Great adventures and fabulous dips

Jonathan Meyrav 31/12/2015 00:00

 

Fields of Gold

 

5.1.15

 

The Northwest Negev region in Israel is one of the most important agricultural areas in the country. The vast Loess fields are highly fertile and produce a very high yield of crops, especially in winter.

 

While in Northern Israel many agricultural areas are left to rest in the cold winter days and frosty nights, the comfortable temperatures in the Negev allow for year round cultivation. The constant activity results in a bounty of resources for birds, seeds, grain and a lot of water and large undisturbed areas for birds to rest.

 

 

 

 

 

Birding in the West Negev in the fall and winter is excellent as the region holds incredible numbers of migrant and wintering birds. Huge numbers of Eurasian Skylarks and Starlings are present from November to March forming dense flocks as they move between the fields.

Good numbers of Northern Lapwings join the resident Spur-winged Plovers, Pigeons and Doves and it seems every sprinkler is personally adopted by a Black Kite.

 

But what makes the West Negev so exciting and a must visit area for birders is the Birds of Prey. The abundance of Passerines, Pigeons and Doves in winter attracts a large variety of raptors that enjoy the buffet, from the best seat in the house…

Cutting through the West Negev is the famous Urim powerline.

This high voltage power-line runs from the Egyptian border in the west deep into the Negev highlands to the east, towering over the open fields. The power-line pylons are the only true high perches in the otherwise flat landscape. There are no high trees for hundreds of square miles and the pylons are perfect vantage and rest points for birds of Prey.

 

 

 

A drive along the powerline is like a candy shop for birders as almost every pylon holds a bird of prey and every few minutes the fields swirl with masses of birds as Falcons or Harriers hunt. It is truly an incredible area and arguably the best spot for wintering raptors in the WP.

The vast area holds some impressive species of raptors, some very rare and in good numbers. This is the best place in Israel to see Eastern Imperial Eagle with 8-12 present every winter, including several pristine adults.

 

Peregrines are present in good numbers as well, mainly calidus from the Eurasian Tundra and 1 or 2 Saker Falcons are present every year.

Small numbers of Merlins hold winter territories here including single pallidus Merlins from the Asian Steppes. The area is excellent for Harriers with good numbers of Hen and Pallid Harriers and dozens of Common and Long-legged Buzzards dot the fields. I mentioned the Black Kites, well, no less than 15,000 Kites roost in the immediate area and they are by far the most common bird present.

Common Kestrel are abundant and Barbary and Lanner Falcons are also regularly seen along the powerline.  It is truly an incredible area for any raptor enthusiast; I would not like to be a Skylark in the Negev fields.

 

 

 

 

 

The West Negev is also an important wintering area for some other rare species. Sociable Lapwing Vanellus gregarius is a rare but regular winter visitor to the region and we make special efforts to track down the wintering flocks of this globally endangered species. Up to 25 Sociable Lapwings winter in the Negev every year, usually within flocks of Northern Lapwings, this year we have found a single flock of 10 birds, small numbers but such cool birds.

 

Several flocks of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse roam the fields around Urim junction. These beautiful elegant ground birds can be surprisingly difficult to find when foraging. The best bet is to scan the fields and wait for a Peregrine, Harrier or Eagle to spook the Sandgrouse. Impressive flocks of hundreds of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse are present in the Negev, it is an important wintering and pre breeding area for this swiftly declining species.

 

 

 

 

There is a lot more to be found in the West Negev and the area has produced many rare and interesting species over the years. All in all it is an incredible place to go birding with not a dull moment. There is something magical about these fields, with the fascinating mixture of modern day farming, pockets of natural habitat and a raptor show like no other… they truly are fields of gold.

 

See you in the field.

 

Jonathan

 

 


 

The Israeli Factor

 

25.2.15

 

 

The Champions of the Flyway race is now well known among birders circles worldwide. The international race that hosts some of the leading birders in the world naturally attracts a lot of attention with large crowds the world over.

 

We are of course very proud of the project and the international buzz it generates. We are more proud though of the Israeli “factor” of the race, the Israeli teams division.

From the beginning the race generated great interest within Israel. Israeli birders felt they deserve a shot at the title and wanted a piece of the action, after all it is not every day that a race of such caliber takes place, and on our home turf.

 

So we decided to open an Israeli division that will run parallel to the International race, a “little brother” of sorts. It turns out that the Israeli race was a great idea and next month in the 2015 Champions of the Flyway we are proud to host close to 20 teams of Israeli birders.

 

 

 

 

The Israeli teams are an integral part of the international project and pull their own weight. Each Israeli team will donate a fixed amount to the 2015 cause, and will also attempt to raise funds towards the project, just like the international teams.

