Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Wheatears valley

The Uvda valley is just a great place to be.
It is cooler then Eilat and has a soft landscape of the round hills with sandy small streams, covered with the softest sands that flow into a very wide plain, with dense desert vegetation.

This is how the desert becomes alive. In the one event of flood, that comes once in a few years, the small streams fill up with water that directs them to the wide valley.
Because the wide valley rarely fills up, the water is collected there until they find the way out of the valley downstream. In the meanwhile, the water, carrying seeds collected from all over the area and percolate in the thirsty ground.  When the sun comes back, it is just a matter of time before it blooms, sometimes in beautiful colors. And then the birds come.

Local, migratory or the desert wanderers, they flood the valley, months after some water had passed here.
So following May rains 6 months ago and another short rain last month that woke up the seeds on the ground, I took the enthusiastic volunteers of the IBRCE, Euan (Scotland) and Juan (Spain) to check it up. Already on the way we could feel it will be a great day. Nubian Ibexes and a Red Fox were easy to notice by the road. Juan saw an almost adult Imperial Eagle so when I went out of the car to photograph it, it was diving into the hill next to us, crashing a pigeon to the ground and easily collected it and flew away. I managed to take one good photo in spite of the still weak light. Entering the Valley, the dominance of Wheatears was overwhelming. I don't think I ever saw so many Wheatears in one spot.

Along the valley we counted 25 White Crowned, 5 Hooded, 10 Desert and another 12 Morning Wheatears. What was also notable was that all of the 25 White crowned Wheatears were young. These Wheatears live in the most remote and dry desert areas. They had learned to use shadow that collects some moisture during the nights and creates small niche eco systems that creates their food.

This way they always prefer canyons or areas with big rocks. But the desert is harsh and the food is scarce, so the young birds, who don't have to keep a territory, find their way to the valley. The story of the morning Wheatears is different. They migrate from the Negev highlands, each time to a different location where water was flowing. The Desert and Hooded wheatears gathered here also to enjoy the ease to find food.

The valley also attracted the nomad birds. These are birds that breed in a different place every year. They wander around the deserts of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi and Israel looking for a valley like ours. Of these birds we located 25 beautiful Temminck's Horned larks, about 30 Bar-tailed Larks, 60 Desert Larks and 12 Spotted Sandgrouses. Many more local desert birds such as tens of Trumpeter Finches, A Cream Colored Coursor, Sand partridges and Brown Necked Ravens filled the valley with their calls.

In addition to that some migratory birds found the opportunity and stopped to feed. Among them were tens of Red-throated and Water pipits, some Skylarks, Blue Throats, Corn Buntings and Spanish Sparrows. A single male Hen Harrier was trying to hunt who ever came here, whatever his reason was.
The Uvda valley will stay lively all the winter.

Birds will come and move on until the seeds and insects are all eaten. If we will be lucky, and another rain, even slight, will hit our valley, some will stay to nest, hoping for the migratory painted lady butterflies that will arrive in early next spring, to lay here eggs and produce the caterpillars needed for feeding their chick's.

If you come to Eilat this year or next spring, don't miss the valley. It is outstanding, and so interesting.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Oriental Club

Stormy weather north of us resulted with a fall of migrants in Eilat.
The ringing station was kept busy with tens of Bluethroats and Chiffchaffs and exciting reports from the field. The bird of the week was a young Oriental Turtle Dove that was first found by the IBRCE team in Yotvata southern circular field, but lack of a photo and the speed of the observation left it out of the official list until the Dove was relocated by Itai Shani 3 days later at the same spot.

In the same field it was joined by a locally rare bird, a Stock Dove, and the usual gatherings of Desert Finches (30) plus hundreds of Red throated pipits. 3 Cream colored Coursers were an additional nice decoration for the site.

Closer to Eilat a shiny adult Imperial Eagle showed well in Km 19 alongside the usual Osprey and Marsh Harriers. In the Bird Sanctuary in Eilat a Mangrove Heron surprised us in the lake making it 2 individuals in odd places in a week (I saw 1 in Timna Park lake last week). This cannot be a coincidence.

The nice story of the week started with a phone call from the lifeguard in the north beach (and yes, people still swim here in the sea in November, it's 33 Celsius down here) reporting a drowning Heron. Our team (Nesia, Juan and Euan) arrived at the scene and located a Great Egret that couldn't fly. Nesia jumped in and rescued it. It was entangled with fishing lines attached to a giant shark hook threatening to do serious damage.

The bird was swiftly released from the lines and after warming its body temperature and drying it we released it in our lake. In the first 2 days it was catching fish like crazy, then started to fly and will probably leave very soon. The local media showed some interest in the story and Nesia will undoubtedly become a local hero in a few days when it is published.

