Getting high in km 94

Barak Granit 19/01/2016 00:00

On January 14th Avi, Ron, and I  took an early morning drive to the central Arava valley to see and photograph the Basalt Wheatear that Lior Kislev had found a few day earlier.

When arriving before sunrise it was just 6°c which is bloody cold for an Israeli. We met Eyal Shochat and Rony Livne who were already searching for the bird, which was actually waiting by the side of the road. Since it was only the 7th Basalt Wheatear for Israel, and damn interesting and peculiar wheatear, we spent some time trying to photograph it, a mission that was not easy at all. Somehow it was difficult to get that bloody bird in crystal sharp focus as reflected in all the photos of everyone who tried his luck with it.





We spend some good hours with the wheatear. It is really something else. It appears same size or perhaps marginally larger than the Mourning Wheatears that were there but JIZZ appeared different, more like a cute black ball with a rather short tail and round head, at times appearing with a steep forehead.

The 'cute ball' impression perhaps was caused by the low temperature as the bird puffed its feathers, yet I didn't notice similar effect on Desert and Mourning wheatears, and I can recall getting the same impression from the 2012 bird that was at Ovda valley.  



The bird spent most of its time on bush-tops, not moving much, but from time to time flew to the black gravel bare area beyond the vegetation and remained there for sometime. It was the only wheatear which did that, and with some imagination one could see in eyes the lava plains habitat of northern Jordan where it came from and which it was named after.. Although I was trying to lure it with Mourning Wheatear calls the Basalt didn't respond to it at all.


The whole area was alive with many other birds: we had several Asian Desert and Spectacled Warblers (Some birders had at least 6 Asian Desert Warblers in this area) Several Desert, Mourning and Isabelline Wheatears, 2 pairs of Bar-tailed Desert Larks, some Trumpeter Finches, and there were reliable claims for Cyprus Warbler and a Hooded Wheatear.

Later on that day we enjoyed the Yellow-Browed Warbler at Lotan and 2-3 Black Bush Robins at Yotvata Hai-bar. We ended the day with the Hume's Warbler and the Pallid Scops Owl at Shitim. Unfortunately, it was impossible to get the Hume's on camera as it was very active (and constantly calling). Well - not a bad day at all.




And now few words of Basalt Wheatear in general and in Israel. Basalt Wheatear was first recorded in Israel in December 1982 (E. Dovrat, Shirihai et al.) but was misidentified as the first and only Black Wheatear Oenanthe leucura for Israel due to very limited knowledge back then while the dark Wheatear of the Basalt desert of northern Jordan was considered back then to be Variable Wheatear Oenanthe P. opistholeuca.

The 2nd record of Basalt Wheatear for Israel was in February 1986 at Eilat (Gelert, Heldbjerg and Shirihai) but again, due to the very limited knowledge concerning the Jordanian Wheatears the bird was misidentified as the first and only Variable Wheatear for Israel. Both records were revisited, resulting in ID correction as Basalt Wheatear by Shirihai. Extensive details on both records appear here.



Since 1986 there were 5 more records of Basalt Wheatears in Israel as follows: 2 birds at QaSayad'in (km 82) in December 1994 (H. Shirihai), one at km 33 in December 2001 (J. p Smith and Y. Perlman), one was at Kfar Baruch in January 2010 (Uri Makover) - the only record from northern Israel, one was at Ovda Valley on March-April 2012 (D. Berkowic) and the current bird.


The first Basalt Wheatear for the universe… was collected by  W. Hemprich & C. G. Ehrenberg in in November 1821 near Aswan, Egypt, and in October 1823 in El-Tor, S. Sinai, Egypt but both were misidentified as Black Wheatear, and remained as such in the Berlin museum until discovered by Shirihai who corrected their ID as Oenanthe warriae.  

Some more history: On 9 November 1926, a medical Doctor W. K. Bigger arrived at the Basalt Desert and collected one warriae but misidentified it as juv White-crowned Black Wheatear. Since the 1960's - the black-type Wheatear from the Basalt Desert in NE Jordan was mis-considered to be Eastern Pied (Variable) Wheatear O. picata opistholeuca (J. Ferguson-Lees and D. I. M. Wallace).


Although the chain of misidentification continued with both first and second Israeli records of 1982 and 1986, the shift towards correct id came in 1985 by Shirihai. Visiting AMNH/Tring UK (the scientific collection of British Museum) he found Bigger collection and while comparing the Basalt Desert specimen to specimens of Variable Wheatear from India he realized that the birds from NE Jordan were not Variable Wheatears but rather represent an undiscovered taxa or a black morph of Mourning Wheatear mainly due to the white inner web in the wing as well as different wing formula.

15 years later HS, together with Andreas J. Helbig, visited the Basalt Desert and found the 'dark wheatears' to be quite common as a clear cut isolated population. They managed to trap few birds but unfortunately Andreas passed away leaving HS and G.M..Kirwan to name it as a new ssp of mourning Wheatear: O. l. warriae in 2011, but with a note that it can easily qualify as a new species. here in details.





Could the circle of the warriae finally be closed? Hindu answer: hopefully…for me (and not only for me), warriae, at km 94 on the Arava road, with all those Sylvia nana around is a perfect representative of that mysterious unique atmosphere thing that is going on in the Arava at winter, when there are not too many birds around but those that are there carry with them more of transcendental state of mind, open-doors enigmas which reflect to my memories back in January 1994 when I met it for the first time.  


I'd like to thanks Hadoram for all the lengthy data for this article.  




Images below show some of the previos birds from 2012 and the wheatear from 2001.


land marks