Honey Buzzards tribute

Barak Granit 16/09/2014 00:00


"Willem to Barak." … A shuddering me replies: "Go ahead."…Willem:  "Are you counting the stream over your station?"…Me to myself (bloody hell): "Well.. .no. Where do you see them?"… Willem:  "Well it's difficult to say…  I'm about 11 kms away from you!"…Me: "How many did you count?"… Willem: "Over 20 thousands in the last 15 minutes."… Silence…After some minutes, Me: "Do you still see them?"… William: "Well, they keep on coming all the time"…Me: "Where???"


I can't recall if this was the exact conversation between us but it’s a good example of a typical every-day radio communication between the bionic-eyed Belgian Willem Van Der Bosche to almost any other birder who took part in the Northern Valley Raptor Migration Survey of 1993.



During 5 consecutive days, September 4th-8th, no less than 400,000 Honey Buzzards passed, producing a record breaking (for that time) total of 492,000 for the entire season. 17 year old me, performing my first days in the survey, didn't escape "the Willem Paranoia" - a fear of being caught under a huge undetected stream of HBs, as the indifferent quiet voice of Willem appearing out of nowhere on the radio, would politely ask: "Do you see the stream over your station?".



My excuse was my Nikon 9X25 bins which, quite simply, were not up to the task. Well, that and the fact that I was just inexperienced. At the end of that survey I bought James Smith’s Leica 10X42s which became my first ‘proper bins’ and although it changed a lot, for the HBs it was still not enough. "Just aim your scope to where the sky turns from blue to white and wait till they appear in the field of view". That was the lesson I learned from Willem on the afternoon of September 3rd 1994 and I’ve never forgotten it.


And what an afternoon that was: while all the other teams collectively had 2000 birds during the whole day, Willem started to get a torrent of birds from 13:00 pm over the Beit-Shean Valley, totaling 76,000 birds by that evening. A poor Dutch birder who was sitting in the eastern-most station in Tirat Zvi, didn't know where to bury himself when he heard what he’d missed that afternoon in 'his' sky. He’d seen only 1500 of them…

"Where the sky turn from blue to white…" from that moment, the 8-10 km away, bacteria-like dots appearing in the scope over the Jordanian mountains in the afternoons of any early September failed to escape me.




The picture I try to illustrate is clear: Counting migrating Honey Buzzards in Israel is not a picnic and Israel is not Batumi. In Batumi, almost all the entire axis passes through a narrow front which can be covered (almost) by a single station. No wonder the records of The Northern Valleys (540,000 birds) are broken there year after year. In Israel the passage is quite different.


The axis has a daily pattern, starting from the east, moving some 25 kms to the west and moving back in the afternoon some 40 kms and more. This is a large front to cover and many birders are needed. On top of that, the height these birds can reach during most of the day can be unbelievable, when huge streams can be detected with telescopes only, aimed in a sharp angle high up, almost overhead.  

But for many volunteers it is just a frustrating experience, mainly because it takes at least a season to know what to expect in order to find the dots, and in most cases a season is all that they had.



However, it’s not always that difficult. In 1997 for example, some 360,000 birds passed within four consecutive days, including three days ranging 90-100,000 birds each. But the special thing about that year was that the birds were low almost throughout the whole day, probably due to an abnormal lack of soaring conditions.


Just imagine a stream of 7,200 birds passing within 5 minutes (or less), low over your head, covering the sky from east to west! Or just 35,000 birds in a bit more than an hour, or just witnessing the Beit Shen Valley in the pre-evenings when it was just full of low swirls of thousands of HBs  all over, getting down to roost. Unforgettable moments (!) and only God knows how many Crested were among them…


But that was a Batumi-style year. Years like that are the exception rather than the rule.  The experience of the volunteers as well as the Survey conductors was kind of a sadomasochistic experience. Here you have to prove yourself that you are one of the ‘fits’; that you can find the elusive noon passage when all the rest of the stations have been drying out for hours; that you can find the streams over Jordan; that you can count two streams simultaneously on both sides of you; that you can turn birding into astronomy or microbiology; that you can join Sparta and defeat the Persians. That you are not here to enjoy and have fun and if you are having fun it is only because you accomplish something, conquest the Everest top, suffering.  


In other words:  counting Honey Buzzards in Israel is just one of the rituals of a Jewish religious festival. Simchat Tora.



To sum up: If you want to have fun go to Batumi, but if you are into something else…Israel is your destination.







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