Wednesday, 26 March 2014

From city to desert

Hoopoes were often very confiding and approachable, feeding within a few metres of passers-by.
A well-established exotic in several cities in the Western Palearctic, including Tel Aviv, Monk Parakeet is native to South America. The species constructs huge twig nests which have been known to weigh down powerlines.
It was my first full day in Eilat today, having driven down from Tel Aviv yesterday after a walk in a city park which produced nesting Glossy Ibises and Cattle Egrets, Spur-winged Lapwing, breeding Monk Parakeets, 10 Hoopoes, three kingfisher species (including nine White-throateds), two Eastern Bonelli's Warblers and Palestine Sunbird - I wish the park at the end of my road in north London was that good.

Male Semicollared Flycatcher in Eilat this morning - a subtly beautiful species ...
I thought today's star was going to be the male Semicollared Flycatcher I found in an Eilat park - until Jonathan Meyrav texted me news of a Pied Stonechat about an hour's hire-car thrash to the north. I made it in good time to see this WP mega - perhaps only the 7th or 8th for Israel. I also met some old and new faces there, including Frank Moffat, Paul French and his Sunbird group, and Paul Flint and co. In total some 300 birders were estimated to have seen the stonechat by the end of the day, possibly representing the largest-ever twitch in Israel - let's hope it stays for my team mates, who travel out to join me over the next couple of days.

... but bird of the day goes to this less elaborate though far rarer monochrome mega, Pied Stonechat. A vagrant from south Asia, its appearance was absolutely not in the script, and a welcome regional tick.

PS Don't forget the reason I'm here is for the Champions of the Flyway bird race, in which my Birdwatch-BirdGuides team the Roadrunners is raising money for BirdLife International and its fight to end the illegal slaughter of migrants on the Eastern Mediterranean Flyway. Read more about the race on the event website, and make a quick donation to this very worthy cause here - we still need your help to reach our financial target, so all donations are gratefully received.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

On your marks for the Champions of the Flyway bird race

Stark contrasts in the landscape of southern Israel: this is Yotvata, where irrigated cultivations stand out like a
green oasis in a vast expanse of barren desert and mountain. Tens of millions of migrants pass through this narrow migration corridor every spring and autumn, making it one of the very best 'bottlenecks' in the Western Palearctic. This part of the country is where the first Champions of the Flyway event will take place on 1 April 2014.

TWENTY years ago this month I was in Israel, experiencing Eilat’s exceptional spring migration and writing about the destination for the first time in Birdwatch. It was an eye-opening experience, not only for the quantity and quality of migrating birds (which included the Western Palearctic's second-ever Diederik Cuckoo), but also because of the instructive field skills of Sunbird leaders Killian Mullarney and Steve Rooke, both already old hands at Eilat by then.

Tomorrow I will be back there covering it again, but in a very different way – by taking part in the new Champions of the Flyway event.

The Israel Ornithological Center and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel are hosting what may just be the Western Palearctic’s biggest-ever bird race, with teams from Britain, continental Europe, the Middle East and North America all competing on 1 April to record the highest number of species in a day.

It will be fun trying, but there is a serious purpose too. Just like its American counterpart, the World Series of Birding held at Cape May, New Jersey, each May, the Champions of the Flyway event is fundraising for conservation. This year’s chosen cause is the Eastern Mediterranean Flyway, along which millions of migrants are slaughtered annually, many of them illegally. BirdLife International needs funds to fight the problem, so teams are raising sponsorship to help fund practical initiatives on the ground.

A Short-toed Eagle that didn't make it - thousands of raptors die as they undertake the hazardous journey north along the Eastern Mediterranean Flyway, a flight path which includes both Israel and Georgia.
Anyone who has seen raptors shot out of the sky, injured migrants dying a slow and painful death or songbirds dangling from lime sticks will surely want to support this initiative, which will specifically focus on conservation work further north along the flyway in Georgia. Indeed, many of the birds of prey which pass over Eilat later cross the mountains of this Caucasian republic, so the link between the two is very real (read more about it here and in the April and May issues of Birdwatch). Batumi Raptor Count has already done great monitoring work in Georgia and has now successfully added conservation goals to its mission.

Champions of the Flyway race area.
The birding public has backed this new initiative and the Birdwatch-BirdGuides Roadrunners – Ian Lycett, Mike Alibone, Morten Hansen and myself – are very grateful for all the donations we have received so far. We’ve not yet reached our financial target, however, so more help is needed – we only have until 31 March to get the total up.

If you would like to donate you can do so in just a few seconds by clicking here – there's no need to register, and any amount, however small, will help make a difference.

Thanks in advance for your support.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Double vision

Second-calendar-year Iceland Gull yesterday - a work of subtle beauty.
Reports of a 'juvenile' Iceland Gull at the stone barges on the Thames in east London in recent days led to queries as to whether it was a different bird to one seen previously in nearby Crayford. On 21st February I was able to spend the morning on my gull study site in the area, a private industrial facility, and I hoped there would be a chance it put in an appearance. Sure enough, at 08:20 I picked up a distant small white-winger, and a quick glance confirmed it was a second-calendar-year Iceland. I got record shots and footage of the bird, which didn't hang around for more than five minutes or so before moving on.

The Iceland Gull plays gooseberry while a pair of European Herring Gulls get in the mood.
Almost half an hour later I picked up the bird again - or so I thought. This time it showed better, and I was able to get decent images, three of which are reproduced here. Once again the bird was only on show for a few minutes and then it took off in the direction of the river.

On the move again. Note the smooth-toned underparts and beautifully marbled uppertail coverts and vent.
Little more than an hour later and it was back again in the same spot - just after it was reported by BirdGuides as sitting on the gantry at the stone barges at Rainham. This immediately prompted me to check my images, and interestingly the bird in the first of the three appearances, although distant, appears to have a mainly blackish bill, a small tinge of pink being largely confined to the base of the lower mandible. The bird which turned up thereafter, as these images show, has more extensive pink on the basal half of the bill, albeit rather dusky hued in tone; it also appears to be paler around the eye. An Iceland Gull has also been seen at Beddington in south London recently, and could easily be a commuter to or from the Thames. Two or three at the same London site on the same day is a rare event, but not unprecedented.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Gull excursion

This fourth-calendar-year Great Black-backed Gull, ringed on an island off Denmark, teamed up with local Great Black-backeds on the River Thames today - its furthest south 'recovery' point.
In a good morning at my gull study site on the Thames today, seven species included two different second-calendar-year Iceland Gulls (more on those in a separate post), two Yellow-legged Gulls (second- and third-calendar-year birds) and this well-travelled Great Black-backed Gull (above left), bearing a distinctive Norwegian ring. The great thing about the Norwegian Colour Ringing Scheme is that you can obtain an instant history when reporting details of one of its birds.

As its online history shows, JW933 visited eastern Britain in its first two winters, but was always reported from Suffolk and hadn't been seen as far south as the Thames before. Other Norwegian birds have, though, including this distinctive leucistic bird photographed last month further east along the river. Recording and reporting colour-ringed gulls is curiously addictive and rewarding on a personal level, but also important to help build up knowledge of where 'our' birds come from. A mixed flock of wintering gulls somewhere like the Thames may be largely comprised of common species, but more often than not they're a mix of local birds and migrants from elsewhere, something difficult to establish without the use of colour rings.

JW933's longest journey yet.


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