Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Little Green Bee-Eater and the Steppe Buzzard

Beloved birders!

We’re just back from a whirlwind trip to Israel, and I’m not quite sure how to sum it all up. In short, it was extraordinary. I feel like we did it all: we swam in the Dead Sea, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the waterfalls in Ein Gedi, we visited Roman ruins in Ceasarea and Beit She’an, stayed on a kibbutz at the foot of Mt. Gilboa, toured Jerusalem, drank fresh squeezed orange-pomegranate juice in Tel Aviv, reconnected with relatives (both human and feline), and ate extremely well. But why didn’t anyone tell me that the best part of Israel — by far the BEST, most striking, extraordinary — is the birds. I saw more than 60 lifers (but who’s counting?) and can’t wait to go back for more.

On our first day in Tel Aviv, jet-lagged and overheated, we walked along the beach in search of great hummus (have no fear, we found it) and happened upon our first Hoopoe (Upupa epops), sporting an exquisite & slightly surreal-looking crown of feathers. I took that as a good omen.

The Hoopoe, Israel's national bird. Image from here.

The Hoopoe, Israel’s national bird. Image from here. Except this bird looks like his head is on backwards. The ones we saw faced the opposite direction. Apologies for misrepresenting our sighting, but as usual I remain photographically challenged and all my pics of Hoopoes are basically photos of grass. I’ll spare you the 31 attempts.

Once I saw the Hoopoe, which I had fallen in love with a few years ago in Donana National Park in Spain, I knew that we were in for a fabulous vacation. Yes, beloved birders, I fear I’m starting to entertain the practice of augury somewhat seriously. Maybe I have a future in reading birds as well as texts?

The Hoopoe brought along the regal Hooded crow (Corvus cornix) and the whimsical Palestine sunbird (Cinnyris osea), which I initially mistook for a Blue headed hummingbird, only to find out that it’s endemic to Martinique (THANK YOU GOOGLE!).

Here's the gorgeous Palestine sunbird. How I could have mistaken this for a hummingbird is now beyond me, but it seemed apt at the time.

Here’s the gorgeous Palestine sunbird. How I could have mistaken this for a hummingbird is now beyond me, but it seemed apt at the time. Photo from here.

Amazingly, our visit to Jerusalem began at the bird observatory behind the Knesset (because our tour guide was a total genius and knew how to start the day off right!), where I met my first (of many) Eurasian blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) and marvelled at how scribes at Israeli bird banding stations use computers rather than transcribing data by hand! Oh the technology in the Old World. After chatting briefly with some kindred spirit bird banders we were on our way to more important sites, such as Yad Vashem and the Old City. Weaving in and out of holy sites, we also got to know the Spectacled Bulbul (Pycnonotus xanthopygos) and and the spectacular Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius), which sadly puts our Blue jay to shame.

While we were in the north, in a kibbutz located a stone’s throw from the Jordanian border, we saw thousands of White pelicans (Pelecanus onocratalus) and White storks (Ciconia ciconia) flying overhead all day long. We also got to know the somewhat ridiculous and omnipresent (fluorescent green) parakeets. While on the feline leg of our trip (my aunt has 40+ cats, but her exquisite culinary skills more than made up for the curious experience), I am pretty sure I saw trees full of glossy ibises but I could be entirely wrong given that it was I who proudly pronounced the ID.

Other non-negligible sightings in Israel included classy Byzantine public toilets — with facing columns, no less — in Beit She’an (otherwise known as Scythopolis to the Ancients), stunning Roman theatres, a slightly out of place Koala in a bizarre Australian oasis called Gangaroo (OK I admit it — I was at least 30 years too old to properly enjoy the park), a ferocious goat who ripped a map out of my hand and ate it, promptly convincing me that herbivores happily eat paper too…

And then, the birdy piece de resistance of our trip took place in Eilat, where I hired the best bird guide ever to drive us around for 6.5 hours. Itai Shanni took us up into the mountains of the Arava desert where we saw hundreds of Steppe buzzards (Buteo buteo vulpinus) migrating north from Africa. They were joined by countless Levant sparrowhawks (Accipiter brevipes), Booted eagles (Aquila pennata), Lesser spotted eagles (Clanga pomarina), Black kites (Milvus migrans), Honey buzzards, Kestrels, and my favorite, the Hobby (Falco subbuteo). The sky was literally dotted with raptors and by the time we left the mountain, the counter had already counted 6000 raptors!

It appears that my husband and I have fairly stereotypically gendered birding preferences: he adores the brute force exuded by raptors whereas I can’t get enough of the colorful, more diminutive, elegant migrants. Where I squealed with delight at every Little green bee-eater sighting, he just wanted more and more and more Steppe buzzards. Good thing we got plenty of both on this trip.

The Steppe Buzzard. Fantastic photo by Bryn de Kocks, image from here.

The Steppe Buzzard. Fantastic photo by Bryn de Kocks, image from here.

The Little green bee-eater. Image from here.

The Little green bee-eater. Image from here.

And in a way that sums up our marriage. Sometimes I get the sense that we are the Little green bee-eater and the Steppe buzzard. To imagine that there is a world that holds both of these radically, senselessly different creatures within its confines, to imagine that they somehow coexist within the same geographic range, dare I say happily. Now that’s true, if incongruous, magic. The same goes for my marriage.