Saturday, February 6, 2016

Consolation prize

I am pretty devastated these days by the Rough-legged Buzzard celebrated by all possible Israeli birders but me. It's the third record but I missed also the previous one back in 2012. So I tried to console myself with some dodgy ducks. Last weekend I tried the Green-winged Teal found by my mate James at Ransworth Broad. I was there with Libby and the weather was horrible and the pushchair had a flat tire, and there were only few teal around, so no luck. This afternoon I tried my luck again, this time the Portuguese-ringed individual on the Blyth estuary. This individual sporting a nasal saddle was ringed in Portugal on 15 January 2015. Driving down the A146 there was a huge pre-roost of several thousand Rooks and Jackdaws near Thurton:

Arriving at Blythburgh, I wanted to hit myself for not checking the tides (Israeli habit - no tide in Israel) - the tide was out and all the ducks were roosting in very distant groups, scattered across the mudflats. I parked by the White Hart Inn and started scanning from the carpark. Took me some time but eventually I got on the bird. Shit views - it was dark and windy, and the bird was very distant. It was just about identifiable with max. magnification of my scope, but hey, enough for a WP tick... I scrambled to get the digiscoping kit together but by the time I was ready the roosting teals woke up and waded down into a depression and out of view. Shit. Not even a record shot. I will try again in better conditions.
So now the teal was in the bag and gone I had some time to look around. In fact I had driven past this fantastic site several times but never had a chance to check. Today it was packed full with birds. There was a huge roost of gull, mainly Common Gulls - around 1500! Including a couple of heinei-type things. Also a Med Gull among them. There were less than 200 large gulls, nothing interesting I could see. Lots of shorebirds on the mud. most impressive was a gathering of 180 Avocets.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

My tribute to Martin

Any birder who's on social media must have noticed the passing of Martin Garner. Many people have written wonderful words about him. I wrote something on Facebook as well, but that type of media is somewhat limited in how much one can write. So I will use my blog to tell, in some length (sorry), a bit more about what Martin meant to me.
I first 'met' Martin in December 2011. It wasn't a real meeting yet, but as often birders do nowadays, Martin contacted me after he noticed two interesting White-fronted Geese I had photographed in Yotvata and posted in my blog. Of course I knew nothing about White-fronted Geese, and Martin took my goose shots and made something delicious out of them. We then started communicating more closely about interesting birds in Israel. Few months later, in March 2012, Martin was invited to our Eilat Bird Festival. Before the festival I persuaded Martin to come and spend some days with me. It was sort of weird, to invite a person I had never actually met before to stay in our house. But my wife was kind of used to that, and as soon as had Martin entered our house he was so welcome and I think he felt that. Back then my children couldn't speak any English at all, but Martin found a way to communicate with them through laughter and play. It was beautiful, and my kids did not forget that several years later when we met again in the UK.

Together with Rami Mizrachi, photographing this Basalt Wheatear, one of the highlights of spring 2012


Martin's first invitation to the Eilat Festival was so successful. His talk was one of the best talks I had heard, and he really inspired everyone there. Luckily, it was one of the best spring migrations ever recorded in Israel, and Martin was almost shocked by the volume and diversity of birds. I think he really understood then the potential Israel has as a frontier for bird identification. Martin's first visit resulted in two more invitations, to the autumn Hula Valley Festivals in 2012 and 2013 - both were tremendous for me, for us as the Israeli birding community, and for him as well I think. Before both festivals Martin came to stay with us again. In both cases my lovely wife forgave me for birding for several days before disappearing to the festival for a week, only because of Martin. It was always such a pleasure to have him with us, and the mutual friendship got stronger each time.

November 2012 - birding in the Negev with Tristan Reid 

November 2013 - birding again in the Negev, where we studied Sibe Stonechats

In early 2013 Martin invited me to join the Birding Frontiers team, or rather family. It took me time to understand, as Terry wrote beautifully, what was Martin's intention - not a selfish ambition to promote his blog by interesting content. Martin gave each team member the opportunity to grow, to expand, to become better, and Martin used his site as a platform for his altruism.

