Open letter to the Emir of Kuwait regarding immoral hunting practices

Dear, Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, Emir of Kuwait. I’m writing this open letter to you as a result of our recent visits to your country. We are foreign bird watchers, ornothologists and naturalists, and we have just spent a couple of weeks in Kuwait in January, and now a week in April bird watching.

We are chocked by the amount of immoral hunting we have seen. We think that hunting and nature conservation can co-exist, but clearly not the way your people are currently behaving. The way hunting is practiced here in Kuwait, or rather should I say killing is immoral for the following reasons.

  • It’s not your birds, the migratory birds are just passing through here, they are not yours to kill.
  • Hunting should always have an element of sportsmanship, driving a 4WD through the nature reserves where exhausted migrating birds rest on their way north and shoot from the car window is barbaric.
  • Some birds are rare, whereas other are not. Many people, all over the world appreciate hunting. Indiscriminate killing of rare birds is unacceptable, the hunter MUST know what he or she shoots. Case in point, a group of 16 Caspian Plovers were resting in north Kuwait recently, this is an endangered species where elsewhere in the world,  people spend time and money to ensure the survival of the species, here in Kuwait, this winter, they were all shot, for fun.
  • And finally, the worst of them all, killing for fun is clearly immoral. Shooting arbitrary birds for target practice is almost evil. This we saw several times. An especially memorable moment was one of the days when we came down to the beach at Jahra. A father and a son were there, the father playing bird calls from the car, and the son, maybe of age 15, was shooting swallows over the sea. When we started to watch the birds through our binoculars, while they were killing them, they both must have felt ashamed as they left the beach looking down into the ground.

Thus, Dear Emir, we urge you to follow the recent example of Lebanon, which has just passed new laws fitting for the 21’st century regulating hunting.

Thanks for your attention,

Claes Wikström, Mårten Wiström, Erik Rask.

43 degrees in the shade

With just a few days – and birds left in Kuwait, we’re trying to focus on the few important birds we have left. In particular Basra Reed Warbler and Shikra. The weather is getting worse, the first few hours in a day are good, but then mid day the temperature goes haywire (+43) and bird activity drops to nothing. All birds we see in the trees sit exhausted with beaks fully open. We get exhausted too, the strength just runs out when walking in bushes.

We reached out to an expert in Pratincole identification, Gerald Driessens, and the suspected Oriental Pratincole from yesterday was rejected, it was a regular Collared Pratincole. It was a tricky bird indeed where many good birders and friends of us also thought it was an Oriental. Well well – win some – loose some.

Started in the morning, went to a pool at Al-Liyah checking for Pale Rock Sparrow which had been seen there previously. The Al-Liyah is a reserve, with guards. The guards were friendly, and when they saw that we were birders and not hunters, we were allowed to enter. Just as we enter, they wave at us and make “photo” signs. We get out of the car, a bit confused, but they just wanted us to photograph a roosting Eurasian Scopes Owl, roosting right next to their little shed.

Eurasian Scopes Owl
Eurasian Scopes Owl

Remember the stir-up with the feathering of the claws on the Pallid Scopes Owl, this one clearly has no feathering on the middle tow.

Claws
Claws

No bird at the pool though, a nice male Montague’s Harrier came in. Also an awesome lizzard ran in the desert, a massive Egyptian Spiny-tailed Lizzard, a beast.

Egyptian Spiny-tailed Lizzard
Egyptian Spiny-tailed Lizzard

With the morning spent, we went to Mutla searching for Shikra. The heat was devastating and bird activity was at all time low. In a dry tree, we found a Yellow-throated Sparrow.

Yellow-throated Sparrow
Yellow-throated Sparrow

Hardy bird to handle that heat so well. Chilled out in AC area and then went back to Al-Liyah. Birding there was pretty good, with for example several Upchers Warbler.

Upchers Warbler
Upchers Warbler

Also saw a few Hume’s Whitethroat there again. When we were just about to leave, a flock of European Bee-eaters came in to roost in a tree. Beautiful.

Roosting European Bee-eaters
Roosting European Bee-eaters

Saw several hunters in the reserve, cruising with 4WD cars, guns sticking out the windows, ready to shoot down any Bee-eater they see. Sad sight indeed.

Next day was Basra  Reed-warbler and Shikra day at Al-Abraq. Woke up real early and were at Al-Abraq at first light. Plenty of Sparrowhawks flying around, we photograph everyone in hope of a Shikra – non alas. We walked the thickets, searching for Basra Reed. Mårten and I stand together peeing on a tree, think father-son moment, when we hear very very close the call of an Eastern Nightingale inside the tree/bush. We look at that at 50 cm distance, when Mårten whispers – I have a Basra Reed Warbler inside here, very close.  It took us a few hours to secure good footage of the Reed Warbler.

