Israel 2016 #CotF

Day 1 – Friday 25 March

I suppose my first Champions of the Flyway 2016 (COTF2016) day started in a car on the M25 travelling at least at 70mph at midnight. I had just given talks in Devon (Wednesday evening) and Somerset (Thursday evening) and I left the Taunton area at 10pm to drive to Luton airport to get a few hours sleep before getting a flight to Tel-Aviv.

At the airport I met up with two of my three team members (the Birdwatch-Birdguides Roadrunners); Captain David Callahan and Mike Alibone.  We all knew each other a bit, but not well, and so part of the next few days until the bird race itself on Tuesday (my birthday) would be about getting to know each other. Our fourth team member, Andy Clements from the BTO, was already out in Eilat.

I was wearing my Hen Harrier Day 2014 T-shirt (spreading the word) and someone on the flight asked if I had gone to the event. I said I had, and that I’d been involved in organising it and then we had a chat about Hen Harriers and their persecution.  The e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting had passed 10,000 signatures just yesterday and just before I spoke to the Somerset Ornithological Society.

At Tel-Aviv airport we met more birders heading for COTF2016 including American Tom Reed who was to travel with David, Mike and me on our journey south the next day. We were scattered across different hotels, we had to pick up our hire car and by now we were feeling tired and hungry. But we kept meeting birders and so we had a wonderful buffet meal in a hotel overlooking the Mediterranean sea, talking about what the next few days had in store before getting some proper sleep.

This was the end of Good Friday and I had spent its evening in Israel.

This was to be my first visit to the Middle East.

Day 2 – Saturday 26 March

Wake up early and realise I am in Israel: Wednesday, home; Thursday, Devon; Friday, Luton; Saturday, Tel-Aviv. Tomorrow I’ll wake up in Eilat, one of the migration hotspots of the world where birds pour through from African wintering grounds to Europe and Asia.  Can’t wait!

Today we start fairly early, and slightly jet-lagged, at 6am and rendezvous with various others before setting off for the drive south to Eilat. Our route will take us through farmland a bit like central Spain (cereal fields in rolling hills with groves of olives and almonds), then through the desert and then to the tourist destination of Eilat on the Red Sea.

Even standing outside the hotel as the light builds, it is obvious that the birds will be a mixture of the utterly familiar, such as House Sparrow, Blackcap and Collared Dove, the fairly familiar (eg Glossy Ibis) and the unfamiliar (eg Laughing Dove) – and there are all those desert species to come too.

Two cars of eight birders (the three of us and Tom Reed in one car and the Way-off Coursers Team in another) travel together and looked for Long-billed Pipit (which we saw) at one site and for Bateleur (which we didn’t see) at another. But at the pipit sight the top bird, obviously(!), was a male Hen Harrier that soared overhead in great light. Our American friends, for it doesn’t take long to become friends when birding, were blown away by how attractive, or ‘spanky’, this version of their rather less ‘spanky’ Northern Harrier was. We saw more ‘spanky’ Hen Harriers through the trip and ‘spanky’ is now in the vocabulary.

At the Bateleur site (without a Bateleur) the best sighting was of a large flock of White Pelicans heading north –  a beautiful sight, and one which whetted the appetite for more migration over the next few days (although these were the only pelicans we saw).

The two cars then went their separate ways – neither journey went to plan! The other team were planning to see some plains birds but as we both travelled south the rain started, in the desert, and birding was just difficult, and there were warnings of flash floods too.

We travelled south and stopped at a McDonalds at Avdat because there were reports of Desert Finches – and there they were, dumpy bullfinch-looking birds, but pale and plain as befits a desert bird. Also here, round the back of a crowded McDonalds remember, was a Long-legged Buzzard, and in the small grove of trees were a female Semi-collared Flycatcher, an eastern Redstart, some Lesser Whitethroats, Tristram’s Grackle and Arabian Babbler. This was fun – and it was definitely that mixture of the familiar and new for me.  We liked this place a lot – we put it on our list of places to return to in the race itself, only three days away.

