Los Angeles County Big Day – April 26th 2015

29 04 2015
Say's Phoebe - Luke Tiller

Say’s Phoebe – Luke Tiller

Sunday April 26th saw Catherine Hamilton, David Bell, Brittany O’Connor and I taking on a Birding Big Day in Los Angeles County. Our aim was to see or hear as many species of birds as possible in a 24hr period in order to raise money for the Pasadena Audubon Society. We started our day just before dawn and ended some eighteen exhausting hours later, well after the sun had gone down.

Our route planning was influenced as much by a desire not to just follow the typical route that most teams try but was also influenced by some scouting that we undertook pre-trip (though we managed to miss the two rarest birds that the group found whilst scouting: White-winged Scoter and Palm Warbler) . Our handy spreadsheet of stops helped keep our day on a airtight schedule and until we hit a rather sharp bump in the road we were a little ahead of it all day. Our main focus for much of the day was ruthlessly keeping on track and leaving sites with or without the species we needed from them once our allotted time was up: whether this was a two minute stop for a Canvasback or a thirty minute sweep of a renowned migrant trap.

I have to say that Big Days kind of go against my usual mode of birding. I like to bird locally and I like to thoroughly cover spots to make sure there is nothing there left unearthed. I soon opened my eyes though to the beauty and wonder of big days. It certainly doesn’t hurt that we had such a stunning visual backdrop to much of our explorations. In Los Angeles County you can easily go from shorebirds feeding on Grunion eggs, through standing amongst pines at 6000 plus feet looking at Clarke’s Nutcrackers and remnants of snow to enjoying views of beautiful desert birds like Scott’s Oriole and we did all that and more between sunrise and sunset.

Spotted Towhee - Luke Tiller

Spotted Towhee – Luke Tiller

Highlights on the day included those incredible swarms of shorebirds at Playa and a beautiful Mojave Green Rattlesnake that was sauntering across a private road in the desert half-light. The only rare birds we found on the day were a couple of flyover Common Ground Doves along the San Gabriel River. There were however some other interesting sightings: a late Greater Scaup near Playa Del Rey, a lost Acorn Woodpecker out in the desert near Lancaster and a baby Le Contes Thrasher (a notoriously secretive bird) at Edwards Airforce Base.

Of course you always miss some easy birds out on a long day like this and as a professional hawk watcher it particularly burned to not have pulled out either an Osprey, Swainson’s Hawk or Golden Eagle somewhere along our route. We won’t even mention the White-crowned Sparrow one of our group had at an early stop but forgot to convey to the rest of the group!

It still seems incredible to me to think that you can see or hear over 200 species of bird in just one single county in under 24 hours. In fact right until the end of the day our team had seen or heard every bird together until one of us was distracted by a jogger who was keen to know why we were running around a park with binoculars. Personally I think our team worked particularly well together and our different skills coalesced nicely to bring together different key elements to the group.

Red-tailed Hawk - Luke Tiller

Red-tailed Hawk – Luke Tiller

It was an amazingly fun day and showed off the outstanding diversity of habitat and birds that can be found in Los Angeles County nicely. Most outsiders when they think of LA think of city expanses, traffic and Hollywood. What they don’t think about are the majestic mountains, serene deserts as well as the river courses and green spaces where Angelenos play games, exercise, walk dogs and of course watch birds.

All in all a great days adventure. Even the bit where I learned how to rapidly change a tire on a Honda Odyssey! After carefully going over our list we discovered that in total we tallied 207 bird species (209 including non-countable birds: Yellow-chevroned Parakeet and Red-whiskered Bulbul).

The species list in full:

