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).


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?


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.

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.


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