It is perhaps the most fascinating phenomenon in the birding world, but unfortunately not without danger: bird migration. And Eilat, Israel, is one of the best places in the world to experience this spectacular phenomenon.
It should therefore come as no surprise that here, for the third time, the international bird conservation event Champions of the Flyway is organized to raise awareness and funds for the protection of migratory birds during their long journeys back and forth to their breeding grounds. On March 29th 2016, a passionate group of birders from different nationalities competed, in small teams, for the title of Champions of the Flyway (COTF) in an intense 24-hour Big Day. This race is not only organized to celebrate the miracle of bird migration, but above all to raise money to support a national BirdLife partner in the fight against the illegal killing of migratory birds along a major Flyway.
Previous editions of the COTF supported conservation projects by BirdLife Cyprus & Bird Conservation Georgia (protecting raptor migration in Batumi). The revenues received for this year’s event will be supporting the Hellenic Ornithological Society (HOS) – BirdLife in Greece. Annually, in Greece alone, a million birds get shot, poisoned or caught in nets and glue sticks and never reach their wintering or breeding grounds, contributing substantially to the decline of species populations and thus the ecosystems where these species live. This is where the Dutch Knights step in, a team of highly dedicated Dutch birders.
After having received the much-coveted title ‘Knights of the Flyway’ in 2014, for being the most helpful team during the race and generating the greatest exposure, we succeeded in raising (even more) significant funds – as well as awareness – during last year’s event! Still, we were not done protecting the migratory birds and this year the Dutch Knights were back! Unfortunately, our one-and-only navigator Gert Ottens couldn’t join this year. To cover the loss, we took Wi-Fi on board and used Google maps to stand in for Gert’s navigation skills. The Wi-Fi also allowed to stay in touch with all other participants (the very active COTF WhatsApp group) and our supporters back home.
On top of that, we added two very competent Replacement Birders to the Dutch Knights: Leo Heemskerk & Ferry Ossendorp. Both are founding fathers of the world-renowned (in the Netherlands) Deception Tours, organizing 3-4 weekends a year on the Dutch Wadden Isle Vlieland with the goal of finding Real Dutch rarities. Doing so for the last 25 years! And with their motto: No Guts no Glory, they were just the type of Birders Marc Guyt & Martijn Verdoes needed to make a shot at eternal glory – or die trying…
How competent Leo & Ferry are was already evident on their second day in Israel. At the shore of the Dead Sea a flock of White Wagtails was foraging. Ferry said to Leo, lets find an Amur Wagtail and after 10 seconds Leo replied: there it is… In the end it turned out to be a Masked Wagtail – only the third record for Israel and the ca 16th record for the Western Palearctic. A good promotion for the skills of the Dutch Knights and the pressure was on for the other teams (we felt).
The End of the Beginning
Scouting. Strategy. A big fun part of a Big Day is finding a strategy that works for your team and start scouting to see where, when and how long you have to be where and at which time late. And what you need to see at each specific location. And for scouting you need time. And because you are only a limited amount of time in Israel that you can spend on scouting that means: skip sleep. Sleeping one can do at home! And when you are not sleeping, you can scout. And that is just what we did. On average we slept no more than 4 hours each night, but felt more alive than ever. Adrenaline just keeps you going; there is always a bird/place to scout, a tweet to make, a Facebook post to place and a mail to send to the people back home.
Fortunately ,Marc & Martijn already had two years of COTF experience under their belt. For this edition we basically had two strategies lined up before we left: One South to North (start Eilat and end Yeroham lake), the other one the other way around (start Yeroham lake and end Eilat). Back home we made prediction lists what to expect, question lists what we needed to find out and, combined with the lesson learned from previous years, we had all the luggage to make a strategy work. Scouting locally on the ground would reveal which strategy to choose in the end.
As it was originally a relaxed birding holiday for Ferry & Leo (until they were asked to join us…) we had two cars to our disposal. Martijn & Marc did the heavy scouting, whereas Leo & Ferry did their much-wanted birding at the customary birding places – gaining valuable additional knowledge in the process.
