Have you ever heard Levant’s laughter?

Barak Granit 18/06/2017 00:00

On April 22nd, when it was clear that this spring belongs to its past, and that all sort of regular eastern migrants such as Bimaculated Lark were mainly missing, and when there were very few migrants around altogether, and when it was clear enough, to those who claim to see things in clarity that this spring is not going anywhere, and except for one Pink-backed Pelican, the fishponds of the Beit Shen valley were holding mainly water, as if it was mid June and not mid April, just then, at the midst of one Saturday, Petro Pynnonen called to say that he had just found a Long-billed Dowitcher in breeding plumage, at Km 20 Saltpans, 2nd for Israel, 33 years after the first had been found and I knew I couldn’t go for it.


Some birders planned to be there first thing in the morning, see the bird and be back in their Sunday morning's working place - a perfect twitching opportunity that I couldn't take. It also became clear that I couldn't change any plans for that coming week as part of an unclear attempt to live a normal life. If anything, I could have tried to go on a twitch only 5 days later, taking a risk that the bird won't stay. In my mind I had the Red-necked Stint I found on April 15 2003 at the same place. That one, which remained for  8 days, encouraged me.

On my other shoulder stood  the only White-rumped Sandpiper for Israel that was found at Maagan Michael a year later, and hasn’t stayed for even a second day. Since I couldn't do anything about it I had to hope the Dowitcher would behave like the Red-necked Stint. Some friends, after twitching it on the following day had enough hunger to go down again on Thursday.  I told them that we actually have quite a fair chance to fall on the Levant Sparrowhawk pick.


So what’s so special about Levant’s pick? Several things:


A) Levants are amazing birds that usually you don’t get to see too well, even if you have spent years in Raptor migration surveys - which I have.


B) In the spring, the bulk of the world population can pass within very short time, two or three days, thus giving incredible sights of mass thermals containing sometimes thousands of birds.


C) In the Spring, if you are lucky, you can actually fall on a pick morning in which many birds can be seen perching on Acacia trees and on the ground - a sight you never see in Israel in the Autumn.


D) After 25 years of birding in Israel, I have never witnessed in my own eyes any of these sights. I have had mornings at EIlat mountains with 10,000 birds but those birds on migration - usually high or not that low.  Finally, E) I didn’t know the Levant’s laugh when they take off. Did you know that?




Well, Wednesday midnight finally arrived and we took a night drive for the Dowitcher, making our first stop at Yotvata acacia forest at first light. It was encouraging to see some Levants perching on the acacias. Some birds  gave some sort of photo opp but not ‘on real’ as the light was very poor.

When we started driving around we had a sort of a revelation: almost every tree held some Levants, and then I heard a peculiar rolling laughter coming from a Tamarisk grove. We stopped the car and quickly it came to us that the grove was just packed! At that time, the sun was out and some birds started to take off.


One by one birds have quickly left the trees, all flapping their ways northwards few metres high above ground and calling, calling from everywhere. Few becomes tens and then hundreds, hundreds and hundreds took off from all over. At this time we were somewhere by the circular fields. Birds just kept departing all around us  while some birds  remained perched on the bushes and the dunes to the east - quite a sight.




Back at the Acacia forest we met some birders who were amazed to hear that I had not rushed first to tick the Dowitcher as they had. “What’s to rush for? If it’s there it will still be there at noon time, and if not - well the hell with it”. Somehow everybody knew I was the last one still having to see it, but - we were with the Levant experience as that was real once in a life-time ‘stragler’, not the Dowitcher.


Back in the circular fields the stream of raptors continued from the south - all the way to your bins sight limit. First big wave of Honey Buzzards, Booted Eagles quite everywhere but above all (and they started to be above all...) large flock of Levants that just kept coming and coming. Thousands. 2,500 in just one flock, out of many.  




At noontime we had the Dowitcher and all that photography attempts. Well - respect here. During the afternoon, Shachar Shalev reported 5,000 Levants at the North Beach. We rushed there but caught only the tail of it. We have guesses they must have dropped to roost somewhere nearby and we were not wrong. On the next morning, while we were birding by the Eilat bird park the town of Aquaba, Jordan, took off to the sky.


Now with better light, we positioned ourselves at the Eilot southern fields. It is really worth describing it for the birders that know Eilat, and  been birding Eilat through the years: this southern fields that held many birds for the last time some 30 years ago were rocking! I mean the wind-barriers, those Casuarina trees grew Levants at night - the stream of birds leaving these avenues were just endless - passing few meters from our heads on both sides, calling laughing and rolling. Once in a life-time!



Sometimes it is just worth postponing your twithching’s immediate pavlovian instinct reaction.

Epilog: We were back to Eilat one more time this spring on May 18-19. We really caught the last day of Spring migration. There were no Levants of course but species variety was just excellent including really late rearguards, two Lesser Crested Tern and a surprised - breeding plumaged Pacific Golden Plover that I had the honor to find myself. At the North beach, we experience another mega rarity: a real Sand Storm, something I have experienced only once before. Not recommended.  



land marks