Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Israel: Part 3

The rest of the trip we focussed our birding around the Yotvata and KM20 areas, and picked up plenty of good birds, and a noticeable increase of migrants:
Pied Kingfisher-KM19-20 ditch

Black Bush Robin
 Undoubtedly my best find of the trip was this Black Bush robin, initially found early morning at the Arabian warbler site near Yotvata where a few people got on to it.
Hoopoe, Yotvata

Issy wheatear


 The Black Bush Robin, or quite possibly another, then popped up 20km further south that afternoon, and again 2km further south 15 minutes later! One birding moving fast, or a bit of an arrival?

Randomly hopping about under some desert scrub

Male Rock Thrush in the middle of desert scrub

Huge flock of Spanish Sparrows were present at Yotvata

Breeding KP at Km20
 Selection of migrants:

I found this Collared fly on birdrace day at IBRC, but it vanished before all but one team got to see it
 And on our way back to Tel Aviv we stopped at the wonderful Lahav, very different to the arid south.
Great Spotted Cuckoo

Long-billed Pipit on territory
 When we arrived at Tel Aviv, we wasted ours pissing about in traffic, but we did get our only White-breasted Kingfishers of the trip before heading home via extremely heavy airport security.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Young People in Conservation

This is a response to Danny Heptinstall's guest blog on Mark Avery's blog 'Standing up for Nature'  and on his own website 'naturewarblings' .

Every so often, an article appears haranguing 'today's youth' for their lack of engagement with nature. We sit on our Playstations all day, with an iPhone on our laps so we can flick between screens every second to absorb a constant stream of meaningless celebrity gossip whilst mutilating zombies, never having seen so much as a blade of grass in the flesh. As a young birder growing up reading this sort of article (or the endless, tedious Birdforum comments on the issue), I can only say that they are counter-productive and dispiriting for the very people they aim to encourage. To hear that there are no young birders around, that you are isolated and different, creates a barrier that is difficult to overcome. Why would you put effort in trying to find other people your age who share your passion when you have already been told there is none?

Danny's argument differs slightly from this familiar narrative, but I fear with the same negative, off-putting outcome. In this reading, there are plenty of 'interested' youths, signing up for conservation courses and over-subscribing any available jobs, but they are not of a high enough calibre to properly support the work of the current conservation NGOs, and they do not constitute a coherent (yet undefined) movement. The blame for this, rather than being the fault of the youth, is a lack of engagement from the large conservation NGOs, particularly within the 18-25 age bracket. Essentially there are too few engaged 18-25 year-olds with the ability to make a difference, and it is the responsibility of large conservation NGOs to resolve this problem.

From my point of view, this reading of the situation is wrong in several ways, and is even harmful in the way the older, more clichéd articles were. Whilst I don't wish to comment too much on an overarching 'conservation' movement, I do know a bit about the birding scene, and I suspect that it is reasonably reflective of any larger nature or conservation movement. Within birding, whilst it may have been true a few years back that there was no coherent, appealing youth groups within birding, it no longer is. Both Next Generation Birders and A Focus on Nature (for more general naturalists) provide a fantastic forum- one of the recommendations for action in Danny's blog- from which young birders can meet, share ideas and generally evolve a sense of community. To characterise today's young enthusiasts as naïve, un-knowledgeable people prepared to drop £30,000 on a university course they know very little about, is not only to ignore all the people on NGB and AFON who are the very opposite of this, but it will also actively discourage the less engaged and knowledgeable from looking for these communities by denying their existence.

It's not even clear that attempting to engage with this age group in the way advocated by Danny's article would be positive for the larger NGOs. It only takes a brief look through the annals of Twitter marketing failures to see just how hard it is to appeal to this age group, and it is often huge corporations with massive marketing budgets that are making this cock-ups. Do we really want our environmental NGOs diverting vital resources away from conservation in order to work out a strategy to appeal to an audience that is notoriously difficult to connect to? A large part of the problem is that those in this age bracket (including myself) often want to create our own identities, to differentiate ourselves from what went before, hence the advantages of groups like AFON and NGB. The RSPB have been remarkably and commendably quick in recognising this, offering assistance to NGB to grow support for conservation in a way that wouldn't work if operated through official channels like RSPB Phoenix. It may be in the nature of these newer 'un-official' groups to be somewhat ephemeral, with each new generation wishing to create new identities and doing things their own way, but surely it is better for NGOs to offer a dynamic, supportive response to these groups as a strategy, than to risk diverting £1000s of pounds of funding finding strategies that are always likely to prove unappealing to its' target audience.