  1. Greater White-fronted Goose
  2. Snow Goose
  3. Ross’s Goose
  4. Cackling Goose
  5. Canada Goose
  6. Gadwall
  7. American Wigeon
  8. Mallard
  9. Blue-winged Teal
  10. Cinnamon Teal
  11. Northern Shoveler
  12. Northern Pintail
  13. Canvasback
  14. Redhead
  15. Ring-necked Duck
  16. Lesser Scaup
  17. Greater Scaup
  18. Surf Scoter
  19. Bufflehead
  20. Red-breasted Merganser
  21. Ruddy Duck
  22. Mountain Quail
  23. California Quail
  24. Common Loon
  25. Pied-billed Grebe
  26. Horned Grebe
  27. Eared Grebe
  28. Western Grebe
  29. Clark’s Grebe
  30. Brandt’s Cormorant
  31. Double-crested Cormorant
  32. Pelagic Cormorant
  33. Brown Pelican
  34. Least Bittern
  35. Great Blue Heron
  36. Great Egret
  37. Snowy Egret
  38. Green Heron
  39. Black-crowned Night-Heron
  40. White-faced Ibis
  41. Turkey Vulture
  42. White-tailed Kite
  43. Northern Harrier
  44. Cooper’s Hawk
  45. Red-shouldered Hawk
  46. Red-tailed Hawk
  47. Virginia Rail
  48. Sora
  49. Common Gallinule
  50. American Coot
  51. Black-necked Stilt
  52. American Avocet
  53. Black Oystercatcher
  54. Black-bellied Plover
  55. Semipalmated Plover
  56. Killdeer
  57. Spotted Sandpiper
  58. Greater Yellowlegs
  59. Willet
  60. Whimbrel
  61. Marbled Godwit
  62. Ruddy Turnstone
  63. Black Turnstone
  64. Surfbird
  65. Sanderling
  66. Dunlin
  67. Least Sandpiper
  68. Western Sandpiper
  69. Short-billed Dowitcher
  70. Long-billed Dowitcher
  71. Wilson’s Phalarope
  72. Red-necked Phalarope
  73. Bonaparte’s Gull
  74. Heermann’s Gull
  75. Ring-billed Gull
  76. Western Gull
  77. California Gull
  78. Least Tern
  79. Caspian Tern
  80. Forster’s Tern
  81. Royal Tern
  82. Elegant Tern
  83. Black Skimmer
  84. Rock Pigeon
  85. Band-tailed Pigeon
  86. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  87. Common Ground-Dove
  88. Mourning Dove
  89. Barn Owl
  90. Western Screech-Owl
  91. Great Horned Owl
  92. Northern Pygmy-Owl
  93. Burrowing Owl
  94. Lesser Nighthawk
  95. Common Poorwill
  96. Vaux’s Swift
  97. White-throated Swift
  98. Black-chinned Hummingbird
  99. Anna’s Hummingbird
  100. Allen’s Hummingbird
  101. Lewis’s Woodpecker
  102. Acorn Woodpecker
  103. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  104. Nuttall’s Woodpecker
  105. Hairy Woodpecker
  106. White-headed Woodpecker
  107. Northern Flicker
  108. American Kestrel
  109. Merlin
  110. Peregrine Falcon
  111. Prairie Falcon
  112. Olive-sided Flycatcher
  113. Western Wood-Pewee
  114. Hammond’s Flycatcher
  115. Gray Flycatcher
  116. Pacific-slope Flycatcher
  117. Black Phoebe
  118. Say’s Phoebe
  119. Ash-throated Flycatcher
  120. Cassin’s Kingbird
  121. Western Kingbird
  122. Loggerhead Shrike
  123. Bell’s Vireo
  124. Cassin’s Vireo
  125. Hutton’s Vireo
  126. Warbling Vireo
  127. Steller’s Jay
  128. Western Scrub-Jay
  129. Clark’s Nutcracker
  130. American Crow
  131. Common Raven
  132. Horned Lark
  133. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  134. Tree Swallow
  135. Violet-green Swallow
  136. Bank Swallow
  137. Barn Swallow
  138. Cliff Swallow
  139. Mountain Chickadee
  140. Oak Titmouse
  141. Bushtit
  142. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  143. White-breasted Nuthatch
  144. Pygmy Nuthatch
  145. Brown Creeper
  146. Rock Wren
  147. Canyon Wren
  148. House Wren
  149. Marsh Wren
  150. Bewick’s Wren
  151. Cactus Wren
  152. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  153. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  154. Wrentit
  155. Western Bluebird
  156. Townsend’s Solitaire
  157. Swainson’s Thrush
  158. American Robin
  159. California Thrasher
  160. Le Conte’s Thrasher
  161. Northern Mockingbird
  162. European Starling
  163. American Pipit
  164. Cedar Waxwing
  165. Phainopepla
  166. Orange-crowned Warbler
  167. Nashville Warbler
  168. Common Yellowthroat
  169. American Redstart
  170. Yellow Warbler
  171. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  172. Black-throated Gray Warbler
  173. Townsend’s Warbler
  174. Hermit Warbler
  175. Wilson’s Warbler
  176. Yellow-breasted Chat
  177. Green-tailed Towhee
  178. Spotted Towhee
  179. Rufous-crowned Sparrow
  180. California Towhee
  181. Chipping Sparrow
  182. Black-chinned Sparrow
  183. Black-throated Sparrow
  184. Savannah Sparrow
  185. Fox Sparrow
  186. Song Sparrow
  187. Dark-eyed Junco
  188. Western Tanager
  189. Black-headed Grosbeak
  190. Lazuli Bunting
  191. Red-winged Blackbird
  192. Western Meadowlark
  193. Yellow-headed Blackbird
  194. Brewer’s Blackbird
  195. Great-tailed Grackle
  196. Brown-headed Cowbird
  197. Hooded Oriole
  198. Bullock’s Oriole
  199. Scott’s Oriole
  200. House Finch
  201. Purple Finch
  202. Cassin’s Finch
  203. Pine Siskin
  204. Lesser Goldfinch
  205. Lawrence’s Goldfinch
  206. American Goldfinch
  207. House Sparrow




