Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Floundering in Israel

Had enough of me banging on about Priest Hill and Wheatears? Thought so. Here's a taster from a trip to Israel that I made in 1986 with my good friend Sean McMinn.

Hula Swamp is a small remnant of a once great wetland that was systematically drained for use as agricultural land. However, what is left is set in a green, verdant world that seemed out of place in my pre-conceived idea of what Israel would be like. In fact most of northern Israel is lushly vegetated and beautiful in the same way as English countryside can be.
The reserve at Hula was not dissimilar to an RSPB reserve back home – car park, visitor centre, wooden hides. The difference here was that there wasn’t anyone around and we had the place to ourselves. Although the reserve was not open as such, we still had access to the hides.
The view from the first hide we entered was simply stunning. A flock of 154 White Pelicans were sitting on the water against a backdrop of sunlit hills. They were restless and soon took to the air, soaring over the swamp, wheeling above us in the clear air. After one final circuit they all drifted away into the distance along with the sunlight that was receding to the top of the distant high ground. After this exodus of pelicans, the water was not left empty, far from it. A loose flock of 1,000 Shoveler littered the surface, but apart from 10 Teal and a handful of Mallard there were no other duck present. The waters edge was refuge to at least 100 Spur-winged Plover that jostled for position out-muscling the 10 Snipe and single Green and Wood Sandpipers.
A lone warbler crashing about in the papyrus caught our attention and started to sing from a lone bush. It was a Clamorous Reed Warbler, a target species at this site. It afforded good views but was not really that impressive, albeit large for a warbler.
Our vantage point allowed for long ranging views over the area, so any passing raptor that came along was easily seen. These included Black Kite (6), Marsh Harrier (2), Hen Harrier (1), Sparrowhawk (1), Osprey (2) and our first two Lesser Spotted Eagles. Beneath them two Purple Herons and two Night Herons were flopping around the watery channels.
Corvids were gathering as the afternoon wore on and ended up with Jackdaw (25), Rook (100) and Hooded Crow (80) vying for position in nearby trees and generally making quite a racket. After watching more Pied Kingfishers (which we never tired of doing), we left the reserve as we had yet to see Marbled Teal, and knew that the fishponds that adjoined the reserve was a good place to see them. Virtually the first species that we saw when peering over the first pond was indeed Marbled Teal, 25 of them, rather nervously huddled together. They took off almost immediately and landed further into the mosaic of ponds.
Hula was an enchanting area, almost a natural amphitheatre, with an attendant cast of birds to grace its stage. We should have spent more time here.
The light had started to fade quickly and our thoughts turned to sleeping arrangements. We had, in effect, been awake for 36 hours so we were ready to crash out for the night. The thought of pitching a tent was all too much so we decided upon sleeping in the car – a more uncomfortable option but in all honesty we couldn’t be bothered to muck around with flysheets, guy ropes and tent pegs. Also, as we were at the edge of a swamp the chances of being bitten to bits by insects was high. A car would keep those little bastards away from us.
Between the small pools (where we had earlier seen the Marbled Teals) and the reserve entrance, we had noticed a track leading off of the road. This was drivable and allowed us to park the car behind a screen of tall trees, a large reed bed flanking us directly opposite. Not a bad spot, ideal for falling out of the car at first light and having instantaneous birding. We were too tired to bother with preparing a meal so we unravelled the sleeping bags, set the alarm clock and settled into our reclined front seat beds. Sean was on the driver’s side, which meant I didn’t have the car pedals taking up valuable leg room. We quietly chatted, watching a total darkness fall upon our reedy panorama. Apart from a few dogs barking, nothing stirred around us. Soon we both fell into a fitful sleep.
I awoke in the blackness in what seemed to me to be hours later. I looked at my watch by torchlight, expecting that dawn would soon be upon us. NINE O’CLOCK!! I had only been asleep for two hours! Christ, now I was wide-awake. As was Sean. We exchanged a few words and then fell quiet, both of us trying once more to get comfortable. I had slept rough on a few occasions in my very brief ‘twitching’ period – bus stops, churches, beaches, cars – and had without exception a poor nights sleep. I always envied those companions who seemed to fall asleep instantaneously in these situations and then proceeded to wake at first light having had a refreshing sleep. This, I could safely predict, was to be another long, long night to add to all those others.
Twenty minutes later we had both settled upon the least uncomfortable position we could find and were attempting to sleep. Then outside in the blackness there was a noise.
Vegetation being trampled.
Very close.
Bloody hell, what was it?
Both of our heads bobbed up from our makeshift pillows. I could sense Sean’s neck craning up, his ears out on stalks seeking confirmation of what we had just heard. I was mirroring him. The blackness slowly returned to silence but my heart was pumping blood through my head and ears at a pace, drowning everything else out.
“What was that?”
“Dunno, just livestock in the reeds?” We weren’t convinced though.
Nothing else made a sound and after several minutes our panic subsided. An uneasy peace settled upon us. That is, until another crash of reeds, much louder and much closer. Sean sat bolt upright, which startled me as much as the sound had. The dogs had started up again…real close.
“There’s someone out there!” Sean hissed, in a strangled whisper.
With that he pounced on the car keys, started the engine, turned on the headlights and took his sleeping bag off in one smooth movement. Before I knew what was going on he had reversed out onto the road and was screeching away from the scene of our unidentified noises. John Thaw and Dennis Waterman had never bettered that getaway in any episode of the Sweeney.
“Did you see anyone?” I enquired trying to piece together the last thirty seconds of madness.
