Tuesday, December 27, 2011

North to Alaska

Avi and I sat down to decide what we'd like to do for our birding trip this summer. We usually do a two-week stint somewhere wonderful and, usually, neotropical. So I decided to look into something completely different and began researching good options for a first time visit to our largest state, Alaska.

What I found out was a cruise would give us the greatest bang for the buck in terms of time and distance. So, I booked a 14-day cruise with Holland America.

We'll be sailing in and out of Seattle, giving us the added attraction of possibly seeing our son, who lives there, on either end of the trip.

The itinerary looks interesting, with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, Icy Strait Point, Anchorage, Homer, Kodiak, Sitka, and Victoria. We also cruise by or through Vancouver, Tracy Arm, and the Hubbard Glacier.

Many people are disappointed it's not a total "inside passage cruise". We couldn't be happier. Sailing on the Pacific side of Vancouver and across the Gulf of Alaska will, hopefully, give us good opportunities for pelagics. We'll also be taking several whale watch excursions (NOT through the cruise line, but on smaller boats) which will pass rookeries as well as whale feeding grounds.

Right now we're trying to decide whether our 60mm 25x Kowa will suffice, or if we should bite the bullet and purchase a 65mm 25-50x Swarovski. Anyone have strong opinions on this.

For now, here's a map of the 14 day itinerary:

14 Days Cruising Alaska

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Israel: A Bit of Urban Birding at HaYarkon Park

Avie and I had been eyeing HaYarkon Park since our arrival to Tel Aviv. It has a river which cuts a swath across the north side of the city, ending with an estuary into the Mediterranean Sea.

We finally made it over to the park the morning of Friday, August 19 and, in spite of being disoriented geographically within the park, were not disappointed.

We went over to the east end of HaYarkon, hoping to be away from the boat/kayak rentals, amusement park, etc. It was busy with bicyclers and a few families, but not enough to be disruptive.


The river itself didn’t appear to have many birds in it.


We meant to go to an inland pond, but were never able to find it. However, we followed a few of the trails, both paved and dirt, to see what we could see.

Advice to future birders at HaYarkon: always take the high trails. The low ones, meant for bicycling, take you through thick vegetation with little viewing of the water. The paved trails, at least for us, yielded many more birds.

Our first sightings weren’t birds at all, but a couple of lizards. We hadn’t seen but one during our time outside Tel Aviv, so we were excited when two turned up in rapid succession.

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With no new birds for the day, we were able to use our learning curve and were pleased we were able to identify every bird we saw without using our field guide.

The first was  Spur-winged Lapwing (both an adult and a juvenile). We photographed the adult, a handsomely marked bird.


Common Myna was, well, common throughout the park. These are not native, but introduced (along with Rose-ringed Parakeets). Apparently, the first tree nesting pair of these used date palms in HaYarkon Park. (Holzapfel, Levin, Hatzofe, & Kark)


We were delighted when, toward the end of our walk, we came across a large (maybe a dozen) flock of European Bee Eaters. Some were hawking insects, others were perched together in a tall tree. We couldn’t get a great photo, but managed to get one that shows identifying marks.


All in all, we spent about two hours walking and birding. At that point, the heat of the day got to be a bit much, so we gave up.

May I encourage others to visit this urban oasis. I’m sure we would have come across many more birds had we gone earlier or at a cooler time of the year.


Cattle Egret
Glossy Ibis
Spur-winged Lapwing
Rock Pigeon
Laughing Dove
Common Kingfisher
Pied Kingfisher
European Bee Eater
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Syrian Woodpecker
Barn Swallow
White-spectacled Bulbul
Graceful Prinia
Palestine Sunbird
Eurasian Jay
Eurasian Jackdaw
Hooded Crow
Common Myna
House Sparrow

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Israel: Birding Beit She’an to the Dead Sea

Before coming to Israel, we made arrangements with Carmel Zitronblat (see earlier post) for a full day of birding which would take us from the Beit She’an area in the north, along the Jordanian Valley, and down to the Dead Sea and the Judaean Desert/Great Rift.

We stopped at fish ponds at a couple of kibbutzes, went up Mt. Gilboa, passed through the West Bank, and wound up looking down at the Dead Sea.

We saw 59 species of birds as well as some mammals and reptiles.

Carmel picked us up at 6 in the morning and we drove north. Fish ponds on the kibbutzes have different water levels in them. When you find one with the right amount of water and the right amount of mudflats, you get a scene like this one (and Israel wasn’t even in peak migration!).


We scored three species of Kingfisher. The first photo is a White-throated Kingfisher. We also saw lots of Pied Kingfishers flying around and making plenty of noise.


Finally, there’s the smallest of Israel’s Kingfishers, the Common Kingfisher, with its incredible azure blue back and wings. Unfortunately, we only got a profile shot.


Squacco Heron with a new species for this trip. How fortunate was it that I snapped the shutter at the exact moment it took flight?


We drove a short ways along the Israel-Jordan border. Even though it’s a patrolled area, we didn’t see much more security than this electrified fence. Peace is a wonderful thing, when you can get it!


Even though there weren’t patrols, there was a Blue-cheeked Bee Eater sitting on a wire near the border.


Agriculture in Israel is incredible, considering the geology and climate of the region. This is a date orchard. We saw tall trees and short trees, all full of honey dates. If you see Israeli dates in your supermarket, buy them – they’re incredibly delicious!


Even though we couldn’t come during peak migration, we were lucky enough to be here at the beginning of bird movement. We saw this flight of Western White Storks kettling from thermal to thermal. I love the one on the lower left looking down at something.


We also came across populations spending time on the ground feeding – gearing up for their next flight.



Another great bird for the day was a European Roller.


