Mount Amasa and Ashalim

The rocky slopes of Mount Amasa in central Israel typify hillsides found across much of the Mediterranean basin.  The mosaic of boulders, scrub and open area is home to species such a Blue Rock Thrush, Sardinan Warbler and Woodlark. Proximity to the Judean Desert means that some desert species are also present, e.g. Mourning Wheatear and Scrub Warbler.  Moreover the climate and terroir, as Ingrid and I later discovered, suits vineyards that produce very fine wine.  Even more remarkable is the fact that there are wheatears all year round!  I winter Finsch’s Wheatears from Turkey and the Caucasus replace the Eastern Black-eared Wheatears that breed each summer. Their Hebrew names which translate as Winter and Summer Wheatear reflect the seasonal occurance of these two species.

Wine from Mount Amasa was served in our hotel

Mount Amasa is about the same distance from Eilat as Tel Aviv. This  together with the quality birding made it a sensible place to meet  Yoav Perlman. Plus Yoav wanted to see if the Persian Wheatear that had spent the last two winters here had returned.  We met in the car park of Tel Arad National Park  an importantant archeological site with a series of well preserved artefacts dating back to the Canaanite period (Early Bronze Age). I transferred my gear to Yoav’s car and we drove the few km up the road to the trailhead.

Winter Wheatears and a Big Surprise

Under bright blue skies we walked out across a flat grassy plain towards the foothills.  The elevation and strong wind made me regret not having a coat.  But conversation was a good distraction and as we gained height there was plenty to see. In particular good numbers of Finsch’s Wheatear along with Stonechats and Spectacled Warblers.  Yoav’s keen ears picked out other species including Woodlark and Scrub Warbler, but nothing was coming close.  And there was no sign of the Persian Wheatear on its favoured ridge. To mitigate the wind chill we took shelter in a hollow to see if the wheatears would come to us.

Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) , Mount Amasa, Israel, January 2020
Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)

After about ten minutes with little success all hell let loose! A startled fox dashed down the path with a large raptor in hot pursuit.  I tried to process what we were seeing when Yoav excitedly called it as a Goshawk. The first he had seen in Israel for ca 20 years.  I was instructed to get a photo as Yoav’s camera was in his bag. The huge female did a U-turn and appeared to pitch in on the opposite hillside. We left our shelter and scrambled up the  hillside, but unfortunately couldn’t relocate it. I walked down the valley to try and photograph the wheatears whilst Yoav scoured the upper slopes for the Persian but with no luck.

Finsch's Wheatear (Oenanthe finschii), Mount Amasa, Israel, January 2020
Finsch’s Wheatear (Oenanthe finschii)
Ashalim Reservoir

We left Mount Amasa and retreived my car then visited nearby Arad for a quick coffee and sandwich.  Our next destination was Ashalim Reservoir at the edge of the Dead Sea industrial zone.   Patches of open water held plenty of duck, including an impressive 47 Ferruginous Duck.  The extensive reedbeds were full of wintering Chiffchaffs feeding alongside the resident Clamorous Reed Warblers. Dead Sea Sparrows darted in and out of the vegetation and overhead were Marsh Harriers and a Long-legged Buzzard  This very birdy area eventually produced our target species, African Swamphen.

African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis) – 4th January 2020

Recently the Western Palearctic taxa in the “Purple Swamphen” complex were split into three species. Western (Purple) Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) is found in the Iberian Penninsular and North Africa. In Turkey, the Caucausus and the Arabian Penninsular it is replaced by Grey-headed Swamphen (Porphyrio policephalus).  The third species, African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis),  recently extended its range northwards from the Nile Valley into Israel.  To be honest it was not even on my radar for this trip and that made for an even more welcome WP tick (#718).

A Great Spotted Cuckoo put in a brief appearance which was a sure sign that spring had arrived in Israel.  Unfortunately our time had gone very quickly and Yoav needed to back in Tel Aviv.  