Basra Reed Warbler
Basra Reed Warbler
Basra Reed Warbler
Basra Reed Warbler
Basra Reed Warbler
Basra Reed Warbler

It says something of skulky and slow the birds, when it took us 30 minutes to realise that a White-throated Robin

White-throated Robin
White-throated Robin

was also sitting inside that same small tree without us seeing it. We notified everyone else on Whatsup about the Basra, and AbdulRahman – with two clients, Paul Chapman and Maximilliano DeTorri arrived to see the bird too. Now, the heat was once again unbearable, chilled out in AC/coffee area, and finished the day in Jahra East where some Eurasian Curlew (ssp orientalis) were feeding. The bill is really impressive.

Eurasian Curlew (ssp orientalis)
Eurasian Curlew (ssp orientalis)

Next day we went back to Mutla, once again searching for Shikra. Met a local birder there, Bassel, who had just found a Black Bush-robin at Mutla, an exceptional bird for Kuwait. We on the other hand – hit a rock with the car in an manoeuvre to get better view of a flying Sparrowhawk. Car is broken and we are depressed, waiting for toll.

 

Rarity Hunting

Day two in Kuwait, we started at Mutla Ranch, Markus Craigs favourite patch. Mutla is a low-end ranch where whey grow dade and some grass. It’s scruffy and has exactly the right size to be thoroughly searched. Lots and lots of migrating birds, everywhere. Mostly Redstarts, Chiffchaffs and Willow  Warblers (who finally went off the difference list)

Willow Warbler
Willow Warbler

Better birds were Semi-collared Flycatcher and White-throated Robin. Primarily though, we were searching for Shikra and Basra-reed warbler. Erik found a Reed Warbler that looked very promising.

Not a Basra Reed Warbler
Not a Basra Reed Warbler

We got pictures of the bird in two different sessions and there and then – at Mutla – we convinced ourselves that this indeed was the rare one. We ticked it and reported on iGoTerra. Later at night – scrutinising the pictures we had second thoughts and made a back step on the Warbler, it’s just a Eurasian Reed Warbler (ssp fuscus) with a longish beak. Not an easy bird to safely id the Basra Reed Warbler, we will make further attempts later this week, maybe at Abraq.

After the debacle with the Reed Warbler we went together with Markus to Al-Liiah, a strange nature reserve in the north where an odd row of trees had been planted in the desert. The reserve turned out to be better than good for migrants, a drivable dirt track with small scattered sparse trees along both sides. Migrants everywhere, mostly Lesser Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Blackcaps. First good bird was an Icterine Warbler.

Icterine Warbler
Icterine Warbler

Sufficiently good to make Omar get into his car and drive there. Other good birds were a cooperative Eastern Orphean Warbler .

Eastern Orphean Warbler
Eastern Orphean Warbler

And a few Nightingales (ssp golzi) aka Eastern Nightingale (possible future armchair tick) and a few Turkestan Shrikes.

Nightingale (ssp golzi)
Nightingale (ssp golzi)
Turkestan Shrike
Turkestan Shrike

After a few hours though we briefly saw, several times, poor views – a suspicious looking Whitethroat. It looked dark and big, and we spent quite some time until we finally tracked it down and nailed it as a Hume’s Whitethroat. A really rare bird in WP – and difficult to id safely too.

Hume's Whitethroat
Hume’s Whitethroat

Omar had arrived for shots of the Icterine warbler, and we helped him search for it but unfortunately it couldn’t be relocated. Omar suggested we should go nightjaring at JPL in the dark. He has seen Egyptian Nightjar on the dirt tracks there at night this time of the year. No Nightjars, but a Jack Snipe hiding from the lights as well as a wounded (hunter gunshot or snakebite) White-tailed Lapwing.

Jack Snipe
Jack Snipe
White-tailed Lapwing
White-tailed Lapwing

What a birding day, high energy adrenaline birding.

Next day, our third day here in Kuwait we decided to go Jahra Pool Reserve and search for vagrants. The first bird on the way in was a nice perching Isabeline Shrike as well as a Spotted Crake.

Isabeline Shrike
Isabeline Shrike

20170411-IMG_3519

We started to scan the beach for waders, there were quite a few but not massive amounts.

Waders in Jahra Pool Reserve
Waders in Jahra Pool Reserve

The first good bird, which is a bird we would have screamed in joy for just a few weeks ago, now we just call out – without ant major agitation – Pacific Golden Plover.

