Israel's Good Name

Autumn Raptor Migration: Part I

In Central Israel, Galilee, Israel on October 21, 2018 at 8:18 AM

Ordinarily I prefer writing posts on individual trips, but for the past month or so there has been an ongoing migration that was the cause for many small trips, often too small to warrant a full blog post. So, in an effort to document this series of small trips that took place over the course of a month throughout the country, two summary posts will suffice.

Sunrise at the Biriya Forest lookout

As the Eurasian summer months come to an end and the weather gets a bit cooler, hundreds of thousands of raptors begin their migration southbound. A good number of these birds of prey make their way via Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and then Israel, where many stop to spend the night. There are several “roosting zones” throughout Israel, generally wooded regions such as Biriya and Ben Shemen Forests, where these birds can be seen in the mornings as they fly back up into the hot air thermals to continue their journey to Africa, where the weather is nice and warm. In the beginning of September the honey buzzards started appearing in Israel as they made their way south.

Honey buzzard

In sync with the daily birding reports on social media, I asked my friend and fellow birder Adam Ota if he’d like to take a trip up north to watch for honey buzzards at a lookout at the Biriya Forest. This launched the raptor month, and we arrived nice and early that Sunday morning to get our birding on. Being that most migrating raptors don’t start moving till after 8am, we had time to wander around the woods looking for other forms of wildlife. We found some classic seasonal birds, such as an Isabelline wheatear and a spotted flycatcher, as well as a handful of noisy chukars, a whole slew of freshly awoken black kites and my first hobby (type of falcon) of the year.

Honey buzzards in Biriya Forest

When we got back to the lookout we found another birder, Prof Shlomi Segall of HUJI, set up and watching the valley down below. Soon enough, the honey buzzards started appearing by the tens, and some even soared by relatively close to our perch at the valley’s edge. With the honey buzzards came a handful of other raptors, also migrating, including some short-toed eagles, a marsh harrier, some more black kites and our first lesser spotted eagle of the season. For a good portion of the time there was a huge, dark, low-hanging cloud that obscured the flying birds until they exited it, popping suddenly into view which made it all the more exciting. Hundreds of birds later we wrapped it up and headed to Ma’alot where we were to be spending Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year’s.

Lesser spotted eagle

Two weeks passed and the bulk of the honey buzzards were already getting settled in down in Africa. The next phase of raptor migration was just starting, and the main features were the lesser spotted eagles and the Levant sparrowhawks. Both of these species fly predominantly through Israel, so sightings are basically guaranteed during the migration season. Perhaps the best place to spot both the eagles and the sparrowhawks is at Ben Shemen Forest, in the morning when they take to the skies for another day of flying. It was still in the beginning of their season, but Adam and I figured we’d take a shot at seeing what we could while still in the centre of the country. I had plans to spend the Sukkot holiday up north with family, and we didn’t want to miss out on the fun.

Lookout area at Ben Shemen Forest

We arrived early in the morning and hiked our way from the north side of the forest to the south end, where the so-called lookout is. There were a handful of birds to be seen in the forest, and even more when we finally exited it. A couple local kestrels, a few black kites, a honey buzzard, a masked shrike and a handful of songbirds made up the bulk of the sightings, but then something unique caught Adam’s eye. Perched on a tree some ways away was a bird that looks suspiciously like a peregrine falcon (a bird that has still eluded us to this day), but upon closer inspection turned out to be a hobby. It certainly was very exciting getting to watch this beautiful bird from relatively close, and it was had to continue on to the lookout where the eagles were to be found.

Eurasian hobby

We were not going to be disappointed, for immediately when we arrived at the lookout area we saw eagles coming out out of the trees. They swirled in large circles as the soared upwards, catching the morning’s warm air. Tens of lesser spotted eagles and Levant sparrowhawks were slowly making their way past us, and we had to keep our eyes peeled to find other raptor species in the group. Short-toed eagles, booted eagles, black kites and honey buzzards joined the spectacular aerial display above us, dozens of large birds filling the skies. This was my first time seeing Levant sparrowhawks in migratory flight and it was quite interesting to see them in contrast to the much larger eagles.

Raptors in Ben Shemen Forest

Temporarily satisfied with our migration sightings, I didn’t get back out again for a few days until I was contacted by Shlomi, who we had met watching honey buzzards at Biriya Forest. I had posted online about seeing some raptor migration (honey buzzards, eagles, black kites and more) over my sister’s place in Ma’alot, and since we were both in the area we took an early morning trip to the Hula Valley a few days later.

Black kites in a Hula Valley field

We arrived at the Hula Valley at first light and began our birding by driving alongside the fields. I had never really done “car birding” so it was very illuminating to see how the birds allowed us to get much closer than anticipated, as well as coming close to us on their own accord. As we drove the fields we spotted a large number of bird species, including: yellow wagtails, wheatears, whinchats, rollers, lesser grey shrikes, black kites, black shouldered kites, white storks and a male black francolin. We then reached a particular stretch of fields which Shlomi referred to as a place to find raptors. Sure enough, there was a lesser spotted eagle hunting grasshoppers or locusts on the ground, a long-legged buzzard perched far away on a bale of hay and a few marsh harriers hunting at the edges of the fields.

Hula Valley National Park

Shlomi had a particular reason why he wanted to come to the Hula Valley, and that was to spot the rare pink-backed pelican that wandered into Israel. There have been less than a score of pink-backed pelican sightings in Israel and to have one just waiting for us to spot in was a great reason to wake up early. We entered the Hula Valley National Park and began a quick tour of the place, stopping at the usual places to see what we can see. There were a fair number of waterbirds and waders, including: mallards, pin-tailed ducks, ruffs, common snipes, a marsh sandpiper, pygmy cormorants and a pallid harrier.

Rare pink-backed pelican (left)

At last we reached the lake and started searching for the pink-backed pelican. We found him relaxing with a handful of great white pelicans, which are much larger and coloured slightly differently. There was great elation in finding the rare bird and the following birding on the way out of the park only brought up a few species we hadn’t yet seen that day, just a few thousand pelicans in the skies excited us by their sheer numbers alone.

Approximately 440 pelicans overhead

However, on the way back to Ma’alot, we passed by a landfill outside of Biriya Forest and saw hundreds of black kites – an incredible sight, nothing like anything I’ve ever seen. One day I shall have to return to re-examine this magnificence, but for now there’s the autumn migration to fixate on. To be continued…

  1. […] to the subject of the month-long raptor migration, there was still much more for us to see. About a week or so after my trip to the Hula Valley, I […]

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