Recap Champions of the Flyway 2015: bigger and better!

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In two weeks time, on March 29th 2016, the Champions of the Flyway will be held for the third time in Eilat (Israel).

24 hours of non-stop birding trying to see as many species as possible. All for raising awareness and generate donations for the protection of our migrating birds.

Anticipation is building up for the organization and all teams involved. To give some insight in what all teams can expect during the race, here the write up of the 2015 adventures of the Dutch Knights!

The race

In 2014 we took part in the first edition of the Champions of the Flyway, an event that aims to raise funds and awareness for the plight of the millions of migratory birds that are being killed or caught in the Mediterranean Bassin each year.

Highlight of this event is a 24 hour bird race, or Big Day. In 2014 we were pretty successful at this, but we raised the bar in 2015 when we decided to participate again. We were going for another award, having scored the much coveted ‘Knights of the Flyway’ trophy that first year. So, we wanted more money, more exposure, more birds and the biggest amount of funds raised.

Like in 2014, southern Israel was the ‘battle field’. This is because the event was initiated by the Israeli BirdLife-partner, and because the wider area around Eilat happens to be one of the most important hotspots for bird migration in the world.

Turtle Dove / Marc Guyt (www.agami.nl)

And just like in 2014 there was an international competition (15 teams from 9 countries) and another competition for the locals (16 teams); a total of 132 birders where participating in the event.

Last year we were ‘fundracing’ for BirdLife Cyprus; each year a staggering 2,5 million birds (of 152 species) are being illegally caught in order to be made into a local (but illegal) dish. With numbers like these it has to have an impact on the populations of the birds mostly affected. BirdLife Cyprus will take action by lobbying with politicians, more effective law enforcement and education. This last activity is what we were fundraising for, especially the education of children.

‘Noblesse oblige’ and so the Dutch Knights wanted to do their part for the cause and because we already knew the battle field quite well (with a combined number of visits of more than 50), and because of last year’s success (when around $ 60.000 was raise for BirdLife in Georgia), we were going for it again!

In order to get maximum exposure we started a special Dutch Knights Facebookpage (607 followers and counting!) and our own twitteraccount (@DutchKnights). Apart from that we asked several of our friends in organisations and companies to support us either financially or by allowing us to use their network, so that we could spread the word as much as possible. We dubbed these organisations Team Friends and we made full use of their websites/blogs, magazines, social media outlets etc.

We also secured 110 donations, mostly from private people and Leica Camera AG sponsored us by paying the conservation fee that every participant has to pay and which goes straight to the conservation cause as well. By the way, all participants pay for all of their expenses (flights, hotel, car rental etc.), so all donations received go straight to BirdLife Cyprus.

The Big Day itself was scheduled for March 25th, but most teams were already out in the field, scouting for birds, from March 20th. The playing field roughly consisted of the triangle between Eilat, the dead Sea and Nizzana (in the Negev, on the Egyptian border).

We were planning to use the same strategy as in 2014, which means starting in the northwestern corner of the playing field because we feel the key to a successful Big Day lies there, but with an added twist. Which means we started at Yeruham then Nizzana, Sde Boker and Mitzpe Ramon before heading down to the Arava valley and Eilat.

Lucky for us, a bunch of birding pals from the Netherlands were in Israel as well, so they helped us during scouting and the Big Day itself.

Negev woestijn in bloei; Negev desert in ; Mitzpe Ramon crater; Israel
Landscape Ramon-krater, Israël, 22 March 2015 (Marc Guyt / www.agami.nl)

Scouting went smoothly and we tweaked our strategy some more in order to produce a very tight time schedule.

And so we left Eilat at midnight on March 25th. But before heading straight to the north, we first stopped at some sites in and around Eilat: hoping for owls, rails and waders. No owls, but Night Heron, Egyptian Goose, Slender-billed Gull and Black-winged Stilt were soon in the bag. Leaving the Eilat area we soon received a message through the COTF-What’s App-group that one team had seen a Pallas’ Gull in the salt pans of Eilat, visible thanks to the street lights. If only we had known!

Anyway, a COTF-What’s App-group (initiated by the Dutch Knights) was both very helpful, but a curse as well: a constant stream of sightings was broadcast: all the teams were happy to share their sighting with each other. It is a friendly competition after all. In the next 24 hours we would receive some 341 messages.

Wryneck Jynx torquilla, Israël, 21 March 2015 (Martijn Verdoes / www.agami.nl)
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica, Israël, 24 March 2015 (Marc Guyt / www.agami.nl)

Around 4:30am we arrived at our first port of call: Yeruham Lake. Upon arrival it turned out to be a very good decision: when opening the car doors Common Kingfisher and Meadow Pipit were heard. And as the sky was getting lit, we added one species after the other, including some that are not easy to find further South, like: Long-eared Owl, Syrian Woodpecker, White-breasted Kingfisher and Great Tit. Unexpected were Little Bittern, Savi’s Warbler and Little Crake.