Pacific Plover
Pacific Golden Plover

Next, Erik finds a bird he thinks looks suspicious, and part of this post is going to be a study of the psychology of rarity birding. Mårten has a friend at home who birds by the devise – everything is a rarity until proven otherwise. If you think like that, you find rarities, otherwise not. Anyways, the Stint Erik bitches about looks like nothing to me, and when Erik suggests that we should pursue that bird – actually by wading across a creek – I just dissed, nah it’s nothing.

Wading
Wading
Wading
Wading

Erik persevered, and going for the Stint, we first flushed a Caspian Plover !!!! Also a Pratincole was sitting next to the Caspian Plover – more on that later.

Caspian Plover
Caspian Plover

Once we got close to the Stint, we got some footage of it, and also a crappy video.

 

And it looks like a Long-toed Stint. We got this confirmed by first Raul Vicente and later by Arjan Dwarshuis and we had our first self found MEGA in the WP. Other Kuwaiti birders arrived at the scene and the Stint could eventually later be re found.  A first for Kuwait. It’s got long toes !!

Long-toed Stint
Long-toed Stint
Long-toed Stint
Long-toed Stint

Now, back to the Pratincole. We had seen it fly, and I saw zero white trailings on the wings, and wanted to see more of the bird. Both Erik and Mårten had a Colared Pratincole feeling and just wanted to move on. Anyways, we flushed the bird again, this time with cameras ready and we got some poor shots of both sitting as well as of flying bird. Looking at the pictures, I persisted, it’s got no trailing white edges on the wings, whereas both Mårten and Erik said – well it has some … on this pic here … see.

We gave up on that and went back across the creek, back at the parking lot, a British birder (Pete ??) found a Kitiwake, the second for Kuwait.

Kitiwake
Kitiwake

Going back to the hotel, scanning the pics on the Pratincole while Erik drives, I again – said – the bird looks good, and back at the hotel room, both Erik and Mårten starts to get excited about the bird. And, given help by friends, Raul Vicente and Arjan, we came to the conclusion that the bird was an Oriental Pratincole.

Oriental Pratincole
Oriental Pratincole
Oriental Pratincole
Oriental Pratincole
Oriental Pratincole
Oriental Pratincole

The Pratincole is questioned, and it may very well turn out to be a Colared Pratincole in the end.  It’s matter of tail-streamers and nostril shape. It’s up to KORC now, hopefully someone can secure better footage of the bird today.

— UPDATE:

I keep the original text, and add the update here. The Pratincole has now been confirmed by the premiere expert on the matter, Gerald Driessens, who co-authored the Dutch Birding paper on how to distinguish a Collared Pratincole from an Oriental. We reached out to Gerald who promptly replied:

“Thanks for your mail. Interesting bird. This is for sure a Collared Pratincole with worn-off trailing edge. On the outerweb of the outermost tail feather, the proportion of blak along the shaft is too large for Oriental. Tail feathers also seem to show strong emarginations and look long. Contrast between coverts ands remiges is obvious. Also head pattern is more in favour of Collared.”

Thus the matter is settled and we of course retract the tick. Thanks Gerald, it feels good to have this settled. A learning and humbling experience.
— END UPDATE

So – back the psychology part – the Stint was secured by Eriks stubbornness and the Pratincole by mine. It’s good to be a team, a team that can argue without pride getting in the way. What a rarity day – hard to beat.

Back in Kuwait

Arrived in the middle of the night to Kuwait, our second visit to the country. This time in search of migrating birds as well as rarities. Markus Craig called a couple of days ago and said that AbdulRahman had arranged a pelagic out into the gulf. We were invited. A few hours sleep and then off to a boat trip out into the Gulf. On the boat we met all our old friends from Kuwait, Markus Craig, Omar Alsaheen and AbdulRahman. A bunch of British birders were also on the boat – nice group.

Right off the coast we saw the first Bridled Terns perching.

Bridled Tern
Bridled Tern

Close to shore we also saw the first Lesser Crested Terns.

Lesser Crested Tern
Lesser Crested Tern

These two were most expected, the first good bird we saw a few miles off the coast. The Socotra Cormorant.

Socotra Cormorant
Socotra Cormorant
Socotra Cormorant
Socotra Cormorant

Kuwait was our only chance to see this bird in WP, and we now think it would have been hard to find the Cormorant off the coast. Thanks AbdulRahman!!

Off the coast of Kuwait, there are a few coral islands, we went ashore on two of them, both real rarity vagrant magnets. I we were resident Kuwait birders we’d own a boat :-)

A bunch of Skuas were nice, Pomarine was called out, but as far as we could judge they were all Arctic.