Hazeva

There was just over two hours of daylight left.  Yoav suggested a site just off Route 90 for Arabian Warbler to visit on the way back to Eilat.  This black hooded lump of Sylvia warbler starts to sing in early January and should have been easy to find.  I followed Yoav’s directions to a wadi just South of Hazeva full of mature Acacias.  As directed, I explored the wadi both to the North and South of the parking area but to no avail.

Wadi South of Hazeva – mature Acacias like tehse are favoured by Arabian Warbler.

Unfortunately the only Sylvia warbler I saw in the wadi was a very photogenic Sardinian Warbler.  An Arabian (Great) Grey Shrike was the only one of the trip and  putting the fear of God into the local bulbuls.

Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala)

There was a gorgeous sunset to enjoy before I rejoined Route 90 and returned to Eilat to join Ingrid for dinner.

Sunset over the Ararva Valley

Pink and Grey

After two fine sunny days the weather took a turn for the worse. My plan was to go out for the morning and look for Sinai Rosefinch then meet Ingrid for lunch. I started at Km 35 on Route 90 and looked for a Steppe Grey Shrike, but with no luck. I drove back towards Eilat and took the turning west at Km19 towards the Eilat Mountains.

Grey skies over the track to Amram’s Pillars.

After a few kilometers the road divides. I took the right-hand fork towards Amram’s Pillars. These natural pillars of red sandstone are a popular tourist attraction and a good place ot look for desert birds. As I parked I noticed two tiny birds with long tails scurrying over the boulders that edged the car-park. These were the two showiest Scrub Warblers that one could wish for. One even posed for me on top of one of the boulders.

Scrub Warbler, Scotocerca inquieta, Amram's Pillars, Israel, January 2020
Scrub Warbler (Scotocerca inquieta)

I walked the start of a couple of the trails leading from the car-park without going as far as the pillars. It was the Israeli weekend and many hikers and dog walkers were enjoying their day off. As a consequence there were no birds. I drove back towards the camp site and noticed a few small birds feeding on a low sandstone rock. One of these was very pink indeed! I turned the car around and edged back to the rock. A small flock of Sinai Rosefinches was attending a feeding station. I manouvered the car to use it as a hide and enjoyed excellent views. The raspberry pink male with it’s snowy forehead was a delight because on my previous winter visit I saw only the dun females.

Sinai Rosefinch, Carpodacus synoicus, Amram's Pillars, Israel, January 2020
Sinai Rosefinch (Carpodacus synoicus)

My time was up and I needed to return to the hotel.  Unfortunately Ingrid was still unwell and wished to stay in bed.  I looked in vain for two other local scarcities; Hume’s warbler and Striated Scops Owl.  But the weather got worse with a cool wind and intermittent rain.  And after a half hearted look at North Beach and the Canal I gave in for the day.

Uvda Valley Wheatears and a lifer

The Uvda Valley Wheatears

The Uvda Valley is about a one hour drive NW of Eilat.  Autumn rains caused the desert to bloom making it attractive to a  range of  wintering passerines espcially wheatears.  These included two Israeli rarities; Kurdish Wheatear and Basalt (Mourning) Wheatear that I was keen to see.  The black and white nominate form of Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens lugens) is common throughout Israeli desert regions.  In contrast the striking all black Basalt Wheatear (O. l. warriae) is a scarce (increasing?) winter visitor from NE Jordan and Syria. These represent two of eight taxa in a complex distributed across the arid regions of North and East Africa and the Middle East .  Historically  Basalt Wheatear was regarded as a colour morph of Mourning Wheatear. However recent work suggests that it is at very least a distinctive subspecies and quite possibly a good species.

Despite best efforts at an early(ish) start I was doubly thwarted. First by lack of planning; no packed breakfast. Second by a call from Yoav, surprised that I was not already in the field, who wished to plan for Sunday.  When I arrived at the given coordinates it was already mid-morning. Although Noam Weiss and clients were already leaving they had seen both birds.  Despite clear directions it took me over two hours to track down the Kurdish Wheatear.  After showing well for <1min  it  flew off 200+ m. to another patch of bushes and I couldn’t relocate it.  A real shame as although not a WP tick, I saw this species in Turkey 34 years ago, it might as well be!

