Saturday, October 18, 2014

Black flags from the East

Black flags from the East


History repeats itself, historians say.
We birders know it of course and wait with anticipation for the "eastern 2 weeks" of the second half of October, bringing with it birds from the Asian steppes.
But even though it never fails to come, it always catches us by surprise. Although we know it's coming for us birders the greatest enjoyment for is to rediscover it all over again, year after year. That's what we live for - rediscovering the cycle of nature, as if it has never happened before.

And they are here.
The Steppe Eagles have started passing in better numbers (not more than ten's per morning yet, but larger numbers should follow in the next few weeks), a nice young Daurian Shrike was ringed, 4 Common Rosefinches ,a Vociferus type Black winged Kite and our Willow Warblers now look much greyer and longer winged now.

Red-breasted Flycatchers have been reported from Eilot, Neot Smadar and the ringing station and 4 Blue cheeked Bee eaters spent an afternoon in Holland Park (Lars Andersen). Barred Warblers are still around too.
We got a bit puzzled with a "strange" wave of unusual looking Black-eared / Pied Wheatears that looked very much like Pied but made us wonder at the ringing station.

Black-eared Wheatears usually pass in early September and are not seen most of October, whilst Pied do come in mid-October. Suddenly a wave of rather grayish looking young Wheatears showed up, all with pale fringes to the mantle feathers - all good signs of the Pied Wheatears, and our hopes were raised for something good.
The first to be caught in the ringing station was not much of a help as all the measurements and the wing formula were in the overlap zone of the two species. Its white mantle fringes were obvious but the color tone was "not cold enough" for a Pied. It had some warmer brown buffy tones at the sides of the neck and flanks which made the mantle appear not pure grey.

The mantle was maybe 80% grey, 20% brown. We released the first one as a Black-eared because of these slightly warmer tones that made it up to the mantle, but frankly, I wasn't sure at all. In the following days we saw some more of these Wheatears in the field and one more was caught. It seems like they all had some brown tones. Not like the Wheatears we have seen in September in the past but also not like a text book Pied. We resolved the issue as "Eastern" Black eared Whetears, but who knows…

On the local birds front we had some good findings too. No less than 6 Hoopoe Larks were seen and photographed by our crew during their usual monitoring activity, on the main way to Evrona Well last week (3 KM north of the KM20 saltpans). A report of 2 from the same location came from the local ranger 3 days later.
It might be a winter gathering but maybe it's the first sing of damage from the construction of the new Eilat international airport at the Hoopoe Larks old stronghold of KM 32. At the same area were Hooded and Desert Wheatears.

The most exciting observation that brought a hint of a tear to my eyes happened on my day off (I visited the ringing station anyway… just to say hi…) when I took my lovely wife to hike in Shchoret Canyon, deep in the Eilat mountains.

Between the colorful sandstone and Granite Mountains I had an encounter with an old friend. It was "Yoggi", my Yellow Green tagged White-crowned Black Wheatear. It lost its green plastic ring but was sitting on its usual rock just like in old times when I was researching these Wheatears and placed some color rings on their legs.

Only that this bird has now been at the same spot at least from the 02/03/2008 when I first caught it. It was already an adult then, making it at least 7 years old now.
One of the most interesting results of the research was that these amazing birds can survive the driest and harsher years in this extreme desert (sometimes 4 years without any rain) without changing locations.
They had learnt to use the shadowed corners of their habitats to find food (this is how they choose their habitat - shadow percentage) and had also learnt to rely on human travelers camp sites as a preferred foraging areas and to drink from the water dripping off cars that had their air-condition on and stopped.

We also had an interesting visit by Ikram Zuheir from the Palestine Wildlife Society and a great communal event that gathered some 2,000 participants to hear bird tales and observe them in the bird sanctuary, so it was a very busy week.

Our black flags from the east - the adult Steppe Eagles, passing just now above my head is a reminder of what is happening east of us now. The black flags of the Islamic State (ISIS) are raised and with the name of God in their mouth, slaughter people who fail to answer a questionnaire they had made to check who is a true Muslim.

As a scholar of Islam myself I can't avoid the symbolism used by ISIS lifting the same flags that were raised by the Abbasid revolution that was "clearing" Islam from the "wrong paths" it took, bringing it back to what Islam was "supposed" to be. Only it got equally corrupted and cruel.

We birders know that history repeats itself. These Steppe Eagles passing so silently overhead now just came from Iraq, flying above these horrors. The British Air force is taking off from the nearby Aqaba airport, right next to our ringing station to try and stop it. But would it change a twisted mind?  

Waiting for some good news from the east.


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