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TRIP REPORT: “CHAMPIONS OF THE FLYWAY”- A BIRD RACE FOR CONSERVATION IN SOUTHERN ISRAEL

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TRIP REPORT: “CHAMPIONS OF THE FLYWAY”- A BIRD RACE FOR CONSERVATION IN SOUTHERN ISRAEL MARCH 2016

 

By Jason Boyce – Birding Ecotours

OVERVIEW

By now the Champions of the Flyway (COTF) bird race is well known across birding circles worldwide and is fast becoming one of the most prestigious 24-hour bird races in the world. Majestic mountainous landscapes, the vast desert plains of the Negev, passionate and enthusiastic birders from across the globe, and a movement of birds like no other all culminate into a thing of beauty that is the Champions of the Flyway!

We, the South African/Birding Ecotours team, were to be the only southern hemisphere team to take part in this incredible bird race, for the second year running – a great honor! This year our team consisted of Jason Boyce, Trevor Hardaker, Dylan Vasapolli and Andy Walker. Trevor and Jason participated in the 2015 race and could offer some advice on how not to do things in 2016. The race, like many other birding races, involves scouting in the days prior to the race day and then a 24-hour race day, midnight to midnight. Teams will set out to record as many species as possible (birds can be recorded on call as well as on sight) during this 24-hour period. The Negev desert and everything south to Eilat is considered the ‘playing field’.

TRIP ITINERARY

March 26         Team arrival and scouting                   Eilat, Israel

March 27         Scouting                                              Eilat, Israel

March 28         Scouting                                              Eilat, Israel

March 29         Race day                                             Eilat, Israel

March 30         Closing ceremony                               Eilat, Israel

Buildup and Scouting

Migration is an incredible natural phenomenon, and even after years and years of studying aspects of migration and witnessing bird migration over and over there will always be a sense of unpredictability about it! This is largely what brings about the excitement to birding in Israel – “Expect the unexpected”, as the catch phrase goes. Every year the teams make sure to arrive a little early so that they can begin preparations by visiting as many sites as they can within the playing field. Things can be very different from year to year – this was definitely evident to Trevor and Jason. We started off by checking out some of the sites in the North Negev, these included the famous Nitzana (best Macqueen’s Bustard site), Ezuz, Yeroham Lake, and Sde Boker. The northern region has some 30-35 species that you just can’t connect with in the south, and so it is recommended – by the Israeli “hotshots” – that doing both the north and the south on race day is a must!

Over the course of the next few days we visited almost every site that we knew about as well as a few new ones; the most noteworthy new site being the Se’ifim plains. These open plains situated to the north-west of Eilat in the mountains produced some excellent birds for us, including one of our most wanted, our logo species, Temminck’s Lark! Temminck’s Lark was hard to come by during the scouting days, and it was one of the species we ended up missing on race day.

Some of the other species that we recorded during the scouting days included the likes of Brown Booby, White-eyed Gull, Sandwich Tern, and Baltic Gull (L. f. fuscus, nominate Lesser Black-backed Gull, which are all treated as separate species for the COTF) all at North Beach. It was also incredible to see “migration in action” even among passerines, such as a Yellow Wagtail coming in off the Red Sea while we were sea watching!

Waders at K20 salt pans included Kentish Plover, Little and Common Ringed Plovers, Curlew and Marsh Sandpipers, Common Redshank, Little Stint, Black-tailed Godwit, Common Greenshank, and Ruff. Other interesting finds during scouting were Red-necked Phalarope, Red-throated Pipit, many different subspecies of Yellow Wagtail, and Wheatear species ranging from the migratory species, like Northern, Isabelline and Black-eared, to some of the resident species, such as Hooded, White-crowned, and Mourning. One of our team’s best finds during the scouting period was that of a female Cyprus Wheatear – a lifer for most of the Bandits.

Race day!

