using the ruins and boulders as breeding sites, there were good numbers of Rock Sparrow, Blue Rock-Thrush and Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, all seen in advanced breeding activity. Wait for it and turn your volume up:

Down by the wadi there were more Sylvia warblers in the scattered bushes, including Rueppell's, Eastern Orphean and Eastern Subalpine. I have seen brighter subalps before - still a very neat bird.

There were many redstarts about - lots of wintering Western Blacks still here, one cracking male Eastern Black (likely semirufa), and several Commons, including three male Ehrenberg's. Barak talking in the background:

Twas also fun watching several Wrynecks rockhopping. Always fascinating birds.

There were many common migrants around. I enjoyed that immensely. A few scarcities weren't seen this morning (Cinereous Bunting, Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush) - next time hopefully. More images and videos in the eBird checklist here.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Up and down and around

Over the last few days I have been out and about a bit. It is such an exciting time of year to be out birding. The thrill of seeing fresh migrants, first for the season, keeps me going year after year. It never bores.

On Saturday morning (March 2nd) I went birding with Piki to sniff some early migrants in Arsuf, north of Tel Aviv. The habitat was lovely, flowers aplenty. There's a patch of Coastal Iris there, which is endemic to Israel and Critically Endangered. Sexy. 

There were quite many wheatears about, including an outstanding total of four Desert Wheatears. They are scarce or even rare migrants along the Med coast. Looking so beautiful in the early morning sun, with an atypical green background.

Flushed from its favourite perch by the powerful Isabelline Wheatear

Tuesday morning (March 5th) I had a meeting at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. The secret in scheduling morning meetings is to start at a time that leaves sufficient birding time beforehand. Before the meeting I checked two sites in Jerusalem that are hosting fine birds. First, Jerusalem's Botanical Gardens, the same site that hosted Israel's first Chinese Pond-Heron in 2021. In the past few weeks a very cooperative Redwing has taken up residence in the gardens and has become a bit of a celebrity, mainly because it is showing so well, unusually for such a scarce and shy bird in Israel (normally). Indeed, it showed on its favourite Pyracantha bush. In my case it was actually a bit shy and didn't show very well but I can't complain. 

Next stop was Australia Gardens, on the slopes of Mt. Herzl. It's actually a section of the Jerusalem Forest, afforested with non-native pines and cypress trees. However, now when everything is lush and flowering, the habitat looked quite attractive and indeed there were tons of birds there. Gabriel Cedar and Shalem Kurman, to excellent young birders, found there a flock of Olive-backed Pipits a couple of weeks ago. OBP is a very rare winter visitor, though this past winter has been quite good for them. In any case such a flock in central Israel is very welcome. Straight away I heard the pipits giving their tiny 'pip' call but it took me a while to locate them. Eventually I had nice views of them flying between the trees, occasionally dropping down to the ground to forage. However they were difficult to photography well.

Listen to the amount of birdsong in this sound recording:

From the highest peaks of Jerusalem to the lowest place on earth. Later that evening I joined a group of researchers from Tel Aviv University working on Pallid Scops-Owls. We trapped and ringed three individuals, and heard another one or two, in one corner of a date plantation near the Dead Sea. Discovered to breed in Israel less than a decade ago, it still is fascinating to see Pallid Scops-Owls in such densities. Very special birds, in special settings.

Only few hours after the night shift had ended, I found myself in Kfar Ruppin, admiring our newest restored reservoir, in partnership with the kibbutz. It's a large, amazing reservoir, always so attractive to birds and other wildlife - a great and welcome addition to our Start-Up Nature project. Yesterday morning the reservoir was packed with birds, as always. A flock of pelicans graced the reservoir, tons of ducks, shorebirds, raptors, passerines. In two and a half hours I saw in the reservoir and around it 104 species, so much quality, check the eBird checklist here.

I went live on Facebook when I was there (until I was interrupted by a local guy who asked for some photography advice):

Thursday, February 8, 2024

White Wagtail mystery

In May-June 2019 (pre-covid, pre-war, another era) I led a Rockjumper tour to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (read the tour report here). Our first morning session was spent in the mountains above Tashkent. We drove up to Hotel Beldersay and birded the forested slopes above the hotel. It was a brilliant morning, the scenery was stunning with the backdrop of snow-capped mountains and lush valleys. 

Birding was exciting, as expected for a first morning in a new destination, in fact a whirlwind of new and beautiful birds. Our excellent local guide Timur and I worked hard, picking up new birds continuously and showing them to our clients. Highlights from that morning included White-winged Woodpecker, White-capped Bunting, Yellow-breasted (Azure) and Turkestan (Great) Tit, and a flyover Red-footed or Amur Falcon - both would be rarities for Uzbekistan. Check my eBird checklist here

Because I enjoy studying geographical variation of familiar birds, I was facinated by golzii Common Nightingale and althaea Lesser Whitethroat. I also paid attention to White Wagtails up there. There were several wagtails in the hotel gardens, busy in breeding activity including song and display. Several individuals looked like typical Masked Wagtails - Motacilla alba personata, with a pale grey mantle, and a clear-cut contrast between the black nape and grey mantle. I like Masked Wagtails very much as they are a distinct taxon that is a rare vagrant to Israel, most recently in February 2023.

