Tuesday 31 October 2023

Craning for a View


OCT 12-16 2023

 There are many things to love about Saskatchewan, dramatic light, wide open skies, genuine hospitality and of course the birding. I hadn't visited Saskatoon since 1979. My only recollections were the bridges, and a University. 

St John's Anglican Cathedral.

Prairie Birding

I had a long standing invitation to visit the Wagner family in Saskatoon during the Whooping Crane migration. That was supposed to happen three years ago but Covid ended all that and last year I was in Australia so that didn't work out either. Finally in early October 2023 the stars aligned, I made a few calls and suddenly the trip was on. 

Thousands of Snow Geese on one of the many lakes we passed on our search for whoopers.

The plan was to venture north of Saskatoon to look for cranes. Whooping Cranes are assessed as endangered by the Committee of the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada and are protected under the Species at Risk Act. 
Sarah and Brent Wagner were my hosts. Sarah even took a week off from her veterinarian duties to join me. Brent, an educator and outdoorsman had some ideas about where to search. I just followed, I knew I was in good hands
 Whooping Cranes are popular with birding tours. Maybe the guides knew something we didn't because we drove for hours with nothing to show for it. My thinking was there must be dips and hollows that were hidden from the road. There is just so much land to cover. Eventually and just before we were going to give up for the day three white cranes glided over our heads and landed in a close-by marsh. Whoop-ee, the pressure was off, smiles and high-fives all around. I was so exited I almost dropped my lens. We spent an hour with the birds until the wind picked up and it was time to head home for some of Brent's delicious cooking. 


Three Whoopers landed close enough for photographs.

In the 1940s twenty Whooping Cranes were known to survive. In 1976 fifty birds were counted. Today there are five hundred plus, a remarkable conservation story. Another birder we met saw 36 the same day and even higher numbers have been reported if you are in the right place at the right time. 

Whooping Crane Migration Map

Former and present Whooping Crane migration routes.

Note the migration path from Wood Buffalo Park through Saskatchewan and into North Dakota.

On the way home we stopped off at Chief Whitecap Park to watch flocks of Sandhill Cranes coming to roost on the banks and islands of the Saskatchewan River, a truly awe inspiring sight. A conservative count in thirty minutes was two-thousand and they were still arriving as darkness fell. 

Sandhill Cranes.

Day 2

Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides) light up the hillsides as prairie meets rolling hillsides.

Finally after a few hours of driving through spectacular scenery Sarah spots what she thought might be a white something in the distance. Sure enough another three whoopers but a long way off. This was much better light than yesterday albeit twice as far. A couple of local band members pull up and ask what all the fuss was about, we chat a while, making sure it's ok to linger and with broad smiles they leave us to our birding.

Always alert to any danger this family of Whooping Cranes had radio transmitters.

The larger Whooping Crane takes a run at the Sandhill Cranes that were deemed too close.


During our search we were graced with some great sightings including Bald Eagles, Common Raven, Red-tailed Hawk, Merlin, Rusty Blackbird, Tundra Swans and Ross's Geese. As we drove along quiet country lanes Sharp-tailed Grouse would explode from the roadside. As much as we tried we couldn't get a photograph.

Rufffed Grouse.

 I can still see them gracefully gliding away into the distance, never to be seen again. One afternoon I drove down to Blackstrap Reservoir where eBird sightings were promising. What I didn't figure into the equation was the howling wind that kept smaller birds down with only the occasional Savannah Sparrow brave enough to show itself. Over the lake a small flock of Tundra Swans use the same winds to launch themselves to greener pastures.

Blackstrap Reservoir,
Stop-off for migrating Snow Geese, Tundra Swans, shorebirds and assorted ducks species. 

Among the thousands of Snow Geese were the smaller Ross's Geese seen here on the edge of the flock.