Hawk Migration Studies Article

28 01 2015

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).

Luke Tiller - Yuval Dax

Luke Tiller – Yuval Dax

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.

Red-footed Falcon - Luke Tiller

Red-footed Falcon – Luke Tiller

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.

Juvenile Marsh Harrier - Luke Tiller

Juvenile Marsh Harrier – Luke Tiller

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.

Short-toed Eagle

Short-toed Eagle

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.

Lesser Kestrel – Luke Tiller

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





Christmas Gifts for Raptorheads

15 12 2014
H is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

Every year I try to put together a little list of cool (and this year last-minute) gifts that I think might appeal to the birding/raptor nut in your family.

One book that has been getting rave reviews across the board, not just among birders, is “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald. The story follows Macdonalds immersion in the world of falconry as she attempts to fulfill the dream of training a Northern Goshawk, whilst dealing with the grief caused by the loss of her father. The book obviously has a nod to the TH White classic ‘The Goshawk’, and received this years Samuel Johnson Prize. You can hear the author discussing the book and reading some of it on The Guardian website (here).

1697_funny_side_up_owl_7fffb75e-cf23-4501-b3cd-95e0b4ea7b30_1024x1024

Geeky Get – Funny Side Up Owl

Everyone knows that the way to a hawkwatcher’s heart is through their stomach, that everyone likes owls and that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Given these facts, why is it that no-one has come up with this awesome idea before: Owl shaped eggs (check out the link here)?

PRBY Apparel - Snowy Owl winter hat

PRBY Apparel – Snowy Owl winter hat

Tired of your typical tie-dyed Bald Eagle nonsense when it comes to raptor T-shirts, then why not check out Punk Rock Big Year Apparel’s super cool Northern Goshawk and deliciously gory Turkey Vulture tees. New to the line is their awesome Snowy Owl hat. I can also safely vouch for the legitimacy of the designer’s punk rock credentials following our DK’s duet at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival this year . PRBY Apparel also make their products in America in a way that is as socially and environmentally responsible as possible (link).

Hawk Watch International - 2015 Calendar

Hawk Watch International – 2015 Calendar

Need to know what the date is? Need to know what the date is while looking at super cool pictures of raptors? Then you need to get a copy of Hawkwatch International’s 2015 Calendar. An awesome gift that includes a series of incredible photos from raptor mastermind Jerry Liguori. Even better the profits from the calendar help support raptor conservation (link here).

Frank Nicoletti and Luke Tiller - 2014 HMANA Raptor Workshop

Frank Nicoletti and Luke Tiller – 2014 HMANA Raptor Workshop

People often say that memories are the best gifts of all. Many of my favorite memories this year were from the HMANA Raptor ID Workshop I was honored to co-lead with Frank Nicoletti. Not only did everyone get to see a lot of raptors and learn a lot about IDing them they also got to have a great time doing it. You can find out more about joining us for the 2015 trip as well as read the report from the 2014 workshop on the HMANA website (link here).





Falcon Frenzy

17 10 2014
Red-footed Falcon - Luke Tiller

Red-footed Falcon – Luke Tiller

Sometimes I write a blog post to get some vague point across and sometimes I do it just to share some nice photos I took. This is one of the latter.

