Champions of the Flyway!

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Northern Israel, Winter 2019 - Kfar Ruppin's Big Guns

As described in the previous few posts, the fishponds at Kfar Ruppin - just a couple of minutes from the Jordan Valley Birding Center - are something to behold. Crammed with birds and offering the most ridiculously close, prolonged opportunities to enjoy them, it's a birders and photographers dream, and as a place to full your boots in the depths of winter, there's nowhere quite like it.

Find out more here:

100 posts in 2019! Stay tuned to see if I can maintain the pace....

Monday, December 30, 2019

Northern Israel, winter 2019 - Black Storks!

Choosing the Black Stork as the logo bird for the Jordan Valley Birding Center was a very good idea - iconic, beautiful, and happily impossible to get away from as they grace the skies above the centre and the fishponds in good numbers. Not just that, but because of the nature of the fishponds, they're remarkably tolerant of disturbance, and anyone with a mobile phone can get close-up shots of them on the deck and in flight.
Not that that dims their innate elegance - they're a true joy to behold and it's an unforgettable experience.

Northern Israel, Winter 2019 - Kfar Ruppin Kingfishers & More

The fishponds at Kfar Ruppin, not three minutes from the Jordan Valley Birding Center, are exploding with birdlife, and constitute one of the simultaneously easiest and most exciting birding experiences one can have. All three Kingfishers are everywhere - Pied, White-throated and Common - and are especially approachable -

Most of the waders (bar the Spur-winged Lapwings, of course, which are everywhere and would happily set up shop in a washing machine) are concentrated on the drained or partly drained ponds, and there's plenty to go through - (many) Temminck's and Little Stints, Dunlins, Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers, Marsh, Common, Green and Wood Sandpipers and more - and while there was nothing out of the ordinary present during my stay, it's a hotspot for scarcitities and anything can turn up.

Moustached Warblers - easily found in the reeedy areas 

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Northern Israel, Winter 2019 - At The Lodge (2)

Purple Heron
Another benefit of staying at the Jordan Valley Birding Centre & Lodge is that, for unbeatable views (and flight shots) of various broad-winged and soaring birds, all you have to do is step out of your room and look up. It's that simple; the proximity to various habitats, including neighbouring freshwater wetlands and open, countryside, means a multitude of species use the airspace directly above the accommodation, and it doesn't get any easier than this....

Great Egret
Male Marsh Harrier
Great White Pelican
Great Spotted Eagle
Great White Pelicans

Friday, December 27, 2019

Northern Israel, Winter 2019 - At The Lodge (1)

Male Bluethroat, on the path just outside my room at the JVBC
As mentioned, for the first week of my stay in Northern Israel (which sadly came to an end a couple of weeks ago) I was based at the idyllic Jordan Valley Birding Center & Lodge. Working with Sheli and her team, and enjoying the relaxed, warm and friendly atmosphere so ably nurtured by them was a unique pleasure, and I've no hesitation in heartily recommending this little corner of paradise to anyone with a pair of binoculars, a camera and / or any kind of interest in birds and nature - whether absolute beginner, expert or anywhere inbetween.

The entrance to the JVBC lodge - in full flower in the middle of winter, attracting plenty of birds...
The JVBC itself nestles within Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin, a few km from the small town of Beit She'an, all set in the fertile Israeli countryside of the Jordan Valley, an area wonderfully diverse in habitat and wildlife. The Center comprises state-of-the-art conference and interpretation facilities, bird- and wildlife-filled grounds, and the lodge - a perfect place to stay and use as a base for exploring the bounty on offer both on the doorstep and further afield.

.... including this stupidly tame Clamorous Reed Warbler
Staying at the lodge hits that ideal balance: relaxed, comfortable and informal and with a real feeling of being out in the countryside, but with all the perks required - spotless rooms with free fast wifi, hot power-showers and privacy, opening out onto a central garden and communal area, and just a few steps from the lounge and dining room.

This equally tame Great Grey Shrike set up a winter territory that incorporated the lodge grounds...
Wandering around the lodge provides plenty of quality birding before you've even thought about walking, driving and exploring a little further; all the photos in this post were taken within a stone's throw of my door, and if there wasn't so much else to enjoy, I could easily have wiled away a whole week voluntarily confined to the lodge and its grounds.

... including the central communal area (Hi Sheli!)
And with fantastic choice of personalised, expert-led tours on offer - in-house bird-guide Tuvia is the man in-the-know for the area, whether you're chasing specific species, looking for a holistic experience, or both - you don't even need to lay hands on a steering wheel (bicycle handlebars are another option however).