Kurdish Wheatear (Oenanthe xanthoprymna)
Kurdish Wheatear (Oenanthe xanthoprymna)

Time was moving on as I walked NW up the valley to try to find the regular Basalt; one of four wintering in the area. It was slow going with many distractions like this confiding female Hooded Wheatear.

Hooded Wheatear (Oenanthe monacha), Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Hooded Wheatear (Oenanthe monacha)

And a noisy flock of more than forty Trumpeter Finches to name but a few.

Trumpeter Fich Bucanetes githagineus, Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Trumpeter Finch (Bucanetes githagineus)
Mourning Glory

I spent some time with this Mourning Wheatear perplexed by the coarse and extensive streaking on the crown. Later I discovered Dutch birder Leo Boon the author of a 2004 article “Mourning wheatears” – illustrated in Dutch Birding had photographed the same bird.  He wondered if it was of the Eastern form O.l. persica that breeds in Iran.  Leo recorded video and collected poo for DNA  extraction/sequencing.  I await the outcome with interest.

Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens lugens/persica), Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens lugens/persica)

Nearby a promising looking black wheatear sitting on top of a bush about 250 m away turned out to be the boy. 

Basalt Wheatear Oenanthe (lugens) warriae), Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Basalt Wheatear (Oenanthe (lugens) warriae)

The Basalt Wheatear was clearly not happy that  I hadn’t brought a tribute of mealworms and promptly went walkabout. Not before giveing couple of distant fly pasts to show off it’s distinctive wing and tail patterns. More than happy I said farewell to the Uvda Valley wheatears and returned to the car. I drove to Yotvat to find something to eat and had a brief poke around the north circular field,  Finding nothing of note I headed South in search for my next target. 

Samar, a small kibbutz about 40 km North of Eilat, has recently hosted a family of Black Scrub Robins. This sub-Saharan species has recently colonised the Southern Arava.   The one remaining bird, I was told, had moved location and become a bit elusive.  Passing through the sturdy gates of the kibbutz I stopped to photograph an approachable pair of Spur-winged Lapwings.

Afternoon Delight
Spur-winged Lapwing (Vanellus spinosus), Samar, Israel, January 2020
Spur-winged Lapwing (Vanellus spinosus)

The horse paddocks, reputed to be the bird’s new favourite haunt, were easy enough to find.  But because it was the Israeli weekend the young kibbutz residents were busy grooming  their animals and cleaning tack. I explored a few areas of nearby scrub finding little of note, although a couple of Graceful Prinias posed for the camera.

Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis), Samar, Israel, January 2020
Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis)

Back at the paddocks the Black Scrub Robin (WP #717) crept out from cover to drink at a leaky pipe. As I lined up the camera the BCS was spooked by a passer by and flew to the kibbutz perimeter. Before I could catch up and recompose it dropped into a well-lit hollow under some tall bushes.  This was absolutely perfect except for the chain link fence between me and the bird! Here the BCS strutted its stuff. A magnificant all black bird frequently showing off the rows of white spots on the underside of its huge tail.  An absolute delight but just impossible to photograph…

After another 30 minutes or so of frustration I gave up and headed back to the hotel to catch up with Ingrid and have dinner.  There would be much to talk about after an enjoyable if slightly frustrating day.

An Unexpected Visitor

Ingrid and I flew to Amsterdam on New Years Eve and spent the night at an airport hotel. Early the next morning we flew to the newly constructed Ramon Airport just North of Eilat. However it did take two attempts. The first flight returning to Schipol after an hour because a sensor warning light came on in the cockpit. Consequently we arrived after dark and took a bus (runs every 30 mins) to our hotel near the Coral Beach. I was excited by a return to southern Israel 25 years after our last visit. Although I had no idea that an unexpected visitor from Africa was going to make the first day especially so.

After a good sleep and breakfast I took a bus into town to collect a pre-booked hire car. Two things I should have done at the same time. First use one of the ATMs in the centre of town. These recognise UK debit cards and issue small denomination notes. Seconly buy a local SIM card ca £20 for all the data you will use in a week (or even a month!).

