Sunday, May 12, 2024

Global Big Day, 11 May 2024

Yesterday was Global Big Day and World Migratory Bird Day. Global Big Day is organised by the Cornell Lab, in association with Swarovski Optik and Global Birding. My team, Champions of the Flyway, included the original trio - Jonathan, Re'a and me. It was good to be back in the game with this team. In Global Big Days we normally take the northern route. This year, because of the war, the northern route is more challenging. For example, Mt. Hermon is off limits currently. Also the northern sections of the Hula Valley and the Upper Galilee are not safe now. We planned our route for yesterday staying away from trouble, hoping that it will be a relatively quiet day on the non-avian flying object front... 

We left early and arrived at the entrance to the Hula NR to try for owls. Nothing. A pre-dawn drive through Agamon Hula was quiet, Barn Owl was the only decent bird or mammal. Disappointing start. At dawn we were positioned by the lake and started our daytime birding. The lake itself was quiet because the water level is very high. Still, there was a small flock of terns that flew over the water including Gull-billed, Little and Common, and our first Marbled Ducks. 

The big trees west of the lake were actually quite good with many Golden Orioles and other migrants in the mulberry trees - Great Reed (in the pic below), Barred and Garden Warblers etc. 

The most surprising observation however happened shortly after Jonathan mused over the possibility of finding an African vagrant. We spotted a large bird flying low towards us over the reedbed - what's this!? Bloody hell - a turaco! One of the smaller species, schalow's-style flew quickly over us and disappeared. Obviously an escape but totally crazy to see this bird flying around here.

We continued birding through the open fields picking up some stuff including Lesser Gray Shrike. Nice to see large flocks of migrant Turtle Doves in the fields. More Marbled Ducks were spotted in the canals - I love them.

Because Re'a is an Odonata expert, on top of being a top birder, we did pay a little bit of attention to critters. Re'a recommended that I take a photo of this Levant Clubtail because it is endemic to our region, and because it is so pretty:

Overall birding was slightly quieter than we had hoped for but at least the weather was OK (the day before it was awfully hot) and there were no sirens. We left Agamon Hula at 07:30 with 74 species, semi-pleased with a half-decent list to start the day.

Our next destination was the Petroleum Road running along the western slopes of the Golan Heights. I became more familiar with this region after the discovery of breeding Yellow-throated Sparrows there in 2022. It was so excellent up there. Many quality species, lots of migrants - especially raptors. Highlight was a pair of Yellow-throated Sparrows that eventually gave themselves up after quite a long search. 

Other great birds added to our list were Upcher's and Eastern Orphean Warblers, Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, Cretzschmar's Bunting, Roller, both cuckoos. We really enjoyed birding there. We did have to keep an eye open for rockets and missiles - we made sure to stay away from the danger zone in the far northern end of the road, close to the Lebanese border.

Upcher's Warbler singing

Check that magnificent dark tail

Woodchat Shrike - high density including fresh juveniles

We then drove to some sites in the Golan Heights, picking quality stuff along the way like Black-headed Bunting, Calandra Lark, Little Swift, Great Crested Grebe, Griffon and Egyptian Vulture. 

When we arrived in Susita it was already very hot. The site was developed recently, including a better access road, carpark and cashier for those wanting to walk into the site... INPA who manage this national park and developed it thought it would be a good idea to stick a huge metal horse on the mountain top. The local Long-billed Pipit agrees with that and is using it as its favourite singing spot - can you see it?

We then headed down towards Bet Shean Valley. It was getting really hot and the fatigue was kicking in. Cold drinks and ice cream were necessary to keep us going. When we arrived in Kfar Ruppin, with around 100 species in the bag, it was already properly hot. Check the video here.

Kfar Ruppin and other fishponds in the area provided us with some species of shorebirds and other waterbirds. It was a bit frustrating - there were very large numbers of Ruff, Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint and Ringed Plover, but the variety mixed in among them was minimal. Still we had hundreds of Collared Pratincoles, Temminck's Stints, Whiskered Terns and more. Dead Sea Sparrow is a local specialty and was well appreciated. I love those blackish hind-trousers the males have:

And that was that. I must admit that after several years of doing big days, our motivation to do a full full day, including afternoon and evening, has dwindled a bit. We are content with the amount of effort we put into this mode of birding. We ended the day with a respectable 131 species - see our eBird Trip Report here:
Our daily total is quite OK, given the difficult date for this event here in Israel. Migration slows down, quite dramatically, after May 7th-8th. Also it becomes much hotter by the day. The current date, the 2nd weekend of May, suits better northern countries (North America and northern Europe) but is much more difficult in southern latitudes. The current date choice reduces the level of interest in Global Big Day here in Israel because many birders are already in post-migration mode and couldn't be bothered to go out and see few birds. 
I call here the organisers of Global Big Day and World Migratory Bird Day to consider moving next year's event one week earlier, to the first weekend of May. With climate change that should be a good date even in northern North America and Scandinavia, and certainly a favourable date in the Mediterranean Basin and Middle East for example. 

Hey Jonathan and Re'a - it was another blast of a day, so much fun birding with you guys. Till October 12th, Go Champions!

Friday, May 10, 2024

Spring catch-up

It's been a very strange spring for me. On the one hand, how can one enjoy the beauty and thrill of bird migration spectacles when all of *this* is going on in my country. On the other hand, what else can I do other than go out birding, enjoy the healing power of nature, appreciate every little bird hero that makes it despite all the troubles. As I have been doing for over five years now, I am out birding every day. During migration seasons this habit offers me even more thrill and excitement, to detect the seasonal changes in the sites I visit often, and enjoy impressive migrations. In recent weeks I have been all over, but often my motivation to photograph and to write is low. This damn war.

In any case, I am still trying to bird hard and see as many birds as possible, without doing a Big Year. This is quite enjoyable actually, and liberating, seeing news of rarities show up in far-flung corners of the country and not going for them! Still, I am doing OK, I think. Here are some of the birds I saw and the few photos I took:

Luckily, fieldwork and site visits take me to places with loads of good birds. While monitoring our restoration site in Maagan Michael I was dazzled by the variation in Western Yellow Wagtails - in this composite are (I think) dombrowskii, superciliaris, feldegg, thunbergi, flava and a hybrid Citrine X Yellow, all in one small flock.


Striated Heron in Tel Aviv

A work visit to Eilat Birding center rewarded me with this gorgeous, deadly Painted Saw-scaled Viper:

Our restoration sites in Kfar Ruppin are exploding with birds now, so much quality too:

Clamorous Reed Warbler

Not only birds enjoy our restoration project - also invertebrates. Here are Black Percher and Ivory Featherlegs.

In May, when much of the country clears out of migrant passerines, the relatively cool and lush Jerusalem Mts. still host large numbers of migrants. Mulberry trees are especially attractive to Sylvias, also favoured by Golden Orioles. This photo was taken out of my friend Rami's window:

The Jerusalem Bird Observatory is at its best in early May, with huge numbers of common migrants using the habitat to refuel. Among the common warblers also good numbers of Olive-tree and Barred are seen; I have seen also River, Marsh, Icterine and Upcher's there in recent dats. Also plenty of European Nightjars this year.

One of the Eurasian Sparrowhawks that visit the JBO regularly