Nizzana was next on the program and our ‘scouts’ of a Birding Breaks tour group already had their scopes trained on Houbara Bustard and Cream-coloured Courser. A bit of a ‘hit-and-run’, but it saved us lots of time; thanks!

The Cypus Wheatear we had found ourselves a few days earlier apparently had moved on, but a self found Semicollared Flycatcher was a nice bonus. And competing team The Arctic Redpolls from Finland helped us by pointing out a Subalpine Warbler.

Smelly though they are, the local sewage ponds were great for waders, waterbirds and Citrine Wagtail. On our way out, we noticed good raptor migration with Booted Eagles and dozens of Lesser Spotted Eagles and some Short-toed Eagles.

Desert Little Owl Athene (noctua) lilith, Israël, 21 March 2015 (Martijn Verdoes / www.agami.nl)

Next stop: kibbutz Sde Boker, for ‘European’ species. Hawfinch and Chaffinch were soon in the proverbial bag. A nice wadi nearby that we had scouted a few days before (when it held Common Linnets, Mourning Wheatear and Corn Buntings) was now the scene of an army shooting practice, so that was a bummer. And it wouldn’t be the last time that this scenario would unfold. But more on that later.

Because in the mean time we had reached the grave site of Ben Gurion en ‘En Avdat. The local Bonelli’s Eagles did their thing, but we spent a little too much time looking for a Cyprus Wheatear, which meant we skipped the gorge (and therefore the Jackdaws). At the viewpoint a group of army girls asked us to take a picture of them, an opportunity we couldn’t pass, so next thing they knew we were in the picture as well. By coincidence this gave us Lanner Falcon on the day list, because we met a friend of Gert there who pointed out the nest (at 1 km distance!). We are sure everyone was amazed when we shared the picture with our female ‘fans’;-)

Bonelli’s Eagle Aquila fasciata, Israël, 22 March 2015 (Martijn Verdoes/Agami.nl)

The crater at Mitzpe Ramon gave us White-crowned Wheatear, a flyby Crane and Hooded Wheatear (but not the hoped for Trumpeter Finches). During scouting we were seeing these finches everywhere and not that Wheatear, now it was the other way around. In the mean time Martijn added up the numbers, and when asked to guess how many species we had seen already Marc and Gert answered 80 to 85, it turned out to be 120!

We were in good spirits therefore, when we went on our way to one of the prime desert stakeouts, Hameishar Plain. But while heading over there we heard disturbing rumours that the site would be off limits today… Even during scouting we were sent off there, as it is a sensitive military site, but we thought we could enter the plain on race day. Alas, it was not to be…This meant that some true desert species would be hard to see. So our hopes were on Uvda Valley where another group of Dutch Birding pals (Hans, Lennaert and Rob) would be helping out. A flyover Steppe eagle was very welcome, as were some Spectacled Warblers. Bar-tailed Desert Lark was pointed out to us, but the other desert specialties we had hoped for didn’t materialize… But no time to waste, onwards we went!

Steppe eagle Aquila nipalensis with Steppe buzzards Buteo buteo vulpinus (Rob Halff), Pallas’s gull Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus (Rob Halff), Long-legged buzzard Buteo rufinus & Pallid harrier Circus macrourus, Israël, March 2015 (Martijn Verdoes/Agami.nl).

The fields at Ne’ot Smadar turned out to be significantly less ‘birdy’ than the previous days, but the nearby sewage ponds held some waders and Grey Wagtail (the adult male which we scouted the days before was now replaced by a female at the exact same spot). By now we were way behind schedule but onto the Arava Valley, to the circular fields of Yotvata. Soon we saw Siberian Stonechat, Hen Harrier, all swallows (except House Martin!), but no hoped for Bimaculated Larks or Namaqua Doves. At that moment a Black Bush Robin was reported from the sewage ponds of Yotvata and we tried for it just because we were near (Big Dag Rule #1: never deviate from your schedule…’. But you guessed it, no dice. We did get our only Olivaceous Warbler there though, and – obviously – the Robin was seen again just minutes after we had left the scene…;-)

Rüppell’s warbler Sylvia ruppeli, Israël, 20 March 2015 (Martijn Verdoes/Agami.nl)

We were beginning to run out of time, so off to the saltpans of K20. This gave us several new birds for the day, mostly ducks and waders, and new hope! So straight to the sewage ponds at K19, where we were greeted by a Purple Heron, a Cormorant and a Barbary Falcon came speeding by. Martijn ‘Eagle Eye’ Verdoes then spotted a flock of flying large gulls several kilometers away and claimed that some of these specks in the distance had black heads. Slowly they approached and indeed it became clear that there were 6-7 Pallas’ Gulls (incl. two adult summer birds) among the Baltic and Armenian Gulls!

