Shy Owls of the Dead Sea

Barak Granit 17/06/2015 00:00

If a Pallid Scops Owl Was Falling From a Tree in an Empty Date Plantation…

 

I am still recovering from a long night surveying two nights ago, when Yosef Kiat, Kochav Levi and I found no less than 22 - yes, that's right, 22 - territories of nesting Pallid Scops Owl (Otus brucei) in one big date plantation at the northern Dead Sea. It only sounds crazy because it is.

 

In the light of the torch we saw no less than 7-8 Palid Scops Owls, all were calling adults, and we heard another 14 calling. Some of the birds had young which we could only hear. By the time of writing, some 40 territories were found, all in date plantations along northern Dead Sea and in the Jordan Valley.

Who would believe that?

 

104 years after renowned zoologist Aharoni found a nest north of Jericho, in Wadi Auja,

and collected the two poor adults, Palid Scops Owls were found breeding again in Israel. And actually I happened to have some part in the finding: On June 2nd, an injured owl fledgling was picked up by Melvin Blow in his “Kibbutz” (Israeli Version of a communal settlement) date palm plantation in the northern Dead Sea region.

It was taken into care at the NPA Wildlife Hospital, and photos were sent to some birdwatchers who identified it as Desert Tawny Owl Strix hadorami.

 

Luckily the photos were sent also to Amir Ben-dov who suspected it to be a fledgling of Pallid Scops Owl. Amir sent the photos to me. Since I was familiar with PSO fledglings appearance (I saw them in Birecik - east Turkey), I could confirm the id.

 

Although it was crystal clear that the species must have bred here, at first we had not grasped the scale of the discovery. Two night later, after Amir and Yosef found three territories, and even ringed one adult, within that same date plantation, we started to wonder about their distribution in the area and its density.

 

 

During the next days, teams surveyed similar habitats, mainly date plantation from Kfar

Rupin in the north to Samar and Elifaz in the southern Arava. They found no PSOs in the

extreme points, but from about 30 km north to Jericho south almost to En Gedi, every date plantation that was checked held Pallid Scops Owls. The date plantation around Hatzeva and Neot Hakikar at the southern Dead Sea are still waiting to be checked. So are parallel plantations on the Jordanian side of the Dead sea and on Jordanian and Palestinian date plantations on both sides of the Jordan valley.

 

 

As for the density of the population, the only plantation we covered properly was the one in the northern Dead Sea. It is a very large complex of plantations, 2x2 km, where 20 territories were found. That means an average of 315 square meters for each territory, but this is not the whole story, since some of that area consists of young trees unsuitable for nesting, and so does the orchards bordering with Road 90.

That means effective nesting territory is smaller and density is much higher. In fact, we had owls calling every 150-200 meters. If we extrapolate this density to all suitable habitat in the region, we are talking about hundreds of breeding pairs. Under our very nose. For years. How come we missed them all these years?

 

We are quite sure this is not a new phenomenon. After all they were found breeding exactly in the same area 104 years ago. Why did we overlook them? One answer was obvious to any birder who participated in the last 10 days survey: these owls are so quiet when they call, that when you hear them you'd think the bird is located 100-200 meters away when actually, they call from 4-5 trees away at most.

 

The other answer is that no birder ever thought to go for a night or day birding within these otherwise, relatively "dead birding zone". Still, I wonder how come no one (not only birders) have ever found a dead or wounded fledgling before, especially when most of those date plantation are located along road 90?

 

There are still plenty of questions to be answered: Do the birds that winter in the Arava belong to the same local population (very short distant migration) or are they coming from northern populations as we thought so far? Do they breed here only in date plantations (if not, that means that the local distribution can be larger than found)?

 

 

But the most frustrating questions are these: What would have happened if no farmer would find that fledgling that led to the recent discovery? What if he had found the bird but didn’t bring it to the NRA. And what would have happened if the photo wouldn't 'find' Amir Ben-dov? Would Pale Scops Owl breed in the Jordan valley and the Dead Sea undiscovered for another 104 years?