That's not to say I disagree with all Danny had to say – or even the main thrust of his argument, that environmental NGOs are failing the 18-25 age group in becoming the future of conservation. To work out the best way for the RSPB and other groups to engage with this audience, it is necessary to  look at what young people have most to offer. Clearly it's not money, of the RSPBs million plus members only a small proportion are ever going to fit into this category, and they are going to be less well off. I would envisage that the vast majority of the RSPBs youth membership have their membership paid for by well wishing relatives, or as family memberships, regardless of any interest shown by the younger people themselves. The dynamics of birding have changed as well, it's no longer a hobby adopted at a young age and continued through into older age, there are now far more  beginners in the 40+ age bracket, replete with top range optics and DSLRs wandering round RSPB reserves. From a purely economic perspective, this should be the target audience for new membership campaigns, for finding new volunteers and support- instead of trying to develop a potentially non-existent loyalty from a dwindling group of youngsters.

Instead, what's there is dynamism, energy, new ideas and enthusiasm, the same young people have to offer any corporate company. Many industries and companies acknowledge this, and offer an array of internships and graduate roles to young people to gain broad experience in their chosen career paths. It is here that the RSPB and other large environmental NGOs (although not all) let young enthusiasts down the most.

The RSPB job application forms are an exercise in intimidation, with huge amounts of skills and knowledge required for often the most simple of roles. Invariably a degree in a related subject is required. Furthermore, it is often the case that months of free labour, in the form of volunteering, is often required before even being considered for a job. Volunteering in general is of course a good thing, but as a pre-requisite for a job, can become a hurdle that rules out many talented individuals if they do not have the wealth to work for free for extended periods of time, or suitable access to reserves etc. For those coming out of university with upwards of £20,000 debt, finding any sort of paying job can take precedence over months of unpaid labour, regardless of the calibre of the individual. All of this serves to put off many talented young people looking for work within conservation NGOs, and substantially narrows the pool of people likely to be applying for a role, thus unnecessarily ruling out people who could be doing fantastic work for conservation.

In my opinion, the best thing the RSPB and other large conservation NGOs could do to help and encourage young people is to establish an annual 6-month paid graduate internship programme, for those with a genuine interest in conservation and nature. Ideally this would be done in combination with several NGOs, allowing different experiences within different organisations, and spreading the costs. Roles could be offered in different areas, 'field and reserve work' for example, or 'research', 'campaigning and media engagement' and other important aspects of these NGOs work. Importantly, however, recruits should be drawn for the broadest possible of backgrounds, paid so as not to rule out people on a financial basis, and regarded as a way of finding the best 'raw materials' to train and teach, rather than as a route in for those already with huge skill-bases.

This in turn I feel would further encourage the 'youth movement' so advocated by Danny, by showing that efforts and enthusiasm can be rewarded and appreciated by the large NGOs, that what can be accomplished by young people is still valuable.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Israel: Part 2

The next day we headed to Yotvata in the morning with the intention of throughly exploring the large arable fields and excellent sewage works.

We headed to the sewage works first, which were excellent, with at least three Citrine wagtails, a dozen or so Bluethroats (both white and red spots) dashing about in the reeds, 2 Little crakes and a Savi's warbler singing.
Selection of wagtails
Graceful prinia nest building
One of many Bluethroats
We then headed to the North fields. On arriving we picked up a female kestrel sp. Tim refused to look at it as he didn't want his first Lesser kestrel to be an imm/female type, and whilst I was identifying it, he called to get on a wader going over, the immediately shouted 'Caspian plover'! The air became electric as we all swung round to get on it, zipping through fairly high up. Thankfully it slowed and turned, then came in to the fields, giving great views over the course of the next hour before twitchers started to arrive and we drifted away.

Tim got his male Lesser kestrel whilst watching the Caspian plover

Black kites were common over the fields
 We had heard that there was an Oriental skylark on South Circular field, so we headed there in the midday heat without very great hopes of success. After flushing several hundred Short-toed larks, along with a few buntings and pipits, three small larks flew up, all calling identically. What was going on? But sure enough, we persevered and there was indeed 3 Oriental skylark (and one European skylark) feeding along the weedy strip. Happily one perched for views, albeit somewhat distantly in the heat haze.
Oriental skylark
 We then headed back to Km 20, as the heat had quietened most of the passerine action at Yotvata.
Apparently a bit scarce

Spur-winged plover

coutelli Water pipit in Km19-20 ditch

The next day, myself and James headed to the Dead Sea, to try and catch up with some of the specialities. In terms of the birds seen, we had a fantastic day, but most of the real specialities seemed to avoid the camera lens, so sadly not many pics!

