On the rooftops of Tel-Aviv

Anat Gal 02/10/2018 00:00

Autumn. A chilly wind in the evenings, hot days and fresh dawns. The sidewalks are filling up with autumn leaves, the first rains are washing the streets and soak the dry land of the fields. Though we are only feeling the weather changing now, for nature Autumn had already started at around July. Squills have bloomed, the days have shortened and the first migrating birds have started getting ready for winter, which they plan to spend in the warm abundant Africa.


The first to take off and cross borders through Israel are the White Storks and European Honey Buzzards. During the month of August hundreds of thousands of them cross the Israeli skies. They stop for a layover during the night and by the next morning they keep on with their journey - almost 300 Km per day. They give the opening shot, wake up all of Israel's birders after the summer drought and on follows an excess stream of migrating birds.

The stream of Honey Buzzards and White Storks can be best seen in the eastern parts of Israel. The Valley of Beit She'an, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and even Kfar-Saba are well worth areas to lift up your head during September and just like that you might be in the midst of a migration wave.

Little black spots making a quick move above your head, gathering in an organized mess, thermal soaring. Pelicans go through similar routes during this time as well, but they seem to be doing it in slow motion due to their size and the size of the thermal they use, utterly aligned.




Lesser Spotted Eagles thermalling    Photo: Amir Ben Dov


During this last September, my heart was in the east, and the rest of me at the edge of the West (and there is nowhere more Western in Israel than where I live - by the beach). I did not get the chance to see any migration.


And there came October. The last week of September and the beginning of October is the peak migration time of 100,000 Lesser Spotted Eagles which fly over Israel on their way to Africa. As night time approaches they tend to land in forests to get their night rest. One of the best known forests for this night rest is Ben Shemen forest. On the last week of September I finally had the opportunity to watch the wonder of migration in Ben Shemen forest!


At around 8 O'clock in the morning the eagles open their eyes and stretch. They clean and fix their feathers for the upcoming migration, they check the weather and if everything goes as planned they lift themselves up in the air thermals and keep with their magnificent journey to the African plains. Alongside the Lesser Spotted Eagles there are several other eagle species, kites, harriers, falcons and hawks.



Lesser Spotted Eagles take off in Ben Shemen forest   Photos: Amir Ben Dov (left) and Moshe Cohen


In addition to the large sized soaring birds, there are many small migrating bird species. Most of their active migration is happening at night and therefore is very hard to watch. Warblers, Shrikes, Wheatears, Swallows and Swifts are only a few of the species migrating through Israel at this time. More species, which you might not have heard of, are Flycatchers, Redstarts and Wrynecks. Some spend their entire winter here with us (wintering), but a massive amount is only using Israel's "Air road" access which lead them safely and directly to Africa. Within a few days they scatter around the country and fill up every bush, gather some food and off they go. This is what happens every Autumn around Israel. But the most well known migrating bird in the minds of Israelis is the White Wagtail.


The best known Wagtail specie to every Israeli since childhood is the White Wagtail. It is only 1 of 4 Wagtail species that migrate here every Autumn. Yellow Wagtail, Citrine Wagtail and Grey Wagtail are the other three. While the White Wagtail enjoys walking around sidewalks and lawns very close to home, the other three species spend their time away from the city hustle, close to water bodies where they find peace and quiet and also plenty of insects to feed on.


Citrine Wagtail   Photo: Lavi Lilo                  White Wagtail   Photo: Shraga Alon
Yellow Wagtail      Photo: Amir Ben Dov              Grey Wagtail      Photo: Avi Dandeker

A rather common custom for wagtails is gathering before sleep (Pre-Roost). Many wagtails are gathering into one place just before sunset, calling, chirping and gathering more and more individuals. By the end of their gathering and just before darkness, they fly off to their sleeping sites up in the trees.