Red-footed Falcon - Luke Tiller

Red-footed Falcon – Luke Tiller

My last day in Israel Tzoor Magen took me out to look for both Ferruginous Duck and Bonelli’s Eagle. Though we successfully twitched both, the show-stealers of the day were a flock of photogenic falcons that were partly dining out on a hatch out of flying ants that the morning’s heavy rains had set off.

Kestrel - Luke Tiller

Lesser Kestrel – Luke Tiller

There was also a shepherd in the area with some goats and the falcon flock was flying around them, taking advantage of any other insects they were probably disturbing. I just kinda attached myself to the edge of the flock, crossed my fingers and shot some pics.

Red-footed Falcon - Luke Tiller

Red-footed Falcon – Luke Tiller

A couple of them turned out very pleasingly. They obviously aren’t up there with some of the incredible raptor shots you find gracing FB pages and websites, but they make me happy at least. I’ve really been very impressed with the Tamron 70-300mm lens I purchased for travel just before I left. At the price it has really held up well I think. I wonder how their new 16-300mm performs?

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Note: you can enlarge any of the photos by clicking on them.





That’s all folks…

13 10 2014
Empty skies - Luke Tiller

Empty skies – Luke Tiller

Well almost. I do have a few days left in Israel to do some birding, but my time as an official hawk surveyor is at an end. It ended with not so much a bang (though a last day Imperial Eagle and Greater-spotted Cuckoo were nice) but with something of a whimper, and some (amazing) hummus.

Traveling and meeting new people is always something of a bitter sweet experience. You get to make new friends, but then all too soon you have to get back to your own part of the world and leave them all behind. The regulars at the survey have been a great team to be part of, we’ve shared long hours watching raptors, trying to put each other on some of the better ones and making sure that we didn’t duplicate too many sightings. Over all there are about 20 awesome people who have been part of the team both as watchers and interpretive naturalists but a few: Eli, Shahar, Dudu and Tzoor have been a constant part of my last month – and I think I have finally gotten most of the pronunciations of their names right. Of course they have also had to also translate my rambling English on the walkie-talkie into something that makes sense too – so they were working even harder than I have.

Short-toed Eagle

Short-toed Eagle

The thing I love about birding is that it brings together people from across the spectrum of humanity regardless of age, gender or pretty much anything else for that matter. Perhaps it’s just my own personal biases but I also think there is a special camaraderie among hawkwatchers; there is just something particular (and maybe peculiar) about spending eight hours a day sat in the same spot looking for distant specks to identify in temperatures which range from 10-102 degrees.

Though not necessarily overly lucrative, life as a professional hawkwatcher can certainly be richly rewarding. It’s really been a fantastic time here in Israel and I will have many fond memories of this trip: of course the birds but also of the people I’ve met and the places I’ve seen, and I hope I will be back again in the not too distant future.

Long-legged Buzzard - Luke Tiller

Long-legged Buzzard – Luke Tiller

Special thanks to Yoav Perlman for inviting me to become part of the Soaring Bird Survey, Jonathan Meyrav for being a great birding host and to Laura Kammermeier for introducing me to both these guys up at Braddock Bay this Spring. Thanks also to Eli Haviv for running such a tight and friendly ship!





4:30am *$%@*

7 10 2014
MacQueens Bustard Country - Luke Tiller

MacQueens Bustard Country – Luke Tiller

A day off from the long hours at the hawkwatch and what do I decide to do, get up and go birding of course! I hadn’t quite gambled on the start time that my trusty guide for my days off Jonathan Meyrav had planned though. Still the thoughts of getting some nice specialist desert birds was temptation enough and nothing a couple of cups of coffee couldn’t fix. Have I mentioned how nice it is to be able to get really good coffee at gas stations as opposed to the general swill dishwater coffee you get in the US? Not to rag on my adopted homeland, but come on!

It’s been a real treat to get to bird with Jonathan. He’s a great guide and his knowledge on everything birds, but also history and culture has meant even sharing early morning car rides has been a real treat. That morning it almost felt like I could have been back in Los Angeles as many a morning I have spent riding out to Lancaster, CA to look for migrant birds transitioning from Mediterranean to Desert habitats. The destination is rarely an abandoned Turkish Railway line though! There is something kind of magical about the pre-dawn hour in deserts, the cool air and the beautiful light!

