I’ve always liked birds, although I never considered myself a birder. Well, I guess that has changed now and there is no turning back. I see birds. All the time. Everywhere. And it’s great! I’ll admit that I had kind of a head-start on this. Not every aspiring birder gets the chance to start off his or her “career” among the world’s top-birders at the Champions of the Flyway (COTF) bird race in Eilat/Israel. To be honest: I was only supposed to accompany the Leica teams, take pictures and interview them before and during the race.
That is until someone handed me a Noctivid. We were heading towards the vulture feeding place and look-out close to Mizpe Ramon in the Negev desert. And there it was: My first real bird! And a big one as well! A vulture! I could clearly make out its shape, the piercing eyes, the bald neck and the fluffy collar. “A vulture! I got a vulture!” I let excitement carry me away and was waiting on my birding friends to tell me which kind it was – Egyptian? Rüppell’s? Griffon? They provided me with further information indeed: “Um, Annette, it’s made out of plastic.” And they quickly added: “But it’s a very good replica. Really.” I was mortified, but my birding got better from there (would’ve been hard to get any worse too).
It is their only over-land passage and the area is like a geographical bottleneck through which hundreds of millions of birds funnel every year. And boy, did they ever! The Leica Sempach Snowfinches arrived on site and could hardly get out their gear fast enough. What a sight! Thousands of Steppe buzzards, Black Storks and Lesser Spotted Eagles were soaring over the mountain ridges by the minute. I felt like being in the middle of a National Geographic documentary. And I wondered: Will this breathtaking experience ruin birding for me? After all, there are only a few tits, sparrows and robins waiting in my backyard for me. But I decided not to worry, just like Alan said.
The volunteers who are there every day for raptor counting and monitoring were even cheering and their tallies were rattling like mad. Of course I had to rely on the experts for identification. Luckily, they like sharing their incredible knowledge. It is beyond me how it is even possible to distinguish moving birds, above all raptors. Terms like “white wing tips” or “juvenile coat” were not really helping me to solve the matter. What I could work with were clear instructions like “The big one, now turning right above the antenna is a Lesser Spotted Eagle”. And then I even saw a real vulture – an Egyptian one! That felt good and I added him to my list (Yes. I do have a list now).
Katie, Luke and I continued further up north to catch up with some of the other Leica teams. We kept stopping every now and then for some birdwatching of our own. I found out that having a list means that you’d like to add special items to it. In my case, a hoopoe. I’m not quite sure why. But the onomatopoeic name, its plumage and especially its funny crown do appeal to me. Also maybe it’s because I used to have these nature books for children when I was a kid (“Animals in fields and meadows”). It happens to be the same publisher which released “the Svensson”, by the way (Yes. I do own a field guide now). And I was particularly fascinated by the hoopoe’s somewhat extraordinary appearance. Surprisingly, I didn’t have to wait long at all. We found two hoopoes gliding back and forth between some trees and I was able to observe them closely and enjoy their looks for a while.
The rest of the day, for me, was pure birding serendipity. I got to marvel at the beauty of Palestine Sunbirds, Little Green Bee Eaters, a Namaqua Dove, Black Starts, Greater Flamingos, White-spectacled Bulbuls, White Crown Wheatears and I listened to the Desert Lark’s lovely song. I overheard one birder sighing, totally in awe upon seeing hundreds of Steppe Buzzards circling not too high above him: “Oh, you beauties!” And he took well his time to take pictures, observing them, admiring them and waiting patiently for the next flock to appear from behind the mountains in the desert sky. Even though he was pretty much in a hurry to tick off as many species as possible for the competition.
And I guess this is what it’s all about. Simply enjoying it, taking it all in and acknowledging the beauty of the birds – no matter if it’s on the busiest migratory birds traffic highway or in your own backyard.
This year’s Champions of the Flyway bird race’s teams have raised just under $100,000 for conservation! COTF will focus on Croatia and Serbia as they confront the illegal killing of birds. Joining forces with Biom (BirdLife Croatia) and Bird Protection and Study Society of Serbia (BPSSS), this project aims to protect critically important passages in the eastern and western Mediterranean Flyways as well as the Adriatic Flyway. Biom and BPSSS have proposed projects that can make a real difference in the battle against widespread illegal killing of quail and other migratory birds. With the help of the 2018 Champions of the Flyway campaign, they intend to partner and leverage each other’s strengths to get the job done.
Text and photos: Annette Feldmann