Sunday, October 13, 2013

24 hours at the Dead Sea

My final day in Israel was spent on a trip down to the Dead Sea with my fellow raptor counters as. We arrived in the late evening, just in time to see 6 Sooty Falcons chasing Rock Martins over an old dried up reservoir. It was getting dark rapidly but we were also able to spot the first Blackstarts and Desert Larks of the trip, along with an unexpected Pied Wheatear.
Pied Wheatear
After sunset we were taken to a site for Nubian Nightjar. We didn't have a a recording of the calls, and playback would be unlikely to elicit a response at this time of year anyway, so we opted to just drive around the tracks and hope to come upon a feeding bird. After 3 hours with just a few mammals in the lights, we decided to give it up as we had another target to see. Literally 30 metres before we re-joined the main road, with 'DIP' being scrawled into notebooks, suddenly a Nightjar sp. jumped from the track and flew back over the car. Panic and a swift u-turn ensued, followed by a tense minute or so before the bird re-appeared in the headlights where it was feeding on flying insects, and giving good enough views to confirm it as Nubian and not a migrant European Nightjar. Buoyed by this last minute success, we headed off to the next site.
Baluchistan Gerbil
The next bird on our hit-list was Hume's Owl, and we were soon at the site, where we were disappointed to find several camping groups, complete with fires and loud music, not ideal. We stumbled across the rocks through the darkness and settled down as comfortably as we could. We played a tape of the song a few times but got no response. After sitting around for what seemed like an age all we could hear was noise from the nearby campers, and we reckoned that any birds would have been scared a mile away.We decided to call it a day and were scrambling back up to the car when a few distant croaks sounded in the blackness, we froze, 'was that an owl?' After a few seconds the noise was followed by the distinctive hooting of a Hume's Owl, crikey, there was one hear after all! One of our team (who shall remain nameless) was already celebrating as he practises the highly dubious technique of ticking birds on call only, but there was no way we were leaving now. Back down the rocks again and a return to eye-straining staring into the endless darkness, where the bird was still hooting away. We played one hoot on the tape and waited to see what would happen. A few seconds later we heard a response, apparently right in front of us, oh my, we were going to see this bird! I heard a whisper of 'be prepared', and then with a quiet click of the torch the rocks in front of us were bathed in a dull orange light, and the unmistakeable shape of an owl was perched no more than 10 metres in front of us! Pretty much every good bird of the trip so far had been greeted with loud profanity and high fives but this time there was nothing but stunned silence, no-one had expected to see the bird like this. It sat there for about 3 minutes, calling occasionally before quietly jumping off into the gloom. Despite the lack of light and sense of shock, I managed to snap off a few photos and even recorded a bit of video of this top-class bird. Looking around the internet, I can't find any other videos, is this the first video made of Hume's Owl?

Hume's Owl. Handheld at 1/13 sec

After a few hours sleep at the field school at En Gedi we were up early to get to Wadi Salvadora for sunrise. Here in the Judean Desert where water is so scarce, a tiny spring is a major attraction for birds, and Sinai Rosefinch, Striolated Bunting, Sand Partridge, Scrub Warbler, Blackstart and Tristrams Grackle all came in to drink, while Fan-tailed and Brown-necked Ravens patrolled the rocky cliff above us.
From there started to head back North stopping at odd sites along the way and picking up more good birds:
Arabian Babbler

Barbary Falcon


Fan-tailed Raven over the Dead Sea

Nubian Ibex

Rock Martin

Tristram's Grackle
A final stop at a rather unlikely group of scruffy fields produced the final lifer of the trip, a very smart Mourning Wheatear, marking the end of great little birding trip to the Dead Sea and a brilliant time overall in Israel. I'll write a few more words about the raptor count later, but now I need to catch up some much-neeed rest!
Mourning Wheatear

