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Champions of the flyway birding

Trip Report: “Champions of the Flyway”- A Bird race for conservation in Southern Israel – March 2016

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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)
 

 

Trip Report – Champions of the Flyway bird race for conservation

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Trip report: “Champions of the Flyway” – a bird race for conservation in southern Israel – March 2015.
Desert-Tawny-Owl-LawrenceHume’s or Desert Tawny Owl (Strix [butleri or hadorami]) in the Judean Desert two days prior to the bird race. Image courtesy of Jim Lawrence, BirdLife International. Strix hadorami has only very recently been described to science (Kirwan, Schweizer & Copete, 2015), too recently for most authorities to recognize it yet.  Bizarrely, there is now evidence it could be close to African Wood Owl, to which it sounds very similar.

Background

The Champions of the Flyway is a mega-exciting 24-hour bird race (midnight to midnight on 25 March 2015), during which a bunch of teams (32 this year) compete to try and find the largest number of bird species in a single day. The playing field is southern Israel, from Eilat on the shores of the Red Sea northwards towards the Dead Sea and then west towards the Mediterranean, as shown on this map. From the southern point of the race area, at Eilat, four countries are visible – Israel itself, and then also Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. The rugged walls of the Jordan Rift Valley tower above each side of Eilat. This is an exciting meeting point of three continents: standing in Asia, we’re within kilometers of Africa, and very close to Europe as well. This is a convenient land bridge for birds to migrate across en route between Africa and Eurasia twice a year.

flyway-map

Jordan-Rift-ValleySome great desert birds such as Hooded and White-crowned Wheatears, and a spectacular number of overflying birds of prey (brown eagles, buzzards, kites, harriers, sparrowhawks, and others), storks (Black and White Storks), and more can be found above the mountainous walls of the Jordan Rift Valley, which extends through Israel, Jordan, and Palestine.

James-Curry-James Curry of Birding Adventures TV was in Israel to film this epic bird race.

Birding-Ecotours-South-Africa-teamThe three of us from the Birding Ecotours/South Africa team, at North Beach on the northern Red Sea, Eilat – also doing our bit for another conservation cause – “Save our Flufftails”: Birdlife South Africa has an ongoing project on the critically endangered White-winged Flufftail, which seemingly migrates between South Africa and its Ethiopian breeding grounds.

The Champions of the Flyway is not just for fun (although that it is!): the express aim of the 2015 race just completed was to raise funds to help stop the large-scale massacre of migrant birds on the island of Cyprus, which they visit on transit while they fly between Africa and Eurasia (see here for details about the voluminous slaughter of birds, both big and small, on this island).

Preparation, fundraising, and the build-up of excitement, January to March 2015

Our friends Meidad Goren and Jonathan Meyrav had been getting us excited about this epic race for well over a year (it all began at the 2013 British Birdfair, in fact), but finally (in early 2015) we had the honor of actually being invited to participate in the event! We, the South African/Birding Ecotours team, were to be the only southern hemisphere team to take part in this incredible bird race! We spent the next couple of months cramming – stacks of Middle Eastern birds to learn! And we used social media, Trevor’s southern African rare bird alert, the Birding Ecotours website, and our contacts to try and raise sponsorship for our team – ultimately to be donated to BirdLife Cyprus. We are absolutely delighted to announce that the South African team was often right at the top of the fundraising game, far exceeding our £3000 target and actually collecting well over £4000 for bird conservation, thanks entirely to our generous supporters, all shown below up to the end of March (when this report was written) – please note that you can still go to Just Giving and donate now, though – the birds very much need your help! We were neck-and-neck with two other teams in our fundraising endeavors – the three teams always being near the very top, generating some healthy rivalry that ultimately saw the birds getting more help than they would have otherwise. Only the Dutch Knights and the Birdwatch/Birdguides Roadrunners eventually ended up raising more money than we did. South Africans, along with our fans from other parts of the world, did us very, very proud. Thank you! Specifically, we’d like to thank each and every one of you shown at the end of this document.

