Tel Aviv Touchdown

21 09 2014
Short-toed Eagle - Luke Tiller

Short-toed Eagle – Luke Tiller

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…

Juvenile Marsh Harrier - Luke Tiller

Juvenile Marsh Harrier – Luke Tiller

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.

European Bee-eater - Luke Tiller

European Bee-eater – Luke Tiller

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.

Woodchat Shrike - Luke Tiller

Woodchat Shrike – Luke Tiller

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!

Making a difference…

22 07 2014
Part of the gang - Luke Tiller

Part of the gang – Luke Tiller

One of the things I look forward to very much every spring is the chance to go out with a group from a retirement community near to where I used to live in Wilton CT. In fact I enjoy it so much I even made the trek all the way down from Braddock Bay, New York just to make it happen this year.

The main reason I enjoy the walk is the group of great birders that join me for the day. Sun or showers (and in the last few years it always seems to be showers), I always get an enthusiastic group out to join me for the morning. The other reason is that they have such a great piece of property to explore. It’s mainly made up of a couple of ample meadows, some second growth woodland and a bunch of edge habitat that attracts some of the awesome species associated with that: Indigo Bunting, Eastern Towhee, Blue-winged and Prairie Warbler.

Bobolink - Luke Tiller

Bobolink – Luke Tiller

Over the years, as well as the regular residents we’ve tallied some other nice migrants and a few less expected breeding species like Hooded Warbler. More importantly, in a state with diminishing open country birds, ever since my first walk with the group, we have had tantalizing views of Bobolinks on site. The first year I excitedly said to the group that maybe they might be encouraged to stay on and breed, but the next time I visited the meadow had been mowed and the Bobolinks appeared to have been long gone.

Over the past four years or so the community’s birding group has gently cajoled the management and caretakers of the property into changing the mowing schedule and encouraged them to mow more selectively. This year it seems like everyone has been rewarded for their hard work. When I visited in late May there were Bobolinks all over the meadows and males and females darting about seemingly actively getting ready to nest or in the process of nesting there. It’s great to see even little successes like this won. Generally when it comes to conservation issues it’s pretty much all doom and gloom and without these little wins it’s often enough to make you want to throw your hands in the air. Part of the reason that I like raptors, beyond the obvious, is because we actually have some genuine conservation success stories to share when it comes to talking about Peregrine Falcons or Bald Eagles.

Bobolink - Luke Tiller

Bobolink – Luke Tiller

It also made me think about the import of encouraging people to get involved in birding and conservation whatever their age. It often feels like organizations fetishize encouraging younger birders. It seems like whatever line of business I have been involved with there has always been a panic about aging demographics and how to encourage participation of younger people and yet fifteen years on there still seems to be people going to the theater in good numbers, non-profits still find new supporters and young birders clubs seem to be going from strength to strength.

That’s not to say that we should be complacent about creating the next generation of birders and conservationists, it’s something I’m passionate about myself, but rather that maybe we should spread the love around a little bit. After all it’s mainly not the kids that are joining organizations, funding non-profits or making today’s important environmental decisions. In fact the way it looks right now, if we wait for them it may all be too late.

Tom McDonald – BBRR Snowy Owl guru

5 04 2014
Tom McDonald - Daena Ford

Tom McDonald – Daena Ford

Being involved at BBRR I am lucky enough to get to hang out with some really cool and fascinating people. One of the coolest is Tom McDonald, BBRR bander, Snowy Owl expert extraordinaire and all around nice guy. I remember being blown away by our first chat about how misunderstood these irruptive owls were by the average birder. This year it’s been amazing to see so many of the things that Tom told me about these amazing owls being borne out by the latest research conducted by Project SNOWstorm (of which he is a part) and others. I was lucky enough to hang out with him the other day and talk a little bit about his interest in birds, involvement in BBRR, Snowy Owls and this years irruption…
Me: What got you interested in birds?
Tom: My interest in birds started with a sleep over with my Grandma “Yanny” when I was about 8 years old. She was the female equivalent of St. Francis of Assisi. The first thing in the morning, I can remember all kinds of birds coming to her outstretched hand full of seeds and other goodies. She also fed deer and other animals by hand in the back yard of her home in Perinton, NY.
Me: How did you get into banding?
Tom: Getting into banding was a spin off from hanging out at the hawk watch and helping BBRR in the early years with clearing trails in the owl woods and helping to build hawk blinds and hawk traps. Dave Tetlow nudged me into the process and Kevin Griffith took me on as a sub-permittee.
'Braddock' from Project SNOWstorm - Daena Ford