Of course, you can’t visit a fish pond operation without getting interested in the operation itself. We were there during feeding time. You can see all the fish up at the surface, eating the feed tossed out by the turbine in the photo. We believe they were Carp.


It’s also inevitable a day out in the field will produce wildlife other than birds. This is (I think) a Eurasian Otter.


We stopped for brunch at Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin. They are one of several kibbutzes in Israel trying to create a birding infrastructure, offering accommodations and birding opportunities. Please come to Israel and support them.

Israel is a vital Eurasian migration route. With support, places like this can promote habitat conservation and migratory bird protection. (End of advertisement)

Field brunch was wonderful, with bread, cheese, cold cuts, fresh fruit and vegetables, and even Turkish coffee.


We didn’t see any Dead Sea Sparrows that day. But Carmel pointed out one of their large nests.


We also visited even more fish ponds and were lucky enough to add three more species to the day’s counts, Black Stork, Glossy Ibis, and Armenian Gull.

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Here’s what the fish ponds look like from the top of Mt. Gilboa. (I was humming BeHar HaGilboa for a while after this).


As drove into the Judaean Desert between the Great Rift and the Dead Sea, we continued to see new species of birds. This is a White-crowned Wheatear.


Our final “stop” for the day was Ein Gedi. We had some luck and were able to get a photo of a Sand Partridge, though we had seen them earlier in the day as well.


Not a bird, this cute little mammal at Ein Gedi is called a Hyrax.


And now for some spectacular scenic shots taken during our time birding.


The Dead Sea:


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Trying to give a feel for scale:

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A Bedouin settlement is below. These are frequently seen in the desert regions.


Avi and I were still going to bird HaYarkon Park in Tel Aviv to see what some urban birding could yield. Report to come soon!  

Friday, August 19, 2011

Israel: Some Time Up North

Alana's friend Na'ama grew up on Kibbutz Ein Gev up on the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). She invited us to stay on the kibbutz for a couple of nights. She picked us up late Sunday afternoon when she was finished with work and we headed out on the two-hour drive up north.

Along the way we passed several Arab towns with neon minarets and large residential homes. 

Before getting to Ein Gev, Dan, Alana and Na'ama stopped at a Gelateria for some ice cream.

We arrived at the kibbutz around 8 o'clock or so. It was milking time at the dairy so we went in to see how things worked. The milking operation is computerized. Each cow has a bracelet with an identification chip in it and the cows get milked three times a day.

Even though we weren't specifically up north for birding, we still kept an eye out. What better bird to find in a barn than Barn Swallows?

The kids stayed with Na'ama in her parents' house, a beautiful home with three bedrooms. Avi and I stayed in her brother's young adult apt. while he was doing army duty during the week. It was small, but comfortable.

The kitchen was less than basic because the kibbutz has a communal dining hall. Na'ama's mother is one of the workers there for breakfast.

To conclude your tour of our accommodation, this is the exterior of the young adult quarters.

For comparison, this is Na'ama's parents' house:

The next day we took a guided tour of Tzfat (Safed), the Golan Heights, and a stop at one of the wineries in the Golan. We booked Jacob Firsel for the task and it worked out well; he was knowledgeable, fairly neutral in his politics (well, except for the time at the Golan Heights), and had a great air-conditioned vehicle that fits up to seven people.

Our first stop for the day was Tzfat, from whence comes Kabbalah, art, textiles, and many of our current Jewish traditions and prayers.

Tzfat was also an active region during several of Israel's battles. The mortar shell in Jacob's hands was one that fell on a home during the Hezbollah shelling of northern Israel in 2008.

We visited the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue, built in the 16th century. It was founded by Spanish exiles from Greece, subsequently moving to Tzfat. Its congregants were mostly Kabbalists. In 1570 they were joined by Rabbi Isaac Luria, who is famous for composing the melody for the popular melody to Lecha Dodi for welcoming in the Shabbat.

The stained glass window is a representation of the Tree of Life.

During the 1948 War of Independence, congregants were in the synagogue. One congregant, sitting in a seat by the bima, bent forward in prayer at the exact moment a piece of shrapnel embedded itself exactly where his head would have been. You can see it just above Dan's head. This event is considered one of the many miracles to have occurred in Tzfat.

Not directly related to Tzfat is this plant, which grows in Israel -- it's product is the yummy caper.

We also visited the Abuhav Sephardic Synagogue. It was first built in the 16th century. It has three Arks. The one on the right holds a Sefer Torah which is nearly 500 years old by Rabbi Isaac Abuhav of Portugal. The Ark on the left used to hold a Koran -- it was part of the law when the Ottomans ruled Tzfat.

The decorations in the synagogue are beautiful and symbolic. In accordance with Kabbalistic tradition, the sysnagogue is designed according to numerical significance: one bima, two stairways up to it, three Arks, etc.

The reason for the rosette at the crossbeams is so the crossbeams would not form a cross.

Jews came to Tzfat as weavers. Sadly, we were told there's only one weaving company left in town. This is one of their looms.

After Tzfat we stopped for lunch at a Druze restaurant serving the best falafel we've ever had. Here we are, surrounded by the selection of salads, pickles, bread, hummus, tehina, etc., etc., etc. I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant, because it was amazing!

The Turkish coffee that followed the meal wasn't too shabby either. Alana didn't have any -- she's just the model for the "ad".

No trip to the north is complete without a stop at the Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 war. The following photos have us looking down into Syria, a strategic position that helped Israel triumph when it was attacked in 1973.

We returned to Ein Gev in time to watch the beautiful sunset over the Kinneret. 

Of course, there were birds here as well. A Hoopoe, poking the soil for its insect meals,

Hooded Crow, sitting on a chair by the water,

and a non-native Peacock, probably kept around for "decoration", although it acts as an effective wake-up alarm in the morning.