This is the first part in a series of blog posts about the Champions of the Flyway event. A staggering 2,500,000 birds are illegally hunted, trapped and killed on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus each year. Birders from all over the globe are coming together to make a difference during Champions of the Flyway: a bird race that is making a difference. March 25, 2015 was the second annual Champions of the Flyway race. International teams of birders tried to see (or hear) as many species of birds as possible, all the while trying to find as many donors as they possibly could to enable BirdLife Cyprus to take the action needed to give the people of Cyprus the opportunity to turn the tide on criminality, stop illegal hunting and change the situation there once and for all. Read on as Jeff Bouton of Leica Sport Optics, and his team, The American Dippers, recounts his adventures in Israel.

As I waited at the JFK airport in New York City, I pulled out my Princeton field guide to the „Birds of the Middle East“ and finally began my crash course on the amazing birds of Israel! I had 4 hours before my red-eye flight took off so it seemed a good time to start cramming for the task ahead. I was poised to embark on a trip of a lifetime to finally see the amazing migration through & over Eilat, Israel! As a young man still in my teens conducting the hawk watch at Cape May, NJ in 1987, I’d been exposed to thrilling second hand reports from some of my colleagues and mentors who had assisted in hawk watching and hawk trapping efforts in Eilat. Their stories seemed unbelievable, but they were too persistent to not be true. Now some 28 years later, thanks to the persistence of Jonathan Meyrev and support from the Israel Ministry of Tourism, I would finally experience this natural wonder for myself… I couldn’t wait!

After I was finally able to check in, I made my way to much more comfortable digs in El Al airline’s „King David Lounge“ where I met up with Glen Davis who would take the same flight. Glen & I comprised one half of the Leica / Cape May Bird Observatory’s „American Dippers“ team going over to compete in the Champions of the Flyway bird race for conservation. COTF is a grueling and highly-competitive, international big day event with teams from across the globe competing to see who can tally the highest number of bird species in a single day. The winner of course gets a trophy and can exercise bragging rights if they choose, but the true reason for the event is to spotlight & raise awareness and well needed money to support various bird conservation initiatives (more on that soon).

Glen and I were treated to amazing food & drink courtesy of EL AL and we happily filled our pallets as we excitedly discussed varying Israeli bird identification challenges we would face, listening to bird vocalizations, and comparing illustrations in the bird guides we were toting with us. Glen had more experience with many of the bird species and families we’d encounter soon from his past „Old World“ birding adventures through his work as a bird researcher and professional bird guide (presently with BirdQuest). Since he was clearly more experienced and far better prepared than me, I listened carefully to what he had to say and was taking mental notes as we waited for our plane to board.

Some eleven hours later, we descended into Tel Aviv. I was exhausted from lack of sleep as I waited in  the lines at customs, eagerly anticipating my first Israeli bird. As is typical, I was wearing my lucky Leica ball cap, and from the line next to me I heard, „Wait, Leica… are you Jeff?“ I looked up from my sleep coma, and to my amazement, in the line immediately to my right was Gert Ottens along with his Dutch Knights team mates, Marc Guyt, and Martijn Varedoes from Holland. I’d corresponded with Gert via e-mail & Facebook and knew he was a field editor for Dutch Birds magazine among others. Also, sponsored by Leica, the Dutch Knights had won the title of „Knights of the Flyway“ in the 2014 Champions of the Flyway race, a title reserved for the team that was the most helpful in sharing bird sightings with the other competing teams. I was pleased to meet these guys in the flesh and we exchanged friendly banter as the lines slowly moved ahead.

We finally cleared customs, retrieved our bags and met outside where a few other teams were waiting a shuttle to take us to pick up our rental cars. My first official bird for my Israel bird list was a Rock Pigeon that raced in front of the doors, but happily Gert and the Knights began showing why they earned last year’s title by pointing out infinitely more interesting birds that I can’t see at home: Hooded Crow, Laughing Dove, Red-rumped Swallow, Pallid & Common Swifts, Glossy Ibis, Common Mynas to name a few.