City Birding

Saskatoon has an excellent trail system on both sides of the Saskatchewan River. A weir creates a natural feeding area for gulls ducks, shorebirds and cormorants. Along Kinsman Park Sarah and I had Yellow-rumped, Orange-crowned and Palm Warblers. At Kiwanis Park American Tree Sparrows, Northern Flicker and at the Water treatment Plant we had a late Osprey, Franklin's Gull and California Gull. I think a week or two earlier there would have been more warblers, Harris's Sparrow were common and a welcome addition to my Saskatchewan list. Along the banks of the river were double-crested cormorants, Greater Yellowlegs and Cackling Geese.

Franklins Gull

Harris's Sparrow

Least Chipmunk

The least chipmunk seen here hoarding of what appeared to be rose hips seeds. The seeds were excreted from the animal's pouch and deposited on the branch. A possible explanation is that the cache will be consumed during the depths of winter. 

We had so much fun birding and walking along the river trails the days just slipped by. Another morning Sarah and I were joined by Trent Watts. He had accompanied us on the second day looking for whoopers. The multi talented Trent took us for a walk in his neighbourhood. I was looking for Blue Jays and White-breasted Nuthatches. Soon his keen ear picked up a White-throated Sparrow and then an elusive Yellow-shafted Flicker. In one backyard Bohemian Waxwings were feasting on berries.

Sarah with Trent with one of his free libraries. 

Later on our walk, Trent, a retired veterinarian, photographer and master carver/woodworker was happy to show us some of the little free libraries he had build at various locations around town. They make quite the addition to the neighbourhood. Everyone it seems appreciates Trent and rightly so.

Northern Flicker (Yellow Shafted)

Osprey at the Water Treatment Plant

Red Squirrel


Sarah had promised me that there were jackrabbits in the local park, they're everywhere, she promised. They're even in the garden, they're not afraid of dogs or people, they'll be easy to see. My stay in Saskatoon was winding down and I still hadn't seen 'hide nor hair' of anything resembling a rabbit. When Sarah's daughter Charlotte sees one on the lawn, we all rush out like school children but it has gone. Sarah suggests a walk around the block after supper. We cover a few blocks but still no luck. Finally I spot a familiar shape, just a silhouette, the long ears are a giveaway.
As we approached it scampers past us at high speed and I swing the camera around and then it stops, motionless under the brightest street light in the neighbourhood.
Moments later it was gone. It has to be my favourite memories from the whole trip.

A White-tailed Jackrabbit speeds along a sub-division in Saskatoon. 

The species has moved into local parks and gardens. A major difference between rabbits and Jackrabbits (Hares) is the latter have young in above ground nests and do not burrow.

A White-tailed Jackrabbit pauses under a street light before disappearing into the night.

Last Morning

Sarah had been making some phone calls on my behalf. We were to meet up with local expert birder Guy Wapple. Guy has been birding the prairies since he was a kid so he knew exactly where to go for a few hours before my flight back to Vancouver. We met him at the Forest Farm Park on the outskirts of town. He keen ear picked up a Palm Warbler right way and Yellow-rumped Warblers were plentiful. 

Long-eared Owl.

We soon had twenty-two species including a Long-eared Owl that was brought to our intention by a mob of Blue Jays and Black-billed Magpies that were making its life miserable.

Palm Warbler at the Forestry Farm Park in Saskatoon.

We then visited the John Avant Pond which on close examination turned up some really nice birds. A flock of Rusty Blackbirds always kept one step ahead of us, an immature Merlin couldn't care less as we stood fifteen metres away. Thanks to Guy it was a beautiful way to conclude my brief visit.

Merlin at John Avant Park.

Rusty Blackbird

Parting Shot.

Opportunistic feeders Sandhill Cranes gather to feed in grain fields south of Saskatoon.

"Make it happen, it's never too late"

John Gordon

Langley Cloverdale 


Monday 15 May 2023

Birding Israel

Israel Mar 14-April 6 2023

I first visited Israel forty-five years ago. Originally I had planned to stay a few weeks before travelling overland to India. Weeks turned into months. I kept a dairy of my adventures describing the wonderful sights and "exotic" birds I saw. I had always wanted to return.

