Sunday, October 13, 2013

24 hours at the Dead Sea

My final day in Israel was spent on a trip down to the Dead Sea with my fellow raptor counters as. We arrived in the late evening, just in time to see 6 Sooty Falcons chasing Rock Martins over an old dried up reservoir. It was getting dark rapidly but we were also able to spot the first Blackstarts and Desert Larks of the trip, along with an unexpected Pied Wheatear.
Pied Wheatear
After sunset we were taken to a site for Nubian Nightjar. We didn't have a a recording of the calls, and playback would be unlikely to elicit a response at this time of year anyway, so we opted to just drive around the tracks and hope to come upon a feeding bird. After 3 hours with just a few mammals in the lights, we decided to give it up as we had another target to see. Literally 30 metres before we re-joined the main road, with 'DIP' being scrawled into notebooks, suddenly a Nightjar sp. jumped from the track and flew back over the car. Panic and a swift u-turn ensued, followed by a tense minute or so before the bird re-appeared in the headlights where it was feeding on flying insects, and giving good enough views to confirm it as Nubian and not a migrant European Nightjar. Buoyed by this last minute success, we headed off to the next site.
Baluchistan Gerbil
The next bird on our hit-list was Hume's Owl, and we were soon at the site, where we were disappointed to find several camping groups, complete with fires and loud music, not ideal. We stumbled across the rocks through the darkness and settled down as comfortably as we could. We played a tape of the song a few times but got no response. After sitting around for what seemed like an age all we could hear was noise from the nearby campers, and we reckoned that any birds would have been scared a mile away.We decided to call it a day and were scrambling back up to the car when a few distant croaks sounded in the blackness, we froze, 'was that an owl?' After a few seconds the noise was followed by the distinctive hooting of a Hume's Owl, crikey, there was one hear after all! One of our team (who shall remain nameless) was already celebrating as he practises the highly dubious technique of ticking birds on call only, but there was no way we were leaving now. Back down the rocks again and a return to eye-straining staring into the endless darkness, where the bird was still hooting away. We played one hoot on the tape and waited to see what would happen. A few seconds later we heard a response, apparently right in front of us, oh my, we were going to see this bird! I heard a whisper of 'be prepared', and then with a quiet click of the torch the rocks in front of us were bathed in a dull orange light, and the unmistakeable shape of an owl was perched no more than 10 metres in front of us! Pretty much every good bird of the trip so far had been greeted with loud profanity and high fives but this time there was nothing but stunned silence, no-one had expected to see the bird like this. It sat there for about 3 minutes, calling occasionally before quietly jumping off into the gloom. Despite the lack of light and sense of shock, I managed to snap off a few photos and even recorded a bit of video of this top-class bird. Looking around the internet, I can't find any other videos, is this the first video made of Hume's Owl?

Hume's Owl. Handheld at 1/13 sec

After a few hours sleep at the field school at En Gedi we were up early to get to Wadi Salvadora for sunrise. Here in the Judean Desert where water is so scarce, a tiny spring is a major attraction for birds, and Sinai Rosefinch, Striolated Bunting, Sand Partridge, Scrub Warbler, Blackstart and Tristrams Grackle all came in to drink, while Fan-tailed and Brown-necked Ravens patrolled the rocky cliff above us.
From there started to head back North stopping at odd sites along the way and picking up more good birds:
Arabian Babbler

Barbary Falcon


Fan-tailed Raven over the Dead Sea

Nubian Ibex

Rock Martin

Tristram's Grackle
A final stop at a rather unlikely group of scruffy fields produced the final lifer of the trip, a very smart Mourning Wheatear, marking the end of great little birding trip to the Dead Sea and a brilliant time overall in Israel. I'll write a few more words about the raptor count later, but now I need to catch up some much-neeed rest!
Mourning Wheatear

Judean Desert, an amazing landscape

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