Sunday, December 4, 2011

A tale that knows no boundaries - Big Blog!

A bird shall know neither bounds nor confines of man, remaining a free spirit to brighten our lives, a symbol of peace, fostering friendships for those who share in their joy. Peter Jones

We seem to be forever hearing of conflicts throughout our world with doom mongers peddling their political wares and none expected to sit on the fence without making allegiances. I guess we all have opinions on the world’s woes and I have uncertainties of how we can best meet the challenges posed for peace where conflict appears to have no solution. And so it all seemed to me on a recent birding tour in Israel. It was an interesting foray into an area rife with conflict according to and if you believe all media reports. Here birds from three bio-regions converge to reside, migrate or winter, demonstrating a blissful ignorance of political boundaries. Is there any hope peoples of the region can learn from these wonders of nature and each respect the right to their own and their neighbour’s existence? I’m a great believer that there is always hope, so witnessing the close cooperation between Israel and some of its neighbours with the monitoring of birds in the region, I came away with some very positive feelings.

Birders, just like birds, tend to go a wandering no matter the political climate, whether they are made of sterner stuff, self-indulgent or just plain crazy who’s to say? When I was invited to attend the week’s activities promised by the Hula Valley Bird Festival, it must have taken me all of 10 seconds to say yes. The chance to revisit Israel, after an absence of over 25 years, was hard to resist and the lure of such an array of birdlife was impossible to ignore. Did I have any problems? Well yes I did. My tour began with the sound of ‘fools rush in where wise suitcases never go’ ringing in my ears. Good old Iberia Airlines decided it was too much to expect for my suitcase to accompany me on my long journey, so they simply didn’t load it on the plane! After 3 days wear several items of clothing were beginning to protest and I had to weigh down my socks to stop them doing their own tour of Israel. When eventually my suitcase caught up with me I felt strangely grateful, even forgiving towards Iberia Airlines, quite why I’m not sure, it seems perverse on reflection.

My week’s birding began by joining, what was to become, a tight knit group of avid and likeminded nature nuts. Good humour, shared moments, serious discussion and a bonding that grew with each passing day made for a memorable week. Our first day entailed of cranes and yet more cranes as we left very early morning to catch sight of some 30,000 cranes departing from their night time roost at first light. Wow, what an experience and pure spectacle, such beautiful birds creating a scene I will never forget and the deafening calls of so many individuals just added to the amazing atmosphere. Have you ever experienced a personal and almost spiritual moment, when the hairs on your neck stand-up and you are touched by some unseen force sending such a sense of wonder and well being through your body? Well, this was my moment and as humbling as it was spectacular. Of course the Agamon Hula Park and Hula Nature Reserve host an impressive number of wintering and migrant birds during late autumn, but my memory of the first day will forever be dominated by the grace and splendour of 30,000 cranes.

Our group had an extensive programme for 6 days and apart from being based in the area of the Hula Valley, we visited other prime birding locations. The second day was spent in the scenically impressive region of the Golan Heights, where snow covered mountain glistened in contrast to green valleys and painted wonderful vistas against clear blue skies. Birding on our journey to the first port of call Mount Hermon, we soon proved the worth of that age old birding adage of more eyes more birds! Having been a bit of a globe trotter and birder for some fifty years plus, it gets harder to find new species, not that I am any kind of lister harrumph, and one of the first birds sighted was Sombre Tit, a great little bird and one which has eluded me on so many other occasions, so Peter was one very happy bunny. The next trek up to the top of the Golan Heights was breathtaking, quite literally, as we huffed and puffed our way to the high ridge, where a few of us got onto a small group of Crimson-winged Finch, but apart from Woodlark, Fieldfare, Brambling and Northern Wheatear nothing much was doing at the top, mind you we did find a laden apple tree, which I have to tell you harvested one of the best apples I have ever tasted. A very major highlight to the day was seeing a couple of wolf on our descent, a privilege and wonderful sighting.