The sad side of the week belongs to our neighbors the Jordanians and Palestinians. This Monday is the 20th anniversary of the Israeli - Jordanian peace agreement.  
It was due to be celebrated in a nice event in Jerusalem and I was invited to present a project I was in charge of - a cross border cooperation project using Barn owls as pest controllers in the fields.
It was very successful as farmers in Israel, Palestine and Jordan dramatically reduced the amount of rodenticides implemented just by putting Owl nest boxes in their fields.

The project also resulted in a network of experts and farmers from all 3 countries starting talking and cooperating in other areas of environmental protection and agriculture. I'm also involved now with a nice project that is giving Palestinians the ability to survey nature, build and maintain nature reserves and guide wildlife watching tourism.

I had great hopes to be able to use the event not only to meet good friends from the other side of the border, but also to promote a new project that will unite Eilat and Aqaba (Jordan) to work together and to raise awareness of the environment on both sides of the border, and to cooperate solving problems that our shared coral reef, deserts and migratory birds face.

But it was cancelled.
A sequence of incidents in Jerusalem that included Palestinian extremists driving into crowds of people, the subsequent manhunts and the usual inciting claims that the mosques in the Temple Mount are in danger, raised the tension to unbearable levels and the celebration was cancelled.  

Also our Jordanian partners in Aqaba have backed off for now.
So sad that in a place where peace creating projects are so desperately needed, they are cancelled because of the lack of peace and tension. If we had peace and everything was fine we wouldn't have the need for projects like these.

It's days like these we need to show the light of hope and highlight our peace making projects, not follow an agenda that is dictated by extremists that have no plan of a better life for anybody. We birders and environmentalists in this troubled area know we have to wait for the wave to pass and continue working together, but a good opportunity has been lost because of the wrong reasons.

So the birds of Eilat and Aqaba, as well as the great coral reef we share with Jordan and Egypt, will have to wait before we safeguard them in a united regional action that is needed here so very much.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Eilat's kind of winter

In Eilat you can tell it is winter only by the changing diversity of birds.
With early November temperatures reaching above 30 Celsius almost daily, only the birds tell us that something is changing to the north of us. Rare shadows of clouds sometimes indicate that Jerusalem is under heavy rain, but the birds never fail to signal the change of weather, it's just a change that happens elsewhere…

Winter marked itself this week with new arrivals that included some more Hawfinches (up to 4), Song Thrushes, Dead Sea Sparrows, Imperial and Greater Spotted Eagles and some more Oriental Skylarks (up to 4).
Water, Red-Throated and Meadow Pipits are growing in numbers too and the usual end of October Stonechat blend of Common, Siberian, Caspian and Armenian are all present in good numbers.

The best bird of the week was the female Black crowned Sparrow Lark that was found by Yael Schiff in Yotvata northern circular field.
Yael realized that the lark is "not what she is used to seeing" and had sent pictures to Itai Shani who identified it, unfortunately too late to allow relocation of the bird.
The grounds of the circular field were full of other great birds. 2 Bimaculated larks, 1 eastern type Lesser Short toed Lark, 4 Oriental Skylarks and a Richard's Pipit.

In the air worth noting was a Crag Martin, a Little Swift and a second Black-winged Kite to the one seen the same day in Eilat. At the sewage ponds Itai and the southern Arava birding club found the first Yellow-Browed Warbler for the season and the Sacred Ibis was still present.

Uvda valley looked good too with new arrivals of wintering larks. The best were 9 Temminck's Horned Larks that joined the usual Bar-tailed and Desert Larks. There was no sign of last week's Thick-billed Larks but the area is large (Itai Shani).
I decided to break my weekly long drive to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for meetings at the Heimar reservoir, next to the southern part of the Dead Sea.

This reservoir is a dam built to catch the flood waters and prevent them from polluting the Dead Sea ponds that harvest potassium and magnesium. The place is a vast reed and tamarisk grove with some water and it swarms with birds. The best this week were 200 Dead Sea Sparrows that breed here and gather in winter, and all 4 Crakes of Israel - Water Rails (5), Spotted Crake, Little Crake and also the rare Baillon's Crake, were seen on the mud, along with Jack Snipe, 5 Kingfishers and tens of Bluethroats. 5 Clamorous Reed Warblers that breed here and are seen year round were sighted and heard too. It's a great spot and it is only a matter of time until something mega will show up there.

During a family picnic in the huge sand-stone cliffs of Nimra we heard a Pharaoh Eagle Owl, not for the first time, and during a day trip a Mangrove Heron surprised me in the small man-made lake of Timna park, fishing in the smog of barbeque clouds. As a result of a vegetarian wife I only got to smell it (the barbeque of course). The Wheatear's status in Timna park was interesting with 8 different White Crowned, 5 of them first years, no less than 12 Blackstarts and 1 young male Hooded.

