After twenty or so painful hours of travel I finally touched down in Tel Aviv last week. I was met by survey coordinator Eli Haviv and quickly ferried to my quarters for the next month or so: Kibbutz Nashonim (there seem to be at least a couple of different spellings in English, this is the one I am going with). After settling in for a night in my basic but very comfortable little room I was up early to get in a little birding in with Jonathan Meyrav (Tourism Manager for the IOC and one of Israel’s very best birders). We were just a few minutes in to our morning adventure before we were ticking off much desired specialty birds like Long-billed Pipit. In the afternoon we headed over to the main raptor watch site near a village called Kafr Qasim (again multiple English spellings). I took the rest of the day as an opportunity to acquaint myself with the local raptors while offering what assistance I could with what was a good turn out at the raptor surveys public outreach day (sites are open to the public generally but they are really pushing Saturdays as the big educational day).
The Qasim site is in the middle of the five sites in the survey and carefully located near the intersection of both Israel’s main North/South highway and the main East/West highway just outside of Tel Aviv, which makes it very accessible for visitors. The western most site is less than 20 km from the coast and the eastern most post sits right on the border with the West Bank. Individual sites are just a few kilometers apart, which gives you an idea of just how incredibly narrow the country is at this particular point.
With survey sites so close together it’s possible to sometimes see birds which your neighboring counter can see and for that reason walkie-talkies are a key part of the kit. As well as counting birds you need to speak to your neighboring counter regularly to make sure they aren’t counting the same individuals. As well as help keep you on your toes the walkie-talkies also adds to the camaraderie of the experience, and it makes me wish that there was a way to do something similar in the US with real time communication. Though of course sites tend to be farther apart in the states it seems sensible that there should be some way to pass information about what’s coming down the pipeline to other sites. Food for thought…
The first day at the count site in Qasim I was pretty horrifically rusty with the species I did know and pretty much clueless with the ones I didn’t. After a few hours that day and a day spent with Eli learning the ropes I was soon starting to get a grasp of things. Black Kite: like the bastard child of a frigatebird, a Turkey Vulture and an Osprey. Honey Buzzard: something akin to Broad-winged Hawk in numbers, but it comes in a staggering array of plumage flavors from almost white to almost black and looks almost Hook-billed Kite-ish with its stripes and bars but with Rough-legged Hawk style carpal patches . It also has a weird prominent head that makes it almost pigeon like but it flaps deeply and buoyantly (illustrative article here).
Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers are very similar to Northern (or Hen) Harrier and are difficult (when not adult males) to separate from one another at the best of times – there are a lot of ‘MonPals’ on my data sheets here. Thankfully it’s still too early to consider putting Hen Harrier into that equation, but in a week or so they will be in the mix too so there is even more potential for confusion! Marsh Harriers on the other hand are much broader winged and come in either a beautiful chocolate brown and cream coloration as juveniles or in a tricolored grey, black and russet scheme.
It’s been amazing how quickly skills seem to have translated from North American raptors to European ones. Not that I am close to being up with most of the other guys and girls on the watch sites, but I think I am at least holding up my end. Of course they do all have a few hundred or thousand extra hours watching these birds on me. People always seem to think that there is some kind of magic to hawkwatching, but really a lot of it is simply cranking out hours in the field, watching carefully and making sure you’ve done some research in your fieldguide.
There are three major species we are tallying in Israel, and I had arrived after the peak flight of Honey Buzzards had passed (our sites had tallied about 250,000 of them by the time I arrived); luckily I did manage to catch a pretty impressive late push just to get a taste of what that action can be like. Of course it was on a day when temperatures at the watch site touched 102 degrees (we make sure to sit in the shade while counting and I go through about 5 liters of water over the work day: between 8 and 5) so the birds were not struggling for lift. Imagine those crazy speck Broadie days and add the kind of lift an extra 20 degrees in temperature gives you!
That day, to give you an idea of the makeup of the flight, I tallied 3 Hobbies, 366 Levant Sparrowhawks, 1 Montagu’s Harrier, 24 ‘MonPals’, 3 Marsh Harrier, 19 Lesser Spotted Eagles, 3 Booted Eagles, 8 Short-toed Eagles, 5232 Honey Buzzards, 2 Black Storks, 425 Great White Pelicans and 55 Black Kites.
The next few days it’s all about the Levant Sparrowhawk peak – an accipiter good-natured enough to travel in large groups. They often form swirling kettles of birds that look like those glittering silvery balls of bait fish that are a mainstay of nature documentaries. After that we move on to Lesser Spotted Eagle: imagine a day with hundreds or thousands of slightly smaller Golden Eagles passing your watch and you have an idea of what that should be like. Of course it’s not all raptors here, as we also track Great White Pelicans, White and Black Storks too. There is also much else to enjoy on the non-raptor front like the passing European Bee-eaters, a myriad of different swallows and swifts including my favorite: Alpine.
There’s plenty else to look at here on the deck in terms of passerines at most of the sites including a vast array of shrikes – the songbird that likes to think it’s a raptor. As well as enjoying those I’m also loving watching beautiful but thus far nameless butterflies and dragonflies. I think someone is lending me a guide to those soon, if not i’ll be sticking them on facebook and letting friends have at it.
I hope this gives a flavor of the trip so far. More on the people, places, food and of course more birds in the not too distant future. It’s been pretty tiringly spectacular thus far – time for bed!