Before we knew it race day was upon us – we were ready … sort of. Just after midnight on Tuesday morning, the 29th of March, we set off to see how many species we could get. We fiddled around Eilat for a while, trying to pick up some water birds and gulls – we managed to scope White-eyed Gull in the ambient light of Eilat city as well as pick up species like Little Ringed Plover and Western Reef Heron! By the time it got light enough to really get going, we were hovering around 30 species. We decided this year to do things from South to North and therefore only get to some of the northern hot-spots by 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. The Se’ífim plains produced a few good birds for us in the morning, such as Cream-colored Courser, Bar-tailed, Greater, Lesser Short-toed, and Bimaculated Larks, Hen Harrier, and Common (Rufous-tailed) Rock Thrush. A quick stop here and there to pick up some soaring birds, and we were back down to bird the Eilat surrounds and the k20 salt pans.

Birding was good, and between the salt pans, the date plantations at K20, and some other waterbird spots we added most occurring shorebirds, including Curlew Sandpiper and Dunlin, Water Pipit, various waterfowl, Collared Flycatcher, Tree Pipit, our 4th Eurasian Wryneck of the Day (!), Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Gull-billed Tern, Western Osprey, and Ferruginous Duck. Jason was in charge of making sure that we ran according to schedule, and, for the most part, we were pretty good at sticking to that plan. “C’mon lads, keep it up!” – these were the chants as we begun the long drive into the Negev!

We eventually made our way to the northern parts of the Negev – Sde Boker was particularly kind to us and produced almost all of our targets, and then some. The lookout area at the tomb of David Ben-Gurion held Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Lanner Falcon, Tristram’s Starling, Alpine Swift – and Nubian Ibex distractions! The surrounds produced some European species: European Greenfinch, European Robin, Common Blackbird, and then also Common and Thrush Nightingales, Common and Pallid Swifts, Eurasian Stone Curlew, Chukar Partridge, and European Turtle Dove. We were hoping to get to 150 Species before getting to Yeroham Lake (Which would be our northernmost site). Southern Grey Shrike and Eurasian Hoopoe were our 148th and 149th species, respectively, and that about 200 meters before the entrance to the lake. Yeroham Lake was great, and even though we only added another 10 to 15 odd species here it was certainly one of the highlights for us! Syrian Woodpecker played ball, as too did Sedge and Great Reed Warblers. Highlights at the lake were Cetti’s Warbler, two Spotted Crakes, and a female Little Crake. Of course we didn’t leave before notching up a ‘LEO’ (not Panthera leo, but rather a Long-eared Owl) calling away in some of the larger trees at around 8:00 p.m. On the long drive back news had filtered through of a Jack Snipe at Neot Smadar Sewage Ponds, and so the diminutive wader became the last bird that we added to our list for the day. What an incredible day, needless to say, we slept well!

Who won?

The winning total this year (in the international race) was a seriously impressive 174 species, and the honors of the 2016 race go to the Arctic Redpolls from Finland, a huge congratulations to them! Second place managed 171 and third managed 164. The Bandits managed to squeeze out 163 species this year, and we were rather proud of that achievement. It placed us 4th overall in the international race (missing out on 3rd place and a podium finish by just one species!). It’s a ‘young’ race, and teams are still in the process of figuring out the best way to tackle it. Trevor Hardaker put it this way: “Doing well in this competition is not just about knowing the birds – we have some reasonable experience with these, so that is not really a problem at all. It’s not even about knowing the various birding sites – we have now gained valuable experience over last year and this year as to which sites produce which species, etc. It really comes down to strategy (as with any big day), and we are slowly, but surely, getting our strategy fine-tuned for this race. Even after this year’s race, our team had some discussions about what we would change for the next one that could give us just a little bit more of an edge in the competition.”

At the risk of being a little cliché, the real winners are undoubtedly the migrant birds! We received 13 Donations on race day itself, with a total of 188 donations during the course of the fund raising efforts. Our initial target set was to raise £3 000, and with your incredible generosity we managed to more than double that and raise £6 763.53 (roughly US$ 9 600 and more than R142 000 for our South African friends!). Over US$70 000 has now been raised in total this year – which is a COTF record! This money goes to the Hellenic Ornithological Society (HOC), which now has a lot of work to do but some amazing backing to do it with. Congratulations, guys!!

