Here’s a little piece I wrote for the next edition of Hawk Migration Studies HMANA’s Membership Magazine. Details on membership from their website (here).
In May 2014 I was lucky enough to meet with Yoav Perlman and Jonathan Meyrav from the Israel Ornithological Center (IOC) while they were undertaking a tour of North America that included taking in some birding at Braddock Bay. It was through that initial contact that I found myself touching down in Tel Aviv in September to spend the next few weeks witnessing perhaps one of the most spectacular raptor migration spectacles on earth as part of the IOC’s Fall Soaring Bird Survey team.
The five count sites were focused on the narrowest section of the county, stretching east/west with the western most site less than 20 km from the coast and the eastern most post sitting right on the border with the West Bank. Individual sites were just a few kilometers apart, which gives you an idea of just how incredibly narrow the country is at that particular point. This setup essentially provided a net to catch every bird passing through the center of the country, the kind of coverage unimaginable in the US. What we counted was also a little different as we monitored other large soaring birds including pelicans, stork and cranes as well as raptors.
With the sites situated relatively close together you could see birds that were being counted by your neighboring counter. A walkie-talkie was therefore an essential piece of kit which allowed you to discuss handing over of streams of drifting birds, kept you on your toes and helped check that you weren’t committing the cardinal sin of ‘double-counting’. This constant contact also helped build a great sense of camaraderie amongst the team and made me wish that something similar could be set up among US watches.
Most of the Israeli watch sites were not officially open to the public, so the centrally located Qasim site, which was, acted as the focus for education and public outreach. At weekends visitor numbers were often impressive (in the hundreds) and a team of naturalists helped interpret what was happening. Personally I enjoy the education and outreach side of things, in fact to me it’s almost as important as the count itself. The great thing about the flights in Israel is that they are pretty steady, even on the slower days, so it’s rare that you are scratching around for things to show people.
The focal point of the raptor survey were three distinct species. Early season the spotlight was on Honey Buzzards, a species that comes in a staggering array of plumage flavors from mainly white to almost black. Their stripes and bars make them initially look almost Hook-billed Kite-ish but with Rough-legged Hawk style carpal patches. To get an idea of the flight, imagine one of those crazy pepper spot Broad-winged days and add the kind of lift 100f degree temperatures gives you! My busiest day I tallied about 6000 individuals of that species, but that was because I had missed the starting weeks of the survey and the 30,000 bird days.
Mid-season the focus switched to Levant Sparrowhawk, an accipiter good-natured enough to travel in large groups. They often formed incredible swirling kettles of birds that looked like those glittering silvery balls of bait fish that are so beloved of cameramen in nature documentaries. A large kettle might number a few hundred to a couple of thousand birds, but their smaller size and rapid movements still made them surprisingly difficult to spot in cloudless blue skies, as was the norm.
The season closed on the movement of Lesser Spotted Eagles. If you can imagine days where a stream of 8,000 small golden eagles passed your watch you have something analogous to the flight. Mixed in were a small number of exciting species including other Aquila eagles like Steppe, Imperial and Greater Spotted.
Over the season I tallied an impressive 22 different raptor species. Though from Europe initially myself, I am now much more knowledgeable about those raptors that are found in the northeastern part of the US. That said it was amazing how quickly hawkwatching skills translated from identifying North American raptors to European ones – translating shapes, plumage patterns, flight style and coloration into a crystallized identification.
When Israeli ornithologists started undertaking these raptor survey in the mid 1980’s they sometimes lacked the skilled local personnel to man the counts. With a burgeoning skilled birding community this is no longer the case and so participation is really now by special invite only. That said if you fancy going and seeing the spectacle for yourself the IOC has a great English language website which can help you plan your visit from when and where to go, to helping you attend a festival or find a tour leader for your stay: www.birds.org.il
Luke Tiller has counted hawks for a number of seasons in New England and Western New York State. He currently sits on the Board of HMANA and is the committee chair for our Tours and Events Committee http://www.hmana.org/events/ You can read more about his adventures in Israel and elsewhere on his blog www.underclearskies.com