No Sooty, again

Barak Granit 03/08/2015 00:00

Last Wednesday evening, me and my birding gang (Avi Shneor and Ron Singer) left Tel-Aviv and hit the road down to the notorious North Beach of Eilat. The timing was synchronized with the traditional annual end of July “Sterna session”: during July, every July, increasing numbers of interesting tern species congregate at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba.


These tern species breed farther south in the Red Sea such as Bridled, Lesser-crested and White-cheeked, and usually are not seen in other parts of the year.

Sometimes, a rarer tern accompanies the local ones, such as Greater-crested (Swift) or Arctic, and the sought-after jewel which is definitely the ultra mega - Sooty Tern.



There are only 4 Israeli records of the later up to date, all between 1980 and 1989 and all appeared at the very last days of July or the first days of August.

The fact that this mega appears (or actually appeared) in a kind of pattern, is responsible for this painful tradition which I follow in vain since 1995 or so.


Anyway, we arrived at the beach at 01:00 am, and as if I was 18 years old again, I laid on the sand my air mattress, pillow, sheet and went to sleep.  4 hours later we woke up with first light to the call of 3 Caspian Terns.

While the other team members were folding their tents down, organized their stuff and were cooking Arab Coffee, I started to scan the sea but it didn’t look good - there was just nothing, but at least in Aqaba, there was a fine gathering of White-cheeked Terns waking up from their roost, some 20-24 birds.

WCT are one of few species that increased in numbers in recent decade, in contrast to the general down-hill trend of most summering sea birds at the Gulf of Aqaba.



Back to the beach, a dark-morph Western Reef Heron, arrived from the lagoon and landed in the canal where 2 juvenile Mangrove Herons were already ambushing their breakfast.

After an hour or so, it appeared that we are not facing a great morning. There was not a single shearwater or skua or any other Red Sea specialty to be seen.

Shearwaters are doing bad here during the last two decades. During the 80's and the 90's several dozen Cory's and Sooty Shearwaters spent the summer in the Gulf's head but since the end of the 90's their numbers decreased drastically to 1-3 birds at best.


As for skuas, my standards are high. In my very first summer visit here in early July 1994, there were some 40 skuas, among them 11 Long-tailed, performing offshore for 4 days. Hard to beat this, but last Thursday, even 1-2 would have been nice.

Another species we looked for was the fantastic Red-billed Tropicbird, a species that many Israeli birders haven't seen yet. Although I didn’t develop real expectations to see one, it still managed to leave us disappointed: we were putting some special effort scanning high and far where the tropicbird likes to appear. On Friday morning Adi Peduel, a local birder reaped what we sowed, and enjoyed her first tropicbird.  



Not all was bad. At 07:30 finally some birds arrived from the sea: 4 Bridled Terns. When they got somewhat nearer (still nothing to cause joy) it was apparent, again, as always, that there was no sooty among them. Just as they appeared they turned around south and left us with the White-cheeked that were playing close all morning.

At 09:00 or so we finally spotted a real rarity: an Arctic Tern. Once it was a Mega. Nowadays, the species is seen almost annually, always during the second half of July and almost always 1-2 birds only.





It did bring a small smile to our faces. Lesser Crested was too much to ask for though.  

Last, the sea was calm and beautiful that morning. I wouldn't elaborate this time on the delicious breakfast we had… (thanks to Avi) but after we finished eating I went in for a swim. Right after that I joined Avi and Ron for a cold beer, pretending to be normal people.



land marks