Our Team Sponsor Leica provided us with 3 brand new, ultra sharp Leica Televid telescopes. So we had new optics to play with as well – and which could give us an edge on race day.
Scouting was great and big fun, as always. Revisiting birding places after a year, seeing the differences, checking new hotspots, checking stakeouts and figuring out how to incorporate it all in our route. Best new birding hotspot was the Seifim Plains. Just 20 minutes’ drive northwest of Eilat, in the Eilat Mountains. A lush green wadi in the desert that was most productive this year. It was full of birds. In one morning we had all ‘easy’ possible Israeli wheatear species (Northern, Isabelline, Eastern Mourning, Desert, Hooded, White-crowned, Eastern Black-eared Wheatear& Blackstart) besides a host of larks, common migrants and good numbers of raptors migrating overhead – this place was teeming with birdlife!
Another must-visit place this year was KM84. Although it would be off-route on the Big Day, it was here that we had a very close encounter with a female Thick-billed Lark after walking around the otherwise deserted plain for hours. This year they bred for the first time in Israel in years and most birders connected with this stunning lark.
At an early stage we already decided that we would skip Nizzana during the Big Day as this would be too much driving time during precious daylight hours, so this year we didn’t visit the dancing Macqueen’s Bustards – but if you have never been to Israel, this is a must visit place to visit as well.
One of the best parts of the Champions of the Flyway is the sharing mentality. Everybody is encouraged to share all sightings and as a result the COTF WhatsApp group was sometimes exploding with bird news from the playing field (the area where the Big Day is being held). Besides, in the last afternoon before the race, there is a swap meeting where all teams gather to compile the race checklist by going through all sightings from all birders, including directions where specific birds were seen. After that we had a round-up session with Itai Shanni for all remaining questions we had about birds and stakeouts and before dark we did some last minute scouting before the race started.
We had still not decided which route to take during the race day. But when our informant (due to privacy reasons we do not disclose his name but we call him the ‘Danish King’) told us that somebody had asked organizer Jonathan what he would do considering this year’s conditions it all fell in place. It was our South-North route with just a little modification – include Seifim Plain in the itinerary. Game on!
It was time to meet Leo & Ferry in a restaurant to finalize the route and get some sleep for 2-3 hours – at midnight we would start the race!
And we would race with number 14. During the openings ceremony of the Champions of the Flyway every team gets a race team number, which has to be placed visible on the car (we think because then the Army can see from a distance that all these cars racing and spotlighting next to the Jordan border are part of the event – to avoid that they get nervous…). During the opening the organizers wanted to give us number 12 but we opted loudly for number 14 – we would do this race for the birds and in the memory of the famous Dutch football player Johan Cruijff who passed away that week. 14 it is!
The Beginning of the End
Race day. Big Day. Birding Day! Just after 00.00 we arrived at the start line– and after receiving our race checklist we were off. Like the last two years we got company from Yuval, filming us in the process. And this year we had a treat for him in store as our first bird was in the middle of the Eilat disco area as we call it. At 00.15 we stepped out near the boulevard of Eilat, got out armed with all our gear including telescopes & flashlights and walked to the shore through disco-light streets full of drunk, half-dressed Israeli and foreign tourists, looking at us like we just arrived from Mars.
We had no time to answer their mumbling questions; we had a bird to see. At one of the buoys offshore bird number 1 was waiting, a White-eyed Gull. In the same place at which we had scouted it in the nights before. We might see it in the morning off North Beach but better safe than sorry. Bird number 2 was sitting next to it, a Slender-billed Gull. Time to move on, again leaving the tourist scratching their alcohol drained brains about what was happening. Yuval hoped the Israeli ministry would not veto the footage out as he thought it was hilarious.
