Tag Archives: Israel

Steppe Merlin

Overlooked in Europe? No way, so distinctive!

Yoav Perlman

Merlin has a huge breeding range accross Europe and Asia. It has several subspecies – as in many other species the W European populations being darker, and the E populations being paler and larger. pallidus (‘Steppe Merlin’) is the largest and palest of those occuring in the WP. It breeds in the steppes of N Kazakhstan and SW Siberia, and winters mainly in the Indian Subcontinent. It is a rare winter visitor to the Middle East, and therefore it should be looked for in Europe as well. In Israel it is rare indeed, with one or two wintering in some winters.

Last week I was doing a wintering raptor census in the NW Negev, in the open fields of Urim. This area is very rich in winter, with a strong C Asian steppes influence – Saker, callidus Peregrine, Sociable Lapwing, Eastern Imperial Eagle and Pallid Harrier are regular winter visitors, and this area hosts important populations of these species. As I was working a small patch of Tamarix trees that often are used as day roosts for Merlins, I noticed a brilliant male pallidus Merlin shooting out of a tree. I had quick flight views at first, but this form is so distinctive – especially in direct sunlight the upperparts are as pale as a Pallid Harrier so ID wasn’t challenging… It landed in a farther tree, and I managed to drive up to it and get a couple of crap shots in the shade before it flew out again.

pallidus Merlin, NW Negev, israel, january 2014

pallidus Merlin, NW Negev, Israel, January 2014

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to focus on the bird in flight and got nothing of it in proper light conditions. So I checked google and found these fantastic shots by Indian friends Rajesh Shah and Nirav Bhatt – I use their images here with their kind permission:

pallidus Merlin, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, November 2010

pallidus Merlin, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, November 2010


The size and structure differences from European aesalon might be difficult to judge in the field, especially in males that are anyway smaller than females. However, the pallid grey upperparts, pale head, faintly marked moustache and eyestripe, and faintly streaked upperparts make identification rather easy if seen in good light conditions. I guess that females and juveniles are much more challenging to identify – should be duller, paler and less streaked, but very hard to find convincing images.

Some more friends from the NW Negev:

Eastern Imperial Eagle, 3cy, NW Negev, January 2014

Eastern Imperial Eagle, 3cy, NW Negev, January 2014



Saker, 1cy, NW Negev, Israel, December 2013

Saker, 1y, NW Negev, Israel, December 2013




Swintail or Pinhoe’s?

On Thursday October 10th, two of my mates Eyal Shochat and Yaron Charka found this exciting Snipe at Ma’agan Michael on the Mediterranean Coast of Israel.

Pintail / Swinhoe's Snipe

Pin-tailed / Swinhoe’s Snipe, Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13

The bird showed very well to me on Sunday. Very easy to separate from the many Common Snipes in the same muddy pool by chunky, full-bodied structure (almost like a small Woodcock or Great Snipe), rounded head, ‘open’ head pattern (very thin loral stripe), heavily barred underparts, and most important – the pattern of mantle, scapulars and tertials: faint central mantle stripes, with no lateral mantle stripes. Scaps have a symetric anchor pattern, with even-width fringes on both sides of feather, compared to common that has much more white or buff on the outer web.

Scapular pattern, Pin-tailed / Swinhoe's Snipe, Ma'agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13

Scapular pattern, Pin-tailed / Swinhoe’s Snipe, Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13

This individual has a longish tail, on the long end of the spectrum for pin-tailed. Normally they have a very stubby tail, hardly protruding beyond the tertial tips. It had a unique behavious, in fact closer to a rail or crake – escaping on foot into the reeds when alarmed, rather than crouching down or flying away as Common Snipes do.

Pin-tailed / Swinhoe's Snipe, Ma'agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13

Pin-tailed / Swinhoe’s Snipe, Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13

Separating Pin-tailed Snipe from Swinhoe’s Snipe is practically impossible in the field (i.e. the excellent article by Leader and Carey (2003) in British Birds ). Both species share almost all features, incuding size and structure, overall tones, bill length etc. The only way known today to separate them is by the shape and structure of the thin outer tail feathers, impossible to see in the field in normal conditions. Also call might be useful but more research is needed on this topic so at the moment also calls don’t help. And anyway, compared to Common Snipe that normally gives a harsh ‘queck’ when flushed, Pin-tailed and Swinhoe’s are most often silent.

