Birding Israel with Leica V-Lux

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One of the perks of a Leica sponsored trip to Israel for the “Champions of the Flyway” Bird Race is the use of Leica cameras and binoculars. I was given the Leica V-lux, a bridge camera to try out. A handy travel camera with a generous 20.1 megapixels and a large 1″ CMOS sensor, a combination of comparable high end cameras.  A fast F2.8 to f4, 25-400 mm zoom lens ( 16X zoom) that performs just as well shooting desert beetles to flying swifts and eagles. What impressed me was the surprising fast auto focus especially for flying birds. The best part is that once the camera locks on the subject, the image stays in view. The 12 frames per second made sure every action is captured. It is packed with all the must have features like manual focus assist, stabilizer and DIY function buttons for quick adjustments while shooting. The coolest feature for me is the wireless remote control with my smart phone, a feature that will be very useful for shooting nesting birds. It allows the photographer to be away from the nest and yet able to see the action and adjust zoom and other setting before clicking. 4K video is standard.

Sharing some of the photos taken by the V-Lux in Eilat. Still getting use to the camera.

Over looking to Jordan

The different hues of the desert landscape from buffy brown to dark grey are captured in this shot. Taken from the north south highway in southern Israel, Jordan is in the background.

Flying V Formation

Slender-billed Gulls flying in formation under a beautiful blue sky. 1/1800 F4 ISO 200

Alpine Swift

Swifts are small and fast flying. Capturing them in flight usually needs a high end DSRL camera. This elegant Alpine Swift was flying against strong head winds, just slow enough for me to get a respectable image. 1/4000 F5 ISO 640

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Beetle mania in the desert. These are tough survivors in the barren desert landscape. Fights over food is common. The V-lux can focus up to 3 cm for marco shots.

Goat herd

I like the depth of field of this shot. Precious herd of goats will provide the required sustenance for the local people staying in the Kibbutz. 

Slender-billed Gulls

Slender-billed Gulls returning to their roost shot against a setting sun. 1/1800, F4 ISO 320.

Bluethroat

This Bluethroat is shot under the shade so the colors are a little muted but still rich.

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Steepe (Common) Buzzards are the most common raptor migrating through the Eilat Mountains during Spring. 45,000 were counted in one day alone on 25th March. Most were of intermediate and rufous morph. I was able to freeze this flying buzzard shooting at a slow 1/500 sec hand held. 

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Blue skies contrasting with a grey hillside. A balance exposure is needed to show off both shades. This is one of the counting points for the migrating raptors at Eilat Mountains.

Hooded Whaetear

Getting the details of a black and white bird like this Hooded Wheatear needs almost prefect exposure. The blurred background helps to define the subject.

 

Race to stop the killing.

 

Steepe Buzzard

When I was ask to represent Leica Camera as their Birding Ambassador for South East Asia in the Eilat Bird Festival and Champions of the Flyway, I was half expecting the usual bird festival and race. How wrong I was.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, a Birdlife International Partner use the spectacle of the spring migration of raptors and songbirds from Africa back to Europe to attract birders from all over the world to come to Eilat to raise awareness and funds for Doga Dernegi to stop the killing of migrating birds across Turkey. A Bird Race truly for conservation!

Thousands of Steepe Buzzards passed                                                                                                  through the mountains of Eilat in a day.

Every year 25 millions birds were shot and trapped for game and food across the Middle East. Illegal killing is also happening across Asia and we can certainly sympathize with this.

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The International and local teams taking part in the Champions of the Flyway 2017. Photo courtesy of the Doga Network.

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This was how the Championships of the Flyway started four years ago. This year 18 teams from the US, Europe and Africa got their sponsors and friends to donate and support their participation. Leica Camera AG was one of the corporate sponsors answering the call by sponsoring three teams this year. They are the Leica Cape May Bird Observatory American Dippers, Leica Sampach Snowfinch and Victorious Bird Nerds.

The American Dippers brought along the latest interactive tracking CCT Live technology where everyone can follow their race in real time. 

 

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The Golden Pheasants from China taking part for the first time. Chen Ting, Terry Townsend and Tong Menxiu did a great job for first timers. Photo courtesy of the Golden Pheasants.