The concentration of them and the number of young birds is exceptional. I have done a long term survey of these amazing desert birds and it is very interesting to see how in long drought years (4 years without any substantial rain) the numbers of Wheatears drop sharply and young birds are absent, whilst in good years with some rain you get much more young birds. Also the correlation of these Wheatears to irrigate and/or dense human activity is very interesting. This research is yet to be published, perhaps after the next breeding season.

At the ringing station the numbers of Chiffchaffs grows constantly and during a wader ringing evening a Whiskered Tern was ringed along with the usual Little Stints, Dunlins, Curlew Sandpiper, Redshank, Ruffs and Ringed Plovers (altogether 40 birds). A Barn Swallow that was ringed at the north Dead Sea site of Ein Fescha was caught in Eilat 5 days later.

Birding stuff down here gets warmer and exciting, so stay posted.


Saturday, November 01, 2014

The next generation

This week was all about preparations for the future.
Me, preparing a new generation of birding guides in Eilat and preparing for winter and spring tasks in the bird sanctuary, and the migratory birds, continuing to collect food, fat and courage in preparation for crossing the vast Saharan desert on the way to Africa.

The most dominant event was the birding guide's course that we conducted for the new fresh guides arriving to Eilat for the next year or two. The course was nothing less than cool and exciting, with 15 young people who had no idea that they liked birds that soon became bird lovers. Out of my "birders arrogance" I was thought for quite long that it is impossible to teach birding, bird identification and how to guide a bird watching trip without being a birder.

You never know what you're going to see with a group so you can't really prepare. You have to identify the bird perfectly without the time for a really good view, you have to understand the movement of the bird to assess if the group will actually be able to see it, wait for a specific behavior and be able to explain why it didn't work this time but usually works perfectly…

but these young guys proved me wrong. After 5 days of hard work they could identify almost every bird I showed them, look it up in the Bird Encyclopedia ,find the juicy details,  and make a story out of it to guide on.
They also learned how to extract birds from the mist nets, love every bird they had touched and appreciate their ability to migrate so far. It was great fun to spend some time in the field. One particular morning started with 3,000 Cranes passing over-head along with tens of Steppe Eagles, some Steppe buzzards, Black Kites and Booted Eagles. Later on at the KM 19 ponds we had the show of a lifetime with an Osprey catching fish just in front of us, Squacco Herons sneaking after fat dragonflies and catching every single one in the area, Caspian Terns diving for fish, and a Barbary Falcon playing with the pigeons. But mostly I enjoyed their company.

Some good birds showed up too this week with 6 Thick billed Larks and tens of Bar-tailed Larks in Uvda valley (Itai Shani and Shachar Shalev), 3 Oriental Skylarks and some Richard's Pipits in Yotvata fields (Itai Shani) and a Bailon's Crake along with a Little Crake shared a pool with a Sacred Ibis that looked young but will still be marked as a possible escape in Yotvata sewage pools (Itai and the IBRCE crew).
In Eilat 2 Hawfinches were seen in the bird sanctuary (rare so deep in the desert) and tens of Bluethroats everywhere. The ringing station is quite busy with lots of Bluethroats, Chiffchaffs and Common Redstarts. Red-backed Shrikes are still around with some more Reed and Savi's Warblers. Several Cetti's Warblers, a rare winterer and 2 different White breasted Kingfishers were ringed too.

We are also starting to build the monitoring plan for the next spring. Our main focus will be on a raptor migration survey that we haven't done for many years. Past data has shown passage of almost 1 million birds of prey with the main species being Steppe Buzzards, Honey Buzzards and Levant's Sparrowhawks.

These magnificent birds alongside with 20 more species of raptors pass in a relatively narrow corridor between the slopes of the Eilat Mountains and the red sea. Our main focus this time will be on the rare and probably declining Steppe Eagles who pass here in late autumn (peaking in November but can be seen going south until the middle of December) just to come back in early March (some are already seen going northeast in January).

We feel that there is a big gap of knowledge regarding this species. It is suggested in the literature that the Asian population from Mongolia and Kazakhstan migrates to India and the European ones move to Africa, but clearly our birds in autumn come from the east and very few follow the rest of the eagle species route from the north. It is also suggested that the young eagles stay in Africa for a few years but we see lots of 2nd calendar eagles going east in spring.

We are also interested in the correlation between wind conditions here and in crucial passage points south of us, on the way to Eilat, and how this affects eagle migration. We are creating a team to count these raptors between February and May and we will probably do some trapping too.
For the ringing station we are looking for trained ringers that are willing to come for at least 2 months. I can promise a ringing adventure of a lifetime and hard work. If you are up to it please contact me.
That is all for now. November is on the door step bringing the rare wintering species and eastern migrants, so stay posted.