Pin-tailed Snipe, Kfar Ruppin, Israel, November 1998

Pin-tailed Snipe, Kfar Ruppin, Israel, November 1998

There are three positive records of Pin-tailed Snipe in Israel – all three ringed – the first in 1984 by Hadoram et al. at Eilat, the second was found by Barak Granit and Rami Lindroos in November 1998 at Kfar Ruppin and I ringed it a couple of days later, and the last one was ringed by Yosef Kiat in November 2011 in Tsor’a. Apart for these records of Pin-tailed Snipe, another 6-7 Pin-tailed / Swinhoe’s were seen in the field (mainly in the Bet Shean Valley) but swinhoe’s could not be safely excluded, though by default I’d guess they were all pintails.

So what is this bird? This bird is rather large and heavy, with a long heavy bill and thick legs, all features associated with swinhoe’s in older literature, but this means nothing apparently. This bird was silent. Several guys (including myself) tried to get a shot of the open tail when it was preening but impossible to see the shape of the unique outer tail feathers.

Unbelievable that this species-pair cannot be separated in the field. I hope someone comes up with something new soon.

The tiny, reedy pond the snipe was in was just superb. I had there 3 Spotted Crakes, 5 Water Rails, 8 Citrine Wagtails, Moustached and Savi’s Warblers and tons of other birds (Sedge Warblers, Bluethroats etc.). A juvenile Eurasian Sparrowhawk missed a taste of exotic Asia and took a Common Snipe that was feeding just few meters away from the pintailed…

Citrine Wagtail, Ma'agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13.

Citrine Wagtail, Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk on Common Snipe, Ma'agan Michael, 13/10/13.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk on Common Snipe, Ma’agan Michael, 13/10/13.

Israeli sand-plover resolved

I hope Martin forgives me for turning this into my personal blog. But this bird stirred a fascinating discussion among some top birders, and deserves one last post.

Lesser Sand-plover
Lesser Sand-plover

 So after lots of thinking and reading and discussing, the concensus on this bird now is that it’s a good candidate for atrifrons. This happened after seeing more images of the bird, better illustrating its petite size, and understanding that wing pattern and bill structure are highly variable in both species, and identification shouldn’t be based on these features only. This bird showed a wing pattern normally associated with greater (bulging white wingbar on inner primaries), as mentioned in literature. Well, not anymore. 

Also, this bird showed a bill structure similar to the bird from Kenya in my previous post – long and rather thin, with slightly bulbous lower mandible. Again, according to literature this is not very good for lesser, but better for greater.

So what do we have on this bird?

1. Timing of moult – lesser moults later than greater, which is a good pointer for lesser – at least in Israel a bird in summer plumage in late July or August should be lesser. I know little about how eastern leschenaulti moult.

2. General size and structure – small. Not the most ‘delicate’ atrifrons in the world though.

3. Leg colour – basically dark (though often hard to tell in the field).

4. Head pattern – massive black mask.

5. Dull grey mantle. Greater normally has brighter rufouns mantle, but surely this is affected by wear?

At least my understanding from recent days is that some features widely mentioned as distinguishing between greater and lesser are invalid or at least very variable, such as wing pattern and bill structure. More work is needed on separation of columbinus and western atrifrons, that appear to be very close to each other.

And a couple of lessons for me – 1) always be extra cautious about identifying birds from images without seeing them and 2) never be definitive about such difficult taxa; always use indefinite terms such as ‘looks like’, ‘good candidate’ etc.

I want to thank all the people who contributed to this discussion, in Israel and overseas.

Always learning!

Tricky Greater Sand-plover

Yesterday, Israeli birder Irad Solnik had a summer-plumaged sand-plover in a small lagoon near Bet Yanay, on the Mediterranean coast. This immediately got the alarm bells ringing, as Greater Sand-plover, which is common in Israel, moults very early and now is already in full winter plumage, while Lesser and Mongolian Sand-plovers moult much later and still are in summer plumage now (see this bird from Scotland a couple of weeks ago).