“There was someone walking around the car!” Sean replied. He really was shaken. In the mad scramble away our car headlights had not picked out any person or dog in the beam. But, considering the way in which we had exited the scene, they would have been under the wheels of the car and certainly not on view…We drove out onto the main road and pulled up on the verge, engine still running. Nothing followed us out of the minor road and we cautiously switched the engine off.
We were now able to see the funny side of the situation. Sean at the wheel in his boxer shorts, me wrapped up in a sleeping bag, both of our seats still fully reclined. But we were rattled. What now? We knew that we wanted to head north in the morning so we now had the choice of either heading that way immediately and hope to find somewhere to stay en route, or try to find another, safer bolt hole in the immediate vicinity. We weren’t well prepared however. Apart from at Ein Gedi we didn’t have a clue as to where we were going to stay at any time during our visit. The map before us, as detailed as it was, did not show camp sites. As we were discussing our options a car slowed down and stopped by our side. The only occupant, a middle aged man, wound his window down.
“Hello, are you OK?” he asked in good English.
We didn’t go into any details of our evenings entertainment, just told him that we had flown in from the UK, were birdwatchers and were just looking at our map to find somewhere to stay. He eyed us up and down, no doubt wondering why Sean was in boxer shorts and I was in a sleeping bag.
“OK, take care” he replied and drove away.
Ten minutes later we were still sitting in the car deliberating our next move when he returned. This time he parked his car up ahead of us, got out and walked towards us holding a police badge aloft.
“Look, what are you doing?” he demanded. “This is a dangerous place. A lot of terrorist activity goes on around here in the north. It is not safe for you to be parked like this. Where are you staying tonight?”
We had to confess our lack of plans. I felt like a little boy being caught out at school for not having done his homework.
He got onto his CB radio and spoke in Hebrew. Soon after he told us to go to a nearby police station where they would direct us to a ‘safe’ campsite.
We were made to promise that we would follow his instructions and then both sheepishly got out of the car to sort ourselves out – me to remove the sleeping bag, Sean to put some trousers on.
The police station was only a matter of minutes away. We parked outside and I left Sean in the car and went into the building. It was like walking into the Wild West. The station was manned by several Israeli’s who took no notice of me as their attention was drawn to a murderous looking chap in handcuffs – six foot plus, broad barrel chest and a head like a block of stone with several vicious scars on show. He was prodded by them with a mixture of sticks and fingers before finally being taken from the reception area. One of the policemen then looked towards me, as you would look towards a lump of dog shit. I explained our predicament, told him that his colleague had told us to report here. He didn’t seem to know anything about it but did look at the map I proffered to him and pointed to the town of Rosh Pinna. In broken English he explained that there was a Youth Hostel there. As I walked out of the building another dangerous looking individual was being led in. I swear that I also heard a scream from a room further back in the complex. Maybe another scar was being added to that prisoner's head.
Finding the Youth Hostel was no problem due to very clear sign posting. We parked the car in the hostel’s very own car park and walked towards the building. The front door was wide open and the lights were on. However, nobody seemed to be at home. After we had called out a few half-hearted “hellos”, which elicited no response, we got back into the car.
We were worn out. We had both been rattled. I, for one, felt a failure. Here we were, on our first day in Israel, floundering.
Our problem really boiled down to a lack of planning. We should have sorted out a camp site earlier in the day. Instead, we impatiently went straight to Hula Swamp and birded. If we had been sensible we would now be tucked up in a tent at a safe site and be fast asleep, having no negative thoughts about northern Israel. The policeman who had spoken to us on the road had without question set seeds of doubt into our minds about the safety here in the north. We knew the situation up here was a bit dodgy. Our planned itinery was to drive up to the Golan Heights in the morning after an early visit to Hula Swamp and Wadi Amud. But now we wanted to head somewhere comforting and were seriously contemplating just getting the hell out of the north. We knew that there was a camp site at Ein Gedi and that it was in a ‘friendly area’. We had more or less already cleaned up at Hula Swamp anyway so didn’t really need to go back. We then convinced ourselves that there really wasn’t much to see in the Golan anyway. Our decision was made – we would sleep here in the car tonight, look at Wadi Amud in the morning and take a slow drive south to Ein Gedi afterwards. Basically we were bottling it. I had been looking forward to the Golan Heights. I wanted to see Sombre Tit and Syrian Serin. I wanted to take in the mountain scenery, to look over into the distant and off-limits country of Syria. But for both of us, first time in a perceived semi-hostile situation, we just wanted to be enjoying stress free birding and not worrying about having our heads caved in by a block-headed, barrel-chested terrorist who hid in reed beds at the dead of night. Preposterous I know, but at the time it made eminent sense. We should have taken a deep breath and looked at the facts - this wasn’t the Khyber Pass, it wasn’t the opium triangle on the Thai-Burmese border, this was the westernised USA-backed state of Israel where almost everybody spoke English, the roads were excellent and modern conveniences were at our fingertips. A trip up north should be no more of a risk than visiting any British city after dark or leaving your car parked up in the North Kent Marshes. The two of us just didn’t feel confident enough to take up that challenge. Now that a decision had been made we were quite relieved. To the sound of a calling Tawny Owl we both nodded off and had quite a good nights sleep.

