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):