Masked Wagtail Motacilla alba personata, Hotel Beldersay, Uzbekistan, 17 May 2019

Other wagtails up there were distinctly different. They had very dark, almost black backs. In fact, the upper back was concolorous with the black nape, lacking the clear contrast of personata. There seems to be some variation between the individuals I saw, perhaps individual variation or related to different light conditions or photo/editing artefacts. Yet this dark mantle, lacking contrast or unclear contrast, is consistent and apparent in all the photos I kept.

White Wagtail ssp. Motacilla alba ssp., Hotel Beldersay, Uzbekistan, 17 May 2019

Anyone who has led tours knows how intense the work is. Indeed, I was very busy that morning and eBirded in haste, entering a wrong subspecies for these strange wagtails - Black-backed. Of course had I looked up White Wagtails subspecies properly this mistake would have been prevented, but I didn't. My bad.

Fast forward to yesterday, I received an email from eBird, rightly questioning my observation of White Wagtail (Black-backed). Clearly the subspecies I noted was incorrect, so I edited the checklist and for the time being I left these wagtails without a subspecies. This is where it's getting interesting. Today I did look at different White Wagtail taxa and their ranges. Curiously, alboides - 'Hodgson's' White Wagtail, looks superficially similar to the Uzbekistan birds I photographed, but its mantle is proper black all the way down, unlike the birds I saw in Uzbekistan that had dark grey backs. Or is it? Looking at alboides images on eBird, most have proper black backs, like this one, while quite a few birds have dark grey backs, not dissimilar to the birds I photographed, like this one. Looking at this gallery, surely there is some confusion in separation between personata and alboides, especially on their wintering grounds.

I found on eBird another image of a dark-mantled bird from Hotel Beldersay, a few days before I visited there - possibly one of the individuals I had:

Maybe this one also is dark-backed, from Tashkent City, but the light conditions are harsh and there might be some contrast between nape and mantle:

According to Birds of the World, alboides is 'Partly resident in southern China and northern Laos, west to northern Myanmar and northeastern Pakistan'. The eBird map looks like this:

The map above of White Wagtail subspecies distributions was extracted from a cool article based on a study by Semenov et al. (2018). The bottom line of the study (if I understand correctly) is that despite very little genetic variation, different White Wagtail subspecies show highly distinctive morphologies. What is relevant for me, at this moment, is the 'holistic' range map of different taxa, which apparently overlaps with the eBird map (based on actual observations). Both range maps don't show an extension of alboides into Uzbekistan. However, compared to other parts of the world, that region of Central Asia between Pakistan and Uzbekistan is somewhat understudied. I can imagine an extension of alboides northwest through Tajikistan towards Uzbekistan that went undetected. Certainly, Tajikistan is an under-birded country. Looking through White Wagtail photos on eBird from Tajikistan, I couldn't find any photos that clearly show dark-backed individuals. 

It is interesting that I saw two distinctively different plumages of White Wagtails breeding at the same location. I present here a very hypothetical speculation: Perhaps, if personata and alboides do get in contact somewhere in that region, birds produced from that mix could look like the birds I photographed? This could explain the intermediate mantle pattern. Or perhaps there is an east-west cline from black-backed alboides in the east to pale-backed personata in the west, and everything in between? Surely, deeper study needs to be conducted to understand what is happening here - my speculations are totally tentative, based on nothing. Proper documentation across the proposed contact zone, DNA material collection and analysis are some directions to be explored. In any case, using the late Martin Garner's phrase, always learning! I am very happy to learn from people with more experience than me and different insights - looking forward to hearing from you.

Friday, February 2, 2024

Ma'agan Michael

On Wednesday I had a day at Ma'agan Michael with meetings and stuff. I had little time for birding before and between and after the meetings. I'm still hoping to get Great Shearwater this winter - my IL bogey bird (nine records...) therefore I spend any time I can scanning the sea. That early morning at MM the wind was blowing from the wrong direction and there was lots of rain, so seawatching conditions weren't good. But the sea and the skies and the rainbow were dramatic and beautiful.

Because I had nothing better to do I spent my time checking gull legs. All I could find were two Slender-bills ringed by Yosef in Atlit. This one was ringed in April 2020.

With Sandwich Terns:

Pallas's Gulls are developing their black hood and are looking damn sexy:

Later my team joined me and me met up with a TV crew. We dragged them seawatching with us which was fun in the masochistic way:

The sea didn't improve much birdwise, still we had a couple of Med Gulls, a Parasitic Jaeger and an Arctic Skua.

Mediterranean Gull

Parasarctic Jaekua

Over the sand dunes flew around many swallows hawking for insects. One bird almost gave us a heart attack until we figured out it is a partially-leucistic Barn Swallow:

In one of the fishponds four Little Gulls were hanging out. They are such adorable birds, these wee gulls, with their little bills. The adult plumage is very attractive with that dark underwing:

Those snowy wingtips 💗

I find the first plumage very beautiful too

Fluttering over the water like a Wilson's Storm-Petrel