Ranulph Feinnes and Wilfred Thesiger? We were more like Laurel and Hardy.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Northern Wheatear and beyond

The 'dry inland patch' birder has to reduce anticipation and be thankful for what comes along. The blue-riband species are invariably those colourful, confiding chats - Stonechats, Whinchats, Common Redstarts and Wheatears. And if that same 'dry inland patch' birder does not own a 'big lens' but has a bridge camera, then these same species will be over represented in their photographic studies, mainly because they (a) perch in the open; are (b) fairly tame and most importantly are (c) colourful. Hence more of this:


There were six together at Priest Hill this morning, four of them males. I love counting them - they do not reveal themselves all at once, and hide behind bushes, hummocks and long grass. A scan can start off with two birds, then you scan again and there are still two birds, but you realise that the first scan was of a male and a female and this latest scan is of two males - therefore three are present. And so you carry on, others appearing, but with the sex composition differing each time, until you build up a minimum number for each sex to reach a flock total, even though the whole flock is never in view at the same time. Hours of fun!


I should have kept up the Wheatear Challenge - or better still, some other bored blogger could have started one and I might have been a contender for 2017. I make that 10 bird so far...

Friday, 21 April 2017

Seasonal switch


Priest Hill had the feeling of early-summer this afternoon - the Whitethroats (above) and Linnets were busily singing and squabbling amongst themselves; the bare earth was parched and showing cracks; the water levels of the small ponds are receding by the day. There were some indications of spring passage however, with a Lesser Whitethroat that sang as it (quickly) made its way along a hedgerow and out of the recording area, plus two male Northern Wheatears in Big Field - and I resisted the temptation to take any more photos!

Thursday, 20 April 2017

I make no apologies...





Another day and another showy male Northern Wheatear at Priest Hill. If only I'd kept the 'Wheatear Challenge' going...