One of the differences between the COTF and many other bird races across the world is the sharing of information. Information is shared freely and relentlessly throughout the race day, and this of course brings a whole new dynamic to the race! The team that is the most helpful, shares the most information, creates the most awareness, and makes the most noise about COTF are crowned the Knights of the Flyway. This year’s Knights went to the Way-off Coursers from the United States! The Way-off Coursers weren’t done there when it comes to awards; they were also the team that managed to raise the most money of all teams and so were crowned the Guardians of the Flyway as well.

On behalf of the Bandits, Birding Ecotours, South Africa, and, of course, the Hellenic Ornithological Society an extremely huge THANK YOU to all who have contributed in any way to this cause! There is still a massive amount of work to be done, so let us not stop here – onward and upward, as they say!

To our sponsors: “While we may not have been crowned with the award for the most money raised, you are ALL Guardians of the Flyway in our eyes! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” – Trevor

Full Species list for Race day (29 March 2016)

 

Ducks, Geese and Swans (Anatidae)  
Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca Yotvata, HaDarom
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos Eilat, HaDarom
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata Eilat, HaDarom
Northern Pintail Anas acuta Eilat, HaDarom
Garganey Anas querquedula Eilat, HaDarom
Eurasian Teal Anas crecca Eilat, HaDarom
Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca Eilat, HaDarom
Pheasants and allies (Phasianidae)  
Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar Sde Boker, HaDarom
Sand Partridge Ammoperdix heyi Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Common Quail Coturnix coturnix Yotvata, HaDarom
Grebes (Podicipedidae)  
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis Eilat, HaDarom
Flamingos (Phoenicopteridae)  
Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus Eilat, HaDarom
Storks (Ciconiidae)  
Black Stork Ciconia nigra Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
White Stork Ciconia ciconia Eilat, HaDarom
Ibises, Spoonbills (Threskiornithidae)  
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus Eilat, HaDarom
Herons, Bitterns (Ardeidae)  
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax Eilat, HaDarom
Squacco Heron Ardeola ralloides Yotvata, HaDarom
Western Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis Eilat, HaDarom
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea Eilat, HaDarom
Purple Heron Ardea purpurea Eilat, HaDarom
Great Egret Ardea alba Eilat, HaDarom
Little Egret Egretta garzetta Eilat, HaDarom
Western Reef Heron Egretta gularis Eilat, HaDarom
Gannets, Boobies (Sulidae)  
Brown Booby Sula leucogaster Eilat, HaDarom
Cormorants, Shags (Phalacrocoracidae)  
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo Eilat, HaDarom
Ospreys (Pandionidae)  
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus Eilat, HaDarom
Kites, Hawks and Eagles (Accipitridae)  
Egyptian Vulture – EN Neophron percnopterus Yotvata, HaDarom
Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus Sde Boker, HaDarom
Short-toed Snake Eagle Circaetus gallicus Eilat, HaDarom
Lesser Spotted Eagle Clanga pomarina Yeroham Lake, HaDarom
Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus Eilat, HaDarom
Steppe Eagle – EN Aquila nipalensis Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus Eilat, HaDarom
Western Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Black Kite Milvus migrans Eilat, HaDarom
Common Buzzard Buteo buteo Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Rails, Crakes and Coots (Rallidae)  
Little Crake Porzana parva Yeroham Lake, HaDarom
Spotted Crake Porzana porzana Yeroham Lake, HaDarom
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus Eilat, HaDarom
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra Eilat, HaDarom
Stone-curlews, Thick-knees (Burhinidae)  
Eurasian Stone-curlew Burhinus oedicnemus Sde Boker, HaDarom
Stilts, Avocets (Recurvirostridae)  
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus Eilat, HaDarom
