Sunday 1 April 2018

COTF18 Day One: The Terriers hit the playing field

Today, the 20th March was our first day birding the Champions 'Playing Field' the area of southern Israel, around which teams will race on the 26th for the chance to become Champions of the Flyway. For the next few days, we planned to familiarise ourselves with the sites and species to give ourselves a good chance on race day.

Holland Park, Eilat

Up and at 'em, the three Terriers to have made it to Eilat so far (me, Rich and Mark; Darren would be joining us tomorrow) were out early to hunt some migrants. Under Mark's expert direction, we headed for Holland Park, on the northern edge of town, notching up a couple of smart Tristram's Starlings along the way. These black, Mistle Thrush-sized birds sported bright orange wing-flashes and only seemed to be around first thing in the morning.

Holland Park is not a park in the conventional sense, more a large dry wadi, with a scattering of arid-loving Tamarisks and other bushes.  It provides a haven for weary migrants dropping in over the city. Almost the first bird we saw was a rather cool Blackstart, a pair of which seemed to be nesting in the wall by the entrance. They flared their ample black tails and seemed a little bit unimpressed by our appearance. They'd seen it all before!

We worked our way up the wadi, full of effervescence to be out birding after our long journey, admiring trees along the way.

The first day birding in an unfamiliar land is always superb, with unfamiliar calls emanating from thick cover and unidentified birds skulking unseen. Really exciting stuff! The commonest migrants were Lesser Whitethroats - we saw c20. With a bit of effort, we managed to pull out a couple of Ruppell's Warblers, two lumbering, shy Eastern Orphean Warblers and about five Eastern Bonelli's Warblers. The latter, with silvery white underparts and lemon wing-edges and rump are known round here by the much more evocative name of Balkan Warbler. We liked that, so we stuck with it.

White-spectacled Bulbuls were common, as they proved to be throughout the area, singing their sweet, thrush-like notes, along with handsome Sand Partridges, Pale Crag (Rock) Martins, Tawny Pipit and Palestine Sunbirds. A male Pallid Harrier cruised over north followed by a group of 45 Baltic Gulls and a male Lesser Kestrel, while four local Arabian Green Bee-eaters put on a fine display. Mark pulled two Striolated Buntings out of the bag much to our delight, one of which posed for pics.

 Striolated Bunting
Sand Partridge

It was heating up, and we were starting to bake, so we opted for some shade up at the nearby cemetery. A female Blue Rock Thrush greeted us, along with a tail-less White Wagtail, parading on the lawns around the graves, but stars of the show were a pair of Arabian Green Bee-eaters which hung out in the trees.

Blue Rock Thrush, and Arabian Green Bee-eaters.

KM20 Saltpans

Back up the Route 90 to KM20 (each KM is handily marked by the side of the road), which I skillfully missed and had to drive another five KM before I could pull a naughty U turn across the central reservation, before returning through the police checkpoint and back to KM20. KM20 is a series of saltpans right on the Jordanian border and so is a no-go after dark unless you want to have a serious run-in with the Israeli military.

We drove east into the saltpans through a date plantation and passed some old poly tunnels. Atop one was a tiny, yet handsome male Namaqua Dove, with jet black face and breast. He happily sat in the sun surveying the scene.

A strong, hot northerly was blowing across the lagoons, shrouding the Jordanian mountains in dust. The birding was unbelievable and we Terriers did not know where to look first. On the near edge of the saltpan, a selection of Kentish Plovers, Ringed Plovers, Little Stints, Dunlin and wagtails picked for insects, with Marsh Sandpipers, Redshanks, Black-winged Stilts and Ruff in the water.  A Greater Sandplover was among the Spur-winged Plovers on the far edge, with a Little Ringed Plover too. On the bund, a large flock of c100 wagtails fed in a frenzy.

Wagtail frenzy

On closer inspection, they proved to be spanking Black-headed Wagtails, mixed with Blue-headeds, one or two Grey-headeds and some mind-blowing hybrids, including the distinctive Superciliaris, which has a black head and a massive yellow eyebrow. Several White Wagtails were hanging out too, getting in on the action.



Marsh Sandpiper.

Out in the lagoon, hordes of Slender-billed Gulls picked insects from the water surface, around the legs of majestic Greater Flamingoes. Here, somewhere, was a major rarity - a Lesser Flamingo. Fortunately, compared to its commoner cousins, it was tiny, and easily picked out from the horde. It could have literally walked through their legs, without ducking! Here and there small groups of Shovelers and Pintails loafed, adding a touch of the familiar among the cosmic birdage.

Greater and Lesser Flamingoes feeding, while a Slender-billed Gull looks on.

Team Leica Red Kites led by Alan Davies turned up - a nice bunch of lads. Also, Yoav Perlman, one of Mark's mates arrived, and we all shook hands, swapped birding gen and smiles, before posing for photos, things that would become part of the routine over the coming days.

Round to the north end of the saltpans a flock of 100+ Garganey on the water blew my mind - I am more used to scanning flocks of Teal for one or two birds! The mint looking habitat to the north was well worth a look: a Pallid Harrier cruised past, and there, among the bushes, we spied three elegant Dorca's Gazelles.

This was magical birding. We decided to head north to Yotvata, as the allure of Bimaculated Larks was too much to withstand. Mark dug deep in his memory to remember the right track, but sure enough he found the way and soon were enjoying breathtaking views of a male Pallid Harrier that eyeballed us as it quartered the arid ground near the circular field. Nearby, large flocks of Short-toed Larks scuttled about on the sand, and tight gangs of Spanish Sparrows zipped by to roost. Scanning the onion fields yielded a selection of wheatears, mostly familiar Northern types, but here and there a pale, upright Isabelline. Both Red-throated Pipits and Tree Pipits called overhead and a stonking pied Caspian Stonechat fed from the weed tops. Shortly, some other birders put us on the Bimaculated Larks, three of which fed unconcerned on the seeds of a small bush. Until they were flushed by a hunting Pallid Harrier - unbelievable scenes!

Bimacs, flushed by a Pallid Harrier.

But more was to come! We bumped into a tour group, led by a couple of American birders. They were going to stay on and look for Egyptian Nightjar. We decided this would be a great idea and they seemed happy for us to hang out. As it got dark, a Stone Curlew called eerily from the onion fields to the north. A large flock of Black Kites wheeled like bats over the date plantation before settling into roost. Several Pallid Harriers came in to roost, many of which sat on the irrigation boom over the circular field. Amazing! Right on cue, A nightjar showed up. We were all surprised by the bird's small size and obvious wing and tail spots. This was no Egyptian! Sure enough one of the guides nailed it -"It's a Nubian Nightjar!" Wow! What a mega bit of luck. This was a massive surprise as this species shouldn't really be here. The bird fed around the edge of the circular field and then drifted away. Shortly, one then two pale forms appeared- Egyptian Nightjars! Awesome! They glided about and then settled in the dust allowing good scope views. Brilliant and a fab end to our first day on the playing field.

Yotvata scene

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