Hoopoes are a ubiquitous presence around the lodge and kibbutz....
The following few posts (and the last couple) will hopefully provide a photo- / bird-heavy flavour of why the JVBC is the perfect place to use as a base for a mind-blowing winter birding and wildlife experience; whether as part of a longer trip, or as the axis for a range of within-striking-distance unique birding adventures.

.... as are Dead Sea Sparrows, which require almost zero effort to find (this one on the fence just outside the lodge entrance)
I really could've spent a week in the immediate surrounds, incorporating the lodge and grounds, the famous and bird-crammed fishponds, the surrounding fields and scrub, and the wetlands by the Jordanian border (all this within a few minutes of my room), but with places like the Hula Valley and Ma'agan Michael within range, I had to prioritise....

This Little Owl wasn't quite so easy to find, however, with impressive camouflage against the date palms... 
... but all in good time, with plenty of ammunition on the memory cards from the JVBC and immediate area to use first.

.... and an equally impressive 'false-face' when looking the other way.....
For more info and all contact details, visit the JVBC website here.

.... eventually proving a little more co-operative (if characteristically pissed-off-looking)
Among plenty of mammal species, Egyptian Mongoose are present around the JVBC 
Rock Agamas are constant and comedy companions wherever and whenever the sun shines

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Northern Israel, Winter 2019 - Pipits, Larks & Wagtails

Citrine Wagtail - a fixture of the fishponds at  Kfar Ruppin and elsewhere
A slightly random grouping of species and experiences from the trip, and while arguably not the most aesthetically pleasing, definitely the most educational. Kfar Ruppin - the kibbutz and area incorporating the Jordan Valley Birding Center, the famous fishponds, and the surrounding agricultural and countryside habitats - was particularly productive, with plenty to look at and learn from.

The fishponds (just a few minutes from the JVBC, and absolutely crammed with birds - see next few posts....) were favoured by wagtails and pipits in some numbers, especially the partly drained, muddy areas, which typically attracted many White Wagtails and Water Pipits (the latter above and below); these two species were numerous both here and at various other wetland sites I visited over the trip.

The Water Pipits were fascinating; most were of the classic coutellii type (the middle-eastern subspecies), but the variation in plumage, particularly re: underpart ground colour and streaking and also head pattern, invited plenty of extra scrutinising and made for valuable lessons re: IDing of spinoletta subspecies, as well as Siberian.

White and Citrine Wagtails hanging out with Temminck's Stints and a Wood Sandpiper at Kfar Ruppin
Citrine Wagtails were pleasingly well scattered, again present at various wetlands but most numerous at the Kfar Ruppin fishponds, where up to seven were feeding together on one partly-drained pond. Yellow Wagtails were surpisingly well represented, with double figures on several days at the fishponds and local alfalfa fields combined, and while many at this time of year especially dodged subspecific identification, several males were more obvious - with one in particular inviting more attention:

This male was present for several days, and its features included a fully ashy head, darker ear coverts, clean white throat and a very small white fleck on the rear supercilium on each side of its head; it also gave a classic rasping / buzzy call every time it flushed, which when taken together, were features which fitted Ashy-headed (cinereocapilla). To thicken the plot further, however, the bird also fits 'Egyptian Wagtail' - either another subspecies of Yellow Wagtail, or a distinct / isolated form of cinereocapilla - and does indeed look small (this form being basically identical to cinereocapilla but smaller)... either would be a rare bird in Israel, so it's an interesting one regardless. Comments welcome.

Dream team - Red-throated, Siberian, Meadow and Water Pipits side by side
Sticking with the learning curve theme, there were certain taxa that, given the time and place, I was looking forward to seeing and getting to grips with during the trip - and top of the list were Oriental Skylark and Siberian* Pipit. With the excellent expertise and local knowledge of Tuvia at hand, we checked the alfalfa fields around the kibbutz (again, just a few minutes from the JVBC) and duly found one Siberian Pipit (pictured with a selection of congeners, above and below) and two Oriental Skylarks. Bingo!

Siberian Pipit (on the pipe, second from left)
The pipit was, I'm happy to say, both pretty straightforward from an ID perspective, and a cracking bird. The Skylarks were a little harder work, and with lots of very mobile Eurasian Skylarks (and a flock of ten Calandras in the same area) to check through, it was the call that betrayed their presence on both occasions - a distinctive, electrical buzz that you'd like to think would cause a mental red-alert on an October morning on the east coast...

... from there, the suite of plumage features on the birds in flight and (especially) on the deck were increasingly telling and educational, and two of the target birds for the trip (and their associated lessons) were in the bag.

(Mainly) Calandra and (less) Eurasian Skylarks

*I prefer to use the name Siberian Pipit because a) it sounds better, b) Buff-bellied is a shit name (why not just 'American' and 'Siberian'?) and c) Martin suggested it years back and it reminds me of him.