Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Quality not quantity

Autumn migration continues to provide many interesting birds here at Eilat. Apart from a freak catch of 180 birds one morning (thanks to low feeding Hirundines and large flocks of Spanish Sparrows Passer hispaniolensis finding the nets), the number of captures has been lower the past couple of weeks, averaging about 50 birds ringed a day. However despite the lull in numbers we have still caught some nice species.
The late autumn migrants have arrived, with the first Bluethroat Luscinia svecica  ringed on 08/10 and the first Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita on 17/10. Winter visitors like Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala Cetti's Warbler and Cetti cettia have also started to appear.

We have also some ringed some less common migrants. Amongst the daily catch of Red-backed Lanius collurio and Masked Shrikes Lanius nubicus came a Daurian Shrike Lanius isabellinus on 13/10

A juvenile Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva, a fairly scarce species for the area, was caught on 16/10, with a few more being sighted by birders around Eilat.

A Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus, despite the name, was another unncommon bird ringed.

An interesting bird that caused considerable debate between Noam and Juan was a juvenile Wheatear that Showed features of both Pied Oenanthe pleschanka and Black-eared Oenanthe hispanica . Eventually it was settled on being the latter, and another similar bird was caught a few days later, both probably the eastern subspecies Melanoleuca .

Every morning we've been opening the nets early to try to catch Nightjars, as well as walking around the park at night with a torch and hand net in the hope of dazzling one. All targeted attempts have so far been unsuccessful. However, halfway through the morning ringing session on the 17 th I got a surprise when I flushed a European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus from its daytime roost and into one of Heligoland traps. It's sometimes the case with ringing that when you do not try, you succeed!

Another good bird to the find in the Heligoland trap was a juvenile male Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus .

2 White-throated Kingfishers Halcyon smyrnensis , a winter visitor to Eilat, have been ringed, these stunning birds perhaps my favorite so far. We are also catching Common Kingfishers Alcedo atthis almost daily.

Another colorful beauty we are continuing to ring every week is the Little Green Bee-eater Merops orientalis .
As well as morning ringing we've found the time for the Hirundine roost, with the best catch being 145 birds, and a couple of evening mist netting sessions on the salt ponds, with 54 waders ringed, mostly Little Stint Calidris minuta . The highlight of birding in the local area was at least 6 Hoopoe Larks Alaemon alaudipe  observed at Evrona on 05/10.
As the days get shorter and cooler as November beckons, we look forward to seeing what nice birds each day will bring as the season continues.
Euan Ferguson

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.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Eilat - The Birding Home

Eilat - The Birding Home

This is going to be kind of personal. My name is Noam Weiss and I am back to my birding homeland, Eilat, this time as the director of the international birding and research center of Eilat. I have returned to the "thing" that was always about the most professional birding for me. I call Eilat a "thing" as it is far more than a place for me.

Eilat is where 30 years ago I had learnt that there is a lot more about birding than what is in the identification guide. That there is so much more to learn than just compare the bird you see and the illustration in a book. It is where we learnt about birds and birding by researching in an unknown territory of knowledge and there was so much more to discover.

Hadoram Shirihai was our mentor. Showing us birds that nobody knew how to identify or expect them anywhere near Eilat. It was the days of the discovery of the Buff – bellied Pipits Japonicus that were totally unknown around Europe and the Middle East, the days we had learnt the difficult plumages of some Sylvia warblers, the first Crested Honey Buzzards and the exiting raptors surveys. Eilat was magical, with the numbers of migrants, the fantastic diversity and the discoveries that were beyond any possible birder's imagination.

After some years back in Jerusalem as a business man (the worst kind - securities underwriter) I was back to my dream land for 5 years of bird ringing, guiding and research, surveying Hume's Owls in the desert nights and falling in love with the barren mountains and  colorful canyons. And now I'm back to be the one to continue the learning, to be your ears and eyes and to share with you the wonders of this place. And if you come along, you'll get a coffee too.

I'm back here after Yael Lenhardt did a great job solidifying the research, connecting the community of Eilat to the birding park and a lot of guiding. Tzadok made the birding park an exciting place to visit and a very comfortable one too.
My dreams are to open it up to the public and birders by moving the ringing station to be accessible and open to you birders, and to become the information center for the birders visiting Eilat. I will try to resume the intensive bird monitoring in Eilat like in the good old days, discover new birds, find new challenges that birds face here and remove them, and safeguard the birds of Eilat.