The third day of my visit saw us head to the seaside on the Carmel Coast and Ma’agan Michael. The area had lush golden sand beaches, calm waters of the Mediterranean lapping its shore, whilst sand dunes separated large manmade fish lagoons from the sea. The mix of fresh water lagoons and the seashore produced a wide variety of bird species and also Egyptian Mongoose were common. Gull species were wheeling overhead in very large numbers, Slender-billed Gull were plentiful with Armenian and Black-headed Gull making-up the bulk of flocks overhead. We did manage Mediterranean and Caspian Gull with waders also present in good numbers. As with the Hula Valley, the 3 kingfisher species presented an added reminder of the strategic position of Israel in terms of birdlife, acting as a bridge for three bioregions; Africa, Asia and Europe. Here you could watch the common Pied Kingfisher hovering over the still and fresh water of the lagoons reminding you of Africa, whilst the Asian White-throated Kingfisher would dash across your path in a blaze of colours as it searched for invertebrates, amphibians as well as a fish meal. Europe’s representative, not to be outdone, could be seen darting from one perch to another, it’s blue mantle vivid in the bright sunlight and showing well in all its glory perching often close to our group. The European Kingfisher is the only winter visitor of the three species with the others breeding here.

Day four and we were off to the Bet Shean Valley via the Sea of Galilee, and as an aside we saw lots of signs warning ‘Swimming not permitted’ although, presumably, it was okay to walk on it? We explored areas around Kfar Rupin and Tirat Zvi with some veritable successes which included 2 lifers for your man here, Dead Sea Sparrow and Pallas’s Gull, superb!! In fact the fish ponds that we visited were incredible for their variety of birds, especially gull species that included Armenian, Baltic, Pallas’s, Caspian and Heuglin’s Gull. In the surrounding area other birds to capture our attention were Desert Finch together with other large flocks of seed eaters. On a sad note, it was distressing to witness various heron species snagged in netting used to cover fish lagoons, although the same netting mesh size was also used at the fish farms in Ma’agan Michael, they at least had patrols to release trapped birds. It was appalling to see on immature Black-crowned Night Heron ensnared by its tarsus and foot whilst still alive, too far for us to reach; we could only look-on as it faced a long and tormented death.

A dilemma, should I attend the conference and lectures being held over the next two days, or should I go a birding. Seems clear enough given the last few days, birding! Actually that’s a little unkind on those speakers at the conference. I would especially have liked to sit-in on Keith Bildstein’s lecture dealing with the geography of raptor migration, a global perspective, but decisions made I accompanied my group, the class of 2011, out into the field. In truth, anyone who knows me will also know I have a deep interest in wheatears, I could not resist the day’s mission of finding Finsch’s Wheatear. In every way this tour was exceeding my expectations, the variety of habitats, the number of bird species and the expert guidance of Jonathan Megrav was proving to be an unbeatable combination, but no Finsch’s Wheatear! We searched the likely and well known Valley of Tears, a terrain of grazed grasslands amidst a rock strewn landscape, looked perfect for my wheatears and yet not a sign, although we managed several other bird species. And so we made our way to the scenic outpost of the Unit 77 memorial site, group photographs, some snacks and at last a Finsch’s Wheatear, in fact 2 males and 2 females! Satiated we made our way to Agmon Park to see our friends the cranes and as a bonus we found a male Namaqua Dove. Another great day in Israel.

After just a smidgeon of self-indulgence during the previous day’s activities, I made the conscious and fortuitous decision to attend some of the lectures on offer for my final day at the festival. It was fortuitous because of the quality of both speakers and subjects available. Just some of the choice lectures included conserving birds and their habitats by Ariel Brunner (Birdlife Europe), tourism and conservation linkage by an old friend Tim Appleton, environmental education program in Palestine by Imad Atrash and so the list went on, informative up to the minute briefs on what’s happening in our natural world from top line experts. The lectures were followed by a group discussion where we could all chip-in and get to talk to various leaders and decision makers, a down point was going for lunch on a last visit to the Haelot Reserve in the upper Galilee and thus arriving too late to listen in on Pete Dunne’s talk on monetary rewards and conservation payback of birding tourism, another day I hope Pete! For me the whole week had been so worthwhile, rewarding and at all times a great pleasure. If you have not visited Israel or considered it as a destination for birding, then I can only say you are missing out, it has top species and pure spectacle to offer, I thoroughly recommend it.

Understand that life should be a source of experience to be lived up to, not survived through.

For further information:
A great video of our tour Watch the amazing video

The Class of 2011 (The Wild Bunch).

Tim Appleton, Niklas Aronsson, David Callahan, Pete Dunne, Peder Edvinsson, Daniel Green, Peter Jones, Stephen Menzie, Matt Merritt, Jonathan Meyrav, Bill Oddie, Bobo Olsson, Gert Ottens, Jan Sodersved, Roar Solheim, Sharon Stiteler, Bill Thompson 111, Stuart Winter.