Plovers (Charadriidae)  
Spur-winged Lapwing Vanellus spinosus Eilat, HaDarom
Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula Eilat, HaDarom
Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius Yotvata, HaDarom
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus Eilat, HaDarom
Sandpipers, Snipes (Scolopacidae)  
Jack Snipe Lymnocryptes minimus Neot Smadar, HaDarom
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago Neot Smadar, HaDarom
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa Eilat, HaDarom
Common Redshank Tringa totanus Eilat, HaDarom
Marsh Sandpiper Tringa stagnatilis Eilat, HaDarom
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia Eilat, HaDarom
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus Yotvata, HaDarom
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola Yotvata, HaDarom
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos Yotvata, HaDarom
Little Stint Calidris minuta Eilat, HaDarom
Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea Eilat, HaDarom
Dunlin Calidris alpina Eilat, HaDarom
Ruff Philomachus pugnax Eilat, HaDarom
Coursers, Pratincoles (Glareolidae)  
Cream-colored Courser Cursorius cursor Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Collared Pratincole Glareola pratincola Eilat, HaDarom
Gulls, Terns and Skimmers (Laridae)  
Slender-billed Gull Chroicocephalus genei Eilat, HaDarom
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus Eilat, HaDarom
White-eyed Gull Ichthyaetus leucophthalmus Eilat, HaDarom
Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans Eilat, HaDarom
Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica Eilat, HaDarom
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia Eilat, HaDarom
Sandwich Tern Thalasseus sandvicensis Eilat, HaDarom
Common Tern Sterna hirundo Eilat, HaDarom
Pigeons, Doves (Columbidae)  
Rock Dove Columba livia Eilat, HaDarom
European Turtle Dove – VU Streptopelia turtur Sde Boker, HaDarom
Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto Yotvata, HaDarom
Laughing Dove Spilopelia senegalensis Eilat, HaDarom
Namaqua Dove Oena capensis Yotvata, HaDarom
Barn Owls (Tytonidae)  
Western Barn Owl Tyto alba Yotvata, HaDarom
Owls (Strigidae)  
Eurasian Scops Owl Otus scops Yeroham Lake, HaDarom
Long-eared Owl Asio otus Yeroham Lake, HaDarom
Nightjars (Caprimulgidae)  
Egyptian Nightjar Caprimulgus aegyptius Yotvata, HaDarom
Swifts (Apodidae)  
Alpine Swift Tachymarptis melba Sde Boker, HaDarom
Common Swift Apus apus Eilat, HaDarom
Pallid Swift Apus pallidus Sde Boker, HaDarom
Kingfishers (Alcedinidae)  
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis Yeroham Lake, HaDarom
Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis Eilat, HaDarom
Bee-eaters (Meropidae)  
Green Bee-eater Merops orientalis Eilat, HaDarom
European Bee-eater Merops apiaster Eilat, HaDarom
Hoopoes (Upupidae)  
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops Yeroham Lake, HaDarom
Woodpeckers (Picidae)  
Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla Eilat, HaDarom
Syrian Woodpecker Dendrocopos syriacus Yeroham Lake, HaDarom
Caracaras, Falcons (Falconidae)  
Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni Yotvata, HaDarom
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus Eilat, HaDarom
Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus Sde Boker, HaDarom
Old World Parrots (Psittaculidae)  
Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri Eilat, HaDarom
Shrikes (Laniidae)  
Southern Grey Shrike Lanius meridionalis Yeroham Lake, HaDarom
Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator Eilat, HaDarom
Masked Shrike Lanius nubicus Eilat, HaDarom
Crows, Jays (Corvidae)  
House Crow Corvus splendens Eilat, HaDarom
Hooded Crow Corvus cornix Sde Boker, HaDarom
Brown-necked Raven Corvus ruficollis Neot Smadar, HaDarom
Northern Raven Corvus corax Mitzpe Ramon, HaDarom
Tits, Chickadees (Paridae)  
Great Tit Parus major Yeroham Lake, HaDarom
Penduline Tits (Remizidae)  
Eurasian Penduline Tit Remiz pendulinus Eilat, HaDarom
Larks (Alaudidae)  
Desert Lark Ammomanes deserti Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Bar-tailed Lark Ammomanes cinctura Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Crested Lark Galerida cristata Eilat, HaDarom