Off to North beach. In the 2014 edition of the COTF all teams gambled on the local Brown Booby to come to rest in Aqaba in the evening – but it never came to rest on his favorite place that evening. Everybody thought nobody had seen it during that first Big Day. Boy, were we wrong. The next morning, as it turned out, the winning eBirders had seen the bird in the first night, when it was still there, and were the only team that had the boobies on their Big Day list that year. We didn’t want that to happen this year, so we opted to copy their action (hoping of course that it would be gone in the morning and afternoon). We knew where the Brown Boobies went sleeping last evening – as we checked just before dark. But in the night we couldn’t distinguish the birds in the low light of the harbor… 1-0 for the Boobies.
Even if the number of birds is limited during the night, time is already pressing. So after 15 minutes we had to go as we had some owling to do. First a quick stop at the IBRCE ringing station to see if we could find (calling) crakes or the Little Bittern, but not a single bird was calling and no birds materialized in the spotlight. Just when we tried to leave a Water Snipe was being found in the North Beach canal and reported on the WhatsApp. As it was just 5 minutes from where we were standing and as we hadn’t seen a single Water Snipe in the days before, we dashed off and twitched the bird. We had borrowed a mega spotlight from Roy de Haas (thanks!), and attached to the car lighter it brightened up the canal ditch and there a Water Snipe was drumming its bill happily into the mud. Tick!
Time to go. Yotvata was our next stop. We tried successfully for Common Quail in the circular fields and heard our only Stone-Curlew for the day. No Pharaoh Eagle-Owl (after 15+ times trying we think it just doesn’t exist) and hardly any other birds on the ground. At Kibbutz Lotan we tried for Barn Owl and there we heard songbirds overhead! It turned out that Ortolan Buntings were on the move and at several places we encountered birds flying overhead. A crazy experience to stand in the dark of the night, right on the border with Jordan in a deserted Kibbutz, scanning the fences with a big flashlight for possible Barn Owl and hearing Ortolan Buntings overhead. Big Day Birding at its best. But no Barn Owl…
A report from a Eurasian Oystercatcher at North Beach decided us to go back a little earlier and try for that species in the dark, as it is scarce at Eilat. We stopped at Kibbutz Samar for Barn Owl and there 3 out of 4 heard distantly a Barn Owl hissing. Ferry didn’t hear it unfortunately but we needed to move on – it would count on our Big Day list after all and time is running out.
At North Beach we tried for the Oystercatcher but no luck. Since we were there anyway, we tried again for the Boobies and YES! From a different angle we could see two birds resting, no doubt because of the high-end Televid scopes our sponsor Leica provided. We love it when a plan comes together. Hopefully the birds were very hungry in the early morning and would be fishing far out at sea! If only we were that lucky…
It was time to head to the IBRCE for our morning chorus. Last year in Yeroham well before bird activity was very high with lots of birds singing and calling. We hoped it would be the same in IBCRE as most of the (reed) birds overlap. Besides, an Egyptian Nightjar was also seen during the night, which we hoped to connect. But against all odds, almost no birds were singing. After sunrise activity turned up a little bit and we ticked good Big Day species like Savi’s Warbler, Purple Heron, Pied Kingfisher, Rüppell’s Warbler, Little Crake & Nightingale. The scouted Little Bittern and White-throated Kingfisher never materialized. Time to move on, as we wanted to spend some time on North beach for terns and ducks before heading to the desert.
On the way to North Beach, we made a quick stop at the canal for Western Reef Egret (3). On arrival at the beach another Big Day team was already present and mentioned what we could see our selves, the sea was mostly empty contra the last mornings. We did see two species of terns and then minutes of nothing. Hmmm. The other team decided to quit and move on but we opted for 5 minutes more. And then these glorious minutes arrived, when you could still make out the taillights of the car in the distance and also see skuas and a flock of large gulls approaching. A small flock of 5 Arctic Skuas and between the Baltic Gulls an immature Pallas’ Gull! We would have loved to see that the other team had connected with these birds if they were still around… but as they just left…WHOOAH! Time to move on and get the news out on the App group – if only we could see the faces of the other team that just left!
