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Jonathan Meyrav, Project coordinator
“The Champions of the Flyway” in Israel is not just a fun race for avid birders having a good time; it carries with it a strong message that appeals to bird lovers and naturalists everywhere. While most of us enjoy wild birds in beautiful, calm settings, millions of migrant birds are slaughtered every year as they migrate to and from the breeding grounds. The numbers of birds killed by illegal hunting and trapping is staggering and truly worrying.
The Eastern Mediterranean Flyway is the second largest migration corridor in the world. Complete populations of birds that breed in the Eurasian landmass migrate east of the Mediterranean Sea on their way to their African wintering grounds. Unfortunately, significant portions of the migration route are through countries where bird hunting is widespread and out of control. Georgia, Cyprus, Malta, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt are wonderful countries for migration but are also notorious for the widespread killing and trapping of birds. The reasons for such widespread hunting are diverse and range from cultural factors to hunting for food, trade, falconry, and plain sport. In recent years Facebook and other social media have helped to shed light on the magnitude of the massacre. Lebanese hunters proudly activate several graphic pages devoted to the slaughter of birds.
One of the most horrible things is that in many places no species are spared, and hunters illegally collect everything from robins, thrushes, buntings, and tits through hoopoes, orioles, bee-eaters, rollers, doves, and waders. The real trophies are of course large birds, and sadly the bigger the better, but in many places passerines are hunted in staggering numbers. These smaller birds are aimed mainly at traditional and gourmet cuisines that offer plates of 6-8 songbirds, pickled or fried…
During migration seasons, thousands of birds are trapped and shot daily. This may sound like something fictional, or hard to believe for people in more modern countries, but sadly this is a fact and the pressure on migrants just continues to rise. Illegal hunters and trappers target storks, cranes, pelicans, geese, and bustards, but most desired are birds of prey. In many Arabic cultures, eagles and falcons are signs of power and manhood, and “you are not a man” if you don’t have a large stuffed raptor on display in your home. The real problem is the fact that in many of these countries, hunting is so widespread and so deeply embedded in people’s lives that nothing is done to address the issue. In many of these places even the country’s leaders themselves go on fancy hunting parties, where the traditional methods of bows and shotguns on horseback are now replaced by monster Land Rovers and gold-plated AK-47s, which are of course a lot more efficient and take a larger toll.
This is where the “Champions of the Flyway” comes in. The SPNI Birders are a team of highly devoted naturalists that spend countless hours in the field, working on numerous projects revolving around migration. We spend large amounts of energy and money working to secure the airspace and to research and maintain stop-over sites all over the country. Imagine how frustrating it is to sit in front of the computer at the end of a long day in the field and to see posts from Lebanon and elsewhere portraying the same birds you have just seen as corpses. It is difficult to grasp that, as conservationists in Israel, we are only “responsible” for a tiny part in the flyway, that we can only do so much, and that sadly we are almost alone trying to protect birds in the crazy neighborhood that is the Middle East.
This is how the Champions of the Flyway bird race came to be, because it is personal!
There are many “Big Day” competitions around the world, each with its own goals and flare. The Champions of the Flyway structure was heavily inspired by the incredible “World Series of Birding” staged by the New Jersey Audubon society. The WSOB is the biggest bird race in the world and brings in dozens of teams that raise incredible amounts of money every year. The Champions of the Flyway was built on the same guidelines and rules, but with several interesting changes, that make the project what it is.
The Champions of the Flyway is a bird race with a difference. It is a race where, although the competition is fierce, the overall goals are the same to all the teams. There is not a birder or naturalist out there that is not outraged by the illegal killing of birds; luckily there are many people that are willing to take action.
The Champions of the Flyway project was embraced from the beginning by BirdLife International, and we work together on every aspect of the project. The model of the race is simple: teams of leading birders and organizations will assemble in Eilat and race. The simple reason that the race is staged in Eilat is that it is one of the best migration spots in the world. Eilat is the place where one can witness migration at the largest scale possible and to truly admire and celebrate migration. Another reason to race in Eilat is the fact that the “playing field” of southern Israel offers teams the chance to rack up an incredible checklist, and the more species, the more money is donated to the cause. The teams registering for the race all raise money for a specific project along the flyway, to help tackle the illegal hunting and trapping on the ground. In 2014 BirdLife Georgia walked away with $30,000 that are already being implemented to work with the local communities to protect birds. In 2015 we are raising money to help the BirdLife Cyprus team tackle the illegal hunting and trapping of birds on the surreal Mediterranean Island. The situation on the island is horrible and the illegal hunting out of control.
The illegal hunting of birds in Cyprus is widespread, and birds are collected for various reasons, including a local delicacy called “Ambelopoulia” which consists of grilled, pickled, or boiled songbirds.
Join us for this incredible project, one that can make a difference and halt the illegal hunting of birds along the flyways. No sum is too small; please donate today, because they deserve to fly in peace through quiet skies.
Please look at the South African Birding Ecotours team profile at www.champions-of-the-flyway.com and PLEDGE YOUR SUPPORT by donating any amount, large or small, by going onto that website link.
Jason getting onto a skulker
Note: we currently arrange birding tours to Israel by request. This includes tours to see the recently split Desert Tawny Owl and Nubian nightjar. We offer a wide range of birdtours to the rest of Asia and beyond – see Birding Tours Asia
Crowned Sandgrouse in Israel by Jonathan Meyrav