Judean Desert, an amazing landscape

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Israel: Day 29

Raptor numbers have slowed right down this week, it just feels that almost everything has passed through now and we're just getting the stragglers. The running totals reflect this as we're pretty much up to 'par' for what is expected for each species. That said, we're still getting a few interesting birds, one counter had 7 species of Eagle today!
Raptor sp. no 24: Lesser Kestrel
It was an 'interesting' day for pipits on Monday. In the evening, after the count we were scoping out a freshly cut alfalfa field when a Marsh Harrier swooped low across the field and took a swipe at a small flying bird but only glanced it. The targeted bird made a beeline for us, and deterred by our presence, the harrier broke of the attack. The small bird fluttered past us and disappeared into the vegetation at the edge of the field. We soon found it cowering and were surprised to see that it was a Richard's Pipit, the first any of us had seen in Israel. A quick check revealed that unfortunately it had a broken leg, a damaged wing and had lost its tail. It's highly unlikely that it could survive such injuries but we put it back in the bush in the slim chance that it might, I imagine it will become prey for a Kestrel, snale, mustellid or maybe even the same harrier. Not a pleasant experience, and a shitty way to see a 'lifer' for two members of our team, but that's nature I guess.
The offending Marsh Harrier

The victim, Richard's Pipit
Earlier in the day I had much more enjoyable close views of both Red-throated and Tree Pipits at my watchpoint at Ginegar.

Today saw a bit of a movement of Steppe Buzzards. We get very few here compared to the staggering numbers at Batumi, apparently this far South they migrate across a very broad front, too broad for our small team to cover (and many to the East of Israel) so its up to the Georgia folks to count them where they are concentrated.

Steppe Buzzards
Tomorrow is my last day on the count, the plan is to finish earlier than usual and head off down to the Dead Sea for a day and night birding before I fly home. Fingers crossed for Sooty Falcon for raptor sp. number 25!

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Israel: Day 25

As we reach the end of the count, the number of raptors passing over daily has dropped drastically, which has made the time spent out at the watchpoints a little tedious at times, but has had the bonus of allowing us to squeeze in some 'normal' birding.
Yesterday, after our days count we headed up into the Gilboa Mountains, just to the the South-east of our Kibbutz at Geva. Our target here was Long-billed Pipit, and we eventually bumped into 5 after scouring the rocky hillsides. A bonus bird here was a stonking male Finsch's Wheatear, an unexpected lifer as they are not supposed to arrive to winter in this area until much later in the season. A small group of Mountain Gazelle were also nice.

Black-eared Wheatear

Finsch's Wheatear

Mountain Gazelle

Black Francolin

This evening we returned to the Bet Shean Valley, where we finally scored with Dead Sea Sparrow and Namaqua Dove, thanks to some recent gen. We had just seen the Dead Sea Sparrows, perching on the Jordanian border fence at Gesher, and we looking for Namaquas at the prime site when an Army truck appeared out of no-where. Apparently they weren't overly impressed with us pointing bins and cameras at the border security and we were unceremoniously moved on. This was a bit of a setback as returning to the spot at a later date would have been unwise, so we set about trying to find similar habitat away from the border. Fortunately, as we were passing through some very un-promising looking fishpond, a pair of Namaqua's flew across the track and fed close to the car, giving us great views.

Dead Sea Sparrow male

Dead Sea Sparrow female
Namaqua Dove

Masked Shrike juvenile
And for the sake of completeness, a few raptors:

Long-legged Buzzards, a resident pair at Afula

Short-toed Eagle, almost outnumbering LSE's in recent days

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Israel: Day 22

Quality over quantity today. I 'only' counted 1042 Lesser Spotted Eagles, with other stations getting around the same or lower, so nowhere near yesterdays count (which was confirmed at 26,036!!!). However, there was a good mix of species, I managed 6 species of Eagle in the afternoon at Alonim: the usual Short-toed, Booted and Lesser Spotted, a couple of Greater Spotted and Steppe, and finally, a superb juvenile Imperial Eagle, the first of the count. 

Imperial Eagle with LSE
I had spent the first part of the day in the East at Shunem, where c400 LSE's came out from a roost to the North, but the highlight was a male Pallid Harrier drifting low overhead.
Pallid Harrier

Red-footed Falcon
I love Steppe Eagles, that white underwing bar of the juveniles is so striking.
This bird was over 1km away but still stuck out like a sore thumb.