We shuttled over to the rental or „hire car“ park as my British colleagues described it and all were given our vehicles that we would use over the next days. Here we met with other teams including The Media Birders – Niklas Aronsson from Sweden, Morten Bentzon Hansen from Denmark, and Stuart Winter from the UK; 3/4 of the Birdlife Flyway Racers – Jim Lawrence, Martin Fowlie, & Stuart Butchart; also here was the Birding Ecotours team from South Africa – Chris Lotz, Trevor Hardaker, & Jason Boyce. Between the lack of sleep, the stimulation of the new birds including singing Crested Larks, White-spectacled Bulbuls, Spur-winged Lapwings, and scanning the Kestrels flying about, the new names and associations this became a bit of a blur. Dusk was rapidly approaching and happily, Glen who’d gotten some sleep on the plane drove this leg from Tel Aviv to Eilat, a 4 hour run. Interestingly, we discovered that most of the other experienced teams present were not driving to Eilat but spending the night near the northern boundary of the COTF playing field to scout these areas the following morning. Already our lack of experience was showing as we had no understanding of routes or the strategy. We’d have to develop this over the 4 days that followed!

After another short night, we woke near dawn found some well-needed coffee and made our way into the mountains West of Eilat, Israel to join our third team mate, Doug Gochfeld. Doug is a long time member of the Leica Birding Team in the US, and an absolute migration junkie regularly doing field research in Cape May, NJ in the fall, clinging to the continent on the St. Paul Islands in the middle of the Bering Sea searching for vagrant Eurasian species in the US, turning up at places like the Biggest Week in American Birding in Ohio in May, and now volunteering to assist in monitoring the amazing migrations over Eilat! Doug has been in Israel since early February and is an incredible study, his work with the Israel Ornithological Center (IOC) and the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat has provided him not only with great experience with local bird identification, but an invaluable understanding of bird distribution, habits & habitats which can be impossible to grasp in a short visit alone. To say Doug was our secret weapon, would be a major understatement, and I think all on our team would agree he was the American Dipper’s „Most Valuable Player“!

So finally, after dreaming about this magnificent migration over Eilat, Israel my entire adult life, I was actually standing here in the flesh, scanning blue skies and ridge lines  & picking out migrants moving north out of Africa. It was a mediocre flight at best by Eilat standards, but I was still blown away. In the course of a few hours over 4,000 Steppe Buzzards would stream and circle past joined by Black Kites, Steppe Eagles, my first Short-toed Eagle (Short-tailed Snake-Eagle), Black Storks and Common Kestrels. Common & Pallid Swifts provided additional ID challenges, and along the nearby ridges Sand Partridges called.

We spent all of the morning and well into the afternoon in the mountains comparing the more common White-crowned (White-tailed) Wheatears with the rarer Hooded Wheatears and were entertained by tolerant Desert Larks that would bounce around at our feet in the gravel. We broke for a late lunch, returning to the hotel to get Doug moved in. We were 3/4 of a team waiting on our final key member. In the evening we’d quickly scout some areas finding Wrynecks, a rare Redwing, and more life birds for me like Greater Flamingos, Woodchat Shrikes, Tree Pipits and awesome Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse! The latter would fly in at last light to drink from a local pond and we enjoyed this reliable spectacle with members from at least 4 other teams. The first day had flown by so fast and it really didn’t seem we’d accomplished much scouting, but unwittingly we were slowly building a base of familiarity with common, „garden variety“ birds that we would need to build upon.

An hour after the sun had long set, a tired Michael O’Brien finally joined us at the hotel in Eilat and we finally had a complete team. He’d joined us a day late because he just completed guiding a Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) trip to Belize. In addition to his guiding work, Michael is an accomplished field guide author, and extremely competent, patient and careful birder. Among the Cape May crowd he is affectionately referred to as „Mobi Wan“ as his skills seem to be more in line with a Jedi Knight than a human! Beyond his birding skills though, Michael is a COTF veteran having competed in 2014.  One of over 50 big day events (including many appearances in the very competitive CMBO World Series of Birding) Michael has competed in.

It is this experience that makes him understand as we all did (with a cumulative total of over 100 competitive big days), that the bigger challenge of any big day race is NOT merely finding and identifying the birds but managing the VERY finite resource that is your daylight hours. Michael is a master at strategizing a successful route that maximizes opportunities to detect as many species as possible in the precious daylight hours. Here in Israel we had a bit over 13 hours of birding light to play with. Our Itinerary was titled and began, „March 25, 2015, Sunrise 5:39 AM, Sunset 5:54 PM“. It was with these two crucial pieces of information that we would frame our strategic route to push ourselves to see as many birds as possible in the COTF playing field. Now we had to scour over the remaining 3 days to assess the stops and their potential for adding birds and decide when we would arrive and leave each for maximum return. Our goal was not to win, but to not embarrass ourselves, to have fun, and to continue to raise crucial conservation dollars for Birdlife Cyprus to continue their campaigns to combat the illegal bird trapping on that island that kills as many as 2.5 million birds annually!

Pledge your support for this worthy cause on behalf of the Leica / CMBO American Dippers:

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