Fundraising Summary: 144% of target

Total: £4,325.06 raised of £3,000.00 target (as of 29 March 2015)

147 donations

Eurasian-Eagle-Owl-hardakerThe Eurasian Eagle-Owl near the airport in Tel Aviv

Pre-race scouting, 20 March

After touching down in Tel Aviv on the early morning and collecting our rental vehicle we went to a stakeout near the airport for Eurasian Eagle-Owl (the gen was provided by our friend Oz Horine), which Jason quite quickly located sitting on the walls of the quarry. We also found numerous other good birds such as our first of many awesome Sylvia warblers, Eastern Orphean Warbler. We then headed to Jerusalem, where we had a quick look at the old city, before continuing to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth (423 meters – 1388 feet – below sea level!). Jason decided to float on the very salty waters (34 % salt!), while Trevor and Chris just waded in. Around the Dead Sea we found some good birds, such as Tristram’s Starling, Fan-tailed Raven, and Desert Lark. An hour or so before dark we found ourselves only about 50 km north of our destination (Eilat), and we met up with Oz Horine (at Yotvata, a place we’d get to know rather well in the next few days). Here we birded a little with Oz before eventually joining an Eilat Birding Festival group to see Egyptian Nightjar (which we eventually got great views and photos of), also finding desert hedgehog in the process! Eventually, well after dark and rather exhausted after all the travels, we reached picturesque Eilat (our base for the next few days of scouting as well as for the bird race itself).

Egyptian-Nightjar--boyceEgyptian Nightjar (Jason Boyce)

Pre-race scouting, 21 March
Today we learned many of the sites close to Eilat, starting at Holland Park with Oz Horine again. This is a brilliant wadi (dry river bed) bordering on Eilat, which is full of wonderful old world warblers (the three most abundant being Lesser White-throat, Common Chiffchaff, and Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler, but also with a few other very good ones thrown in, such as Rüppell’s, Sardinian, and Subalpine Warblers). There were also good numbers of other high-quality species, such as Bluethroat, Sand Partridge, Arabian Babbler, etc. After birding this fine site we had a quick breakfast before heading into the mountains to look for overflying raptors (we found some good species, such as Lesser Spotted Eagle, Booted Eagle, Short-toed Snake Eagle, and many others). Two nice Wheatears showed well – Hooded and White-crowned.

And it was good to meet the first of many fellow birders – Ben MacDonald from Bristol and also the Cape May Bird Observatory American Dippers team further up in the mountains. Throughout the day we also familiarized ourselves with other birding sites, including Km (kilometer) 19 and 20 (along highway 90 to the north) and the birdwatching/ringing centre, gradually adding new birds to our list and accumulating lifers along the way! We each got over 40 life birds while we were in Israel, in fact!

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Rüppell’s Warbler– these pink-flowered bushes were crawling with Sylvia warblers! (Jason Boyce)

Pre-race scouting, 22 March

We continued birding around Eilat. One of the real highlights was Arabian Warbler marginally south of the now very familiar Yotvata – thanks to Meidad Goren. Meidad’s biggish group of Eilat birding festival folks were very kind to accommodate us – we arrived just as they had found the bird – as we literally jumped out of our rental car and ran to the group, saw the bird, and left almost as soon as we had arrived. Sometimes we sit and enjoy the birds we see, but this was not the time, as we still had tons of scouting to do (including a 6:10 p.m. “date” with Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse). We had lots to accomplish before the big day of the race, which we were getting increasingly nervous about. Nervous excitement mounted!

Pre-race scouting and spectacular owl/nightjar tour, 23 March

This was a big day (and a bit), starting at 3:00 a.m. and ending the following day just before 1:00 a.m.! We headed far to the northwest, all the way to Nizanna, where we picked up Macqueen’s Bustard (displaying – very, very spectacular!), Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, and a big stack of other mega-amazing birds – all found with the kind help of Meidad Goren. With a great many new birds under our belt we headed back to Eilat to prepare for our owl tour, starting at 3:00 p.m. Hadoram Shirihai accompanied us – the owl we were about to look for was actually named after him, Strix hadorami (Desert Tawny Owl). One of the leading pelagic bird specialists on the planet, Hadoram has also made a huge mark on his home front – the Israeli birding scene in general. We were in no ways disappointed, and it was great to see Hadoram himself genuinely spectacularly excited – the views we got of Desert Tawny Owl here in the Judean Desert were perhaps the best even the man himself had ever obtained!