White-spectacled Bulbul

During my stay I hitch-hiked the length and breath of the country including several days in the disputed West Bank. I was shown great hospitality by both Israeli and Palestinian families. 

The purpose of the second visit would be two-fold. First to re-visit and photograph places I had written about and second to attend the 2023 Eilat Bird Festival, something planned for 2019 but cancelled due to the pandemic.

"Organized by the Israel Ornithological Center (Birdlife Israel) of the SPNI, the Eilat Birds Festival brings together birders from all over the world for an unforgettable birding week during the peak of spring migration in southern Israel. Since the first festival in 2007, the Eilat Festival is now a well-established event and is known in birder's circles as the ultimate package for birding Southern Israel.

The Festival is based in Eilat and takes in all the major sites and key species of Southern Israel. Besides the Eilat area, the festival package includes excursions further afield to Nizzana and the Negev as well as the famous "Stars of the night" tour to the Dead Sea region.

Tel Aviv

After the fifteen hour flight, Sandee and I headed for the beach. We encountered the usual suspects, House Sparrows, Common Mynas, Laughing Doves and Hooded Crows. 

Laughing Dove

Our walk along the promenade turned-up a solitary Yellow-legged Gull. Between the high-rises and hotel complexes Common Swifts were on a feeding frenzy. The building's ledges and crevices also make ideal roosting and nesting sites.


Mentioned in both the Old Testament and Greek literature Jaffa is one of the oldest ports in the world. It was a short walk from our hotel. Around the port and with more than a little sleuthing I eventually found a Little Egret in the harbour, a Pied Kingfisher hunting over the surf and a Graceful Prinia in the local park. 

A pair of Eurasian Hoopoe, the national bird of Israel paid little notice to passersby. Five lifers was a great way to shake off the jet-lag.

Graceful Prinia

Eurasian Hoopoe

with Crest lowered


Situated on the Red Sea and on the southernmost tip of Israel, Eilat is a five hour drive south of Tel Aviv.  Development has impacted wildlife. Acres of prime habitat including vital salt marshes have been lost. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and others are working to educate government and the public about the value of protecting the remaining habitat.

Greater Flamingos and Gray Herons are squeezed into a few small salt ponds.

 Eilat has grown from a sleepy coastal town to a major resort destination.

Attending the Eilat Bird Festival was not only to learn about the birds but to experience the important conservation work taking place in Eilat and elsewhere in Israel. One example is the cross border co-operation with neighbouring Jordan and a long running Barn Owl project. SPNI is also involved in numerous other projects, too many to list here. Our registration fees went to habitat enchantment. Guides donated their time and skills. Following the Eilat Bird Festival, the Champions of the Flyways held their annual fundraiser and with corporate backing raised a substantial amount. Follow link for more info.

Greater Flamingo

The Eilat Bird Sanctuary, formally a garbage dump is now a haven for resident and migratory birds. Work is underway to expand with extensive planting of native shrubs and trees. 

Eilat Bird Sanctuary

Eilat would be our home for ten days, seven of which I would be birding while Sandee visited the beaches, the hotel pool, sauna and stores. Isn't life good.

Citrine Wagtail.

Hazardous infrastructure

Slowly but surely there has been some progress. Lobbying, backed up with scientific data from SPNI has put the brakes on proposed installation of wind turbines around Eilat. Bird Life Israel is even working in conjunction with Eilat's air traffic control to make sure planes, even commercial jets are not taking off and landing during peak migration times when thousands of raptors can be found soaring on midday and afternoon thermals. Early morning and evening scheduled take-offs are less likely to encounter birds and avoid bird strikes. Normal air service returns when migration ends. 

Eurasian Spoonbills on the move.

Egyptian Vulture

At one high elevation location a continuous stream of various eagles, buzzards and kites soared on thermals heading northward to Central Europe and the Russian Steppes. At lower elevations Spoonbills and shore birds were on the move as were large numbers of passerines.

Black Kite

Short-toed Eagle

Common Buzzard

Nubian Ibex

The map below shows the location and the direction of both spring and fall migrations. Many species had already covered great distances and still face challenges ahead. 