The first team from China, The Golden Pheasants flew over from Beijing to take part in this year’s race. They came in the top ten with a credible 143 species in 24 hours. I was amazed that a team from Palestine The Palestine Sunbirders came and took part too. Just shows that nature conservation is above politics and beyond borders. For me the heart warming moment was when they came on stage to accept the pennant of participation. For the all ladies team “Orioles Team” presenting EU Partnership for Peace, this is their fourth year. Great advocate for women power! Three teams, walked and cycled 30-40 km bringing a green message to the race. I got tired out just driving around the arid habitat, so hats off the these guys.

The Palestine Birders

The Palestine Sunbirders participation in the Bird Race shows that Nature Conservation is above politics and beyond borders. 

During the briefing that night before the race, Jonathan Meyrav our host, MC and mastermind actually went through the checklist and locations where to find some of the difficult species. I thought that was brilliant, something we can adopt. All the teams get up to date news on what rare species were seen on whats app. The American Dippers went one step further with the live broadcast of what they saw during the whole race. Now that is what I call sharing and having fun.

Youth Africa Birders from South Africa winer of the Guardians of the Flyway for raising 8,900 Euros for the COTF.

The Youth Africa Birders from South Africa winner of the Guardians of the Flyway. Photo from Jessleena Suri facebook page.

The Arctic Redpolls came in first with a record of 181 species. Congratulations!. The Guardians for the Flyway went to the Youth Africa Birders from South Africa for raising the highest amount 8,900 Euros. Well done guys! In total a cheque of US$62,000 was presented to Doga Dernegi of Turkey who will use it to implement projects to stop the illegal killing.

I am really amazed at how Jonathan Meyrav, Dan Alon and a few members were able to pull off such a big international event all by themselves. I don’t think they remembered when they last slept. Many thanks for your hospitality. My thanks also to Leica Camera Asia Pacific for sponsoring my trip to Eilat to experience the wonderful work that they are doing in that part of the world. It was truly an eye opener for me!

 

 

Champions of the Flyway 2017

In 2015 Birdlife International published a shocking report that 25 millions birds were illegally kill across the Mediterranean in a year. Now with its partners across the region Birdlife International is working tirelessly to stop this killing. One of these partners is Doga Dernagi of Turkey.

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The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, another Birdlife Partner, will be organising a 24 hours bird race called the Champions of the Flyway in conjunction with the Eilat Birds Festival 2017 to raise funds for the many projects that Doga Dernagi will be implementing towards the stopping of the illegal killing of migratory birds in Turkey.

 

Nineteen teams from all over the world will gather in Eilat this coming week to prepare for the race which starts at midnight on 28th March. Leica Camera AG Sports Optics Division will be sponsoring three teams from the USA and Europe to this year’s race.

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The Flyway Rushhour. Photo from the COTF website.

I am most grateful to Leica Camera Asia Pacific for sponsoring me to take part in this race. Honored to be their birding ambassador for South East Asia at the Bird Festival and Race. I have taken part in many bird races at home and abroad but this will be a totally new experience. For one thing the experienced teams can clock over 150 species in the 24 hours. Really looking forward to the race and making new birding friends.

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Thousand of raptors and storks will be funneling through the mountains of Eilat on their way north to Europe in Spring. It is one of the spectacles of the birding world.

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Spring migration of raptors over Israel.  Photo from COTF website.

 

 

The “Playing Field” for the Bird Race (left)

Joining me from Asia will be a team from China, The Golden Phoenix. This is the first time a team from China is taking part. I am looking forward to meet up with Menxiu Tong, one of the members. He took us birding around SE China last year.

You can follow the race on twitter and Facebook at #COTF. More about the race on this link:  COTF

You can also donate to the cause by clicking on this link. Donate

Khao Yai Revisited

I first visited Khao Yai National Park in the mid 1990s in between my business trip there. Pat Komol was the one who took me there. The one sight I still remembered was a bare tree near the Visitor’s Center, all yellow, covered by Black-crested Bulbuls. There must be 200 of them. I have been back a few times to enjoy the great birding there. There were always new species to see like the Coral-billed Ground Cuckoo.

Blue Pitta

Early this year, photos of the Blue Pittas were posted on Facebook by Sree and Millie Cher. This was enough for me to make a short trip up there with my wife in late February. The Blue Pitta is one of the more common resident species in Thailand. Khao Yai is one of the easiest place to see them at their stake outs. Kaeng Kra Charn and Khao Sok are the other national parks where they are locally common.