Species seen during our 6 day birding in Northern Israel 21st – 26th November 2011

English name
Scientific name
Little Grebe
Tachybaptus ruficollis
Black-necked Grebe
Podiceps nigricollis
Northern Gannet
Morus bassanus
Great White Pelican
Pelecanus onocrotalus
Pygmy Cormorant
Phalacrocorax pygmeus
Great Cormorant
Phalacrocorax carbo
Little Bittern
Ixobrychus minutus
Black-crowned Night-heron
Nycticorax nycticorax
Squacco Heron
Ardeola ralloides
Cattle Egret
Bubulcus ibis
Grey Heron
Ardea cinerea
Purple Heron
Ardea purpurea
Great Egret
Casmerodius albus
Little Egret
Egretta garzetta
Black Stork
Ciconia nigra
White Stork
Ciconia ciconia
Eurasian Spoonbill
Platalea leucorodia
Glossy Ibis
Plegadis falcinellus
Greater Flamingo
Phoenicopterus roseus
Greater White-fronted Goose
Anser albifrons
Ruddy Shelduck
Tadorna ferruginea
Common Shelduck
Tadorna tadorna
Egyptian Goose
Alopechon aegyptius
Anas strepera
Eurasian Wigeon
Anas penelope
Anas platyrhynchos
Northern Shoveler
Anas clypeata
Northern Pintail
Anas acuta
Anas querquedula
Common Teal
Anas crecca
Marbled Teal
Marmaronetta angustirostris
Red-crested Pochard
Netta rufina
Common Pochard
Aythya ferina
Ferruginous Duck
Aythya nyroca
Tufted Duck
Aythya fuligula
White-headed Duck
Oxyura leucocephala
Griffon Vulture
Gyps fulvus
White-tailed Eagle
Haliaeetus albicilla
Pandion haliaetus
Lesser Spotted Eagle
Aquila pomarina
Greater Spotted Eagle
Aquila clanga
Eastern Imperial Eagle
Aquila heliaca
Golden Eagle
Aquila chrysaetos
Bonelli's Eagle
Hieraaetus fasciatus
Booted Eagle
Hieraaetus pennatus
Black-winged Kite
Elanus caeruleus
Black Kite
Milvus migrans
Western Marsh-harrier
Circus aeruginosus
Hen Harrier
Circus cyaneus
Pallid Harrier
Circus macrourus
Common Buzzard
Buteo buteo
Long-legged Buzzard
Buteo rufinus
Eurasian Sparrowhawk
Accipiter nisus
Lesser Kestrel
Falco naumanni
Common Kestrel
Falco tinnunculus
Falco columbarius
Lanner Falcon
Falco biarmicus
Saker Falcon
Falco cherrug
Peregrine Falcon
Falco peregrinus
Alectoris chukar
Black Francolin
Francolinus francolinus
Water Rail
Rallus aquaticus
Purple Swamphen
Porphyrio porphyrio
Common Moorhen
Gallinula chloropus
Common Coot
Fulica atra
Common Crane
Grus grus
Black-winged Stilt
Himantopus himantopus
Pied Avocet
Recurvirostra avosetta
Northern Lapwing
Vanellus vanellus
Spur-winged Lapwing
Vanellus spinosus
Eurasian Golden Plover
Pluvialis apricaria
Grey Plover
Pluvialis squatarola
Common Ringed Plover
Charadrius hiaticula
Little Ringed Plover
Charadrius dubius
Kentish Plover
Charadrius alexandrinus
Jack Snipe
Lymnocryptes minimus
Common Snipe
Gallinago gallinago
Black-tailed Godwit
Limosa limosa
Bar-tailed Godwit
Limosa lapponica
Eurasian Curlew
Numenius arquata
Spotted Redshank
Tringa erythropus
Common Redshank
Tringa totanus
Marsh Sandpiper
Tringa stagnatilis
Common Greenshank
Tringa nebularia
Green Sandpiper
Tringa ochropus
Wood Sandpiper
Tringa glareola
Common Sandpiper
Actitis hypoleucos
Ruddy Turnstone
Arenaria interpres
Calidris alba
Little Stint
Calidris minuta
Temminck's Stint
Calidris temminckii
Calidris alpina
Curlew Sandpiper
Calidris ferruginea
Philomachus pugnax
Armenian Gull
Larus armenicus
Caspian gull
Larus cachinnans
Steppe Gull
Larus (cachinnans) barabensis
Baltic Gull
Larus fuscus fuscus
Heuglin's gull
Larus fuscus heuglini
Pallas's Gull
Larus ichthyaetus
Black-headed Gull
Larus ridibundus
Slender-billed Gull
Larus genei
Mediterranean Gull
Larus melanocephalus
