A day at the races

Barak Granit 24/12/2017 00:00

Finally some proper birding, and it’s really been a while! Last Thursday, the “Jehova Chickens” (Eyal Shochat, Ady Yechezkel Domer and I) reunited, to explore one of the least known birding sites in Israel - the ‘Hablanim’ hills - limestone hills bordering Beer Sheva at the south. Amazingly there were still places like this left for me - I have never been there before, nor had most of the Israeli birders. Even the most dedicated “Gushbash” (Beer Sheva region) birders neglected these barren looking hills that really, do NOT look very attractive by any meaning. And here is the mistake.



Hablanim hills - Who would have thought that this is a Dotterel's habitat?

At the center-left you can barely see a flying flock


Only in recent years had this area set foot on the national birding map, when some “lazy” birders, namely Eyal and Nir Hasson, made quite a few visits during recent years. Recently, Eyal has found breeding ‘population’ of Lesser Short-toed Larks - a species that until mid 1990’s was common at the NIzzana and Hatzerim areas and almost completely disappeared from the northern and western Negev (including Nizzana) during the late 1990’s onwards. Eyal’s visits to the Hablanim hills revealed a nice variety of desert species, many at their northern-most national distribution border: MacQueen's Bustard, Cream-Coloured Coursers, Pin-tailed and Black-Bellied Sandgrouses, lot’s of breeding Isabelline and fewer Desert and Mourning Wheatears, Babblers, Little Green Bee-eater, Spectacled Warblers and even a straggler Sooty Falcon. The question to Eyal is “why did it take you 30 years to step behind the block?” and the answer “Cause I hadn’t own 4X4 prior to 2010”. Ok, fair enough.



Cream-coloured Coursers 


With all that, the place still looks like the last place you would spend a birding day. However, recent visits by multiple birders revealed good numbers of Eurasian Dotterel including 400-500 birds seen a week ago by Avi Shneor and Ron Zinger. This had its impact, and even I couldn’t hold my resistance any longer. We are dealing with pride here.


Dotterel is one of those species that holds the key to your good self-esteem (or the lack of it) after a day in the NW Negev. If you see a good number of them you had a good day. If not - you are a failure, no less.

The 1980’s birders, specifically Ehud Dovrat, is the one to blame. As a young birder I had to hear from Ehud himself how he discovered the first large flock of 270 birds in the end of the 1970’s when no one had known they winter there at all. It took me 5 more years of birding before finding my first flock in 1996. At that time - the now-days famous spot at Hatzerim was not known (until it’s discovery in the mid 2000’s). During the 80’s and 90’s finding Dotterel flock was a rare occasion and twitching a flock was not easier as the species had a notorious habit to change sites within a day or hours.



In 2010, Eyal and I had the luck to find the largest flock (of 490 birds) ever been discovered in Israel, at the southern fields of Urim east. Hearing about the current 400-500 birds of Avi and Ron had an impact on my pride glands, and also raised some interesting questions: were these birds the same as the Hatzerim birds (only 15 km apart) that only changing places from here to there, or totally different birds, raising the potential number of wintering birds at the Northern Negev? A birding day was needed to answer these question.



Part of 425 Dotterls after a Hen Harrier's visit


Well - the news are already out there. The J Chickens broke the national record with total of 897 birds (surely there are more within this area) and the Hablanim birds are different to the Hatzerim birds as we had 640 birds in two flocks at Hablanim (about 5.5 km apart) and 250 birds later at Hatzerim’s regular spot. To me, it was a surprise to see the habitat the plovers were using: limestone hills instead of the loess plains they were known to like and feed until now (the birds not only used the hills for resting but for feeding too).


Well what else was there? With the first flock, some 21 Golden Plovers appeared from nowhere and joined the 220 Dotterels. While we were watching the birds a flock of 21 Lesser Short-toed Larks flew and called above us and landed somewhere behind the plovers (unfortunately we failed to find them on the ground). Good to know they are wintering there too.


Before we found the first Dotterels we had 10 Desert Finch’s and 80 Linnets. Continuing westwards we had 2 CCC, and with the next flock of 425 D we had some 27 Black-bellied Sandgrouses that some were feeding with the Plovers.

We had also 7 Desert, 8-10 Mourning, 8 Finsch’s and 6 Isabeline Wheatears, and a male Hen Harrier that lifted all the plovers into the air. There were some Tawny Pipits too.




Black-bellied Sandgrouse



Dotterels In a more familiar habitat at Hatzerim


Finally at Hatzerim spot there was our first Merlin of the day, 252 more Dotterels, another Desert Wheatear (which we can’t recall from that area). Then a quick check of the Jobjoba reservoir resulted with a summer plumage White-winged Tern (what’s wrong with this animals?), a Great Crested Grebe and adult Caspian Gull - three species that are not familiar from this area (the wintering breeding plumage WW Tern seems to be a new phenomenon in Israel in recent winters).



Merlin - Hatzerim      Eastern Imperial Eagle - Urim



Sociable Plover - Urim


Later, a very quick check to Urim-east pylons resulted in 13 Sociable Plovers, one adult Saker, two Imperial Eagles, two more Merlins and a Calandra Lark and that was about it for this supper day. The Chickens should definitely unite more often...   






land marks