Surprisingly, both Lesser and Mongolian Sand-plovers are great rarities in Israel (they are common winter visitors to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea coast of Egypt), so I asked Irad to try and get some images of the bird. He returned to the site around midday and got these excellent shots, in very contrasting light.

columbinus Greater Sand-plover

columbinus Greater Sand-plover, Bet Yanay, Israel, 26/7/13

It took me some time until I got to see the images on a computer screen (never try to identify birds on your mobile screen!) but eventually, after circulating the images among some top Israeli birders, we decided it was a small columbinus Greater Sand-plover. Thank god – my wife would have killed me (again) if I disappeared this morning to twitch a Mongolian Plover.

columbinus Greater Sand-plover

columbinus Greater Sand-plover, Bet Yanay, Israel, 26/7/13

columbinus is the smallest and most delicate race of Greater Sand-plover, breeding in the Middle East (steppes of Turkey, Syrian and N Jordan) and W Asia, and the commonest race in Israel. The much larger and more massive crassirostris is rare in Israel. Most columbinus are still easy to identify, but some, like this small (female?) sand-plover can be quite tricky.

The black forehead and what looked like black legs, combined with summer plumage in late July were misleading. This is how adult columbinus should look like this time of year – this image was taken by myself on Wednesday – green legs!

columbinus Greater Sand-plover

columbinus Greater Sand-plover, Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 24/7/13

But what eventually gave this bird away as columbinus were:

  • Structure – though rather small (compare with Dunlin), this is still a powerful bird, not compact and delicate like lessers. Note especially the attenuated rear – lesser have much less ‘body’ behind the legs, and it seems that most of their mass is in front of the legs.
columbinus Greater Sand-plover

columbinus Greater Sand-plover, Bet Yanay, Israel, 26/7/13

  • Bill structure – the bill is long and quite thin. Lessers have a short and stout bill, and together with a rounded head give a cute impression. These in-hand images of Lesser Sand-plover were taken while ringing in Kenya in 2010 with A-Rocha Kenya.

Lesser (left) and Greater (right) Sand-plovers, Mida Creek, Kenya, December 2010

Lesser Sand-plover

Lesser Sand-plover, Mida Creek, Kenya, December 2010

  • Leg structure – long tibia. Most lessers have a shorter tibia, but note that southernmost atrifrons lessers have pretty long legs and are frustratingly similar to columbinus – they overlap in almost every biometric parameter.
Lesser Sand-plover in winter plumage

Lesser Sand-plover in winter plumage, Mida Creek, Kenya 2010

About leg colour – this feature must be used with great caution. Like most shorebirds, sand-plovers too get their legs covered in mud, sand, algae etc., and often true leg colour is impossible to tell, just like the Israeli bird.

And a few words on moult – in most long-distance migrants moult patterns are rather uniform and well defined. But there are always exceptions to the rule, like this bird. In this case, moult is a good indicative feature, not a clincher.

Thumbs up to Irad for noticing this interesting bird. BTW Irad is very hot lately – he found the first of the two Yellow-billed Storks present now in Israel. Many thanks to Irad for allowing me to use his photos.

Mount Hermon’s Breeding Birds

+ surprise new species (not fully identified!)

by Yoav P.

During the last 6 weeks I have been coordinating an extensive Breeding Bird Atlas Project on Mt. Hermon. This is Israel’s highest peak, and our only alpine habitats are there. Therefore, 17 species breed only there in Israel. The structure of the bird community on Mt. Hermon closely resembles those of E Turkey and Iran.

The bird community of the mountain was not properly surveyed since the late 1980’s, and we desperately needed better data to protect the vulnerable habitats on the mountain. I worked with a fantastic team of very skilled birders, who climbed mountains, crawled through dense bush, under Syrian mortar fire, just for me – thanks Tuvia, Dotan, Nadav, Noam, Asaf and all the others. We reached some parts of the mountain very close to the Syrian and Lebanese borders, that were never visited by civilians before. That meant that in these sensitive areas we had military escort with us.

So let’s begin with the birds. In the lower elevations (1200 to 1700 m), nice open Mediterranean scrub on rocky mountains provides proper habitat for a good range of species.

Black-headed Buntings arrive rather late, but leave very early. High-speed breeders and real crackers:

Black-headed Bunting

Western Rock Nuthatch breeds in good density in these elevations. They enjoy the rough Karst rock formations. Tough little birds – check those powerful feet!