When a new bird is not a tick!

I collected my gear and drove North thruugh Eilat noting the much changed skyline around the North Beach. I turned off East towards the Wadi Araba Border Crossing into Jordan and the Eilat Ornithological Park.

The excellent information boards at the entrance to the International Birding and Research Centre Eilat

The park which serves as HQ for the IBRCE (International Birding and Research Centre Eilat) is undergoing a makeover. Improved trails and hides will enhance the experience for coachloads of tourists who come to learn about the work of the centre. The purpose of my visit was twofold. First of all to pick up some information on the scarce wintering species in the Southern Arava. Secondly to try and see one the 5+ Oriental Honey Buzzards that were wintering in the area. I completely failed on the OHBs but enjoyed some of the common wintering species. Both around the park and on the adjacent saltpans.

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola), Israel, January 2020
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) – IBRCE
Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) – IBRCE

Just as I was leaving I saw a tweet about an African Crake that had been taken into care in Eilat!! A real WTF moment. That on day one of your trip a species with <15 Western Palearctic records has arrived on your doorstep. But! To cut a long story short the African Crake (a species in the same genus as Corncrake) arrived at the IRBCE in a bag. Found in a city garage and rescued from a cat it was lively but injured. Quite rightly it was taken into veterinary care, but not before a photoshoot.

An unexpected visitor African Crake (Crex egregia)
African Crake (Crex egregia) – IBRCE

Regrettably I cannot count African Crake on my Western Palearctic list. Listing birds is a personal thing and even more so in the WP because, like the UK constitution, the rules are unwritten. However for consistency I choose to follow the principles used by the American Birding Association for their recording area.

Evening on the saltpans

After the excitement of the crake I drove a little further North to the saltpans at Km20. It was now late afternoon and looking over the saltpans towards Jordan the light was excellent. Greater Flamingos are the stars of the show here with three big flocks totalling about 450 birds.

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) – Km 20 Saltpans

Including the long-staying melanistic individual.

mealanistic Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) – Km 20 Saltpans

Waders feeding in the shallow edges to the saltpans included Redshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Little Stint, Dunlin and both Kentish and Ringled Plovers.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) – Km 20 Saltpans
Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) – Km 20 Saltpans
Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis) – Km 20 Saltpans

By now the light was starting to go. After a couple of false starts I found the gap in the fence that allowed entry to the Km19 sewage works. In the time I had left I didn’t manage much beyond the exptected herons and duck. Although overhead were some impressive flights of Greater Cormorants heading south from I don’t where to a roost site at the coast. As dusk fell I called it a day and headed back to Eilat for an excellent dinner at a local seafood restaurant.

Booby Traps on The Lizard

During my last couple of days in Batumi I became aware that a second summer Brown Booby was being seen irregularly near St Ives in Cornwall.  Although Brown Boobies are quite common on a global scale it would be a new species for me. But for two reasons one that would have to wait. Firstly I had been away for 2.5 weeks and had work commitments to fulfil. Secondly I had planned a weekend birding and trapping moths on The Lizard when I took Kat back to university.  I was just going to have to sit this one out! 

Last seen at St Ives around midday on 31st August this bird was seen again an hour later from Pendeen.  Since Pendeen is ca10 miles SW of St Ives it had surely gone.  However, in a strange twist a different, first winter, bird turned up in the rocks off Kynance Cove the next day. Just about a mile from the Lizard Youth Hostel I was booked to stay in for the weekend of 6th- 8th September I was just going to have to sit this one out!

A sucessful twitch

We set off on the evening of 5th September with a fully loaded car – even with the back seats taken out all available space was occupied either by the worldly goods of the student illustrator or mothing paraphanelia.  And why not? As the UK mainland’s most southerly point it is a prime site for migrant moths and a number of species restricted to the rocky shores of SW England and Wales.  After a rubbish journey slowed by mutiple diversions we reached the Okehampton Travelodge just after midnight and pitched in for the night before continuing on to Kynance in the morning.  