The old Don Muang Airport is the better airport to use. AirAsia flies there. I rented a car from the Eurocar and use goggle maps to get me to the Terrazzo Resort outside the park. It was an easy drive on Highway 1 and 2 and a new road to Pak Chong at the northern part of Khao Yai. Guide Rittichai who lives in Pak Chong knows the park like the back of his hand having been running tours there for over 20 years with his company Green Leaves Tours.

Puff-throated Babblers

We went for our target first thing next morning setting up our hide by 7 am. Puff-throated Babblers, White-rumped Shama, Orange-headed Thrush, Siberian Blue Robin and a Hainan Flycatcher entertained us. I was ready for a long wait based on the experience of my friends that came earlier. But Rittichai said that will not be long. Then without funfare the Blue Pitta appeared twice before 8 am. What a elation! Now we have the rest of the day to go and look for other species.

Siamese Fireback Male

Driving along the quiet forested roads in the morning, you are always on the look out for something surprising. This morning a male Siamese Fireback was our surprise. It stayed by the roadside and gave us a few wing flaps for good measure. It was a lifer that was not expected but most welcome.

Patch of Scandal Wood trees

Sandalwood Trees at the entrance to the Haew Narok Waterfall were infested by caterpillars.

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They in turned attracted the cuckoos. A few local bird photographers were already there when we reached the place, excitedly pointing out a friendly Orange-breasted Trogon perching nearby.

Violet Cuckoo

Violet Cuckoo Female

Both the male and female Violet Cuckoos were in a feeding frenzy. These are winter visitors to Thailand. I would not want to pass up shooting a deep purple male at eye level close up even though I have some shots taken at Jurong Eco Gardens a few years back.

Asian Emerald Cuckoo Female

A female Asian Emerald Cuckoo was spotted. We had only one record of this species in Singapore. So this is a good chance for me to get some shots.

Banded Broadbill Male

Just as we were about to leave, Rittichai heard the calls of the Banded Broadbill from the forest edge. Lucky for us it was curious and came out. I photographed this broadbill at Panti Forests in the 90s. It was the only available photo of this hard to find broadbill then and was used for a bird guide on birds of SEA. I had to wait almost 20 years to get my camera lens on it again. This unexpected find really made our day.

Limestone Wren Babbler

My second target for the trip is the Limestone Babbler. I saw this at Cuc Phong National Park more than 10 years back but was not able to photo it due to bad light and skittish behavior.

Limestone Krast at Saraburi 2

The limestone krasts at Saraburi has a small population and this is only an hour drive from Khao Yai. This particular babbler was a prize catch when it was first discovered on another part of Thailand. Its habitat is so unique among the bare limestone rockery where food sources seem non existent. How do they survived?

Finding the exact spot took Rittichai a bit of driving around but once we got to the place inside a wat, a short playback was enough to get these inquisitive babblers to show. You have to love their streaky brown and buff plumage. Mission accomplished and now we can concentrate on enjoying the rest of Khao Yai and all the new attractions that sprouted in the past few years and the food. Many thanks to Guide Rittichai for taking us around at such short notice.

Ref:  Boonsong Lekagui, Philip D. Round. The Birds of Thailand  1991.

 

 

Here we go again….

I ended with 209 species for the Big Year 2016 way below Lim Kim Keang’s winning total of 251. That’s fine as I was targeting 200 for the year. Thank you all for the alerts and help. You know who you are.

I decided to continue with BY 2017 partly because of the few rare species that was seen at Ubin on the second day. I needed the motivation to get off my butt to chase the goodies that will surely come around this year. And of course for the fun of the chase.

I have yet to hit the century this year while the leading pack are already in their 150 plus. But that’s ok, they are more hardworking. Good for them.                                                          Here are some of the characters I met in the first six weeks of the New Year.

MIP at Ubin

Mountain Imperial Pigeon. A SG lifer thanks to Kim Seng for finding it on Ubin on New Year’s Eve. Only our third record partly as this montane species is a resident at Fraser’s Hill. Three Pied Imperial Pigeons were seen flying over Chek Java on the 2nd morning and we also had reports of the Green Imperial Pigeons foraging in Changi Business Park as well. Three imperials at one corner of Singapore at the same time. Not bad!