“Oh, what a night.
Late March back in 2015.
What a very special time for me,
‘Cause I remember what a night

Oh, what a night.
You know, I didn’t even know the owl’s name,
But I was never gonna be the same.
What an owl. What a night”.

– we should all have sung this Frankie Vallie song (but were too tired, I guess, and had another MEGA bird to find).

Judean-Desert--lawrenceSomewhere in the Judean Desert just above the Dead Sea….waiting for the owl to appear on the edge of the cliff face below us…! Photo by Jim Lawrence, BirdLife International

After obtaining brilliant views of Desert Tawny Owl we headed southwards back towards Eilat to look for Nubian Nightjar near the southern edge of the Dead Sea. After getting great views of this rare bird we eventually returned to Eilat close to 1:00 a.m.

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Nubian Nightjar by Jim Lawrence, BirdLife International

(Very last-minute) scouting the day before the race, 24 March

We found quite a number of new trip birds today, and all the teams and organizers also met for a couple of hours to discuss the plan for the big day and to agree on the final bird list to use. We sat down with Itai Shanni (see here), who helped immensely. And we frequently pestered Jonathan Meyrav for information today and throughout our time in Israel.

25 March 2015 – the actual Champions of the Flyway Bird Race

On 24 March we ate an early, quick dinner and then headed to bed soon after 8:00 p.m., setting our alarms for the same night – 11:50 p.m.! Just after midnight, still trying to wake up, we headed to the race start line (the lobby of the hotel) and immediately had James Curry and team interviewing us for Birding Adventures TV (and cracking jokes!). It was quite a rude awakening, really, ha ha! Leaving the cameras “in the dust”, about ten minutes later we found ourselves at the birdwatching centre, where we heard a couple of shorebirds such as Common Greenshank, making them the first birds for our list. The Next Generation Birders then shared gen on a nearby Pallas’s (Great Black-headed) Gull, which we managed to see in the dull lighting of the streetlamps. This is a wonderful race, in which all the teams freely share information – and actually the Next Generation Birders won the prize for being the most helpful of all the teams and sharing the most gen. A Champions of the Flyway whatssapp group was created specifically for the purpose of sharing information between teams, in fact.

We then headed, in the dark, three hours to the north (Nizanna), stopping only at our Western Barn Owl and Long-eared Owl stakeouts (both at Kibbutzim). Our two owls were good news (as was Eurasian Stone-curlew), but we also got some bad news: just when it was too late, we got a group whatssapp message that a Eurasian Scops Owl had been heard at the Ben-Gurion Memorial – David Ben-Gurion was the founder and first prime minister of Israel – and this was going to be a recurring theme: pass a site, get a whatsapp that we had just missed something, get upset, and be forced to continue to find our next bird (because of very limited time!). We were unable to return for the scops owl because we had bustards, coursers, and sandgrouse to locate – we did quite well with those, thankfully, and also found stacks of other goodies. One of the real highlights was hearing the A-M-A-Z-I-N-G insect-like trill of a Savi’s Warbler.

Golden-jackal-boyceGolden jackal distracted us and slowed us down a bit as we could not resist getting some photos. (Jason Boyce)

But we then got one incredibly big fright when the Palestinian Sunbirders sent a message to the whatssapp group just after dawn that they had over 100 species already (….while we were just managing double digits). Ha ha, actually we caught up pretty nicely later in the day, though, but this was an unpleasant surprise nonetheless.

Heading southwards, we managed to get ourselves an hour behind schedule. So we had to forfeit the Bonelli’s Eagle lookout. We did do various other sites around Sde Boker, though, which were very productive. Griffon Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Northern Raven, Alpine Swift, Common Swift (Pallid Swift eluded us today, even though it’s a fairly common bird throughout the race area), Song Thrush, Common Blackbird, and numerous others put in an appearance. Spotted Sandgrouse was a real highlight at the site that Meidad Goren very kindly had shown us a couple of days back (although at that point the stakeout lacked any sandgrouse).

Birding the Kibbutzim (the same ones we previously did in the dark just for owls) was very productive, generating Meadow Pipit, Cretzchmar’s Bunting, and many other new birds for this big day.

Racing further southwards, when we eventually reached the HaMeshar Plains, where we were hastily escorted back to the main road by the military, who told us that access to this area was currently not possible. Since we were behind schedule we were unable to substitute this habitat with the Uvda Valley further south, and thus missed a good number of species, such as Asian Desert Warbler and Temminck’s Lark, which lurk only in this arid plains habitat.