We were one of 16 international teams competing to see the most species in 24 hours, starting and ending in Eilat.  There were teams from the UK, Finland, USA, Greece, the Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa and Spain.  Just imagine the range of experience and inexperience spread across them all. Like for me, for many, this was their first visit to Israel.

The car was a bit quirky – an automatic but also requiring a pin code before the engine could be started. It seemed a bit temperamental and we were beginning to develop various superstitions about where your feet had to be, whether the key had to be removed and reinserted before the engine would fire etc etc.  But as we entered the Negev Desert proper the car started playing up. It would run badly for a while and then for a while all would be smooth again. Mike was driving and did a fantastic job nursing the car along. It was raining and we were miles from anywhere, we needed to get to Eilat for a briefing (and food – it was a long time since breakfast). We drove for about an hour, maybe less, with the car sometimes crawling along and somethings whizzing along, and then it conked out.

It’s no fun breaking down…

Rather miraculously, we broke down in a relatively safe place, with a fantastic view of the mountains of Jordan on our left, with some good birds in view and it wasn’t raining. Could have been much worse. A taxi came out to meet us from Eilat and after just an hour or so by the side of the road we were hurtling towards Eilat. And I mean hurtling – the speed limit varied between 90kph and 110kph on the route and our driver varied between 120 and 135kph. I was sitting in the front and my side of the windscreen was misted up, and I hoped his wasn’t, but the taxi driver was on the phone, driving through the dark, in torrential rain.  It was one of those team-building experiences!

…although the view was rather good.

At Eilat we started meeting loads more birders, had something, rather wonderful, to eat from the hotel buffet and then had a briefing from the organisers of the event, including the quite wonderful Jonathan Meyrav and Dan Alon.

And so to bed after a full day’s birding, a breakdown, new friends, new birds, a ‘spanky’ male Hen Harrier, views of Jordan, a ride through the desert in the rain, a McDonald’s with birds behind it and those pelicans. Quite a day. Up for dawn tomorrow, for the first of two reconnaissance days ahead of the race day on Tuesday.

Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted‘ – a quote which appears to be variously attributed to almost every military leader in history!  I like the ‘seldom’ – that, for me, makes it such a good quote.

Day 3 – Sunday 27 March

I’ve long wanted to visit Eilat in migration time and here I am!

Eilat is a holiday resort on the Red Sea – most people are here to relax and soak up the sun. A couple of hundred of us are here to take part in a Bird Race.  I didn’t expect Eilat to be pretty and it isn’t. I did expect it to be full of birds, and it is.

We spent Sunday exploring a range of local sites and familiarising ourselves with each other, with the birds and with the right turn-offs from the few main roads.  It might have looked like we were just birdwatching but really…no, we were just birdwatching! And it was great.

Confusing wheatears, confusing warblers and confusing raptors – such fun! And then a bunch of confusing larks in the desert too.  Some of the sparrows were a bit confusing too.

We had to consider our strategy at some time but there was plenty of time – maybe.

The birds in the north of the ‘playing field’ are notably different from those down south. The north has species such as MacQueen’s Bustard and Greenfinch – and they each count the same on race day. When I talk of ‘the north’ I’m talking of a 3 hour plus drive, and so it feels as though the choice is heading north before dawn to get the dawn chorus of the Greenfinch and display of the MacQueen’s Bustard (which would you find the most appealing?) or bird south to start with and head north late in the day and head back in the dark of evening.

There’s not much water and water attracts birds – so you need to pick your wetlands to make sure of waders, ducks, herons, crakes etc. There was quite a lot of thinking to do.

But the birds were great too: another ‘spanky’ male Hen Harrier and some quite spanky Pallids too; eastern Imperial Eagle and Steppe Eagle, Black Storks and White Storks, Cretzschmar’s and Ortolans, Tawny Pipits and Red-throated Pipits, Slender-billed Gulls and White-eyed Gulls.

A day-total in the 160s is feasible and might be a winning score. How to do it?