Cinnamon Headed Pigeon at Ubin

Loke Peng Fai found a different looking pigeon near Ketam Quarry on the first day. It turned out to be a young Cinnamon-headed Pigeon. The next day when we descended to look for it, there were twelve of them on the same tree. Unbelievable! Where did they come from? The female with two males behind.

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I cannot resist going down to the Rain Forest of the Botanic Gardens to nail down these two gems that took up winter residence there. The bonus was a released Silver Pheasant and later on a Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher. The nesting Black Cobra under the log was more effective in keeping us back than the notice out up by Nparks.

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Another easy tick was this young Jambu Fruit Dove feeding at Chinese Gardens. The trees were short and the berries were low hanging which means eye level shots. Can’t asked for more.

VonSchrenck's at SBTB
Went down to Satay by the Bay to look for the returning Black Bittern but instead found this confining adult VonSchrenck’s Bittern behind the undergrowth. This is new for the Gardens.

 

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This juvenile Yellow Bittern definitely agrees with the saying ” No fish got prawns also can”. At the Chinese Gardens.

Oriental Scops Owl at DFNP Grey Morph.
Only the grey morph Oriental Scops Owl was still around Dairy Farm this week. Could this means that the two met here? This shot was taken on 10 Feb. Last seen on 12th.

 

Blue and White Flycatcher at DFNP
Only a poor record shot of the Blue and White Flycatcher at DFNP. Good thing Francis Yap and Con Foley were able to get great frontal shot of this adult flycatcher to confirm its ID. The small white side of the tail seen in this shot is one of the features for id.

 

Eastern Crowned Warbler at DFNP
Thanks to Kok Hui for this record shot of the Eastern Crowned Warbler at DFNP. It was very vocal and its sub song and yellowish undertail gave away its id. Time to check on the Sakhalin Warbler.

I was too lazy to drive to Bedok for the Crested Goshawk since I had some good photos of them from Bishan Park some years back. Same with the Green Imperial Pigeons at Changi Business Park. The snipe and the Grey Nightjar at Chinese Gardens left by the time I got around to visit. I have yet to visit Kranji Marshes and CCNR this year and will have to find an excuse to get my butt there… one of these days.

 

The Orang Laut of Danga Bay

The original Orang Laut of Johor was said to have come from Singapore. Known as Orang Asli Seletar they settled in around Kampong Sungei Melayu and Sungei Temon of Southern Johor to escape the malaria infested Pulau Seletar many generations ago.

They are now facing an uncertain future as the mangrove forests surrounding their village is being reclaimed for high rise condominiums of the Waterfront City and the Danga Bay complex. 

They now irked out a living tendering their mussel farms at the bay as the fishing along the Straits of Johor is impacted by the reclamation to build Forest City, another mega residential development near the second link.  ( Source: Leong Kwok Peng)

During a recent jointed NSS and MNS Johor recce trip to explore the mangrove forests at Southern Johor, we get to meet the families and watch their way of life. Here are some images of these forgotten group sidelined by progress and the march of time.

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The mussel farm with the Kampong Melayu village in the background. Lesser Sand Plovers used the floating drums as high tide roost.

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Scrapping green mussels from the barrel. This is the main source of income of the Orang Asli at Kampong Melayu.
Orang Asli women cleaning mussels.
Hard at work cleaning green mussels under the hot sun, this Orang Asli women still has a smile for us. 
The Orang Asli Village directly linked to the jetty.
The Orang Asli Village is built right next to the jetty. 

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The children are still not used to strangers to their village.

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He is only four and is already helping his dad out on the boat with us. What will his future be like?

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Helping us to take a group photo on the reclaimed land, these Orang Asli men must find ways to secure the future for the next generation.

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The kampong gathering place for the Orang Aslis living at this village. Vincent Chow (right) in long sleeves, the Chairman of MNS Johor is helping these Orang Asli fight for their ancestral home and land.

The NSS Bird Group wish to thank Vincent Chow and Simon Siow of MNS Johor for organising and hosting this trip for us and their first class hospitality. 

Danum Valley Adventures. Part 2 (Birds).

