The Bateleur Terathopius ecaudatus is a large bird of prey from Africa, a member of the “Snake Eagle” group. These awesome raptors specialize in reptiles and specifically snakes, which they catch while slowly patrolling the African savannahs. Adult Bateleurs are brightly patterned in black, white and red and are one of the most beautiful raptors in the world. The name Bateleur comes from the French word for performer or clown, some say it is because of the birds striking plumage, others think the name has to do with its incredible aerial displays.
Every few years a vagrant Bateleur makes it to Israel. There are around 11 records to date, all involving juveniles and nearly all in late spring and summer. This is a classic vagrancy pattern that also occurs with other African species such as Yellow-billed Stork, Pink-backed Pelican and others. These are most likely non breeding birds that overshoot their normal breeding grounds and wander north up the Rift Valley, to Israel and beyond.
During fall 2014 a Bateleur was seen from a hawkwatch post in Northern Israel. The bird was moving north and amazingly enough a bird of similar plumage was seen in Southern Turkey a week later. In late 2014 Ezra Hadad reported a juv Bateleur in the Judean Plains as well but the bird did not linger. In early June 2014 the bird showed up again in the Judean Plains, this time associating with Short-toed Eagles that were feeding on voles in cultivated fields. This time it seems that the elusive performer chose to stick around for a bit and has been seen almost daily in the area since, allowing several Israeli birders to finally catch up with it.
On a personal level, I have seen many Bateleurs in Africa, including magnificent adults displaying, hunting and more, but in Israel is a different story. I have been unlucky with Bateleurs in Israel for nearly 20 years now.
Every time a bird was reported I was nowhere near, either outside the country or just in the wrong place. In spring 2006 a Bateleur was spotted moving north above Eilat. I was in the field about 10 kilometers north of the sighting but never got on to the bird and had to settle for friends’ pictures, always great fun, not! In short I missed no less than 4 different birds in Israel over the years, sort of a local nemesis. So when Ezra Hadad reported the bird I was one of the first people out searching for the bird.
The Judean Plains are huge, dotted with immense wheat fields, which are now being harvested and baled. The area is full of birds of prey including amazing numbers of Short-toed Eagles (over 40 pairs breed in the adjacent hills), Long-legged Buzzards, Common and Lesser Kestrels.
Although it is already June many migrant birds of prey are still around. This is probably due to the high density of voles present this year. Four to five Lesser Spotted Eagles, several Booted Eagles and dozens of Steppe Buzzards and White Storks are still present and enlighten every visit to the plains. It is great fun for raptor enthusiasts but a real headache and distraction when searching for a single bird. Of course with its diagnostic structure and flight one would expect to spot a Bateleur even at a great distance, alas this was not the case. We spent many hours on the first twitch attempt and packed up. The following day a couple of dedicated birders spotted the bird again. I headed out in a dash just to run around the fields for 3 hours and strike out again… well. The following day I was in the middle of a lunch meeting when Oz Horine relocated the bird.
I dropped the fork and hit the road, reaching the area within an hour of the sighting; of course this mobile bird was long gone. It seemed a pattern was developing; the Bateleur was spotted every time in a short window between noon and 2 pm, and kept moving, stalling only briefly to feed. I was getting frustrated but it was personal now. Oz got the bird and I was happy for him, but now I really needed it as Oz is one of my direct competitors on our Israel lists 😉
Yesterday morning (June 8th 2015) I postponed a meeting and headed out to the Judean Plains. It felt like I was on a mission, I had to get to Tel Aviv by 14:00 meaning I had limited time to find the bird. Although it was seen regularly it is still a vagrant, and in my mind was the thought that the bird could already be gone, as is the case with such rarities, you just never know… I needed to find this damn bird.
I searched the area for a good 3 hours but no Bateleur. A mini heat wave entered, raising the temperatures to the mid 30’s, the developing heat haze and clear pale blue skies did not help. I met some other birders and we shared frustrations. I had an hour left so I decided to head back towards the original area the bird was seen, en route towards the highway to Tel Aviv. I was driving through the fields (literally) and my phone rang, I reached for it and hit a bump which caused me to stop. I jumped out quickly to take a look and then I saw it. There was no mistaking it, with its wings held high and tail-less appearance it was clear even without binoculars, I finally had the bird!!!
I bolted for the phone and called the other birders in the area. Nissim Primo and others came down and I showed them the bird. It was distant but showed well. I enjoyed the bird for a few minutes, following it with the scope and truly soaking it in. I was elated, this was one of the birds I tried the hardest for, and in the end it performed.
** About an hour after our sighting the Bateleur was spotted about 10 miles away in the Lachish hills. The bird was seen by Gilad Friedman who doing fieldwork with Long-legged Buzzards. Gilad was amazed to see the Bateleur aggressively invade a Long-legged Buzzard territory and even quarrel with the adults. The buzzards were not fazed and after a few minutes the bird left the area. Gilad was kind enough to share his wonderful images of the bird for this article. The bird was seen again today (June 9th) and it seems to be fairly reliable if one puts in the time. Given that Bateleur is also a great rarity in the West Palearctic several top listers from Europe are contemplating coming to Israel to chase this bird, we will see how things unfold and keep you posted.