Day 4 – Monday 28 March

David Callahan (front, our team captain) and Mike Alibone in the desert. Andy Clements, not pictured, was striding around too! Nice spot. We never did catch up with a courser though.

The day before race day. Beginning to put on our game faces.

One of the really lovely elements of the Champions of the Flyways events is its friendliness. Teams are encouraged to share information and expertise – and most did through WhatsApp. We both benefitted from this and contributed to it, I believe.  Friendly it might be, but there are few teams, I guess, who would be completely happy about coming last, and we weren’t in that category.

We had decided that we would go north early on race day and work our way south to the sites we knew better to ‘clean up’ and ‘mop up’ species.  And a consequence of this was that we would be leaving at 2am tomorrow – so we decided to visit a number of sites close to Eilat to be sure we knew what to expect from them: Holland Park (Sand Partridge, Eastern Orphean Warbler and Levant Sparrowhawk amongst others), the Camel Park (more Sand Partridge – easy ones), South Beach (some waders, White-eyed Gull but no Striated Heron) and then an evening visit to see Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse drinking at dusk (but also a bunch of other species such as Squacco Heron, Night Heron, Savi’s Warbler, Osprey).  This information was pretty useful the next day.


Also, in keeping with the friendly nature of the race, there was a briefing meeting when people shared where they had seen things over the past few days.

So, although another week would have been useful, we were now prepared.

And the alarm was set for 01:29 for a 02:00 departure.

Maybe I can deal now with one of the two criticisms I’ve received over this trip: carbon emissions. It’s a very fair point. See my article in the current Birdwatch about carbon emissions for a take on it from me.  This year I am going to fly three times (at least) which is an exceptional year for me, and makes me feel guilty.  Last year I turned down the chance to be part of this same event – did it make a difference to the event’s, carbon emissions? None at all, because someone else took my place (although I know this isn’t a very strong argument because if they had turned it down etc etc). My annual carbon emissions are too high – so are yours. But I do know that mine are towards the lower end of those of UK residents because I do something about them – do you?  The Champions of the Flyway is an international event, and like the Olympics, or the World Cup, that means that people travel to it, and that emits carbon. Many, many birders have enormous carbon emissions because of travel – it’s one of the downsides of our pastime, but the size of the downside does depend on our individual choices.  I guess that I decided, after thinking about it, that I’d be responsible for these carbon emissions because the cause was a good one and I wanted to contribute, and also, yes, because I fancied the experience.

Day 5 – race day! 29 March

Our team at 2am – left to right: David Callahan, Andy Clements, Mike Alibone and myself. We didn’t look so fresh at the other end of the day.

I was driving to start with, and actually did so all day.

We left just after 2am and, despite a flashlight incident, made good progress, picking up Greater Flamingo in the adjacent saltpans within five minutes. This was easy!  The next bird was a Barn Owl an hour or more up the road and so we were now scoring one species each hour – let me think, at that rate…

A clutch of birds including Long-eared Owl, Blackbird and Robin in the dark led to us arriving at Nizzana at dawn and soon seeing a MacQueen’s Bustard. Hooray!  But no Little Owl – boo!

The Inglorious Bustards team were very sweet and stopped their car to sing me ‘Happy Birthday!’.  Oh yes! So it is!

You don’t want a blow by blow account of the 138 species we saw, and I can’t remember all of them, but we kept quite closely to our plan and our previous day’s reconnaissance came in useful in deciding how to spend our time at Eilat.  In particular, we decided to skip the sandgrouse that we had seen yesterday evening as the clutch of other species we had seen at the site now looked less useful as we had collected almost all of them on the way south.

We reached 138 species with the last being an Egyptian Nightjar in the dusk.

McDonalds provided Desert Finch and Long-legged Buzzard again, and a clutch of migrant passerines, and a cup of coffee and an ice cream too.

The bird of the day, certainly for me, was a lifer which I had searched for with no success in Spain many times: Rufous Bush Robin (although, post-splitting, this is now the Eastern version of that Western species). We had great views of this bird as it was chased by a Masked Shrike – that’s what birding in new places is like!