‘Braddock’ from Project SNOWstorm – Daena Ford

Me: What was the first bird you banded?
Tom: My first hawk was a road trapped Red Tail. I used a borrowed Bal Chatri trap and a  white footed mouse for a lure.
Me:How did you end up being involved in BBRR?
Tom: I saw an article about Frank Nicoletti in the local newspaper back in the early 1980’s highlighting his hawk counting skills. I went out to the platform the next day and got a royal education in hawk identification. I learned more from Frank in one day than I had in the ten years leading up to our meeting.
Me: When did you decide to focus on Snowy Owls? 
Tom: In the late 80’s, I was reading about how snowy owls would irrupt into our region once every 3 to 5 years and that most of them were destined to starve to death. The more I read, the more that things just didn’t add up. If a snowy owl was in poor shape when it left the tundra, why on earth would it fly 1500 miles to die here? Do you want me to believe that the poor thing couldn’t find a meadow vole or a rabbit somewhere between the arctic circle and New York State? Where did it get the energy to fly this far? My search for a sensible answer to this mystery became an obsession with me and ultimately led to my project SnowyWatch.
Snowy Owl release - Daena Ford

Snowy Owl release – Daena Ford

Me: Is there a difference between banding Snowy Owls and other diurnal raptors?
Tom: Snowy owls hunt during the day only if it’s absolutely necessary or if something detectable makes itself irresistibly and easily catch-able. Most of them make best use of low light conditions. The first few hours of true darkness are the busiest hunting hours, followed by the couple of hours before first light.

Me: How did you get involved with Project SNOWstorm?
Tom: Joining project SNOWstorm was a no-brainer. The concept of following snowy owl movements during the winter was something that I have pursued my entire adult life and was the bread and butter of my studies. Transmitters could bring confirmation and validation to the many theories and questions that I pondered for 25 years.
Me: It’s amazing the kind if things we’ve learned as birders this year about Snowy Owls. Have you been surprised by anything you’ve learned from this big irruption year?
Tom: One of the biggest surprises for me was to see just how high some of these owls were flying on a few of their longer journeys. Some of them were maintaining altitudes of 2000 feet or more for many miles.
Snowy Owl - Catherine Hamilton

Snowy Owl – Catherine Hamilton

Me:I know you have put GPS transmitters on three birds, but how many Snowy Owls have you banded in total this winter?
Tom: I’ve banded 60 owls and also recaptured two of my own birds along with capturing two foreign recoveries from Canada. If I hadn’t spent the entire month of February vacationing in New Zealand, the total would be closer to 80 individuals.
Thanks to Tom for the time and Daena and Catherine for the pictures. Tom will be appearing at the HMANA conference and talking about his Snowy Owl experiences. You find out more about booking for the event here: (link). Link to project SNOWstorm (here).

Hawkwatching basics 2: Comportment

13 03 2014
Josh Lawrey - Doublescoping!

Doublescoping! – Luke Tiller

So, from the previous article (here) you have learned where and when to go hawkwatching. Now you need to know what to do when you get there. As you know, we Brits are very particular about the right way and the wrong way to go about things. So in this hawkwatching basics lesson we focus on how one might conduct oneself at the watch.

Please note that this is a joke…but that many a true word…

They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but I bet that’s equally true for any of the female hawkwatchers out there as well. Whilst staying with the BBBO banders one year I got the affectionate (I hope) title ‘The Garbage Disposal Unit’ for my ability to vacuum up dinner leftovers. If you turn up at the platform with a cup of coffee and donuts, they are unlikely to get turned down and following this advice you may find yourself earning a hawkwatching friend for life. Remember your average watcher, if they are getting paid at all, are getting paid about the same as the person who just served you that coffee, so a little gift goes a long way.

So it’s your first time up at the hawkwatch platform. You’ve got your binoculars and perhaps a field guide, where do you go from here? 

Introductions — It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who stroll up to the hawkwatch platform on a quiet day and say nothing to the counter. Might I suggest you say hello, ask innocuously whether there is a guestbook that you can sign (there often is or at least the watcher might want your name for their hawkcount data) or even just inquire how the flight is going . There are a million and one ways to introduce yourself and a million questions to ask the hawkwatcher first. There is one however that you should never ask: ‘how do you know that you haven’t counted the same bird twice?’ This is a question I think I answer an average of 574 times in a season. I have always had a fantasy of rigging up some balloons and party streamers and doing something like this (click link) when what feels like the millionth person asks me this in the season – one day! I also have fantasy answers for that question that include things like telling them that someone in the treeline behind me is shooting all the passing ones with a paintball gun so that we know if we see it again, or that all birds have little patterns on the ends of their wing tips like fingerprints and that all hawkwatchers are required to have photographic memories so that they can remember if they’ve seen them before.