In January 2013 I had a week of meetings at the BTO offices in Thetford. In the weekend I asked some friend to join me for a couple of days of birding along the N Norfolk coast, not knowing yet that a few years later this would become my local patch. We had a super team that weekend - Martin drove all the way from Sheffield, Tris and Chris drove all the way from Cumbria, Tormod came all the way from Varanger, and Nick came all the way from Thetford... Back then I didn't appreciate enough the distances these guys drove over icy roads just to bird with me for the weekend. It was a memorable weekend, and as always with Martin, it was not only the birding but the enthusiasm and the fun and the friendship.

Chris, Tormod, Martin, Tris, me and Nick at RSPB Titchwell

Wathcing Great Ouse near King's Lynn - Smews, Slav Grebes etc. 

I was lucky to be involved in the two Challenge Series books Martin wrote - Autumn and Winter. Again, it was all about Martin helping others to become better birders, more knowledgeable, more connected to each other. My contribution to these books was rather minor - they are extraordinary books, and I think it is quite amazing how Martin managed to write them both, especially the second, Winter, when he was already very ill.

In the summer of 2014 I moved to the UK. Because of special circumstances the decision making process before coming was swift, but I did have some long discussions with Martin about the pros and cons of embarking with my family on such an adventure. Martin's words made me feel secure and confident, and indeed since I had arrived in the UK Martin spread a red carpet for me in the UK birding scene. The climax was my invitation to give the main talk at Spurn Migfest in September 2015. I arrived in Spurn just on time to hear Martin give the last briefing to the Migfest super team of volunteers. And he said nothing about birds. He talked only about people, and about how the human interaction will eventually affect the birding experience. I was moved by his words, and whenever I saw someone working so hard at Migfest to make every visitor happy, I felt the contagious effect of Martin's humanity. The way Martin was excited about the Young Birder competition was incredible. He was a great teacher and mentor, and I guess he identified himself in these talented young birders, developing their skills and looking for mentors.

I enjoyed photographing and sound-recording a family of British yellow Wagtails with Martin

Martin with Ray Scally, artist of the Challenge Series books 

In May 2015 I drove up with my family to spend a few days in Flamborough. Martin was not feeling well, but I did manage to spend time with him birding and our families spent time together (not birding, mostly...). Apart for the lovely time we had together, Martin introduced me to some other great local guys that instantly became friends. That was another unique character Martin had - to create these networks, those links between people. He was so good at that. He simply said 'I think you should meet Mark'. He made it happen and that's it. Done deal.

Seawatching at Flamborough Head. Martin was so happy to be there. I was too.

Martin looking at fossils with my sons, Selwick's Bay, Flamborough

Since we first met, Martin talked to me about Shetland, and made me want to get up there. In autumn it happened, and I went up with Martin and Sharon to spend a week with good friends there. It was an emotional roller-coaster of a week. The trip started with tears, as Martin got off the train in York and remembered how exactly two years before he had first encountered his cancer. Somehow we managed to make it up in one piece. Instead of resting, on the first day on Shetland Martin joined me for a crazy day. Boom! We just went on and on all day. It was a stunning day, with so much to see and then write about. The rest of the week was very difficult for Martin and Sharon. On the one hand we were together with amazing people in this incredible place. But Martin was restricted to very short local walks, and it was very difficult for him. Especially when he saw me and the others running around and he just could not join in. We both cried when I helped Martin climb over a fence and jump over a small ditch to look for a Bluethroat I had just found. Martin knew then better than me how bad his condition is. I tried to encourage him and motivate him - how amazing it is that he is up there, on Shetland, climbing over fences and jumping over ditches, but I think he understood then that his is losing the battle. He started crying and I joined in. For me it was an amazing week. Again, Martin laid a red carpet for me and connected me with the 'right' people on Shetland, to create new friendship and collaborations. I appreciate this so much.

Bring it on!

Peter Colston, MG, me, Paul Harvey and Roger Riddington

From there it was a steep downhill. What Martin first thought was just fatigue and pain as a result of the first strenuous day on Shetland was in fact a new cancer explosion in his body. I tried to communicate with Martin as much as I could, and helped a bit with his new book, but it became increasingly difficult to communicate with Martin, and I didn't want to hassle him or the family. In hindsight, the week we had together on Shetland is the best farewell I could have asked for. I saw there Martin in his high and low. Saw how much he is loved by Sharon and by his old friends. Saw his dedication and determination, but also his understanding of the nearing end. I feel privileged to have spent this week with Martin and Sharon, and will cherish this experience with me forever.