Greater Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Bimaculated Lark Melanocorypha bimaculata Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Bulbuls (Pycnonotidae)  
White-spectacled Bulbul Pycnonotus xanthopygos Eilat, HaDarom
Swallows, Martins (Hirundinidae)  
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica Eilat, HaDarom
Pale Crag Martin Ptyonoprogne obsoleta Eilat, HaDarom
Common House Martin Delichon urbicum Eilat, HaDarom
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica Eilat, HaDarom
Cettia Bush Warblers and allies (Cettiidae)  
Cetti’s Warbler Cettia cetti Yeroham Lake, HaDarom
Streaked Scrub Warbler (Scotocercidae)  
Streaked Scrub Warbler Scotocerca inquieta Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Leaf Warblers and allies (Phylloscopidae)  
Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita Yotvata, HaDarom
Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler Phylloscopus orientalis Eilat, HaDarom
Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix Eilat, HaDarom
Reed Warblers and allies (Acrocephalidae)  
Great Reed Warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus Yeroham Lake, HaDarom
Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus Yeroham Lake, HaDarom
Eurasian Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus Eilat, HaDarom
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler Iduna pallida Eilat, HaDarom
Cisticolas and allies (Cisticolidae)  
Graceful Prinia Prinia gracilis Eilat, HaDarom
Laughingthrushes (Leiothrichidae)  
Arabian Babbler Turdoides squamiceps Eilat, HaDarom
Sylviid Babblers (Sylviidae)  
Eurasian Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla Eilat, HaDarom
Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca Eilat, HaDarom
Eastern Orphean Warbler Sylvia crassirostris Eilat, HaDarom
Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Spectacled Warbler Sylvia conspicillata Neot Smadar, HaDarom
Starlings, Rhabdornis (Sturnidae)  
Tristram’s Starling Onychognathus tristramii Sde Boker, HaDarom
Thrushes (Turdidae)  
Common Blackbird Turdus merula Sde Boker, HaDarom
Chats, Old World Flycatchers (Muscicapidae)  
European Robin Erithacus rubecula Sde Boker, HaDarom
Bluethroat Luscinia svecica Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Thrush Nightingale Luscinia luscinia Sde Boker, HaDarom
Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos Eilat, HaDarom
Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis Eilat, HaDarom
Semicollared Flycatcher Ficedula semitorquata Neot Smadar, HaDarom
Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus Eilat, HaDarom
Common Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Whinchat Saxicola rubetra Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Isabelline Wheatear Oenanthe isabellina Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Black-eared Wheatear Oenanthe hispanica Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Blackstart Oenanthe melanura Eilat, HaDarom
White-crowned Wheatear Oenanthe leucopyga Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Sunbirds (Nectariniidae)  
Palestine Sunbird Cinnyris osea Eilat, HaDarom
Old World Sparrows, Snowfinches (Passeridae)  
House Sparrow Passer domesticus Yotvata, HaDarom
Spanish Sparrow Passer hispaniolensis Eilat, HaDarom
Waxbills, Munias and allies (Estrildidae)  
Indian Silverbill Euodice malabarica Eilat, HaDarom
Wagtails, Pipits (Motacillidae)  
Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea Neot Smadar, HaDarom
White Wagtail Motacilla alba Eilat, HaDarom
Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis Eilat, HaDarom
Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus Eilat, HaDarom
Finches (Fringillidae)  
Trumpeter Finch Bucanetes githagineus Se’ifim Plain, HaDarom
European Greenfinch Chloris chloris Sde Boker, HaDarom
Desert Finch Rhodospiza obsoleta Mitzpe Ramon, HaDarom
European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis Yeroham Lake, HaDarom
Buntings, New World Sparrows and allies (Emberizidae)  
Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana Yotvata, HaDarom
Cretzschmar’s Bunting Emberiza caesia Neot Smadar, HaDarom
Species: 163
IOC World Bird List 6.1 (January 2016)