Fantasy Answers! - iamahawkwatcher

Fantasy Answers! –

You’ve now presented your offering of warm coffee, negotiated the awkward introduction and asked an innocuous question like ‘seen anything good today?’. Whats next? Knowing when to speak on the hawkwatch platform is a key part of being accepted into the circle.

Stagefright —  As a watcher I’ve discovered many people don’t speak at all. I’ve even had excellent birders stand next to me that were seemingly terrified to call out a bird ID in front of the other people on the platform. Rest easy friends, Pete Dunne always says something about the difference between experienced hawkwatchers and inexperienced ones is that the experienced ones have had time to make many more mistakes, and I think most hawkwatchers would agree with that. Being a keen birder, I know how fraught and tense people get about making dud calls. In the world of hawkwatching it’s almost a given that you are going to make a few doozies, so there is an unwritten rule that if you correct your bad call before anyone else does it doesn’t even count as a bad one (here’s an example of a bad call I made at Braddock – it only made it as far as the listserve before I realized – which was nice!). In all seriousness it’s not like people are expecting you to separate gulls, or sparrows by the way they fly, so the idea that you can jump into hawk ID and be amazing right off of the bat is crazy. As a watcher I could care less if you don’t make a correct call or try to ID a bird to species all day. What I will care about, however (and not in a good way), is when you say something like ‘did you get that bird ten minutes ago, it was flying really fast, shaped like a Peregrine but bigger and pretty much all white. I think you were looking at a passing Red-tail at the time….. ‘ As I say, it’s better to call birds out than not.

Interrupting– The only tempering I would place on making sure the hawkwatcher has seen your bird is that you don’t want to become the person who is all but jumping up and down in front of the watcher to point out the kestrel that you have just seen, when the counter has already logged it ten minutes earlier and is now concentrating on something else. If the counter looks busy and you really think they may not have seen a bird ask them when they next look to not be too busy, unless of course what you are about to say is ‘I have a bird out here, it’s flying really fast, shaped like a Peregrine but bigger and pretty much all white….’  The other big no no on the distraction front is when visitors start to count hawks themselves. If you want to do that, do it in your head and not out loud while the watcher is trying to remember whether it was 850 or 950 in the latest Broadie stream. I may, or may not, have shouted at people who have done that ;)

Mugging for the Cameras! - Luke Tiller

Happy Hawkwatchers – Luke Tiller

The Secret– So this is the real secret to becoming accepted at the watch is this: come on the crappy days. Everyone comes when it looks perfect for a mega flight. Come to those too, but if you turn up the day when the winds are wrong and there is no-one else on the platform you have a better than even odds that the hawkwatcher will actually remember your name as well as your face next time you show up. If you are a beginner watcher you might actually get to learn something. When the hawkwatcher has sat for the last three hours with nothing but their own thoughts for company and no birds, someone arriving at the platform is a godsend.

So there you have it. My personal guide for how to be accepted, should you want such a dubious honor,  as one of the hawkwatching gang. Perhaps before we go, a little tip for the counters out there:

For the watchers– It’s been a long day and eyes are fried, but unless you have a little private throne and a handful of interpretive naturalists to do the dirty work for you, it’s your job to try and inspire those that have visited your platform that day. I know you can spot an potential abieticola Red-tailed Hawk at a thousand paces, but lets face it you aren’t doing your organization, the world of hawkwatching or conservation the world of good if you basically respond to people visiting the platform with little more than a grunt. You don’t have to be Dale Carnegie, just remember that it takes more energy to frown than it does to smile….

Don’t forget the Donuts!!!!! illustrations Catherine Hamilton

Hawkwatching basics 1: When and Where

9 03 2014
Red-tailed Hawk - Luke Tiller

Red-tailed Hawk – Luke Tiller

As a seasoned hawkwatcher this is a conversation that I have had sadly all too often: on a deathly slow day someone shows up at the watch and asks ‘how is it going’. After you’ve relayed the bad news about winds from the wrong direction and a band of blocking rain to the south they say something like “but it looked like you had a great day yesterday”. 

A quote I once read started ‘yesterday is a memory, tomorrow is a dream…’ and that’s the truth about hawkwatching. To get the most out of the hawkwatching experience you need to become something of an amateur meteorologist (or at least look at the weather forecast once in a while). Like much birding during migration, weather is going to play a key part in your success. Though I have been relayed charming stories about the early years of hawkwatching, that were spent looking for birds on previously set dates each fall regardless of the fact that it was perhaps pouring with rain that day, we now understand that there is a slightly more scientific approach to actually seeing some birds at a hawkwatch.