Arctic Skua
Arctic Skua
Arctic Skua
Arctic Skua

Nice group of Phallaropes was found way out in the Gulf.

Red-necked Phallarope
Red-necked Phallarope

Wikipedia states – Kubbar is a sandy island of Kuwait in the Persian Gulf, covered with shrub. It is located roughly 30 kilometers off the southern coast of Kuwait and 29 kilometres off the coast of Failaka.

Lesser and Greater Crested Terns nest there in good numbers.

Greater Crested Tern
Greater Crested Tern

We went ashore on Kubbar and the small island was teeming with vagrants. The whole group scattered on the island and species were rapidly called out from all directions. A problematic female Pied Wheatear caused some headache – possibly a Variable. Very difficult – need a male (or exceptional footage) to determine for certain.

Soon Mårten found the good bird, a Sykes Warbler.

Sykes Warbler
Sykes Warbler

Here we see the core of the Kuwait birding community running towards the BYWP team and the Sykes Warbler.

Kuwait Birding community running
Kuwait Birding community running

The Kuwait Birding community is small, nice, friendly, competent and inclusive. It’s a privilege to hang out with you guys.

Kuwait Birders
Kuwait Birding team – you rock.

 

Hortobagyi – Possibly the best birding site in Europe

Since it’s impossible to fly directly from Israel to Kuwait we had to make a forced layover somewhere en route. I’ll refrain from making any sarcastic commentary on this, anyways we decided to make a short stop in Hungary. The Saker Falcon is possible to get in Israel, Turkey and almost anywhere in  South-eastern WP.  They breed in Hungary though so we decided to go there.

Out of chance I saw a comment on our FB from a birder with a Hungarian sounding name and I reached out to Bence Kokay who provided perfect instruction to a pair of nesting Saker Falcons one hour south of Budapest. The birds were perching on pylons close to a nest box mounted high in the air on a pylon.

Saker Falcon
Saker Falcon

We had allocated yet another day to search for the Saker, so we decided to go to Hortobagyi National Park for some general birding.

We disrespectfully wrote on our FB once the Saker was secured, “It took us five minutes to clean up Hungary! Saker falcon, near Dömsöd”. We’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to Hungary for that comment. Hortobagyi is possibly the single best birding site in all of Europe, it cannot be cleaned up in 5 minutes. It’s situated on the famous Hungarian steppe, the Puszta, some two hours drive east of Budapest. Vast steppe and enormous reeds with lot’s of water (fish ponds) We had a full day of amazing birding, totalling 111 species making this day our best so far during the year.

Penduline Tit
Penduline Tit

Savi’s warbler was very common with maybe up to 50 singing males during the day.

Savi's Warbler
Savi’s Warbler

Also Bearded Reedling was common.

Bearded Reedling
Bearded Reedling

Whitestared Bluethroat was nice too, the Bluethroat race with a white patch on the throat.

 

At the very end of the day, we bumped into a group of French birders who said that they had had a group of 120 wintering Lesser White-fronted goose far out into one of the lakes. It was already getting dark, and it was 7 km walk to the place. Strenuous, but worth it. Spectacular birding at the tower at the end.

Tower at Hortobagyi
Tower at Hortobagyi
Tower at Hortubagyi
Tower at Hortubagyi

Thousands of Black-tailed Godwits, thousands of everything except the White-fronted Goose. A flock of approximately 120 birds could be seen on the grass on the other side of the lake, the birds were small and had a clear white front. This could very well be the birds, too far to make sure though. We decided to wait into the dark and hope for the birds to choose to spend the night on the lake instead of on the grass. They didn’t.

On the way back in the dark, freezing and tired we had awesome views of calling Barn owl and Long-eared Owl. Especially the spooky Barn owl is something extra.

Thanks Hungary, we’ll meet again.

Goodbye Israel

Goodbye Israel, thanks for two marvellous weeks of birding. What a birding country, great birding, great people. Zero problems with authorities or police. Excellent food. Just a ok.

Our last three days started slow, mostly because we spent an enormous amount of time failing to find a Caspian Plover. We woke up early in Eilat, hotel night, sorely needed. Birded Ofira and Central parks before breakfast. The parks of Eilat attract quite a few exhausted migrants. Nothing new (tick wise) but generally good birding.

Collared Flycatcher
Collared Flycatcher
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler

We also spent some time in IBRCE where I got to capture Little Crake from the hide. Imagine how much we fuzzed about Little Crake in Kuwait when Erik found one and Mårten and I didn’t. Probably not the last time we fuzz about a bird we get easy later on.

