Well-equipped with binoculars, spotting scopes and eyepieces from Leica, the Swiss team will take part in the international birdwatching competition “Champions of the Flyway” in Israel on 28 March. The Leica Sempach Snowfinches’ goal? To have fun and to improve on their performance last year.

It all began back in February 2016. Just a few weeks before the competition started, four enthusiastic ornithologists at the Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach spontaneously decided to take part in Champions of the Flyway in Israel. It was the promise of adventure that enticed Sophie Jaquier, Martin Spiess, Dominik Henseler and Peter Knaus; they were even prepared to sacrifice their holidays for it. Although their preparation was anything but optimal, the Swiss team came seventh out of 16 in a high-quality field of international competitors.

Three titles to win
The prestigious Champions of the Flyway competition is the closest thing birdwatching has to a world championship. The aim is to identify and document as many bird species as possible within 24 hours, within a defined area.

Many migratory birds fly over Eilat, where the competition is held. The mountains on the Jordanian and Egyptian borders create a natural funnel, meaning that there are numerous European, African and west Asian species to observe in March. Last year, the Swiss team managed to identify 151 species in 24 hours; the winning team identified 173.

The competition is also for a good cause: the teams collect donations for bird conservation projects and raises awareness of these issues among a wide audience. The focus this year is on tackling the illegal killing of birds in Turkey. Birds don’t recognize borders, so the issue affects many countries.

Even birds native to Switzerland, such as the lesser whitethroat, the marsh warbler or the red-backed shrike, fly over Turkey when migrating to eastern Africa for the winter, which leaves them vulnerable to illegal hunting. The team that raises the most money will be crowned “Guardians of the Flyway”. The four Swiss team members raised around EUR 3,000 in 2016, an amount which they have already exceeded in advance of this year’s competition.

A further title is given to the fairest team: “Knights of the Flyway” will be awarded to whichever team gives the others the best tips on Whatsapp about where and when to see which birds, or does the most to promote the cause as a whole. “It may be a competition, but everyone really supports each other,” says Sophie Jaquier of the Swiss team. “It’s also a point of honor that you only note down species you’ve actually seen.”

The race begins at midnight
The Swiss were newcomers last year and only competed with four members, rather than the permitted five. This year, Livio Rey has joined as the fifth team member. ‘We are much better prepared, and are traveling to Israel 11 days before the competition to plan every last detail,’ says Sophie.

Teams are allowed to research where and when particular birds can be seen and how they can most effectively plan their competition route before the competition starts. On the day, the 19 teams from across the world will set off at midnight in the cars provided. They then have 24 hours to document as many bird species as possible. “As newcomers in 2016, all we wanted was not to come last,” jokes Sophie, “but this year we’re aiming for a place in the top half of the rankings.”

Supported by Leica Camera AG
The LEICA Sempach Snowfinches would like to observe and document at least 160 bird species on 28 March, and they can count on being professionally equipped by Leica. Leica Camera AG in Nidau has provided five Noctivid binoculars (four 10×42 models and one 8×42 model), five APO-Televid spotting scopes (four 85 models and one 65 model) and five eyepieces (25-50x WW ASPH; two models with the Extender 1.8x) for the competition, and they are also sponsoring the Swiss team.

“We have high hopes of the latest professional equipment,” says Sophie. “Many of us do have our own Leica products, but some of them are getting on a bit now.” She sees the outstanding optical performance, lens speed and low weight as the biggest advantages of Leica’s sponsored equipment.

The adventure begins
The team’s fundraising for the Guardians of the Flyway title will continue until the competition. The LEICA Sempach Snowfinches will fly to Israel on 11 March, and the competition with begin in earnest on 28 March. Whatever happens, though, Sophie Jaquier, Martin Spiess, Dominik Henseler, Peter Knaus and Livio Rey are guaranteed some fantastic experiences in the bird paradise of Eilat. “Last year we noticed a cloud in the distance; as it came closer, it turned out to be a wide band of around 10,000 white storks. That really was a magical moment,” remembers Sophie.

The LEICA Sempach Snowfinches’ fundraising
Donate here to bird conservation projects in Turkey that also affect migratory birds native to Switzerland (donations go to BirdLife International):

Here’s what the Leica Sempach Snowfinches have to say

Dominik Henseler (environmental sciences student; completed his civilian service at the Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach): “I’m looking forward to meeting ornithologists from around the world and setting an example of protecting and preserving nature together. Together, we can make people more aware of the plight and needs of our fellow creatures, and encourage them to really think about these issues.”

Peter Knaus (Project Manager of the Swiss Breeding Bird Atlas at the Swiss Ornithological Institute): “Bird migration is a fascinating phenomenon that never fails to interest me. In the south of Israel, you are right in the middle of the action and can see thousands of birds migrating back to their breeding areas. And when I can see all of this in the service of a good cause, there’s no question whether I’ll be there or not.”

Livio Rey (Press Officer at the Swiss Ornithological Institute): “I’m very much looking forward to Champions of the Flyway, because it’s a chance to see birdwatchers from across the globe gather to promote bird conservation.”

Martin Spiess (Monitoring Specialist at the Swiss Ornithological Institute): “I can’t wait to take part in this race; the organizers provide exemplary PR, meaning that they successfully raise awareness of bird conservation around the world every year. Israel is a fantastic country for birdwatching. I enjoy being part of an international family during the race, and actively helping to solve bird conservation issues at the same time.”

Sophie Jaquier (Press Officer at the Swiss Ornithological Institute): “At Champions of the Flyway 2017, we want to see more species, rank higher, and above all raise more money than we did last year! We’ll have some tough but fun preparation to do once we get there. Our motto: non-stop birding!”

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