A full load for the journey South West

By the time we reached the NT car park at Kynance many happy folk, a number of whom had also made the long trip from East Anglia, were already drifting back to their vehicles. Reassured I headed up to the viewpoint only to find the bird had left its favoured rock.  After a bit of uncertainty the Brown Booby (WP #715) was relocated feeding in Pentreath Beach where I watched it at some considerable distance for about 40 minute performing laps of the bay before it returned to Gull Rock.  I managed on one OK record shot as it flew past about 100 m below me and was very envious of the lone photographer located on a low promentory about 0.5 km to the South who seemed to be going eyeball to eyeball with the sulid – maybe tomorrow?

Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster), Kynance Cove, Cornwall, September 6th 2019
Moving in

Time now to get Kat moved in.  After a brief stop in Truro to collect the house keys and for me to visit the excellent SouthWest Optics to buy some replacement eye cups for my Swarowski binoculars we headed into Falmouth.  By the time we arrived I was famished and left Kat to get settled and headed to a cafe 100m down the road which turned out to be the highly recommended Provedore with a fine choice of SE Asian fusion dishes and excellent coffee,

The excellent fragrant sweet potao and roasted cauliflower curry served with toated rosti and poached egg – Provadore, Falmouth Cornwall

After leaving Kat to unpack and catch up with friends I picked up some groceries and decided to take another look at the Booby which was now settled back on its offshore rock.  But not the usual spot – it had moved to the West face of the rock which meant a hike of about 1.5 km beyond Kynance Cove to look back and view it..  Compared with the morning this was less than satisfactory with the distant Booby shuffling uncomfortably in a crevice and never really looking settled it did cross my mind something was amiss.  

The Brown Booby was last seen on the right hand slope of the furthest rock
The walk back to the car park via the famous cafe at Kyanace Cove.
Lizard Point

I returned to the car and drove the short distance to the YHA’s Lizard Point Hostel.  This very comfortable four star hostel is located close ot the tip of the pennninsular and was a hotel in the Victorian time. Facilities are good, albeit a bit basic, but with the added bonus of otstanding Atlantic views and extensive sheltered gardens. As it was quite breezy I set one trap in the garden before walking into the village to enjoy a pint and a supper of locally sourced seafood at The Witchball mainland Britains’s most southerly pub.

LIzard Point Hostel
Trapsite the night of 6th/7th September

The next day was clear and still and offered an opportunity to photograph the Brown Booby in good light.  First I needed to attend to the trap and have breakfast.  I caught about 20 moths, nothing out of the ordinary, although a Frosted Orange offered evidence of the changing seasons. The catch did include Galium Carpet which was new for me and three Delicates. The Delicate is an immigrant, although these have been the progeny of moths that arrived earlier in the year and stayed to breed, 

Galium Carpet (Epirrhoe galiata) – Lizard, Cornwall September 7th 2019. Note the characteristic concave forewing.
The Delicate (Mythimna vitellina) – Lizard, Cornwall September 7th 2019.
A second bite of the cherry?

After breakfast I headed back up to Kynance Cove. An increase in visitor numbers required parking in an overflow carpark with help from a rather officious NT volunteer! It was hard to know if the Booby was present, but plenty of telescopes were trained on it favoured rock.  I headed in the opposite direction to get to the promentory before it started to feed.  On the way I was joined by a local photographer who had spent an hour or so on Pentreath beach.  He was far from  convinced our quarry had not gone.  I was just going to have to sit this one out.

The view looking North over Penreath Beach towards Kynance Cove

And I did for a couple of hours in the company of a steady stream of hirundines and the occassional passing Mediterranean Gull. But no sign of the Booby. The consensus from friends I met on the way back to the car park was that it had disappeared overnight.

The afternoon was spent retreiving more of Kat’s possessions from storage in Truro and moving them to Falmouth.  Job done I returned to the hostel to cook myself dinner. A very fine chilli con carne which was able to cool and mature whilst I set the traps.