Little Crake (female)
Little Crake (female)
Little Crake (male)
Little Crake (male)

Always nice with a good hide. Birds come close.

Sedge Warbler
Sedge Warbler
Eurasian Reed Warbler
Eurasian Reed Warbler

Here we are in IBRCE.

BYWP team
BYWP team

Bought food and prepared for a few camping nights. The temperature in Negev is now high, birding mid day sucks, activity is very low. We went to Kilometer 20, searching for Caspian Plover. Instead we found the Red-necked Phalarope that had been reported from the salt pans earlier. A tick and a species which is not rare, but we had no plan to see it anywhere it breeds, thus this was good.

Red-necked Phalarope
Red-necked Phalarope

Searched Yotvata fields for the Plover all afternoon. Just when we had raised the tent at Yotvata, dusk arrived, and a Nightjar flew by the camp. No one saw any white markers on the wings, but too poor views to definitely id the bird. We drove the roads around Yotvata in the dark, saw nothing but a few jackals and foxes. Mårten birded in Israel some 5 years ago, and had great birding at Yotvata at the time. It’s been a standing joke in the group, whenever Erik or I ask about a bird, Mårten has said – Yotvata. We have had good, but clearly not spectacular birding at the famous Yotvata fields.

During night, we rigged my cellphone together with the bluetooth speaker and a power bank, playing the call of Caspian Plover all through the night. The idea being that it should bring down migrating Caspians right down to our tent, so that we can just find them first thing in the morning. Brilliant idea that didn’t work, instead we searched all the fields – again – to no avail.  A compost had attracted a nice mix of Pipits and Wagtails though.

Red-throated Pipit (1w)
Red-throated Pipit (1w)
Red-throated Pipit
Red-throated Pipit
Water Pipit
Water Pipit
Yellow Wagtail (ssp Feldegg)
Yellow Wagtail (ssp Feldegg)

Came back to the camp and a short sand storm had wreaked havoc with our camp, which was now dispersed in the desert.

We decided to spend the mid day birding a few of the Kibbutzes nearby, there are several and they all have pretty good birding. Lotan produced no new ticks, but some nice photos.

Wryneck
Wryneck
Subalpine Warbler
Subalpine Warbler

Drove to Nizzana, close to the Egyptian border and birded the small village of Ezus which produced absolutely nothing. Set camp at the exact spot where Barak Granit had told us the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse appearr in the morning. Awesome camping in the desert, whiskey, stars and the moon, close to an IDF army camp.

Early morning, rise and shine. We’re standing at the spot, at the time according to Barak Granit, and sure as clockwork they arrive.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse
Pin-tailed Sandgrouse

Drove north, and decided to make one final effort on the Batteleur. We set up the scopes at the same spot again, just north-west of Gal’on. Mårten, finds the eagle almost immediately.

 

Tenaciousness pays off, what a goddamn WP bird. Mmmmm. Towards Tel-Aviv and then spent a few hours in the afternoon in the Yarkon Park. This turned out to be a struck of genius,  we just ticked off migrants there. Especially the Semi-collared Flycatcher which was a wanted bird but also a Levant Sparrowhawk was very nice.

Semi-collared Flycatcher
Semi-collared Flycatcher

To finish up, we want to thank the Champions of the Flyway teams for sharing info about observations, Barak Granit for guiding (Hume’s Owl and Nubian Nightjar) and accuracy with the spot for Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Markus Lampinen and Hannu Huhtinen for providing the spot for Baillon’s Crake. Also thanks to Gal Marinov and Leor Dor for helping us to id the Barbary Falcon.

Now – new countries – new birds.

Howling and Owling

Israel is now running out of birds, we only have a few birds left here. We’ll make an effort for Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, and we will continue to search for that possible Caspian Plover. Anyways, I’m getting ahead of myself here. The first day for this post was allocated in it’s entirety to search for a Batteleur, an African Eagle lost in Israel for the last couple of years. Large beautiful fields in the area of Gal’on, we spent the entire day searching the fields. No eagle, enormous amounts of White Storks and raptors though. Black Kites, Short-toed Eagles, Steppe Buzzards, Long-legged Buzzards and one Greater Spotted.

Short-toed Snakeeagle
Short-toed Snake-eagle
Long-legged Buzzard
Long-legged Buzzard

No Batteleur though, maybe we’ll make time for one more effort on that bird, it is there.

We looked everywhere for the Batteleur
We looked everywhere for the Batteleur

Camped just outside Sde Boker kibbutz, with the idea to jump up early and search for Barn Owl in the Kibbutz. Just before we went to sleep, we heard wolfs howling, then just after that, the jackals also howled and we got confused. But then we saw them, two Arabian wolves walking in the moonlight. Mmmm.