We did find that a major feature of this race was that there were simply too many species to target in 24 hours, so it was either a matter of doing fewer sites thoroughly, or a greater number of sites very, very fast and only birding them “on the surface”. We opted for the latter option, and by the end of the day we pretty much agreed that this was the best strategy, which will only need some tweaks we’d want to make for 2016 to try again to perhaps take the title of Champions of the Flyway! But well, we knew we were missing a couple of birds at each stop we made. A 48-hour race is something the organizers have in fact talked about, which would allow a more thorough treatment of the race area (although a 24-hour race must be much less tiring and would have my vote – despite not allowing anything but a peripheral treatment of the race area). Missing common and easy birds on the race day – such as Green Bee-eater (and in fact both other bee-eaters) drives the point home that we had to bird peripherally and not do any one site thoroughly at all.

Yotvata generated most of the target birds we had found during the scouting days, but since we were still badly behind schedule we had to rush this site too. Since we were “ahead” of most of the other teams (not necessarily in our bird count, ha ha, but in our travels southwards back towards Eilat – most teams started in the north and headed gradually southwards), we continued getting frustrating whatsapp messages such as “a Black Scrub Robin showing extremely well at Yotvata – beautiful bird!”. There was never time to turn back for anything, and neither was there time to stop for Arabian Warbler in the Acacia stakeout we had previously familiarized ourselves with!

Continuing, Km 19 and 20 generated stacks of new birds for the day, including wildfowl, gulls, terns, and shorebirds – including some single birds we managed to pick out (very luckily!). These singletons included Red-necked Phalarope, Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, and Pied Avocet (along with more abundant waders such as Common Redshank, Ruff – a few of them starting to moult into breeding plumage, Kentish Plover, and stacks of others).

And pretty much we then headed back to Eilat, where we birded the productive wadi at Holland Park, as planned finding new birds for the day such as Sand Partridge (although that almost evaded us!). North Beach was next on our agenda, for the interesting-looking Red Sea endemic White-eyed Gull (which is Near-threatened), along with various other gulls, terns, and more.

After some desperate attempts for our bogey bird Green Bee-eater and a couple of other “silly misses” we had to race back northwards to get to Km 19 for the dusk appearance of Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse and were amazed to add eight birds to our list here, the highlight being Barbary Falcon. The sandgrouse came in on cue, while we spent quality time hanging out with a bunch of newly-made friends – almost all the other teams waited with us for the sandgrouse to wing their ways in.

Our final stop of the day was back in Eilat for Striated Heron, which unfortunately did not show itself, meaning we ended on a round total of 150 bird species. We are quite proud of this total, as it was our first attempt (we did not participate in the race in 2014). Among the international teams, the winning score of 169 bird species went to the American team, and we’d like to sincerely and hugely congratulate these star birders! Well done, Michael, Doug, Glen, and Jeff! Truly a great bunch of folks, who we enjoyed chatting to whenever we bumped into them during our time in Israel – see here for more details about this great team!

Green-Bee-eater-boyce
We saw Green Bee-eater virtually daily – except on the race day! (Jason Boyce)

What is a possible strategy for next year, based on what we learned this year? We think that next year we could get 170 species and perhaps even win (ha ha, if extremely lucky!). Apart from studying the stakeouts and species (especially the contact calls of overflying birds) better, we’d also tweak some of the plan for the race day. It’s probably not the best idea to be “ahead” of all the other teams in terms of position on the “race course”, as it means we dip on more of the reported species (on the whatssapp group). On one hand, it often does feel good to be “at the front” and to report the first owls, Savi’s Warbler, and more. But on the other hand, it does not feel good to be too late to “twitch” the Eurasian Scops Owl or Black Scrub Robin reported by teams “behind” us and speeding slightly less than us! In 2016, the biggest tweak would probably be adding Yeroham Lake to our route, as that seemed to add a big bunch of species to other teams’ lists (even if it means losing one or two other species because we would have to do all the sites we did choose to do even faster). Frustratingly, the copy of “A Guide to the Birding Hotspots of Southern Israel” by Shirihai et al. was waiting for us on arrival back home (thank you, postal service…..NOOOT!!). This book might certainly have helped a little, and we’ll certainly be reading it before next year’s event!