But we had a job to finish, and the North Beach at Eilat beckoned. Soon we bagged the specialties; among which White-eyed Gull, Sandwich Tern, Western Reef Heron and Pied Kingfisher. And I don’t we were ever this happy with a Rose-ringed Parakeet that came screeching by! 😉 In fading light we checked in at the International Birdwatching and Research Centre Eilat (IBRCE), where we secured Caspian Gull and Gull-billed Tern.

Now it was dark, no more daylight left… Shame, because there was plenty of room for more species on our list! And the possibilities of new birds are rather limited in the dark, but we soldiered on – a Big Day lasts for 24 hours!

But first back to the hotel for a well deserved meal and a check of the List. Turned out we had scored 158 species already, 5 more than in 2014! We figured the winner would need more than 160 species (in 2014 the winning team had 169), so we might have a chance.

No time to waste, on to the last stage. We still needed some owls, so first to Kibbutz Lotan for that Barn Owl. But unfortunately it wasn’t home, and no owls, nightjars or Quail either at Yotvata circular fields. A spontaneous house party by the local youth also didn’t help…

Exhausted but excited we reached the finish line, 10 minutes before Midnight and just under 24 hours after we had set off. A cold beer never tasted this good, and we turned in our list which was accepted without any trouble. So our list remained as it was. Off to bed, and on to the award ceremony in a few hours.

Tristram’s Starling Onychognathus tristramii, Desert finch, Blackstart Oenanthe melanura, Palestine Sunbird Cinnyris osea, Israël, March 2015 (Martijn Verdoes/Agami.nl)

During this ceremony the Cape May Bird Observatory American Dippers were crowned ‘Champions of the Flyway 2015’ with 168 species. Second spot went to the The Arctic Redpolls with just one bird less (!), followed by two teams that shared the 3rd position. The Dutch Knights ranked 4th place. The total for all teams was a whopping 235 species observed during race day!

Then the ‘Knights of the Flyway’ were announced and we found the Next Generation Birders to be more than worthy successors to our throne. 😉 That leaves the title ‘Guardians of the Flyway’, the award for the team that managed to raise the most funds for the cause. Until the last moment we were neck-and-neck with two other teams, but eventually we came up £ 154 short for this trophy. But all teams together raised some $ 52.000 for BirdLife Cyprus!

Moral victory (Martijn Verdoes) / Big Day-car for next year – Hadoram’s Hummer … (Morten Bentzon Hansen)

After the official part of the day we went looking for that Black Bush Robin and it performed perfectly and literally the first seven birds of the day were species we had somehow missed the day before…! Among those quality birds like Imperial Eagle, Crag Martin and House Martin! But that didn’t stop us from having a laugh. In fact, if there had been an award called ‘Comedians of the Flyway’, we would be prime contenders for that title 😉

All-in-all we did better that in 2014: more species on race day, more funds raised (£ 4513,- / ca. $ 7.000), more individual donations and much more exposure for the cause! We had a great time to be able to work with so many likeminded people, although it was physically straining as well.

That’s why we’re back at it this year – COTF2016: with the experiences of two events under our belts, the award for ‘Champions of the Flyway’ is surely a piece of cake!;-)

Finally, a big thank you to our donors, the organizers of the event (with special thanks to Jonathan Meyrav, Itai Shanni & Dan Alon), our scouts in the field (Rob Halff, Lennaert Steen & Hans Pohlmann, Kees de Vries and ‘his’ BirdingBreaks-group) and of course our Team Friends: Dutch Birding, Delta Safari, Roots Magazine, Focusing on Wildlife, Leica Sport Optics, BirdingBreaks, Birdwatching USA Magazine, Vogelbescherming Nederland, Veldshop.nl & Agami!

Sir Gert Ottens, Sir Marc Guyt en Sir Martijn Verdoes – ‘the legendary Dutch Knights’

This year the Knights are back in the game, proudly sponsored by Leica. Support the Dutch Knights in their quest here.

Donate to Dutch Knights
Donate to Dutch Knights

Marc Guyt

Marc Guyt is a Dutch photographer and owner of birds & nature stock agency AGAMI. A Wanderer by birth, Marc has always made his way to the door searching for new adventures. Even at three years old he sneaked out and left his parents searching and they usually found him somewhere near an open area or some water edge. The need to see for himself was strong. The combination of Birding, photographing and travelling has brought him to many stunning places on this beautiful globe, and it will bring him no doubt in many more. It is in his blood. Owner of Dutch stock agency www.agami.nl.

Marc Guyt

Marc Guyt is a Dutch photographer and owner of wildlife stock agency AGAMI. A Wanderer by birth, Marc has always made his way to the door searching for new adventures. Even at three years old he sneaked out and left his parents searching and they usually found him somewhere near an open area or some water edge. The need to see for himself was strong. The combination of Birding, photographing and travelling has brought him to many stunning places on this beautiful globe, and it will bring him no doubt in many more. It is in his blood. Owner of Dutch stock agency www.agami.nl.

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