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!

Off to Israel to count hawks…

10 09 2014

Me counting hawks

Whilst counting at Braddock in May I was lucky enough to get to hang out with Yoav Perlman (blog here) and Jonathan Meyrav from the Israeli Ornithological Center (website here). I managed to share with them a drizzly but incredible morning’s warbler watching along Lake Ontario (Yoav’s blog post here) and we spent time both enjoying birds and talking about some of the challenges that face conservation organizations in our respective countries.

There are probably just a handful of places that can regularly hope to see a million plus raptors in migration in the world including Batumi in Georgia, Kekoldi in Costa Rica, Veracruz in Mexico and Eilat in Israel. Though the migration in Eilat takes place in spring the Fall migration in Israel can be highly impressive too. There has been an annual Fall ‘Soaring Birds’survey (they log storks, pelicans and cranes as well raptors) there since 1982. Initially, due to a lack of qualified birders, the IOC were dependent on drafting in a few foreign birders to complete their surveys (people like Frank Nicoletti from Hawk Ridge and Riff Raff hawkwatch page founder Pete Gustas spent time there). Now they are at the point where a blossoming birding scene allows them to complete the surveys without recourse to outside help: which is good for the IOC but means that you now really need to get a personal invite in order to join them for the season.

Booted Eagle - Catherine Hamilton

Booted Eagle – Catherine Hamilton

As well as the storks and cranes there are around twenty species of raptors to tally, which compares quite favorably with many US hawkwatches. The numbers of the most abundant migrants are impressive too: 300,000 White Storks, 400,000 Honey Buzzards, 50-60,000 Levant Sparrowhawks and 100,000 Lesser-spotted Eagles pass through this small country each Fall. As with raptors in the US some of these species, like Levant Sparrowhawk, live in areas that are rarely surveyed, so the fact that most of them migrate through this little birding bottleneck means it’s probably as good a place as any to see trends in their population.

Also as in the US there are a string of different manned sites (in Israel just a few kilometers apart) across the country that track the migration and which fulfill the very same dual objectives that we have at sites here: tracking the flight and educating and inspiring the public’s interest in birds. Some sites are relatively remote, but importantly one is just a few miles from Tel Aviv in order to encourage and facilitate visits from both adults and school children.


Black Kite – Catherine Hamilton

It’s a migration that I have always wanted to witness and having a month or two hole in the schedule this year and a generous invite from Jonathan and Yoav has given me the opportunity to do so. Being a big fan of Middle Eastern food and owner of every Ottolenghi cookbook I’m equally looking forward to the culinary experience too. I’ll be updating my personal blog (here) with pictures, eBird checklists etc as often as possible while I am there as well as updating the HMANA blog with what we are seeing out there during International Hawk Migration Week. Come join me online for the adventure.