The real beauty of the “Israeli Factor” teams lies within. If we take a look at the various team signed up we notice the following, out of the 70 or so participants we find around 10 professional birders, many acting as team captains and hosting young birders on their teams. We find artists, professors, bankers, biologists, retired Army generals and dedicated parents, all taking part.

But the real success of the Israeli Factor is the fact that the team rosters include 15 children aged 8-17 and no less than 22 female birders!

 

 

This means that more than half of our Israeli racers are women and children. We find this very interesting and we feel it is a very refreshing aspect of the Israeli Champions of the Flyway race.

The Israeli teams will abide by the same rules as the internationals and will take an active part in sharing their sightings with everyone else, and they know the terrain better than anyone.

 

Check out the Israeli team pages and learn about our teams.

 

Good luck to all!  

 

 

 

Champions of the Flyway “Rambo Night” tour

 

5.4.15

 

With only 48 hours to go till the Champions of the Flyway race, the teams participating have spent the last days scouring and scouting the playing field, strategizing and planning. As part of the scouting we offered the teams a rare chance to get up close and personal with two of Israel’s most iconic and rarest birds, Nubian Nightjar and the Desert Tawny Owl.

 

The Desert Tawny Owl is now a hot topic in birders circles. Only in late 2014 did a team of researchers led by Guy Kirwan publish an important paper in which they re-described the mysterious Owl of Israel’s deserts and proved it genetically different (by an amazing 9 %!) from “Hume’s Tawny Owl” - Strix butleri.

 

 

 

 

The team chose to adopt the Hebrew name “Lilit Midbar”, “Desert Tawny Owl” and the scientific name was changed to Strix hadorami, as a tribute to Israeli Ornithologist Hadoram Shirihai, who knows these birds better than anyone else.

 

On March 23rd most of the participants of the Champions of the Flyway chose to take a break from scouting and joined the tour led by me and Hadoram Shirihai himself. The participants were brought to a secret location in the desert and briefed. i take the Owl tour very seriously and the instructions are very clear: No one shines torches besides Hadoram and me and no one uses a flash.

It was essential that the group follow these instructions if we were to see the bird.

we walked forward and played some calls. The resident male responded immediately so there was no need for much more playback.

The Owl called several more times as it flew closer. No torches were used yet so it was not clear exactly from where the male was calling. The amazing hoots echoed off the canyon walls making it even harder to locate the bird. After a few minutes the male called nearby, and it was much closer. Hadoram and i walked a few meters to the left and lit the torches, the bird was there!

 

 

 

Ripples of excitement ran through the group as everyone edged forward to get a look at this incredible bird. At that point the male was perched about 50 meters away and continued to call. To our amazement the Owl jumped off the cliff and slowly glided in our direction, it landed 30 meters away, then 15!

Everyone in the group including Hadoram were absolutely amazed. The Owl perched 15 meters away from this large group of people who stared in awe, trying to get the camera setting right!

For a whole minute the Owl displayed beautifully in the desert night, allowing everyone to get good, long looks.

It was memorable, one of the best ever encounters with this poorly known Owl that was described over 2600 years ago, from a wadi near where we were.

 

 

The evening continued with a visit to Neot Hakikar in the Southern Dead Sea. The area is the last remaining stronghold of the enigmatic “Tamarisk” Nubian Nightjar.

Only a few dozen pairs of these cryptic birds remain in Israel, relying on the few pockets of native salt marsh that remain.

 

 

The population in Israel is small but stable and quite a lot of work has been done in recent years to try and protect what is left. Our group was very lucky since by the time we got to the Nightjar foraging areas the temperatures dropped and insect activity low. Luckily we found a single bird that was patient enough for the whole group to get scope views and some even managed a few images.

 

All in all it was a wonderful night and a successful 2 out of 2 desired specialties. The group enjoyed the company of Hadoram and his stories making this tour even more special.

 

 

I would like to thank the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (NPA) for making this tour possible and for their ongoing work to protect these rare species. A special thanks to Kochav Levi, Yuval Dax, Guy Lavian and James Currie of Birding Adventures TV for securing the incredible footage, first of its kind of the Desert Tawny Owl.

 

On a personal level I would like to thank Dan Alon for his immense efforts throughout and finally to thank Hadoram Shirihai that led the tour with me, it was a great privilege and a nice bit of closure for me as Hadoram showed me my first Desert Tawny Owl near Eilat, 25 years ago!

 

Thank you to all the Champions of the Flyway participants for supporting the project, the proceeds of the tour will help us achieve even more for the birds of Israel and beyond. See you all in Israel again very soon.

 

Jonathan