Rest in peace, Martin. May the people you touched and friendships you have created continue to make the world a better place, as you have done. I am humbled to call myself your friend. You really are, or were, a great person. Larger than life. Always giving, always sharing, always thinking about others before yourself. You gave me so much, supported me in difficult times, enthused me to be better, not to give up, to achieve what I was determined to. I hope I managed to give even a little back to you. I am not a believer (thanks for never talking to me about God!) but I hope that you are in a good place now. You found peace before you died, which is incredible. Now the physical suffering is over. I will always think about you and try to be a better person, for you. I love you man.
I send here my deepest condolences and love to Sharon, Abi and Emily.

Sunday, January 24, 2016


Today I went on my first international twitch. I Met up with Nick early am to catch a 06:50 flight out of Heathrow. Our original plan was to hit the rubythroat that took up residence in the small village of Hoogwoud, about 40 minutes north of Schiphol airport, since January 15th. Then head straight away to Den Oever right at the north of the peninsula for the Bufflehead and Lesser Scaup there

Nice sunrise over the clouds

But our plans didn't really work as hoped. It started with a delay in picking our hire car up (don't hire from Green Motion! They're located a long way out of the airport, waste if time) and we waited even more time to meet up with my good friend Gert who accompanied us today. While we were driving up we got news that the rubythroat is still there, occasionally singing - sigh of relief... 
We arrived at Hoogwoud about an hour later than we had planned. The weather was quite miserable. We positioned ourselves with the crowds - still many tens of people on site when we were there. We had OK views of it quickly - it was very shy and elusive, skulking in some thick undergrowth, like rubythroats should... But what a stunning bird! I understood that as long as it stays in the undergrowth I had no chance whatsoever to get a proper photo of it. So I sat down on the wet floor and waited for it to eventually come out of its hide and consume the yummy mealworms strategically placed for him out in the open. And I waited, and waited, and waited. Our precious time flied by. We had good views of a Blackbird, and a couple of cats, but Mr. Ruby continued to play hide-and-seek. We waited for long enough to miss the chance to see the wished-for ducks and head back to the airport on time for the early flight back, so we waited a bit more. And just a few minutes before we really had to make a move, wet and frozen, HH finally walked out of the shrubbery, gracefully climbed on 'his' log and posed for a few seconds of grace, to the satisfaction of the crowd of photographers. He appeared out in the open twice, each time for about 10 seconds, but I was pretty well positioned and I am rather pleased with my results from this very brief but very exciting encounter:

Siberian Rubythroat - 2cy male
Hoogwoud, Holland, 24/1/16


And that was that. We had to rush back to Schiphol to drop the car off and make it to the flight (that was delayed...). Good to meet Vincent on site - I hope he got some good photos too.
I have seen many Siberian Rubythroats in SE Asia in the past but this was a WP tick for me. Hoped for one in Shetland in October but no luck. Non-twitchers and non-listers would not understand why I went on this half-day trip to Holland for one single bird, but those who are surely appreciate the quest to see the Holy Grail of Siberian vagrants in the WP. 
So apart for the rubythorat we saw little else. It was nice to drive on the highways and see everywhere large flocks of geese - mainly greylags but also a few flocks of whitefronts and barnacles.
Many thanks to Nick for the plan and company, and to Gert for all his help before and during the trip.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Canaries Singing Blues

I guess many news headlines started liked this - didn't check.
I have a confession. Yesterday I went to the first football match in my life. My elder son is very keen so I joined him and a few friends to Norwich City vs. Manchester City, in the third round of the FA Cup. I took my camera and big lens along with me and learned some important lessons as an unsuccessful and extremely amateur sport photographer (maybe I'd better stick with Wildlife).
The atmosphere at Carrow Road was fantastic - a crowd of 24,500 did the job. Despite us being automatically Norwich supporters, most eyes were on Sergio Aguero. He is an amazing player indeed and I was impressed by his actions.