In the four days of birding at Danum Valley, we seen and heard a total of 111 species, including six Borneo endemics collectively. This is slightly more than one third of the 300 species recorded here. I was happy with my eight lifers but disappointed that we dipped on our No 1 target Giant Pitta. It, the Fairy Pitta and the Borneo Banded Pitta were heard calling at several places but just refused to show. Baiting is not allowed in Danum Valley.

Blue-headed Pitta

We actually had a great start when we got the endemic Blue-headed Pitta, a male at that, on the very first morning. This was after exhausting trek in humid conditions and leech infested trails. I think this has to be one of the most beautiful pittas around. As with most pittas in the lowland rain forests, it is difficult to get good views through the dense undergrowth. So I am happy with this blurred record shot. This sighting went some way to compensate for missing out on the Giant.

 

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Ju Lin was the only one who had good views of this Black and Crimson Pitta in the day. The rest of us had to wait for the night walk. The local guide found it sleeping on a thin branch by the side of the trail just above our heads. Without eyelids they sleep with their eyes open. The light did not seem to bother them at all. Seeing a pitta in the wild within touching distance was unreal. We saw another one on the way back. If only it was a Giant.

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This sleeping Scarlet-rumped Trogon (right) did not want to be disturbed at all. Looks like a headless trogon with its head buried in its body

Diard's TrogonThis female Diard’s Trogon (above) was very cooperative but refused to turn around for a front view. On other days we would have been excited to see a trogon in the forest, but this sighting was more of a distraction for us.

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Night walks would not be complete with seeing the nocturnal birds. Andrew heard the call of the Gould’s Frogmouth and we all cupped our ears trying to pinpoint its location . We swept our lights across the trees and branches in the direction of the calls. But it was like looking for a ghost. Our guide had the sense to scramble down a slope. He found it sitting nicely on a open vine. We were super excited and gave out a collective sigh of relief. Another lifer down for me. One the way out, the guide showed us the resident Brown Wood Owl, sitting smugly on its favorite perch. This was not expected but most welcome sighting. What a great end to a night’s work.

Crested Fireback

 

We got this Crested Fireback during a night drive. This male roost high up in the tree canopy with its mate nearby. This is the North Borneo race nobilis, where the male has a deep maroon belly. The rufa race has a dark blue underpart and can be found in Sumatra, South Tenasserim, Thailand and East Malaysia. I wish I can see it in its full splendor in the day.

 

Boreon Bristlehead

 

Every birder’s dream bird when birding in the Borneo Rain Forest had to be this rare endemic Borneo Bristlehead. I missed this at Tabin few years back. So when Andrew heard the call and whispered “Bristlehead” we were all transfixed. He found it high up in the canopy.  The sight of its flaming head was enough fir us to jump for joy. A lousy record shot is better than no shots. A mega lifer for me. Now I can afford to wait for a better eye level view some day.

pa211116The Striped Wren Babbler is a real skulker in thick undergrowth and palm thickets. I was lucky to find this “window” for a clear shot. Surprisingly it perched there for some time singing away instead of its usual behavior of moving around non stop. Earlier we ticked the rarer endemic Black-throated Babbler, a super lifer for all of us. Unfortunately, no shots.

Chestnut-necklaced Partridge through the undergrowth.
Chestnut-necklaced Partridge through the undergrowth.

Partridges is another family of birds that are notoriously hard to see in the thick forest floor. They are very shy and confining. The Chestnut-necklaced Partridge was one of our target birds. Andrew recognized it’s melodious clear whistle and tracked it as it moved across the forest floor. We were really happy for some open but brief views when it crossed the trail. Most times, we were lucky for partial views like this photo. On Borneo it is restricted to Sabah and locally common. This was also a lifer for all of us.

 

 

 

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These two song birds have evolved in North Borneo. The Magpie Robin (left) has a all black belly. This sub species pluto  is found in E. Java and N and E Borneo. But it has yet to be split unlike the White-browed Shama (right). The White-Browed is endemic to NE Borneo. Except for the white brow it looks like the White-rumped Shama and even sings like it. This particular shama can be found every morning around the field center and easy to shoot.

Our thanks to Andrew Siani for getting these endemics and lifers for us.

Reference:

John MacKinnon & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali. Oxford Press 1993.  

Craig Robson. A Field Guide to the Birds of Thailand and South-East Asia.Asia Books Co. Ltd 2000.