Sunday, 23 March 2014

On your marks for the Champions of the Flyway bird race

Stark contrasts in the landscape of southern Israel: this is Yotvata, where irrigated cultivations stand out like a
green oasis in a vast expanse of barren desert and mountain. Tens of millions of migrants pass through this narrow migration corridor every spring and autumn, making it one of the very best 'bottlenecks' in the Western Palearctic. This part of the country is where the first Champions of the Flyway event will take place on 1 April 2014.

TWENTY years ago this month I was in Israel, experiencing Eilat’s exceptional spring migration and writing about the destination for the first time in Birdwatch. It was an eye-opening experience, not only for the quantity and quality of migrating birds (which included the Western Palearctic's second-ever Diederik Cuckoo), but also because of the instructive field skills of Sunbird leaders Killian Mullarney and Steve Rooke, both already old hands at Eilat by then.

Tomorrow I will be back there covering it again, but in a very different way – by taking part in the new Champions of the Flyway event.

The Israel Ornithological Center and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel are hosting what may just be the Western Palearctic’s biggest-ever bird race, with teams from Britain, continental Europe, the Middle East and North America all competing on 1 April to record the highest number of species in a day.

It will be fun trying, but there is a serious purpose too. Just like its American counterpart, the World Series of Birding held at Cape May, New Jersey, each May, the Champions of the Flyway event is fundraising for conservation. This year’s chosen cause is the Eastern Mediterranean Flyway, along which millions of migrants are slaughtered annually, many of them illegally. BirdLife International needs funds to fight the problem, so teams are raising sponsorship to help fund practical initiatives on the ground.

A Short-toed Eagle that didn't make it - thousands of raptors die as they undertake the hazardous journey north along the Eastern Mediterranean Flyway, a flight path which includes both Israel and Georgia.
Anyone who has seen raptors shot out of the sky, injured migrants dying a slow and painful death or songbirds dangling from lime sticks will surely want to support this initiative, which will specifically focus on conservation work further north along the flyway in Georgia. Indeed, many of the birds of prey which pass over Eilat later cross the mountains of this Caucasian republic, so the link between the two is very real (read more about it here and in the April and May issues of Birdwatch). Batumi Raptor Count has already done great monitoring work in Georgia and has now successfully added conservation goals to its mission.

Champions of the Flyway race area.
The birding public has backed this new initiative and the Birdwatch-BirdGuides Roadrunners – Ian Lycett, Mike Alibone, Morten Hansen and myself – are very grateful for all the donations we have received so far. We’ve not yet reached our financial target, however, so more help is needed – we only have until 31 March to get the total up.

If you would like to donate you can do so in just a few seconds by clicking here – there's no need to register, and any amount, however small, will help make a difference.

Thanks in advance for your support.


  1. Very sad to see the images showing the illegal slaughter of probably many of the same birds (White Storks, raptors etc) passing over neighbouring Lebanon, where the laws are simply not enforced and there are hundreds of thousands of illegal hunters causing massive damage. I hope there can somehow be some pressure placed on Lebanese authorities too. If it could be demonstrated that Lebanon could have some of the kind of events they have in Eilat, where the natural spectacle of migrating birds brings in tourism and shows the country in a positive light despite other political issues. Such a difficult region, and especially considering the history between Israel and Lebanon, so pressure would have to be done in a thoughtful and constructive way - probably European countries using their ambassadors to voice protest and helping out local NGOs/ conservationists. Sorry for the ramblings, but I saw some pretty grisly photos in these reports.

  2. Thanks for your considered comment, Joe. I believe pressure is being applied at various levels in most countries along the Eastern Mediterranean Flyway, including the Lebanon, but in those where there is a much stronger cultural tradition of hunting than conservation, it's clearly something of a struggle. You are exactly right on the importance of diplomacy and tact when it comes to the politics of Middle Eastern conservation, and this may well have had a bearing on the decision of the event organisers in Israel to direct funds towards practical measures on the ground in the Caucasus, rather than be seen to be directly criticising their Arab neighbours and telling them what they should be doing to help birds.



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