Here he is straight after scoring his goal:

Willy Caballero didn't work too hard yesterday:

Cameron Jerome's expression says it all:

Jesus Navas after a hard tackle:

Raheem Sterling had a very good match: 

With Ryan Bennett:

Andre Wisdom with the distinctive bald patch on the back of his head:

Pablo Zabaleta and Kevin de Bruyne:

And now for the excuses:
I sat in the 10th row, hence the lousy angle resulting in green background. Also I was worried about knocking those sat in front of me with my lens. I was trying to enjoy the match and rarely tried to get action shots and that never worked well, so I have mostly relaxed portraits in slow moments. When I had my eye inside the viewfinder I could really see nothing of the match and felt I was missing much. I was very limited with my 500 mm for shots at short distance. And my 7D has a slow shutter release speed - I need a faster camera.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

One of these random days

Very enjoyable day with Terry T today in N Norfolk. Weather was lovely - nice and sunny. Started off at pretty casually around Cley and Blakeney. Best find was James McCallum at Cley Visitor Centre, identified by Terry. Not much else - Merlin, Peregrine etc.
Lady Ann's Drive at Holkham was fabulous - packed with birds. Geese, Wigeons, large flock of Goldies, thousands of Lapwings - just brilliant.

Pink-footed Geese

I love brents - truly adorable birds. This one was caught red-handed killing a grass:

I saw a couple of hybrid X Black Brants but too far to photograph
In Blakeney there is a small waterfowl collection run by some dodgy shooting association. So many unringed exotics there - how can you ever tick waterfowl in the UK with these collections everywhere? 
Hooded Merganser 

Wood Duck

Red-breasted, Ross's and Barnaross's Geese, and Fulvous Whistling Ducks (and Jackdaw)

Red-crested Pochards

Spot-billed Duck

The second half of the day was sort of weird. After Holkham we decided to try the Iceland Gull at King's Lynn. My tomtom lead me through Flitcham. Over the past week or so during which this Pallid Harrier is there I was offered several times by friends to go and see it, including this morning, but I declined because I couldn't be bothered. When I approached Flitcham I saw a group of birders scoping something from the roadside. I thought I might as well stop and have a quick look around. I pulled over and there it was, perched distantly on a hedge, decent scope views. Accidental UK tick... 

At Fisher's fleet, King's Lynn, at first there was a nice feeding frenzy of gulls on some leftover prawns, but soon the tide rose and they all dispersed - we didn't see the iceland for an hour or so. The light was fading and the gulls were heading out to sea to roost. We just had to use the magic murphy words 'counter-productive' and 'it was a nice day anyway' when Terry spotted the gull as it flew from behind a hangar! It gave us good but very brief views, maybe 3 seconds, not enough to photograph it. Then it didn't show again despite us using the same negative phrases, and that was the end of the day.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Special post - the best of 2015

As I do every year, I will summarize here my birding year of 2015. This has been an unusual year. First of all, this was my first full year in the UK. I am busier here than ever with my PhD research, and my fieldwork is very short and concentrated, so my birding capacity has decreased seriously. Personally this is pretty difficult and rather frustrating. I had been working in the field all of my adult life, and this change in my lifestyle is not simple. It leads to pretty funny daily corridor conversations with two other keen birders in my department who are as frustrated as me, about what birds we cannot see and where we'd want to be rather than modelling in R... But I am a grown-up (?) and shouldn't complain too much. So I will try to look back here at the best moments of 2015, and looking back there were many wonderful moments indeed.

From my blog's point of view, this has been my slowest year ever:

Looking at my annual blogging activity patterns, it is apparent what are the normal rates in which I go out birding, and where my two annual peaks occurred - in spring when I did my fieldwork in Spain and Portugal, and in my autumn trip to Shetland. I assume you can see the effect of my first year of PhD has had on me...

And now, let's look at some birds at last!
Winter was mild and birding was fairly slow. After enjoying my first winter in Norfolk by the end of 2014, I got pretty bored of geese... In early January I did find a nice feeding spot near the Great Grey Shrike at Stanton Downham, where lots of pretty and colourful birds came in to feed:

A few days later I had my first WP tick of the year - an inland Great Northern Diver at nearby Rockland Broad:

A well-timed high tide visit to Snettisham in mid January with my mate and regular birding companion James Lowen was awesome:

We had an brilliant day - we paid a visit to Welney's swans as well:

And we also saw briefly a Waxwing at Hunstanton:

Bird-related news was that I got a new Swarovski ATX95 scope that turned me officially into a Swarovski boy - thanks Swarovski Optik Nature!