Arabian Babbler - Luke Tiller

Arabian Babbler – Luke Tiller

One of the main targets of the day was MacQueen’s Bustard an amazingly characterful turkey like bird, that though large can be difficult to find if you don’t know the right place. Of course Jonathan knows the right place, and within five minutes of scanning we had found two of these incredible birds. I am happy to note I spotted the first bird – still useful in some ways. Around us Desert Larks and Scrub Warblers frolicked but these lifers were little distraction from the magnificent Bustards in hand, or rather in scope.

After enjoying the birds for a while we were on to the next stop of our packed itinerary, the waste water treatment plant (don’t birders go to the most delectable of places?) at Nitzana or Nizzana or however you want to spell it – there seem to be a slew of semiofficial ones. Anyway, like Lancaster, CA if you stick some water, a few trees and some shrubs in the desert it tends to draw both migrant and thirsty birds like a magnet. Here we were hoping for a family of birds I had been infatuated with since seeing them at watering holes in BBC documentaries as a kid: sandgrouse.

Willow Warbler - Luke Tiller

Willow Warbler – Luke Tiller

Of course there was much else to occupy us including swarms of swallows and the usual array of common migrants as we waited: I now feel like I may have seen every Willow Warbler on the planet personally. Jonathan had said we needed to get there by 8:00am, but that time came and went and I tried hard not to look nervous or disappointed – maybe Jonathan was inscrutably doing the same.

Then it started to happen, out in the desert came the calls of Black-bellied Sandgrouse (you can listen to them on Xeno-canto) – invisible in the deep blue sky before finally Jonathan spotted a flock as they came wheeling in out of the desert. We were positioned some distance from the main pool in order to make sure we didn’t disturb their important daily routine, which is as it should be. As they appeared though a few were kind enough to pass close enough to photograph in flight – stunning! A short wait and four less expected Pin-tailed Sandgrouse also put in a nice showing. Then nothing. We were waiting for one more species: Spotted. For a while not a peep and then some elusive and tantalizing calls from the desert emitted by our quarry (listen here). Were they nervous or were they just not thirsty? Those few minutes felt like hours before finally Spotted Sandgrouse appeared as if by magic out of the ether. My sandgrouse life list had shot from 0-3 in about half an hour. An incredible, beautiful and little understood grouping of birds that totally made my morning.

Black-bellied Sandgrouse - Luke Tiller

Black-bellied Sandgrouse – Luke Tiller

After leaving the sandgrouse to do their thing we decided to quickly bash the other ponds for migrants to see what we could turn up. After ticking my first Bluethroat for the trip we spotted a little warbler skulking about in the reed beds. It looked like a Sedge (and was) but there was something about it that looked a little off. Of course as with many of these warblers we were struggling through partial and poor views of the bird. Still it might have given us just about enough pause for Jonathan to spot something else scuttle down the side of the bank out of the corner of his eye. His next words “Painted Snipe” almost didn’t register with me, as it wasn’t even a species I had considered studying up on for the trip and it took a few seconds for my brain to process what he’d said. From there we both dived for our cameras and started trying to at least record the bird, which by now had crept under some debris at the side of the pond and seemingly disappeared.

I basically now aimed my camera at where I thought the bird was and fired away. Here we were just stumbling across a bone fide Israeli Mega and a pretty good Western Palearctic Bird: Greater Painted-snipe (read more about this species here). We crept up a little closer and got a few shots before the bird weakly flew (as accurately described in the Collins Field Guide) off into a dry treatment bed and then ran for cover. Next job was to get on the phone and get there word out. There was a mixture of congratulations, jealousy, unsavory words in Hebrew and requests for directions and hopes that it stuck. Though we didn’t turn up much at the other migrant trap we pitched up at I was already more than very happy with what had been a memorable day out.

Greater Painted-snipe - Luke Tiller

Greater Painted-snipe – Luke Tiller

If you want to follow Jonathan’s adventures on Facebook you can find him here (link). If you find yourself in Israel looking for birds I couldn’t recommend him more if I tried. Here’s our eBird list from the water treatment plant just to give you a flavor of what else we ran into (link here). Also a little nod to my relatively inexpensive Tamron 70-300mm lens. I think it’s doing a rather nice job of recording the trip thus far – not bad for $350!





