Thursday, April 4, 2024

Champions of the Flyway 2024

On Monday (April 1st) it was Champions of the Flyway again, for the 11th year. It was a strange one, all-Israeli, without the international component. Because of the war we didn't even try to engage with the international birding community - not easy to be an Israeli organisation or individual these days. Despite the ongoing war situation, we decided to go ahead with the Israeli race this year for several reasons. First, the conservation project, to support Nature Tanzania's work in tackling illegal killing of White Storks and other birds, is so important that we were determined to raise whatever funds we can through COTF. Second, the race is a central event for the local birding community, bringing together so many people and connecting the birding community with conservation. It was great to be part of the leading team of COTF, with Alen and Noam but very strange without Jonathan Meyrav. You were missed, bro!

I headed down to Eilat on Sunday, March 31s, the day before the race. The weather turned terribly hot and migrant numbers on the ground were very low. In Yotvata sewage there were a few migrants, shorebirds, wagtails and pipits, best of the bunch was a Little Crake. In hot and windy Canada Park, this male Collared Flycatcher (one of my favourite birds) was the only migrant of note.

Over at the IBRCE we did a live birding webinar, broadcasting from the JBO (Dror), Hula (Nadav) and IBRCE (Daniel and Moritz ringing, I was out with my scope). You can watch the webinar recording here. I had phone issues (demonstrated also in the attached video below), so I contributed only visual, without sound. But it went OK I think. Outside of the zoom there were some nice birds in the park, including Whimbrel, Gull-billed Terns, a pale-morph Western Reef-Heron and Citrine Wagtails. Identifying this pale morph is a bit more challenging - note the dagger-shaped, non-black bill, and less black and yellow legs. It was also slightly larger that an adjacent Little Egret:

Citrine Wagtail

Whimbrel, Whiskered Terns, Glossy Ibis, Caspian Tern, Gull-billed Terns:

In the evening at North Beach the Brown Booby was sitting distantly on a buoy, and I saw my first White-cheeked Tern of the year.

Race day (April 1st) started in an unexpected way:

With this wake-up call (siren) teams sprang into action. I spent the whole day out in the field, with teams, making sure they are working well and seeing as many birds as possible. First thing in the morning I headed up to in Uvda Valley, that was actually quite good with decent numbers of migrants. The habitat looks great there - one of the few productive spots in the Negev this year. Most of the Negev is stone-dry, literally, after a rain-less winter.

My birding started well with a Striped Hyena that disappeared behind a ridge just as I got my camera on it... I had Bar-tailed and Med Short-toed Larks there, and another lark that got away and was probably Arabian. 

In Neot Smadar sewage a male Semi-collared Fly showed nicely:

Heading down towards the Arava valley, I intercepted a fantastic stream of migrating raptors, mainly Steppe Buzzards - thousands of them! Somehow, photos of such migration spectacles are always underwhelming; it is impossible (for me) to capture the size and power of this awesome experience.

During the hottest hours (it was already above 40 C / 104 F) I checked some sites near Eilat, including IBRCE and the football pitches. The most impressive creature that I photographed was this poisonous grasshopper Poekilocerus bufonius, here on its poisonous plant host - Sodom's Apple Calotropis procera.

In the afternoon teams started to concentrate in the Eilat sites. At KM20 Flamingo Pools there were many shorebirds and ducks, including two Red-necked Phalaropes and Collared Pratincoles. So great to see the kids and teens in action:

At North Beach the classic evening gathering of teams was photogenic as ever:

After dark we opened the finish line at the IBRCE and worked with the incoming teams until midnight.

On Tuesday (April 2nd) before the closing events I used the early morning for a little birding, with Itai and Meidad. In Holland Park it was nice to find a 'wild' Black Scrub-Robin (unlike the sedentary 'feral' ones in Samar).

At quick whizz through the IBRCE produced a columbinus Greater Sand-plover and a female Oriental Honey-Buzzard. I am still bewildered by their rapid expansion in Eilat - they have become a regular feature of birding here almost year-round. Note that in this photo the bird is half-gliding, therefore the first finger is tucked in.

Then it was the traditional group photo at North beach, classically interrupted by a passing Eurasian Curlew:

And a proper photo by Yuval Dax - thank you to all who participated!

The award ceremony was exciting and emotional as ever. Five titles were awarded to different teams - Guardians of the Flyway (most fundraising) to Women in Steppe, Knights of the Flyway to the young Bee-eaters (most noise and impact towards the cause), Green Champions of the Flyway to the Francolins (on foot in the heat!), IBRCE Champions of the Flyway to the Woodchat Shrikes (full day in the park), and classic Champions of the Flyway to the Desert Owls, led by Nitay Hayun, with an excellent score of 152 species! They received Zeiss binoculars, donated by Zeiss Birding - thank you! The Desert Owls are a brilliant team - exceptional birders and fine young lads - from L to R Yagel Yamin, Nitay, Beeri Abramov and Amit Spivack. This photo and the next are also by Yuval - thanks!

Uplifting to see the engagement and commitment of so many young birders to the project (41 participants under 18!) - not only their participation in the bird race itself. I also witnessed the importance of the conservation component and the connection of the younger participants to a 'bigger' story. I only wish there were more girls in this photo - still a big challenge we need to overcome, how to make birding more inclusive and safer for young girls.

From a birding point of view it may have been one of the quieter Champions, with very high temperatures and low numbers of migrants on the ground. However, this made the race itself even more challenging. With harder work of all teams most expected species were seen (195 species seen in total during the race by all teams) and lots of good species. Check my eBird trip report for the three days here.

From a public POV, as always, this event is so unique and motivational that I am very proud to be part of its leading team. Of course, that lack of international teams decreased the volume of the message, the importance of the battle against the horrible illegal killing of birds, and also decreased the amount of money raised for Nature Tanzania. You can still donate to COTF and support the work carried out by Nature Tanzania to tackle illegal killing of birds - please follow the link here,
Within Israel this still is one of the most prominent birding events of the year, that connects birding with conservation. IBRCE hosted the event and the the team did a stellar job. Huge love and appreciation to Noam and all IBRCE team - Tzadok, Libby, Sasha, Shachar, and Moritz and Daniel who operate the ringing station.

Alen and Noam deserve huge thanks for leading the whole campaign and event, with the online support of Mark Pearson. Hats off - you all did a great job in difficult conditions. Thanks as well to all of my team who came down to participate and help - Yuval, Meidad, Yotam, Ofir and the entire JBO team, and two BirdLife Israel 'affiliates' - Dan Alon and Amir Balaban - thank you all!

See you in Champions of the Flyway 2025! Go Champions!