No Barn Owl there, we’ll get it later, no harm in trying except sleep deprivation. Once in the car again, Erik checked Facebook, and shouted out – hey – President Trump has resigned. Uhh, we go – maybe not. it’s April first. We then post on our FB that we give up due to “social tension in the group” – we thought that was funny.  Sde Boker is not as good for migrants as the Ben-Gurion memorial site close by, we went there and found a Hume’s Warbler (which we already had from Kuwait)

Hume's Leaf-warbler
Hume’s Leaf-warbler

As well as a pair of migrating Collared Flycatchers.

Collared Flycatcher (female)
Collared Flycatcher (female)
Collared Flycatcher (male)
Collared Flycatcher (male)

Next wanted bird was Dead Sea Sparrow, which we had already halfheartedly searched for. Now we went to – tada – the Dead Sea, they have to be there. Searched tamarisk bushes here to no avail, and then died in the shadow of a nearby petrol station. Once the heat became non-lethal we went back to the same bushes and continued the search, and now with less heat the birds were more active and we could easily find them.

Dead Sea Sparrow (female)
Dead Sea Sparrow (female)
Dead Sea Sparrow (male)
Dead Sea Sparrow (male)

Set camp nearby the site of the Dead Sea Sparrows, perfect camping spot in a small wadi. In the evening we had a date with Barak Granit for a session to see Nubian Nightjar and Hume’s Owl. Two difficult species. Barak Granit delivers.

Nubian Nightjar
Nubian Nightjar

We had excellent views of the Hume’s Owl as well.

I’ve said it before – camping is great. And what is absolutely best with camping is that you wake up on the birding spot. At first light – even before coffee – we all wander about and do random birding. Lovely and completely unorganised.  We had:

Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin
Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin
Green Bee-eater
Green Bee-eater
Sand Grouse
Sand Partridge
Camping
Camping

With the Dead Sea species pocketed we went south again, towards Eilat, with a short stop at some ponds where Red-billed Teal was seen last year .. hmmm.  Spent the entire afternoon on the famous Yotvata Fields. Spectacular birding there, nothing new though. A tricky Pallid Harrier forced us to look close at the characteristics.

Pallid Harrier
Pallid Harrier
Pallid Harrier
Pallid Harrier (same individual)

Meeting COTF and Crake bonanza

We camped at Nizzana with the idea that we should wait by the drinking pools for Pintailed Sandgrouse to come drinking. They didn’t, or maybe they did, but not where we were. The Pintailed Sandgrouse would be good to get here, although if we don’t get it here – it’s possible to repair later in Spain or France. While waiting at the pools, we did find a resting Collared Pratincole.

Collared Pratincole
Collared Pratincole

Gave up on the Sandgrouse before noon, we started to drive – again – towards Eilat. Eilat is one of those world famous birding sites, up there together with Cape May and Falsterbo. On the way we stopped at some salt ponds, teeming with waders. Red-necked Phalarope had been reported there, but we just found all the regular expected waders.

Black-winged Stilt
Black-winged Stilt
Little Ringed Plover
Little Ringed Plover
Marsh Sandpiper
Marsh Sandpiper
Ruff
Ruff
Water pipit
Water pipit

Finished off by birding the famous North Beach of Eilat, the White-eyed Gull was common.

White-eyed Gull
White-eyed Gull
Greater Sandplover
Greater Sandplover

The Whatsup group for the Champions of the Flyway had announced a drinking session at a bar, downtown Eilat. We were eager to meet all the COTF guys. Very nice to meet many the participants of this great bird race. We will surely attend one day, maybe next year.

Late hungover, morning with some slow birding in Eilat city parks. Lots of migration birds in the parks. We were looking especially for flycatchers, no luck though. House Crows are everywhere in Eilat.

House Crow
House Crow

Went up into Eilat Mountains to check for raptor migration. Some raptor days are better than others, this was a slow raptor day. Picked up the Hooded Wheatear on the mountain.

Hoodie
Hoodie

In the afternoon, we went to a pond at kilometer 19, searching for Crakes and it turned into Crake bonanza. Best Craking ever, we got all 3 crakes in the same pond. Especially the Baillon’s crake is good, possible the most elusive little bird in the entire Collin’s Guide. When dusk settled, a group of Lichtensteins’s Sandgrouse came flying in to the pool to drink. Birding doesn’t get much better than this.

Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse
Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse

Going south – no North

Woke up in the dark at the hippie hostel at Mitzpe Ramon and had breakfast at sunrise at nice sewage ponds outside the city. The idea being that Baillon’s Crake could possible be there. No Crakes but plenty of other nice birds.

Squacco Heron
Squacco Heron
Bluethroat
Bluethroat
Bonelli's Warbler
Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler
Mourning Wheatear
Mourning Wheatear

We also had a suspected Marsh warbler, it wasn’t hanging out in the reeds, instead it choose the thick bushes close to the water. It was grayish in general, and the rump was clearly without red and brown. Since Marsh warbler is uncommon in Israel during spring, instead of ticking Marsh, Mårten took the extra time to do a deep study in the Advanced Bird Id Handbook: The Western Palearctic and the picture below shows that the emargination on outer web of p3 levels with secondary tips, in Marsh warbler more towards the wing tip, thus it is indeed a Reed Warbler ssp fuscus. Very very difficult, and truly hard to id in the field without the bird singing.
The book Advanced Bird Id Handbook, is an invaluable complement to the Collins guide.

Reed Warbler (ssp fuscus)
Reed Warbler (ssp fuscus)

Drove on to Sde Boker to look for Syrian Serin. First thing we heard when jumping out of the car was a calling Syrian Woodpecker.

Syrian Woodpecker
Syrian Woodpecker

Also the Palestine Sunbird was everywhere.

Palestine Sunbird
Palestine Sunbird

We met two local young birders there, Gal Marinov and Leor Dor. When we said that we were looking for Syrian Serin in Sde Boker, they said – uhh – why? You should be searching at Ben Gurion Memorial, we have the spot. A swimming pool next to our school. We went there but couldn’t

Desert Finch
Desert Finch

find the Serins. Desert Finches outside the Kibbutz though.

Gave up and went to a wadi close to km 152 where Rikard Ek had seen Arabian Warbler a few days ago. We found the warbler in the dry wadi at the very last light of the day.

Arabian Warbler
Arabian Warbler
Happy birders after Arabian Warbler was found.
Happy birders after Arabian Warbler was found.

Next day we started in Wadi Yahel, supposedly a safe spot for the Syrian Serin. Almost all birders we met have said that the Serins are easy in that wadi. Starting a day with some birding in the sunrise, and then do breakfast after an hour or two is a good way to start a day. No Serins though, Cretzschmar’s bunting, Scrub Warbler, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Subalpine Warbler and Ortolan Bunting.

Cretzschmar's bunting
Cretzschmar’s bunting
Ortolan Bunting
Ortolan Bunting

At this point, the damned Serin sailed up to an unthreatened most-wanted-bird position. The Syrian Serin winters in the south, and breeds in the north at high altitude. When we received fresh reports from Avner Rinot with 6 Oriental Skylarks close to Kfar Rupin and a group of Cinerous Buntings at Mount Gilboa We decided to go north, to Mount Hermon where the Syrian Serins are easy.
Since we were now in the South, very close to the known site for the Black Scrub-robin, we decided to tick that first.

 

We arrived at the right fields in the north with maybe an hour left to  sunset. The fields were packed with Yellow Wagtails, several thousands. Mostly Felldegg, but also Beema and Superciliaris. Difficult to search for the Larks with the distracting flocks of Wagtails. We didn’t find the Larks, but it felt good. Thus we decided to give the same field another go the next morning. Started at sunset to methodically walk the fields. Soon we flush one Oriental Skylark, and then another. Decent views and we all heard the call perfectly. Nice, a hard-to-find bird in WP.

Went to Mount Gilboa to search for Cinerous Bunting. A nice hike up the mountain. No buntings though. They are on their way to Turkey. We did find Long-billed Pipit again though. A few days ago we worked really hard to get it, and now we just got if for free.

Long-billed Pipit
Long-billed Pipit

Compare to the picture from the Collin’s Bird Guide – it’s the right bird ehh.

Long-billed Pipit from Collins Guide
Long-billed Pipit from Collins Guide

Continued north, via a lunch at the shore of Sea of Gaillei, where we got Pygmy Cormorant and Pallas’s Gull.

Pygmy Cormorant
Pygmy Cormorant

Arrived at Mount Hermon, Majdal Shams in the afternoon. Now it was time to nail that boogey Serin. No Serins, a few year ticks though, Western Rock-Nuthatch and Sombre Tit. Birded the slopes of Mount Hermon into the dark and gave up, freezing like crazy.

Next morning, at dawn, we’re back in the same hills, and we find the Serin immeditaly. Perseverance pays off.