Sandwich Tern
Sterna sandvicensis
Whiskered Tern
Chlidonias hybrida
Rock Pigeon
Columba livia
Common Wood-pigeon
Columba palumbus
European Turtle-dove
Streptopelia turtur
Eurasian Collared-dove
Streptopelia decaocto
Laughing Dove
Stigmatopelia senegalensis
Namaqua Dove
Oena capensis
Barn Owl
Tyto alba
Tawny Owl
Strix aluco
White-throated Kingfisher
Halcyon smyrnensis
Common Kingfisher
Alcedo atthis
Pied Kingfisher
Ceryle rudis
Eurasian Hoopoe
Upupa epops
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Psittacula krameri
Syrian Woodpecker
Dendrocopos syriacus
Calandra Lark
Melanocorypha calandra
Crested Lark
Galerida cristata
Wood Lark
Lullula arborea
Eurasian Skylark
Alauda arvensis
Oriental Skylark
Alauda gulgula
Horned Lark
Eremophila alpestris
Barn Swallow
Hirundo rustica
Red-rumped Swallow
Hirundo daurica
White Wagtail
Motacilla alba
Citrine Wagtail
Motacilla citreola
Yellow Wagtail
Motacilla flava
Grey Wagtail
Motacilla cinerea
Richard's Pipit
Anthus richardi
Long-billed Pipit
Anthus similis
Meadow Pipit
Anthus pratensis
Red-throated Pipit
Anthus cervinus
Water Pipit
Anthus spinoletta
Buff-bellied Pipit
Anthus rubescens japonicus
Winter Wren
Troglodytes troglodytes
White-spectacled Bulbul
Pycnonotus xanthopygos
European Robin
Erithacus rubecula
Luscinia svecica
White-throated Robin
Irania gutturalis
Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin
Erythropygia galactotes
Black Redstart
Phoenicurus ochruros
Saxicola rubetra
Common Stonechat
Saxicola torquatus
Siberian Stonechat
Saxicola maurus
Northern Wheatear
Oenanthe oenanthe
Finsch's Wheatear
Oenanthe finschii
Blue Rock-thrush
Monticola solitarius
Eurasian Blackbird
Turdus merula
Turdus pilaris
Song Thrush
Turdus philomelos
Mistle Thrush
Turdus viscivorus
Sylvia atricapilla
Common Whitethroat
Sylvia communis
Sardinian Warbler
Sylvia melanocephala
Zitting Cisticola
Cisticola juncidis
Graceful Prinia
Prinia gracilis
Cetti's Warbler
Cettia cetti
Savi's Warbler
Locustella luscinioides
Moustached Warbler
Acrocephalus melanopogon
Sedge Warbler
Acrocephalus schoenobaenus
Eurasian Reed-warbler
Acrocephalus scirpaceus
Marsh Warbler
Acrocephalus palustris
Great Reed-warbler
Acrocephalus arundinaceus
Clamorous Reed-warbler
Acrocephalus stentoreus
Willow Warbler
Phylloscopus trochilus
Common Chiffchaff
Phylloscopus collybita
Hume's Leaf-warbler
Phylloscopus humei
Sombre Tit
Parus lugubris
Great Tit
Parus major
Eurasian Penduline-tit
Remiz pendulinus
Western Rock-nuthatch
Sitta neumayer
Red-backed Shrike
Lanius collurio
Southern Grey Shrike
Lanius meridionalis
Palestine Sunbird
Nectarinia osea
Eurasian Jay
Garrulus glandarius
Eurasian Jackdaw
Corvus monedula
Corvus frugilegus
Hooded Crow
Corvus cornix
Common Raven
Corvus corax
Common Starling
Sturnus vulgaris
Common Myna
Acridotheres tristis
House Sparrow
Passer domesticus
Spanish Sparrow
Passer hispaniolensis
Dead Sea Sparrow
Passer moabiticus
Rock Sparrow
Petronia petronia
Eurasian Chaffinch
Fringilla coelebs
Fringilla montifringilla
European Serin
Serinus serinus
European Greenfinch
Carduelis chloris
European Goldfinch
Carduelis carduelis
Eurasian Linnet
Carduelis cannabina
Crimson-winged Finch
Rhodopechys sanguineus
Desert Finch
Rhodopechys obsoletus
Common Rosefinch
Carpodacus erythrinus
Coccothraustes coccothraustes
Corn Bunting
Miliaria calandra
Emberiza citrinella
Rock Bunting
Emberiza cia
Reed Bunting
Emberiza schoeniclus

Total species seen 202.