The rest of the quote I referenced above runs ‘…today is a gift.’, so even if you find yourself at the watch on one of those slow days don’t despair. You might still make the best of it by learning some stuff from the hawkwatcher or others there at the watch. It’s generally much easier to glean some information from hawkwatchers on slow days, when they will be thankful for some company, than on madcap days when they are trying to keep up with a huge flight. On those days it might be best advised to not talk to them at all ;) Also even on the slower days, you never know what might show up. I always say it only takes one bird to dramatically change the complexion of how a days birding ‘went’.

Merlin - Luke Tiller

Merlin – Luke Tiller

To cover the basics of Spring migration, each watch will have its own ideal wind and weather conditions. To generalize though, you are looking for southerly winds (blowing from the south – sometimes that isn’t clear to people) to bring birds northwards and hopefully past your watch. Sometimes a watch might do better on south west winds sometimes south east depending on the location. In fact, once you become more expert, sometimes the way winds are blowing might sway which local watch you decide to visit on a certain day. It’s certainly something we will take into consideration during the Raptor ID Workshop I am co-leading this Spring at Braddock Bay (details here).  You may also want to check whether rain might dampen the flight. That said, rain is not a reason not to head out, I have sometimes had some good days watching between light showers and often huge flights can be formed ahead of a storm system.

Weather discussions perhaps assumes that you even know where to go looking for a regularly staffed hawkwatch site? To find a local spring site you can check out the hawkcount website map and click the individual states (link here).  Some counts happen in spring, some counts are in fall and some are both. You can click on the individual site link to find out general information about each site. If you click the “migration timing” tab you can get a feel for the usual peaks and troughs of the sites season and by clicking “latest count data” you can usually gauge how regularly the watch is covered.

American Kestrel - Luke Tiller

American Kestrel – Luke Tiller

If you want to find out what the forecast for the hawk flight is like for the next day you can sometimes read this on the individual daily reports from reporting sites (example here). These individual reports are viewable on the front page on Hawkcount (link here). As I write this post it’s currently pretty early on in the season so only a handful of sites are regularly reporting right now. Having had to write those forecasts myself and knowing how unlikely they are to be 100% accurate I understand why counters sometimes feel reluctant to complete that section, but they usually do when it at least looks promising.

Keep an eye on the blog as I will be posting more articles aimed at cluing in beginner and intermediate level hawkwatchers on how to get the most out of the hawkwatching experience over the next few weeks. If you want to know when to get up to Braddock Bay, south west winds are the best (though all southerly elements are good) but with a wind speed of at least ten mph. Ideally you want the speed to be a little more than that to keep the breeze kicking in off of the lake and scattering the flight line south of the lake.. 

Pasadena – Swainson’s Hawk

7 02 2014

Pasadena - Swainson's Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

Worlds colliding

26 11 2013
Street Art - Stephen Tiller

Street Art – Stephen Tiller

The birding world is a small one in the US. In fact it’s almost impossible to go to an event like the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival without running into multiple people that you know both personally and from their online presence. Coolest of the random run ins over the weekend for me was when I bumped into a regular from some of the local tours that I ran in Connecticut. It was funny because we’d called over one of the official tour groups from the festival to see a couple of Altamira Orioles that we had discovered whilst on an early morning stop at Estero Llano and I recognized her voice as one of my previous participants quicker than she recognized mine. I guess to be fair there does tend to be a few British accents at these birding events.

Street Art - Steve Tiller

Street Art – Steve Tiller

Talking of worlds colliding a couple of months ago my dad sent me some awesome photographs from a mural that had recently been put up to cover some rather boring concrete at a local spot along the River Lee in London where I often go for a walk and look for birds. It’s perhaps not the capitals’ birdiest spot, but it’s close and accessible by bicycle. Of course my dad started my interest in birds and my brother was once a renowned street artist – before he became a photographer and music impresario. I recall my brother once getting paid to teach inner city kids how to become graffiti artists. I’m not sure who decided that was a great idea, but you never know, perhaps he helped spawn the next Banksy or Jean-Michel Basquiat

Street Art - Steve Tiller

Street Art – Steve Tiller

My favorite piece from the event are the Great Crested Grebes created by a Brazilian artist Mateus Bailon (website here). My girlfriend Catherine had just been in Brazil a few months before for the Brazilian Bird Fair (website here). Not only had she fallen in love with the country and its birds, but she had been really impressed by the breadth and depth of an event that included as well as birders and ornithologists, musicians and contemporary artists too amongst others. It’s hard to imagine something quite the same happening in the US or the UK at a birding festival? You can see some of the other murals from the London mural project on the Inspiring City Blog (here). Cool to see the sketches that Mateus worked from and street artists that use nature as a theme of their work. I’m looking forward to getting back to London this Christmas and seeing some of this stuff in person – weird how everything comes together sometimes.


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