There were birds that got away: only two of us saw the Pallid Swifts so we couldn’t count them. Only one of us saw the Snipe so we couldn’t count it.  We didn’t come across Black Stork at all – so we certainly couldn’t count that.

We felt that we had done badly – it just felt that we should have picked up an extra species or two everywhere we went – but as we finished the day it seemed as though many other teams were feeling the same too.  We were sure we hadn’t won: we were fairly sure we were closer to last than first: we were really really tired.  A bird race like this is a marathon and not a sprint. During this marathon we had never been in front and although we had gained a few places and some paces now and again, we were always in the back and didn’t have the ability to scythe through the field at the end of the race. But we had covered the whole distance and we had finished the race.  We were making up the numbers but we had a certain amount of satisfaction in having run the race. And you don’t often see a Rufous Bush Robin on a marathon.

Day 6 – the morning after! 30 March

The winning team, the Zeiss Arctic Redpolls (left to right: Roni Väisänen, Vilppu Välimäki and Jarkko Santaharju with Dale Forbes from Swarovski. 174 species!

The teams, and not just the international teams but Israeli team and childrens’ teams too, assembled on the beach for a group photo at 10am and then there was an awards ceremony in a local hotel.

A moving tribute to the late Martin Garner from all participants (I’m at the back somewhere). Photo: Dov Greenblat

Here are the final standings of the teams – congratulations to them all!

I have to say I am completely in awe of the total reached by the winning team and all the others way above our own total too! How many birds flew past us unrecognised, or called unheard? How many species would you have recorded if you had been in our team?

Whereas we didn’t see the most species, we did pretty well in the money-raising stakes (although we were far from winning that too). The current standings in that race are as follows:

The Bird Watcher’s Digest/ZEISS Way–off Coursers £9111

The Birding Ecotours Bandits £6690

Birdwatch-Birdguides Roadrunners £4698

The BirdLife Swarovski Optik Racers £4698

LEICA Cape May Bird Observatory American Dippers £4200

Arctic Redpolls £3454

Dutch Knights £2759

Team Extremadura £2611

Pterodromoi BirdLife Greece £2565

Inglorious Bustards £2547

Sempach Snowfinches £2299

Zeiss BBRC Vagrants £2276

Next Generation Birders £1210

SEO BirdLife £912

Flying Dutchmen £32

We’re doing pretty well in that race (and it is one we took seriously!). Don’t tell them, but we seem to be exactly equal with the Birdlife team on fundraising – your contribution will keep us just a little ahead of them (Shhh! Don’t tell them).

Blog 7 – After the event, thoughts

A few final thoughts on the Champions of the Flyway event:

  • It was a great experience and a privilege to be there – I’ll remember the birds (some of them) for a long time, but it will be the people I’ll remember for ever.
  • Seeing scores of Israeli children taking part in the bird race was just fantastic
  • Our team raised a lot of money which will help combat illegal bird killing in Greece – I’m pleased to have been part of that
  • The ethos of this event links birding, competitive birding, with bird conservation – these aren’t entirely natural bedfellows. I’m more perplexed by birders who don’t really care about nature conservation than I am by conservationists who can’t distinguish a Long-legged Buzzard from a Steppe Buzzard.
  • The event takes place in Israel each year and the cause is to raise money to combat illegal bird killing somewhere in the Mediterranean each year – the Israeli organisers did a spectacularly wonderful job.  A week after the event I still want to thank them all.
  • Should I have gone to Israel or should I have boycotted the event as a political protest? It’s a pity that this year there was no Palestine team taking place but I understand that was because of a decision by the Palestinian government – if they are willing to support the event then I certainly am.  By the way, I was a drain on the finances of the state of Israel whilst taking part.
  • If we had all contributed our air fares and other costs to the cause we would have raised more money – but that’s not how the world works.
  • Thank you to my team mates, David Callahan, Mike Alibone and Andy Clements, for making it such a treat – and to Dominic Mitchell for asking me to take part in the Birdwatch-Birdguides Roadrunners team.