At Seifim Plains, it turned out that more teams were doing a South-North route this year. The organization of the COTF had two staff members in the field assisting the teams. Yoav Perlman and Itai Shanni were present with all the daily specials around them. At our first stop we picked up a distant female Hen Harrier – our first for the week and a good Big Day bird. A familiar sound from the back was greeted with cheers: two Cream-colored Coursers flying by – the sound just studied in the car before entering the plain. Great feeling to pick up such an iconic species by call – and hopefully we can repeat it someday in the Netherlands (Vlieland would be nice…). One is long overdue in the Netherlands (at least the people that haven’t got the species on their Dutch List think so).
The Bar-tailed Larks were singing and easily picked up. Just like most wheatear species as well, besides good Big Day species like Rock Thrush and Bimaculated Lark. We couldn’t find Desert and Hooded Wheatear however and also the briefly singing Temminck’s Lark that Yoav Perlman heard when we stood near him we couldn’t pick-up. No time to waste, we needed to go. Time was running out and we wanted a quick stop at the raptor migration watch points for a sample of all possible raptors. Migration was slow today however and we only added our only Black Stork and Steppe Eagles of the day. At the lower watch point we ran into Israeli birder and Dutch Knight’s friend Meidad who was racing with an Israeli kids team. The enthusiastic youngsters got us on a Wood Warbler they had just found. Nice! Our first for the week and a good Big Day bird.
We raced to Dolphin Reef, a stakeout for Striated Heron but no birds present.
Another stop at IBRCE was next on the agenda. Martijn was in charge of the electronic score keeping, using the awesome eBird app, and asked the rest of the Knights their guess of our current score as we were leaving Eilat Mountains. Due to the low bird activity in the morning the feeling was not ecstatic about our total progress and all of us estimated a number in the low forties. But Martijn announced the total so far 84. Wow! And we still needed to go to Km19 and Km20, the waders and duck spots. That boosted morale!
Director Noam Weiss, present at IBCRE banding birds at the entrance, granted us access to the ringing station where we picked up Indian Silverbill besides more common migrants that we still needed. Noam had a banded Common Whitethroat waiting to be released in our presence – according to him we could count it. But luckily we saw the species later in the day as well in the field… Better one bird in the field, than 1 in the hand. At KM19, a big sewage pool, we picked up Garganey, Common Teal, Pintail, the only present Cormorant and other common migrants. Eurasian Coot was our 100th species at 10:35. At Km20, the big salt pools, most of the common waders were present. Good Big Day species were a scruffy Heuglin’s Gull, Osprey, a flock of Collared Pratincoles and the only two Common Shelducks present. We struggled for Kentish Plover and when we finally connected with a flock Leo also announced that he had a possible Greater Sand Plover, seen from the back. Before it could be confirmed a Marsh Harrier flushed everything and time was running out to relocate it… in the evening all other teams connected with a Greater Sand Plover at the same location… You can’t win them all. Time to move on.
Next stop Yotvata, skipping the Hai Bar for the breeding Black Bush Robin. We were behind schedule and Yotvata held more birds, including Lesser Kestrel and Namaqua Dove, which we saw. Just before the Yotvata sewage ponds, where we briefly tried for the stunning Black Bush Robin we saw during scouting, we met the other Dutch team: The Flying Dutchman. The keen IBRCE volunteers who were doing very well (so well, that in the end they were 2nd overall, even beating some keen Israeli teams in the process. Well done guys!). The IBRCE puppies raced to the Sewage ponds before us, finding an Eastern Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, which we twitched within minutes. Nice one!
After Yotvata it was time to move on and head to the other end of the playing field, Sde Boker and Yeroham, which held some special (Big Day) birds not present in the Arava Valley. At 13:41 we turned left and headed west, out of the Arava valley, with 133 species under our belt and ca 5 hours of daylight left… Game on!