 

With everything in the north ticked off, we went south again. Passing through the city of Pardes Hana-Karkur where Nanaday Parakeet was seen many years ago. The Paraket is considered exterpitaded from Israel, however nothing wrong with having lunch there – dreaming – you never know. Pushed on towards Nizzana where we after a few hours searching found the McQueens Bustard in the last light.

This was a bird on the difference list, Mårten saw it in Kuwait, but although we searched for hours there after that bird, we never saw it again. It feels good to be able to remove a bird from the difference list.

Mårten maintains the difference list, and we have quite a few birds on that list today. Whenever there are two good beds and one not so good, whoever has the most birds on the difference list gets to get the poor bed. The idea being that the person that is worst at sharing gets the worst bed. Erik got a really good bird on the difference list this morning, one that’ll be hard to repair. Boring.

Shalom Israel

We’ve arrived in Israel. What a birding country, and spring migration is in full swing. Warblers everywhere and a steady stream of raptors, storks and cranes pumping northbound.

Migration
Migration

It’s not just birds that abundant, but also birders. The competition Champions of the flyway runs now, and all the teams are scouting. We have been gratiously invited to their WhatsUp group as well as the Telegram group for rare-birds-alert in Israel so we are all set information wise.

Yesterday, we just had a few hours in a park in Tel-Aviv and started out in Israel where we left off in Holland, a Cat-C bird! Vinous-breasted Starling, a bird from south-east Asia.

Vinous-breasted Starling
Vinous-breasted Starling

Generally good birding in the park, including all 4 WP kingfishers in the same park. Lots of good bird and year ticks.

Masked Shrike
Masked Shrike
Eurasian Hoopoe
Eurasian Hoopoe
Turtle Dove
Turtle Dove
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Black-crowned Nightheron
Black-crowned Night Heron

Drove through the night towards the Dead Sea and slept in Arad.

This morning, we started real early, with Wadi Salvadora as the first goal. This is a well know spot for Sinai Rosefinch, a price bird. Also an important bird for us, since if we can find it here, our trip to Egypt later will be much easier and we can fly to Hurghada instead of Sharm El-Sheik. Walking the steep slope up the wadi we soon found shy Striolated Buntings.

Striolated Bunting
Striolated Bunting

A good bird, soon thereafter we also found a pair of Sinai Rosefinch, picture sucks, but hey.

Sinai Rosefinch
Sinai Rosefinch

With the Rosefinch in the pocket, we descended and found a Cyprus warbler on the way down, mmmm and also a Scrub Warbler.

Cyprus Warbler
Cyprus Warbler
Scrub Warbler
Scrub Warbler

We continued to Ein Gedi and the tourist trap Wadi David where a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler had been seen for quite some time. The touristy paved path was teeming with birds, warblers everywhere. Common and rare.

Rüppels's Warbler
Rüppels’s Warbler (male)
Rüppel's Warbler (female)
Rüppel’s Warbler (female)
Lesser Whitethroat
Lesser Whitethroat
Blackstart
Blackstart

The Tristram’s Starling was abundant and everywhere.

Tristram's Starling
Tristram’s Starling

Our goal was the Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, however it’s not easy to keep focused when such new lifer birds as Cretzschmar’s bunting appear. Erik screamed ROSTSPARV (Swedish name) and physically vibrated when he saw it.

Cretzschmar's bunting
Cretzschmar’s bunting (female)

Finally we found the lost vagrant, the Pallas’s Leaf warbler in a small stream of water.

Pallas's Leaf Warbler
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler

With a spectacular start of the Israel trip we had a slow lunch at Arad and then went searching for Long-billed Pipit in an area where both of our friends Joachim Bertrands and Markus Craig had seen the bird previous years. An area with a habitat that exactly fitted the description of preferred habit in the Collins Guide, slopes with flat rocks and herbs. We walked those beautiful slopes for several hours, each step a joy for the nose. It smells of kitchen while walking in herbs. The area is some distance north of Arad, and birding in general there was just great. Blue Rock thrush, Spectacled Warbler, Rüppels’s warpler, Eastern Orphean warbler, Prinias, Finch’s Wheatear, Woodchat Shrike, Subalpine Warbler, Chukars, Steppe Buzzard, Pallid Harrier, Masked Shrike, Cyprus Warbler and more. Finally after many kilometers in the legs, Mårten found the bird.

Finished off the day with searching for Crakes in a sewage pond close to Mitzpe Ramon where we spent the night in a cheap weed-smoker hippie hostel. Long day, but a spectacular birding day, 87 birds in total and 23 new for the year. Maybe later during our two weeks in Israel when/if we run out of new species we’ll try for a Big Day.