We started at a wadi just south of the Dead Sea to look for Arabian warblers at dawn. Again, the wadi was incredibly alive with migrants, with at least two species of sandgrouse flying about. Eventually we tracked own a male Arabian warbler, which gave brief views before vanishing off down the wadi again.
Tawny pipit
Orphean warblers provided good comparisons
 We then headed on to Lot reservoir where we picked up a singing male Dead Sea sparrow, several singing Clamorous reed warblers and Indian silverbills
These look like they should be in Star Wars
This was on the fence around Lot Reservoir
We then headed on to En Gedi and a steep mountainous wadi to look for Sinai rosefinch. We went too far up, but the raptor watching was again spectacular, as were the Fan-tailed ravens and Nubian ibex.                                
Fan-tailed raven
Male Tristram's starling

Black storks were going over with the raptors
WE gave up after midday when the heat became too much and spent a few hours around En Gedi. Fortunately with a bit of encouragemnet from Josh Jones, we decided to return late afternoon, and found the spring. Within minutes a pair of Sinai rosefinch came in to drink, and the disembodied song that had been unlocatable in the morning eventually gave itself up as a distantly singing Mountain bunting. Excellent! but we had to dash to catch Barak Granit and his tour for the evening, rather than attempting closer views. We arrived with a few minutes spare, to be informed it was a perfect night for it. Good to his word, Barak had us watching a hunting Nubian nightjar within twenty minutes, then an hour or so later, a calling Hume's owl! All in all, a very succesful day.

More to follow

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Israel: part 1

I had heard how good spring trips to Israel could be, so when Tim Jones discussed the possibility of going out there for ten days in late March and early April, I decided to grasp the opportunity. As well as Tim, Rael Butcher and James Shergold came along, and we found pretty cheap flights in to Tel Aviv on the 23rd. We booked accommodation in a cheap hostel in Eilat, and based ourselves there throughout the trip.

We arrived too late to do any birding on 23rd, and just drove to Eilat. The 24th saw myself, James and Tim head to Holland Park early morning to try and catch up with a reported Black bush robin, but unfortunately no-one knew anything about it, and despite extensive searching. That said, Tim and James had wracked up half a dozen lifers before I'd even got my scope out of it's case, and after a few hours, I'd seen a fair few new birds myself. Holland Park was a fantastic start, absolutely dripping with migrants as well as some of the resident specialities.
Laughing dove

Eastern bonelli's warbler

Sand partridge

Male Ruppell's warbler-at least half a dozen of these beauties in Holland Park alone

Wrynecks were common throughout the trip

Arabian babbler

Groups of these were easy enough to find once we worked out the whistling call

Little green bee-eater cyanophrys-perhaps the best looking subspecies?
 As we were leaving we bumoed into Paul French, who told us he'd just found a Semi-collared flycatcher in Ofira park, right in the centre of Eilat, so we nipped round to have a look
Semi-collared flycatcher

Right in the centre of Eilat
 The rest of the day was less succesful, as we got our bearings, tried out a few places and had a few trips to North Beach, where there were plenty of white-eyed gulls, terns but no sign of the brown booby.

The next morning we left our hostel at dawn to do some early morning birding in the Eilat mountains before the raptors got started. We came across this female Hooded wheatear, as well as a couple of more flighty males, as well as several White-crowned black wheatears
Hooded wheatear

Tim and Rael trekking in the Eilat mountains
 By mid-morning raptors had started to stream over the Eilat mountains, with penty of Steppe eagles, 1000s of Steppe buzzards, Egyptian vultures, Pallid harrier and others. Hopefully I will do a seperate blog post with some raptor photos soon.

We spent the afternoon birding around Km20 and the IRBC, getting highlights like Namaqua dove and Pallas's gull.

The next morning saw a very early start as we made for the vulture feeding station near S'de Boker. No sign of the hoped for hyaenas, but a pair of distant wolves made up for it, as well as flyover Richard's pipit and spotted sandgrouse and an impressive number of vultures first thing.
Distant pair of wolves

This jackal ran across the track on the way back to the main road
 Unfortunately, we stayed for  little too long, and missed our chance to see Mcqueen's bustards displaying in the early morning, and there was no sign of tghem in the increasing mid-morning temperatures. Sandgrouse were also notably absent around the sewage pools at Nizzana, but there was still some outstanding desert birding to be had, including one wadi absolutely stuffed with migrants.
Southern grey shrike aucheri

Part of a family group of 4 CCC with juvs
Eastern black-eared wheatear
We flushed these feeding out in the desert on lush growth

Pin-tailed sandgrouse
Desert lark- a very washed out individual
Red-rumped swallow
 We decided to wait it out until the evening when the bustards would be back out displaying again, but whilst we were escaping the midday heat in a nearby shack/cafe, news came through of a Pied bushchat back at Neot Samadar. We decided to dash back for it, and leave the bustards for another day. The drive back was somewhat eventful, whilst James slept, myself and Tim managed to count 300+ painted ladies crossing north over the road in just 15 minutes whilst the road was running east-west. Truly incredible, although there seemed to be an even higher density moving on our final day further north in Tel Aviv. Certainly our windscreen was constantly smeared with the unfortunate ones.
Roadside Mourning wheatear
We arrived at Neot Samaderto find the Pied Bushchat showing well, a cracking male...

More highlights to follow.