The ashamed man learns nothing…

2 10 2014
Oranit Station - Luke Tiller

Oranit Station – Luke Tiller

I owe the title of this blog post to Dudu, one of my fellow counters here in Israel. He has a load of Hebrew sayings he has been sharing with me. This one roughly translates as don’t be afraid to ask. Technically at the time he was talking about asking for what I wanted after he very generously invited me to his home for Rosh Hashanah. Of course the food there was amazing, including a cabbage and rice dish I definitely need to get the recipe for. I digress though, as what the saying actually made me think of was raptor ID.

As you’ll see from my first post from Israel, I’ve been dropped in at the deep end somewhat counting hawks that until now I had either little or sometimes no experience with. Of course the skills pretty much translate: how to scan, what to look for on birds in terms of shape, pattern, color and flying style but there are many intangibles that only come with a good many hours of practice.

Common Kestrel - Luke Tiller

Common Kestrel – Luke Tiller

There is also the question of status and distribution that can at least help you keep an eye open for a specific something or that at least might make you take a second look or rethink an ID. So while some species here are somewhat simple: Short-toed Eagle, Marsh Harrier, Black Kite, others are most decidedly not: Lesser and Common Kestrel, Eurasian and Levant’s Sparrowhawk and others again seem to border on the impossible: juvenile Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers.

It has certainly been exciting to look at migrating raptors with fresh eyes and also to feel in some ways the insecurity and occasionally the frustration that I know many beginner and intermediate hawkwatchers in the US feel. It’s been interesting to me to note that though common shapes and flight styles become imprinted quickly: the drooped winged soar and glide of a Lesser Spotted Eagle or the distinct dihedral  on the Booted Eagle, but also how much I find myself wanting to turn to the scope for a confirming color and pattern when I have something difficult or interesting. I’ve also noted that there are some angles that seem to be harder than others. It’s easy to spot the shape of a bird when it’s directly overhead but much harder when it’s ‘wing on’ gliding high to your left or right. Here all your sense of shape gets squished and flattened. I notice this at hawkwatches in the US too when birders seem unable to see what shapes and flight styles seem almost second nature to seasoned watchers.

Great White Pelicans - Luke Tiller

Great White Pelicans – Luke Tiller

What has become most obvious to me though here, is the importance of spending time with people who really know what it is they are looking at. Though I have been on my own a great deal, the watches here are more scientific survey than social occasion, the two or three days I spent with Eli Haviv (the survey coordinator) and Jonathan Meyrav (Tourism Manager at IOC and old hand at raptor surveys) looking at birds together were invaluable. Not just to check on ID’s, but to talk about what it was that they, or I, were seeing in a bird that lead to a particular ID conclusion. For all the book studying I had been doing, the reality of the field is something else and though I guess it’s not rocket science to say this learning from others is so much easier and infinitely more rewarding.

In the US there are watches scattered across the country and they are in my experience manned by some of the most knowledgeable and generous ‘birders’ in the country. If you haven’t already or feel your raptor ID needs some polishing, get down to one and sit down listen and start to learn. A few thoughtful questions will usually get you an in depth response, as most regulars to any hawkwatch I’ve been to love to share with anyone as enthusiastic about raptors as they are. There is a wealth of knowledge out there at your fingertips, whatever your level, just waiting for you to plug in to. Plus you’ll get to enjoy the magic of raptor migration just as pure spectacle.

Red-throated Pipit - Luke Tiller

Red-throated Pipit – Luke Tiller

As I’ve become a more and more seasoned watcher in the US it has become harder and harder for me to discover something new, but there is always something to learn. That is why it was such an amazing experience and treat to be sharing a platform with Frank Nicoletti this Spring at the Hawk Migration Association of North America Raptor ID Workshop at Braddock Bay. It was amazing to learn some of the advanced tips and tricks that Frank has up his sleeve. I’m really looking forward to co-leading it all again this Spring with Frank, and seeing as we have at least one returning participant I’m guessing they are looking forward to doing it all again too. If you really want to sharpen your skills in a positive environment with one of the most knowledgeable raptor experts out there (and me), as well as see some great birds in the process then why not come join us in April. You can find out more about the tour on the HMANA website ( link here).

Next post I’ll share some of the other birds I’ve been seeing, including a nice Mega. But for now, bed.








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