The past 3 weeks I've been here have already been exciting. Autumn comes late to Eilat but it's already full of good birds and activities. The ringing station catches up to 150 birds per day and the diversity is very high. The best birds until now have been a young Rosy Starling and 3 Scarlet Rosefinches.
Barred Warblers are caught every other day and a Little Bittern, Wood Warbler, Curlew Sandpiper, Levant Sparrowhawk, some Lesser Grey Shrikes, many Namaqua Doves, and a few Scops Owls have joined the party here.

Interesting to note it has been a good year for the Red-backed and Masked Shrikes (up to 23 caught per day). Another surprise has been the Blackstarts, that find refuge in the irrigated areas of the bird sanctuary from the difficult and dry conditions in the desert wadis. Up to 4 of them were observed and a few got marked.

In the Field the most impressive is the daily take off of Levant Sparrowhawks in the early mornings. We have them now almost every day with numbers moving between 50 and 1,000. The peak was on the 29/9 morning with 4,000 of them swarming above the bird sanctuary.

These Hawks are probably missed by the main Raptor survey in Kfar Kasem. The survey's crew speculated that these Hawks end up passing in Eilat on days with strong westerly wind. I'm not so sure this is actually the case as their usual route is passing about 150 KM west of us, very few are reported between Eilat and the main route and these Hawks are seen here year after year.
I would like to believe that the Hawks that are seen as if they come from the east, belong to an easterly population, maybe from the Caucasus mountains. This is still to be checked one day. It's on the list with talking to some Jordanian birdwatchers and may be tracking some of these Hawks with GPS transmitters.

In the field here Shachar Shalev reported a Crested Tern (very rare) and a Lesser Crested Tern on the 22/09 at the north beach. They were not relocated but that's how the north beach works - it is very dynamic. A Spotted Crake was noted in the bird sanctuary and a new Sooty Falcons nest was found in the mountains. The first Rollers and some Lesser Kestrels have been reported from a few sites. Common Cranes travelling towards Africa started passing above us too.

That's all for now.

Stay posted.


Sunday, October 05, 2014

Euan in Wonderland

I arrived in Eilat two weeks ago, from the cold and dark of Scotland, and have been enjoying getting adjusted to the considerably hotter weather and the many exotic new species.   Ringing each day the past few weeks has been steady, producing 60-100 birds with interesting species being caught daily.
The most common migrant species have been caught Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus  קנית קטנה and Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilusעלוית אפורה  , although numbers are now starting to dwindle. Shrikes have been a constant presence, with 22 caught one morning, resulting in lots of sore hands.    
A regular migrant we catch most days that I can not fail to get excited about is the Wryneck Jynx torquilla סבראש .

A great bird for me was this stunning adult Hoopoe Upupa epops דוכיפת.  

Another highlight has been Scops Owl Otus scops  שעיר מצוי, of which two have been ringed so far.

A juvenile Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus  אנפית גמדית was another nice bird to find in the nets.

Every day we see flocks of migrating Levant Sparrowhawk Accipiter brevipes נץ קצר אצבעות, ranging from less than 20 birds to several thousand. The 27/09 saw a spectacular number of birds passing overhead, and an adult male ended up being ringed.

A few evenings a week have been spent ringing the Swallow roost, but the Hirundine highlights have been in the mornings. The first net round on the 27/09 produced one of the best birds so far from a ringer's perspective; a control juvenile Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica סנונית רפתות, bearing a Hungarian ring. On 04/10 Hirundines were flying very low as they fed on flies and several were caught, including some Red Rumped Swallows Cecropis daurica סנונית מערות, and a bird rarely ringed, a Pale Crag Martin Ptyonoprogne obsoleta סנונית מדבר.

We have also had two successful evenings mist netting waders, catching 24 and 19 birds respectively. The most numerous species ringed was Little Stint Calidris minuta חופית קטנה, but we also caught Dunlin Calidris alpinaחופית אלפינית ,Ringed Plover  Charadrius hiaticula חופמי צוארון, Ruff  Philomachus pugnax לוחם and Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea חופית מגל .

As well as ringing we try to spend as much time as we can birding in the surrounding area, but it's not just birds we see. Recent excursions have resulted in good views of Dorcas Gazelle Gazella dorcas and Jackal Canis aureus     

With October now here and the days getting cooler, hopefully many new migrant species and large numbers of Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita עלוית חורף, and Bluethroats Luscinia svecica כחול חזה await.
Euan Ferguson