Migratory shorebirds fuel-up at the sanctuary salt ponds. Common Redshank, Ruff and Little Stint.

Collared Pratincole winter in Africa and migrate through Eilat to southern Europe to breed.

Spur-winged Lapwing

Squacco Heron

 Along with the McQueen's Buzzard, the Black-Scrub Robin (below) were the highlights for the avid listers in the group. The McQueens's were scope views of them dancing on a Lek. One evening we birded the Dead Sea until midnight and had good looks at a Nubian Nightjar. Those were just a few of the 90 Lifers I picked upon the trip. Two-hundred plus species were seen or heard during the week. I ticked 172 that I actually saw.

The first and third videos (below) are the best example of what we saw but because of the midday haze it was impossible to video the behavoir ourselves

Macqueens's Bustard

Black Scrub Robin.

 Black Scrub Robin

Black-eared Wheatear winters in the Sahara and breeds around the Mediterranean.

The Blackstart is a resident. Israel had no endemics.

Corn Bunting

Native plants were in bloom and a few warblers were passing through and feeding on fruits and insects. One species that has benefited from development is the tiny Palestinian Sunbird. Fifty years ago the species was considered rare and only found where native plants flowered year round. These days with ornamental planting commonplace in cities and residential areas the species is now thriving.

Palestinian Sunbird.

Woodchat Shrike


Ruppell's Warbler

Hula Valley

The second part of the trip was for Sandee whose wish was to visit Galilee, Nazareth, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. We did that and more. Between the relics I did manage to fit in a few hours birding. In Galilee I spent an afternoon in the nearby Hula Valley. The contrast from Eilat and Negev Desert was startling. The dry desert heat was replaced by a lush fertile plain. The area was once extensive marshes but had been drained and crops planted. Slowly but surely and with co-operation from government, (SPNI) and the farming community the birds are returning.

Common Cranes and White Storks forage in Northern Israel's Hula Valley

Black-winged Kite

Eurasian Kestrel

White Storks riding thermals in the Hula Valley

White-throated Kingfisher

Sea of Galilee

Every evening I would take a walk down to the shore of Galilee to watch the Armenian Gulls, Cattle Egrets, Pygmy Cormorants, Whiskered Terns, Common and Little Swifts.

Pygmy Cormorant

Whiskered Tern

 Eurasian Kestrel with lizard.
Mount of Beatitudes


At the Wailing Wall and Temple Mount Common Swifts swooped above worshippers.

Common Swift

Our hotel on Jaffa Road was within walking distance from the Old City and conveniently only a twenty minute walk to the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. The Gazelle Valley was a short taxi ride. Before Jerusalem grew into the bustling city it is today there were once wildlife corridors which allowed animals to move freely through the region. That no longer exists. 

Gazelle Valley

"Under the authority of the Jerusalem Municipality and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the Gazelle Valley nature reserve spans 61 acres of land in southwest Jerusalem and is home to around 80 mountain gazelles that are able to live freely in the park."
 Jerusalem Post

Mountain Gazelle

Birding Pal

In Jerusalem I met up with Naomi, a Birding Pal who had kindly offered to show me around the reserve. Her keen ear found me the Sardinian Warbler, a bird I had seen in Eilat but I hadn't been able to photograph.

Sardinian Warbler

Ferruginous Duck

The last full day in Israel I visited the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. I joined a group of school children as they attended a bird banding session. Lifers that morning included a Collared Flycatcher and Monk Parakeet and finally after countless hours of searching, a Common Nightingale.

Syrian Woodpecker

Common nightingale

Note: Overall we felt safe wherever we went. I was important to keep an open mind and listen rather than take political stands one way or the other. Even though some of our friends felt concerned I personally don’t think Israel is anymore dangerous than Mexico or even my own community Surrey B.C.

"It's never too late to return"

John Gordon
BC Canada


Top birds 
Mcqueens's Buzzard

Much work has been do see Save the birds for a list of events, programs and information.