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

More Wheatear


You cannot get enough Wheatear - doesn't matter which species, although here in north Surrey anything other than a Northern will not be believed. The smart chap above decided to give the Priest Hill hummocks a miss and perched on a tree instead. He was so happy with life that he even went into a brief burst of sub-song. I was able to stand and watch just a few metres away, and in the end left him alone, still perched on the branch. If I hadn't seen him fly onto it I might have checked that it wasn't limed...

The other highlight from this morning was a Common Snipe, flushed from the middle of Big Field. Why this species would choose to alight on a bone dry field on a day of clear blue sky I do not know, but there lies one of the reasons that we carry on birding - we just do not know what the next bird is that we will see. And if it happens to be a Wheatear, then that's fine by me. Want another? Go on then...

Monday, 17 April 2017

Dawn reeler


I was at Priest Hill by 06.00hrs, in a fine drizzle. My hopes were up, and within the hour a Grasshopper Warbler had been located, reeling away from dense Blackthorn and Hawthorn scrub. It sang infrequently between 06.50 - 07.20hrs - I didn't even glimpse it. There had also been an obvious arrival of Common Redstarts (below), all in the scrub and hedgerow between Glyn Playing Field and Ranger's Field. A minimum of four were present, of which one was a male. They were quite flighty, but called a lot which aided observation. To complete the trio of highlights, a Northern Wheatear was present throughout the morning on Glyn Playing Field (above).


Other counts: Canada Goose (5), Sparrowhawk (1), Swallow (7), Meadow Pipit (3), Whitethroat (5), Blackcap (5), Chiffchaff (7), Willow Warbler (2).

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Stoking the birding fire

Part 8: November – December 1975 I had fallen into a comfortable birding routine, with Beddington Sewage Farm and Staines Reservoir being my venues of choice. A visit to the latter site required two bus journeys (Cheam – Kingston and Kingston – Ashford), with departure from Cheam pre-dawn, so as to maximise birding time. Since my first visit to the reservoir, the duck and wader numbers had thankfully increased, so that the scanning of the exposed mud and water had a meaningful end result. There was one session that did not end with success, as the flat west London basin was prone to fog, and on this particular morning visibility was down to 50m. Having made the effort to travel I stubbornly remained waiting for it to lift, a lone figure on the causeway making-do with the odd Dunlin (or Tufted Duck) that wandered (or floated) into visible range. However, on most visits my observation time was unimpeded, and the monochrome waters were usually home to rafts of diving duck, with the cold slabs of mud being populated by several hundred Teal, Lapwings and Dunlin. I was still not connecting with some of the more desirable of Staines Reservoir’s ‘notable’ species, although a lone female Goldeneye that popped up in front of me one late December morning was ample compensation. My lack of a telescope did not help me in my quest for the rare grebes, divers and Smew that might be out there, but to buy one was out of the range of my limited finances – and apart from my visits to the reservoir one was not really needed closer to home. Such an extravagance could wait. My relationship with Staines was an odd one. I didn’t really like the place. Too open, too exposed, man-made. Surrounded by busy roads, with heavy air traffic from Heathrow, the panorama bled of colour, a severe lack of vegetation. It was a veritable festival of concrete and metal fencing, a celebration of how man can extinguish nature. But I returned because it had birds, and that was all the excuse that I needed to dismiss any sensitivities that I might harbour.


The last two months of the year at Beddington were not without highlight. A long-awaited Water Rail atypically swam across a flooded settling bed, in clear view, allowing me ample time to take in the curved coral-red bill, beady wine-red eye, chestnut back and humbug barred flanks – it was much better than the field guide illustrations, a moment of wonder. I relived those few seconds for weeks afterwards, they cheered up otherwise dull, bird-less days. Such moments added oxygen to the bird watching quest, they kept the fire of enthusiasm burning. The odd Ruff and Golden Plover found the fields to their liking and were jewels to be winkled out of the Lapwing flocks.  Unusually for Beddington, Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer became part of the winter picture. As the year drew to a close, I had plans for 1976 already in place – an August birding fortnight in the Minsmere area with birding friends; plus a place on an RSPB/YOC course to one of HG Alexander’s old haunts – Dungeness in Kent. 1975 had been tremendous – 1976 would be even better.