In February I saw very little in the UK but luckily towards the end of the month I squeezed in a few hours of birding in Portugal and Spain in between meetings during a short visit there. Another WP tick for me was this Glaucous Gull at Peniche, Portugal:

I also enjoyed some Bonelli's Eagle action at Alange Castle, Extremadura. I missed the Black Wheatears there but I settled the story with them later on in spring.

March was still cold and quiet in Norfolk. I had a look at this sweet Iceland Gull at Weybourne:

Towards the end of the month I went to Portugal and Spain for two weeks of intensive fieldwork. I spent most of my time with my Great Bustards. Only on the first morning I sat in a hide at La Serena in Extremadura to get close and personal with them. The rest of my encounters were more typically distant.

I spent all my morning in the  cereal steppes of Extremadura and Alentejo, where I had all of the other expected species, such as Little Bustards:

In the afternoons I had opportunities to explore some other sites and birds. I had several lifers, including Black Wheatear:

And two unexpected Nearctic shorebirds - Lesser Yellowlegs and Long-billed Dowitcher (WP tick):

From Spain I flew over to Israel for a short family visit. It was so good to be in Israel, meet up with friends and family and to see birds everywhere, but I had very limited time for proper birding. I managed to escape one early morning to connect with the long-staying Hypocolius in Ashkelon - cracking bird:

Back in the UK, not much was going on until in late April I went with my regular companions to twitch the 2nd Great Blue Heron for the UK, on the Isles of Scilly. Sadly on the way back we managed to dip on the Hudsonian Godwit in Somerset.

During late May's half term holiday I went with my family up to Flamborough and Bempton Cliffs RSPB in East Yorkshire, and we thoroughly enjoyed it:

It was great to spend time with Martin Garner and family:

In June I did see a Paddyfield Warbler on Blakeney Point but did not get any photos of the shy bird. I tried very hard to find a Greenish Warbler, perhaps my most wanted WP bird at the moment, but with no success. Something for next year.
In mid July I drove all the way to Titchfield Haven in Hampshire to see the long-staying Greater Yellowlegs (WP tick). It was a fine twitch and I really enjoyed the reserve there:

In August my seek after the holy grail (Greenish Warbler) continued without success and I saw nothing of interest. I participated in the BirdFair at the Israeli Ornithological Center stand and had a good time with lots of friends from Israel, UK and all over the world. My boys were excited to meet up with BBR Springwatch superstar Chris Packham:

In early September I participated in the Spurn Migfest - a fantastic event. Birding was sort of on the slower side but seawatching was alright with Balearic Shearwater and three Sabine's Gulls. This Spotted Flycatcher was very popular because of its beautiful perch:

In mid September I saw what was probably 'Bird of the Year' for many birders, the one-day Acadian Flycatcher at Dungeness, Kent, the first for the Western Palearctic:

On the way back added Wilson's Phalarope to my life list at Vange Marshes, Essex...

In late september I went for a week with Martin and Sharon up to Shetland. We stayed in the south of Mainland, and I birded there most of the time, often with some birding legends. Birding was touch most of the time but I did see some good birds, and even found a few semi-decent birds. But as always, the company made the trip amazing, and I had precious quality time with Martin.

'My' Blyth's Reed Warbler

Pechora Pipit 

As it is in recent years, the commonest migrant was Yellow-browed Warbler:

This young male Lapland Bunting was very friendly:

In mid October North Norflok was a real Purple Patch, but I skipped most of the mega-popular rarities and saw only one Pallas's Warbler and the Hume's Warbler, both of which I couldn't photograph.
In November I participated in The EBBA / EBP workshop in Mikulov, Czech Republic. No real birding there but did enjoy this cute Red Squirrel:

In December winter mood settled on me and I didn't do much birding and as a result did not see much... But this fine Red-necked Grebe at Brancaster Staithe was a nice bird to end the year with:

So that was my year. First of all, I want to thank my many readers who continue to follow me despite my slacking rate of blogging. I wish I could do more, and I really hope that in 2016 I will get out more often. It was very encouraging for me to see that during the short periods that I did produce more often, for instance during the week I was on Shetland, many 'dormant' followers returned to read my blog. So thank you all! I am very grateful to my birding friends, especially James and Quentin, for driving me around and keeping me entertained.
And as always, many thanks and lots of love to my wonderful family. I miss Israel very much, especially the birding, but my life here in the UK is full of happiness thanks to you!
Happy New Year and all the best wishes for 2016!