Two years ago, I discovered a gathering site very close to my house. It wasn't the White Wagtail that is most common around the city, but the most beautiful Wagtail species, in my opinion - the Grey Wagtail. I bumped into one of those a few years ago in the public garden Gan Me'ir, standing and wagging its long tail by the poolside. But back then little did I know this was a regular visit site, least did I know that it had brought friends!


The next encounter was in October 2015, while I was sitting in my parents' living room and outside the window there were loud calls, that sounded a bit like a laser gun: "Piu-piu-piu... Piu-piu-piu...". Loud... To me it was loud calls that made me jump right to the window and watch. To my parents... it was loud and clear that I had lost my mind. Just out the window, above the kitchen sink, on the next rooftop, were standing 4 Grey Wagtails right in front of me! Standing, wagging their tails, walking back and forth making their "Piu-piu" laser gun sounds.



A Grey Wagtail visiting the rooftop. October 2015   Photo: Anat Gal


The excitement was huge and so was my surprise. "It's a gathering site! Can you believe it?" I was facing the stunned faces of my parents. Of all the places they could pick, these 4 Grey Wagtails that wander the neighborhood in center Tel-Aviv, chose the rooftop just in front of my parents' kitchen and I got free front row tickets! After about 15-30 minutes of gathering it seemed that they were out of refreshments and everyone was off to their resting trees, the big ficus trees in the street. As for me, I was highly excited, already thinking about tomorrow's gathering. And indeed they all gathered again the next day.


And so, every afternoon, about an hour before sunset, the Grey Wagtails of the neighborhood arrived and gathered up on the roof. Every day I had a new expectation to watch them and sometimes I would have tried to plan out my day so that I could come visit my parents in time for gathering. On days I could not make it my mom would get messages such as: "Hi mom, are you home? Have the Wagtails arrived today? Really? They did? How many? Thank you!". "Oh, they didn't show up? What happened? But I heard them today". Quickly enough my mom learned how to spot them and also grew to like them. At times I would get messages such as: "Wagtails are here", even when I didn't ask. And as for "The Wagtail Dance" that had been developed in my family? It's better not to mention. And so it went all throughout winter, until Spring migration during which they left.




The following Autumn, in October 2016 there came 3 Grey Wagtails to the roof in front of the kitchen. At exactly the same spot and at exactly the same time they gathered, walked around wagged their tails and called out very loudly. But the fourth Wagtail wasn't in sight. Another day went by and another one.. but the fourth wagtail didn't show.

I was really hoping that it would make it safely all the way from Europe and I was worried that something might have happened to it. And then, on Sukkot Eve in mid October there waited a pleasant surprise for me on the roof. I heard calls, laser gun, I looked out the kitchen window and on the rooftop in front of me gathered 7 Grey Wagtails! There were some young ones, whose colors were rather pale and not bright yellow. These youngsters hatched this past summer and made their debut migration flight safely, at only 3 months of age!

October 2016 - Grown male with yellow stomach, young with pale stomach    Photo: Anat Gal

And another year had passed and there came Autumn migration of 2017. I've already spotted Yellow Wagtails near the ponds, and several Citrine Wagtails as well. But White and Grey Wagtails have not yet been seen around my area. Soon enough White Wagtails would fill up the sidewalks of the entire city. But while writing these lines I was still wondering when to expect the local Grey Wagtails.


On Yom Kippur Eve (29/9/17) after having lunch with the family and just a moment before the fast began, at 17:50 I heard the laser gun! I jumped off the couch and ran excitedly to the kitchen window. The first Grey is here, straight from Europe. Gorgeous and yellow, standing and wagging its tail, walking on the rooftop edge collecting the crumbs that were left behind. How exciting!

On the following days I started hearing their calls in the sky all around the neighborhood. My parents smiled at me politely, "Yes, very exciting" they mumbled.


The Grey pioneer of 2017. Yom Kippur Eve 29.9.2017   Photo: Anat Gal



How many wagtails can you find on the rooftop?      Photo: Anat Gal


Wishing you all a happy holiday season and a happy migration season!


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