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.