First we had a quick stop at the Kibbutz Neot Smadar’s sewage pond which promised us Jack Snipe and Citrine Wagtail – but delivering not much except a lot of birders and spread out birds as a result. At the east entrance of the (otherwise) closed Kibbutz Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Great Spotted Cuckoo and Semi-collared Flycatcher were found earlier (by teams heading South into the Arava Valley), but except a lot of Lesser Whitethroats we couldn’t find any of them in the time we had at this place (like a minute or so).
We headed for the main entrance to try for Linnets scouted by Leo and Ferry earlier in the week. West of the main entrance two birds flew away which only Marc connected with. The birds flew across the main road so we all rushed out of the car, running towards the birds when Leo announced that he had a male Collared Flycatcher in the tree back at the car! Followed within minutes by a male and a female Semi-collared Flycatcher in the same tree. Just what we needed to get going!
A long drive towards Mitzpe Ramon was waiting for us, stopping for a reported Siberian Stonechat, which also delivered our only Cretzschmar’s Buntings of the day. Here we met the Arctic Redpolls, our Finnish friends and in the end the rightful winners, which we coaxed into the exact location for the Stonechat and Bunting, both new for them. They won in the end by 3 species and confided to us that their luck changed when they met us during the Big Day, as all targets fell. We feel if they hadn’t met us they wouldn’t have seen the 2 birds and luck would be against them – and as a result would loose again… So, again, like last two editions the Dutch Knights feel like the moral COTF winners! Winning a Big Day is easy! Joking aside, the Artic Redpolls did amazing, as it was already quite late and the drive to Eilat long, with a lot of potential new birds for the list along the way. Congrats guys (and girl)! Next time we stay to drink the champagne with you.
After a (always longer than intended) chat with the Fin’s (strangely birding without Finnsticks…) we moved on to Mitzpe Ramon, stopping along the way for Cinereous Bunting. At the Mitzpe Ramon viewpoint the local Blue Rock Thrush was easy but Striolated Bunting was missed – to the dismay of Ferry who hadn’t seen the species yet. Sorry Ferry! Time is running out. Alpine Swift was a great find, as it would be less time spent later. After Mitzpe Ramon we stopped at the local McDonald’s, which held breeding Desert Finch, scouted two days before when we heard it was nest building. From a distance we could see the female sitting on its nest. +1!
Sde Boker next, but time was ticking. At Ben Gurion memorial parking lot Egyptian Vulture was eventual seen but Griffon Vulture was missing. Overlooking the Sde Boker fields we finally found a soaring Griffon. A Southern Grey Shrike we picked up singing along the road when we stopped for Lesser Spotted Eagle’s, which were soaring overhead – remembering the song from a few days earlier. A male harrier was picked up but not the expected Pallid Harrier but a much rarer Hen Harrier– no use to us as we already had seen it… And then a moment of pure glory… our first Hoopoe of the day!! What a relief, as normally you see them everywhere in the playing field.
No time to ponder as we needed to have enough time at Yeroham and we arrived around 18.00, a half hour behind schedule, which costed us some not-to-miss-species like Great Tit and Syrian Woodpecker – easily picked up by other teams in the half hour before us. We did see a few Spotted Crakes and some other new birds but the activity was too low to be really productive and when it was dark we counted 157 species. We needed one more for being on par with our previous result and we quickly found number 158 – Long-eared Owl together with our South-African friends, while reflecting on our respectively Big Days. Waiting at the water edge for a Little Bittern, which never called, despite a who-can-imitate-a-Little-Bittern-best with our South-Africa friends. A beautiful Barn Owl flew nicely overhead, signaling our return. It was 20:00 and we still had 2,5/3 hours driving ahead and we might be able to do some owling along the way.