Every minute of this epic bird race was amazingly exciting, and one thing we did get very right was that we had FUN – stacks and stacks of it!

And it must be emphasized that conservation fund-raising was what this exciting event was all about – the real winner was the birds, as about US$50,000 was raised by all the teams, to be donated directly to bird conservation in Cyprus. The biggest “THANK YOU” is due to all the sponsors, of all the teams!

group-photo-on-North-Beach
The group photo on North Beach just before the prize-giving ceremony – tired but happy birders these are!

26 March

After sleeping in a little we attended the excellent prize-giving and closing ceremony, once again giving us the opportunity to enjoy chatting to a great many new friends – the bonding that happened between all the teams was quite something to experience; any so-called “rivalry” was certainly friendly and pure fun! Thanks very much to all the local birders who so freely shared their knowledge with us, all the other international teams who did the same, and the organizers for making this an unforgettably spectacular event!

After lunch, we attended our first real Israeli bird twitch and finally got to see and photograph Black Scrub Robin (if not on the race day) at Yotvata before heading back to Tel Aviv for our early morning flight the next day. Tantalizingly, we also heard about a twitchable Grey Hypocolius, but sadly would only have arrived at its site after dark by the time we heard about this bird – one more potential lifer to return to Israel for in 2016 (although it’s a vagrant, oops).

Black-Scrub-Robin-hardaker
We finally caught up with the Black Scrub Robin!

Grey-Hypocolius-horine
The Grey Hypocolius that Oz Horine photographed – the same one we sadly did not have time to chase!

Oz-Horine-and-his-team-Oz Horine and his team – this Israeli team came third overall, with 170 species (slightly ahead of the top international team). Oz shared lots of good gen with us before the race day.

Cheers and good birding – and we’ll be adding Israel bird tours under the Asian bird tour section on our website. Also, we have for several years now offered an “Owls of the World” birding tour to Israel.

See you in March 2016!

Spanish-Sparrow-boyceSpanish Sparrow was often-seen, but Dead Sea Sparrow did not “play ball” on the race day. (Jason Boyce)

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Thank you for all the hard work, have fun as well as success in Israel. best wishes…margie

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Best wishes to the three of you and I am certain that you will do us all proud.

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for a wonderful cause!

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Good Luck and Best Wishes to Trevor & the South African Team come home safely cheers from Peter & Marie Dagg Hermanus Bird Club

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£10.00

Ben

We need to leave some of God’s awesome creation for our offspring

Donation by Ben Huddle on 03/03/15

£20.00

Averil

Thank you for what you are doing for conservation.

Donation by Averil on 03/03/15

£10.00

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Donation by Anonymous on 03/03/15

£50.00

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Killing of birds through the Europe to Africa flyways, and back, and around the Med. is appalling. Here’s to a successful event to help make a difference and for our team Chris, Trevor and Jason

Donation by Mel Tripp on 02/03/15

£20.00

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Good luck with the race, and more importantly the fundraising target!

Donation by Nigel Voaden on 21/02/15

£20.00

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Hou Suid Afrika se naam hoog! Keep South Africa’s name high!

Donation by Pieter on 20/02/15

£20.00

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Good luck!!!

Donation by Simone on 15/02/15

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I shall be looking out for news of you trip with interest and excitement. Fabulous destination

Donation by Gisela on 11/02/15

£20.00

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Donation by Anonymous on 06/02/15

$20.00

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All our very best wishes to Trevor Hardaker & the South African team

Donation by Anonymous on 06/02/15

£20.00

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GOOD LUCK !!!

Donation by Hedley Gerhardt on 04/02/15

£20.00

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For the South African Team

Donation by Dael on 01/02/15

£10.00

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Donation by Viv O’Neill on 30/01/15

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Donation by Mike Clacey on 29/01/15

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Donation by Mike Nyenes on 29/01/15

£10.00

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Donation by Margaret Hardaker on 28/01/15

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My donation is for the South African Team

Donation by John Fincham on 28/01/15

£10.00

wendy

Best of luck, Trevor Hardaker!

Donation by Wendy Miller on 06/01/15

Thanks again for your generous donations, including a $1000 one!