Western Rock Nuthatch

Sombre Tit is very dominant at these elevations:

Sombre Tit

Syrian Serins arrive very late too, which is quite puzzling. They leave their wintering grounds in S Israel by mid March, but don’t really arrive before early May. Where are they in between – just 250 km to migrate in such a long time. In early June we already had flying juveniles – speedy!

Syrian Serin

Eastern Black-eared Wheatear breeds in large numbers on Mt. Hermon, which is encouraging because they’re doing pretty bad in other parts of the country.

Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, 2cy male

Woodchat Shrike is the commonest of four shrike species that breed on the mountain – Red-backed, Masked and aucheri Southern Grey are the other three. Our breeding woodchats are of the Middle-Eastern ssp. niloticus.

Woodchat Shrike female ssp. niloticus

Female Red-backed Shrike:


Lower elevations

One of the most interesting discoveries of our work was a breeding population of ‘chiffchaffs’ in a well-vegetated valley at about 1300 m. First found by Noam Weiss and myself, we then discovered 20 breeding pairs in that one specific valley! At first we thought they could be Mountain Chiffchaffs, as they looked pretty brown and sounded funny, but further field investigations never produced a definitive answer to their identity. They might be something like brevirostris Chiffchaff that breeds in S Turkey. Tomorrow we’ll try to catch them and take some DNA samples – hope to get back with more news on them soon.

Anyway, Chiffchaffs: some of them look very brown (thanks Zohar)

Chiffchaff sp., Mt. Hermon, April 2013 (Z. Weiss).

While others look more standard Chiffchaff greenish (thanks Lior)

Chiffchaff sp. Mt. Hermon June 2013 (L. Kislev)

They were always difficult to watch and photograph, spending most of their time in canopies of tall trees. Here’s a recording of the brown one. Either way, chiffchaffs have never been recorded breeding in Israel before.

High-altitude birding is a different story. No plant cover but often strong winds that make birding difficult. 

Crimson-winged Finch is one of the most difficult Hermon species, but we did quite well with them and found many breeding pairs.

Asian Crimson-winged Finch

Horned Larks breed up there – ssp. bicornis:

Horned Lark ssp. penicillata

White-throated Robin is a beautiful and rare breeding bird. Normally very difficult to find, we scored well with 11 breeding pairs.

White-throated RobinHill Sparrow (AKA Pale Rockfinch) is a plain but neat bird. A small population breeds normally very high up (about 2000 m), while once in every few years we have a breeding invasion into the deserts of southern Israel – they are highly nomadic and opportunistic. This year we found them in one valley only but in exceptional density, about 50 pairs in one small valley. Their cicada-like song filled the air there.

Hill Sparrow

Northern Wheatear replaces black-eared in high altitude. Our local breeding ssp. is libanotica.

Northern Wheatear ssp. libanotica

High altitude

High altitude panorama

You can read more about the survey and my daily accounts in my blog.

Frontier Birding Israel style

Still haven’t purchased a proper sound-recording system, but with my phone (Samsung Galaxy S2) I manage to get semi-decent recordings of close birds.

Here are some of my adventures in recent weeks:

On February 9th I had a picnic with my family in a small wood behind my house, which is at Nir Moshe, in the northern Negev. I heard the familiar call of a Hume’s Warbler – ‘chu-wit’. The bird was calling really intensively, but I was unable to see the bird. I did get this recording which enabled me to identify the bird without seeing it. However a few days later I managed to ring the bird.


A couple of weeks earlier, on January 21st, I walked with my younger son in the same wood near my house. I had a pipit calling from a tall eucalyptus. I didn’t have my bins with me but had my phone – again managed to record the bird, and after consulting with MG concluded it was an Olive-backed Pipit. This is what Martin wrote to me after listening to the awful recording: “The pitch reaches up to 8 kHz and has fading quality to it – just like an OBP. Tree Pipit pitches around 7 kHz and has strongly modulated end with less fading”. Thanks Martin.

Olive-backed Pipit Israel 21 January 2013 Yoav PerlmanThis image was taken in November 2012 – quite a few birds overwintering in Israel. This is from Elkana.

Olive-backed Pipit