At Ben Gurion Memorial we walked in, whistling for Scops-Owl and after a while one responded. +1!! Rushing quickly towards the sound we found the source of the sound – our friend Meidad, with his team, imitating a Scops-Owl.. -1 Already getting late we headed back to Eilat. Score 158. Same as last year. We really wanted to have one more, so Martijn and Marc could tell Gert that is was his fault that we only had 158 last year. Just before Neot Smadar our prayers were answered (we are in the Holy land after all). One of the American teams had the brilliant idea to try Jack Snipe during the night, and succeeded. So we tried as well. In short: we came. We saw. We ticked. 159! It WAS really Gert’s fault that we only had 158 last year! Sorry Gert.
Tired (more precise, exhausted) we arrived in Eilat and headed towards the finish line, where we delivered our totals and where grilled by Jonathan – one of the Founding Fathers of the COTF. For some reason he believed everything we saw, hence our final score was 159. Not enough to win, but sure enough not to make it only a Big Day, but an Awesome Day! We gave it all. We even left two pretty girls, who were hitchhiking, standing beside the otherwise deserted road – we did tell them that unfortunately Ferry and Leo took their seats in the car this year! That was how committed we were. Not only to the Big Day, but also to the COTF cause. Every spring and every fall 25 million (25.000.000) migratory birds get killed on the African-Europe Flyway. Madness, that has to stop.
The End of the End
8:00 the alarm clock. Ferry & Leo were in a hurry to get to Tel Aviv in time for their flight, unfortunately missing the closing ceremony, which Marc & Martijn attended. After the obligatory group photo it was time for the awards. The Arctic Redpolls where the rightful overall winners with 174 species.
All 190 birders of the 40 teams saw an incredible 243 species during the Big Day alone! With ‘Dutch Taxonomy’ it would easily be 250 – like all ‘Yellow’ Wagtails are considered one species…
Finally, a big hand for Jonathan Meyrav & Don Alon for organizing such an important event, which keeps on getting bigger and better each year! Hats of to you guys and thank you for taking us along for the ride.
A big thanks to our Team Friends AGAMI, Dutch Birding, BirdingBreaks, SOVON, Vogelbescherming Nederland, ROOTS, Veldshop, Delta Safari, Focusing on Wildlife, Asian Adventures, Birdwatching Magazine (USA), Xeno-Canto, Natuurfoto Magazine & the Facebook community Birds. Our Team Friends supported the Dutch Knights by opening up their network (their websites, newsletters, social media and/or Twitter feeds) for us to spread the message: there is a killing zone out there! 25 million migratory birds get killed around the Mediterranean alone, each spring and each fall.
Another big thanks to our sponsor Leica! This year we couldn’t have made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land without the help of our sponsor Leica optics. Besides, with their provided state-of-the-art Televid telescopes we had an additional edge for our claim for fame!
But above all, we thank all our Team Champions! These are all the people that have supported the Dutch Knights with a donation to the cause. They are the fuel that we need to keep on going for raising awareness for the fate of millions of birds on the Flyways and generate conservation money in the process. From the bottom of our hearts, we salute you! We raised over EUR 3.500 for the cause – which makes us very proud.
And what is the result of the End of the End? All COTF teams have raised over EUR 62.000 for the cause this year. A record amount of money for the Champions of the Flyway. With this amazing result the future of the migratory birds is a little less bleak, thanks to the conservation money and the awareness raised by all teams and the COTF supporters. We certainly hope so. Every bird counts!
Marc, Martijn, Ferry, Leo, & Gert
Supporting the cause is still possible; please leave your donation here!
PS. Don’t forget to visit our webshop! For every item sold, EUR 5 will be donated to the cause!
Our 2016 Big Day list
Lesser Spotted Eagle
Common Ringed Plover
Little Ringed Plover
Lesser Black-backed Gull (fuscus)
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)
Little Green Bee-eater
Southern Grey Shrike
Greater Short-toed Lark
Rock Martin (Pale Crag-Martin)
Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
Eastern Orphean Warbler
Eastern Mourning Wheatear
Eastern Black-eared Wheatear (