Dinner on the YH kitchem hob

Given the calmer conditions I elected to run both traps on the cliffs just off the SW Coastal Path.  I powered up the gennie as the last jogger of the evening pounded their way along the path. Nobody would pass the traps  again until I emptied them in the morning. 

Trapsite – 7th/8th September 2019
Eat, sleep, moths…

I returned the hostel to enjoy my chilli and a glass or two of red wine before retiring.  In the end I managed as good a night’s sleep as the top bunk bed in a shared dormitary allows.  As one of my room mates observed at least the YHA don’t make you do chores any more!

Once again the morning dawned clear and still and  I walked down to the trapsnot seeing a soul.  Both traps held good numbers of moths with a nice balance between migrants local specialities.  The migrants included;Delicate, Dark Sword-grass and Scarce Broad-bordered Straw.

Dark Sword-grass (Agrotis ipsilon) - Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.
Dark Sword-grass (Agrotis ipsilon) – Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.
Scarce-bordered Straw (Helicoverpa armigera) - Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.
Scarce-bordered Straw (Helicoverpa armigera) – Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.

Whilst local coastal specialists were represented by Grass Eggar, Devonshire Wainscot and Mullein Wave.

Grass Eggar (Lasiocampa trifolii) Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.
Devonshire Wainscot (Leucania putrescens) – Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.
Mullein Wave (Scopula marginepunctata) – Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.

After breakfast I checked out and headed into Falmouth to help Kat with a supermarket shop.  By mid-morning I was on my way to Davidstow. Unfortunately my attempts to photograph a long staying Buff-breasted Sandpiper were thwarted by some over exuberant members of the microlight community.  At which point I accepted that I had enjoyed a pretty good weekend and set the Sat Nav for home.

Last Day in Batumi

I took a more relaxed approach to birding on my last day in Batumi.  Following a late breakfast I caught a mastruka to the city centre.  I visited a local barber then walked along the seafront towards Batumi Lighthouse.

Batumi Lighthouse, Batumi, Georgia, August 2019
Batumi Lighthouse- this lighthouse built in 1882 by French engineers is the third beacon to occcupy this site.

The decomissioned lighthouse is at the northern tip of the promontory on which Batumi is built. The lighthouse is dwarfed by many surrounding structures including the distinctive Alphabet Tower and a large ferris wheel. The patch grass known as the “Ferris Wheel Field” is a migrant trap. And despite the blue skies and light winds did not disappoint.

Ferris Wheel Field, Alphabet Tower, Batumi, Georgia August 2019
The Ferris Wheel field is overlooked by a number of hotels and the 130 m Alphabet Tower which displays all 33 letter of the Georgian alphabet. The Alphabet Tower can also be seen at the right hand side of the townscape at the top of this post.

I encountered a nice selection of early migrants including a juvenile Red-backed Shrike

Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio), Batumi, August 2019
Juvenile Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

along with several Yellow Wagtails and Whinchats.

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra), Batumi, Georgia, August 2019
Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

Under the shade of a large tree I met a young couple who had birded nearby Batumi Boulevard that morning.  For the most part we had seen the same species.  But they  reported a Booted Warbler and a European Nightjar roosting in a pine tree both of which I was keen to see. Armed with directions I headed off to search for their birds.

Batumi Boulevard runs from the lighthouse down the East side of the promontory.  The broad concrete path divides a strip of mature pines on the seaward side from an area of parkland. Both habitats provide excellent cover for tired migrant birds and in poor weather must be absolutly alive with birds. Today I found birding hard work and spent two hours seeing very little before I located the Nightjar.  Unfortunately the height of it’s favoured branch did not give the best angle for a photograph. That aside I was excited for my first day roosting European Nightjar in nearly fifty years of birding!

European Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus), Batumi, Georgia, August 2019
European Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus)

I finally caught up with the candidate Booted Warbler which spent 20 minutes  in a dense shrub less than ten metres away.  In over an hour  it did not show itself well let alone submit to a photograph.  Frustrated I opted for a late lunch in a nearby cafe.  Feeling better I took a taxi back to my hotel to pack for my return to the UK the following morning.