This is part three in a series of blog posts about the Champions of the Flyway event, an annual bird race (big day) for conservation held in Eilat, Israel. A true international event, 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 with international teams of birders trying to see (or hear) as many species of birds as possible, all the while highlighting and raising funds to support a global conservation effort. In 2015, Leica sponsored 2 teams the Dutch Knights (Gert Ottens, Marc Guyt, and Martijn Verdoes) and the Cape May Bird Observatory American Dippers (Jeff Bouton, Michael O’Brien, Glen Davis, and Doug Gochfeld). Read on as Jeff Bouton of Leica Sport Optics, and his team, The American Dippers, recounts his adventures in Israel.
On the afternoon and evening of the 23rd, many of the teams were going to take a special tour to the Judean Desert for a chance to spot two very cool & difficult to see birds: the Nubian Nightjar and the newly recognized endemic Desert Tawny Owl (Strix hadorami). Like the others, we’d been cordially invited and were very interested in going. It would provide incredible opportunities to socialize with the other teams which we dearly wanted, but meant giving up 9 hours of invaluable (and necessary for us) scouting time to make the long trek out of the playing field for these rare birds. In the end, our need for learning the area and birds won out. We’d have to miss this amazing opportunity… this time! With that decided, we were on our way back from Yeruham after our first full day of scouting. Michael stated, „Tomorrow is our last full day and we need to do a dry run…“
We’d already decided that we would start at Yeruham Park predawn. We had owls scouted here and the marsh birds are notoriously vocal before first light, offering us many specialty birds by ear, early. He continued, „We need to be there before dawn to see what it’s like.“ I began doing the math in my head: official sunrise was near 5:30 AM, but it was early enough to see by 5 AM so we’d need to be there by at least 4:30 AM. Since, it was a 2.5 hour drive to Yeruham, we’d have to leave the hotel by 2 AM at the latest (which means we’d have to wake up at 1:30 AM)! Then I started calculating from the other end: tonight’s official COTF opening ceremony began at 8 PM and since it was a social & dinner followed by the announcements, it would certainly not end before 10:00 PM. Plus, we still needed to get together with our computers and schedule timing for all of our stops in order to do a proper dry run of the route.
I was already wholly spent from lack of sleep on the flight over, so I said, „Guys, that would mean less than a couple hours of sleep tonight. Killing ourselves while scouting and leaving nothing in the tanks for race day is less productive than not scouting at the precise time of day, in my opinion.“ Michael responded, „Yes, but I still think it’s important to see what Yeruham is like predawn.“ The whole car reflected on the alternatives and dreaded the looming loss of more precious sleep.
We headed southeast on highway 40 shortly after 5 PM and had just crested the ridges that border Eilat on the west. As we descended into the shadows that now crept toward the Jordanian border to the East, Michael noted, „Wow, it gets dark early down here!“ He was right. I’d noticed it as we were birding the K-20 plantations the evening before. A neuron sparked in my exhausted brain. Perhaps it was my survival instincts? who knows?! I had an epiphany. I queried the team, „Why do we have to start in the North?“ I continued, „Yesterday evening, when the shadow fell across the plantations, bird activity seemed to fall off sharply. Why not start in Eilat and end at Yeruham? That would offer us a lot more sleep tonight and possibly give us an additional hour of sunlight in the evening on race day.“ I wasn’t certain of that, of course, but I hoped to keep myself from collapsing of exhaustion before the race even began. All were intrigued. „I say we plan a dry run from the south tomorrow and see how it goes. Worst case, it’s a bust and we have to run the route in reverse on race day without experiencing Yeruham in the morning,“ I said.
We began thinking aloud – either way our desert stops would occur midday which was not ideal. But, it was the same challenge backward or forward. We would be giving up Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse, an incredibly cool species that is typically only seen when they come to drink from a certain pond near Eilat at last light. Also, the sea watching was typically better off North Beach in the evening. On the other hand, we’d have more foot candles of light in the evening to play with, and we’d be in the area we had the strongest knowledge of in the very „birdy“ morning hours. After considering the trade-offs, it seemed the route would be as viable forward as backwards, so we agreed to start in Eilat the following morning. North Beach at sunrise. It was good thing too, because as I’d guessed, it was midnight by the time we completed the rough list of anticipated stops and times. Reversing course had netted us over 3 hours of precious sleep! Thus, the truth comes out on the reasoning behind our „brilliant“ reverse-course route: purely survival and sleep! 😉
As the first rays of light stretched across the land, we found ourselves standing at the beach scanning the expansive Gulf of Aqaba (the arm of the Red Sea that reaches Israel in Eilat). Rock Pigeons were streaming over en masse heading from West to East crossing the Gulf from Israel to Jordan. Three were scanning the water, so I was keeping an eye overhead and checking the canals here (a key big day strategy is to always have someone watching „elsewhere“). Western Reef Herons danced beside Little Egrets, Marsh Sandpipers fed alongside Temminck’s Stints, and Slender-billed Gulls sat alongside a lone White-eyed Gull (a near local endemic) on buoys on the water. A Sandwich Tern winged over the gulf as Spanish Sparrows, White Wagtails, and Pipits bounded overhead. „House Crow… Pied Kingfisher…“ we slowly built our list. „TIME!“, Glen called indicating our allotted time for this stop had past. We hopped in the car and slow rolled past a nearby field noting Red-throated & Tawny Pipits.
Even as we tried to concentrate on the task at hand and dial-in our route, we couldn’t help but be reminded that we were in Eilat, a country synonymous with unparalleled migrations since man first looked to the skies. It was barely 6:30 AM and the migration was already kicking!
Flocks of Black Storks circled overhead and continued sailing off to the NE as we headed toward the watering holes north of town. By „watering holes“ I don’t mean we were going to find more Gold Star lager (it was too early for that and we were on a mission). Our next stop was the K-19 lagoon.
For a comparatively small pool, K-19 was pure magic. Dozens of Yellow & White Wagtails fed along the edges of the dykes that surrounded the pool and we were treated to a bonus Citrine Wagtail here as well. Squacco Herons fed (and squabbled) along the edges of the pool mixing with Cattle Egrets and Gray & Purple Herons. The whole while, migrants streamed right at us at eye level South to North. Swifts, swallows, shorebirds, and as always, the raptors were there. Singly or in small groups, the parade continued past. We counted hundreds of Ruffs alone, passing 5 or 6 at a time. We were clearly in Eilat and migration was very much under way!
In local fields we kicked out a Hoopoe, some Wagtails, Larks, and a Greenfinch. The real miracle of migration was continuing overhead, though. It was now 7:30 AM, and strings of Kites were already blanketing the landscape (note four in the image above).
The wind was strong out of the North and the long-winged Kites slowly flapped and glided into it. It was amazing to see these enormous birds coursing over for as far as one could see in either direction, occasionally mixing with buzzards. We even had a gorgeous Egyptian Vulture join this slow kite procession!
We followed the procession north to the K-20 salt pans with its hordes of shorebirds: hundreds of Black-winged Stilts, Ruffs, and Little Stints, dozens of Little & Common Ringed Plovers, Kentish Plovers, Marsh Sandpipers, Green Sandpipers, Greenshanks, Redshanks, Dunlin, and Pied Avocet. It was wader paradise!It was also obvious the sheer volume of birds here could easily hold a team up, causing one to lose valuable time. We discussed the best way to efficiently cover the area on race day in as little time as possible, remembering as always, daylight was key.
Next, we went to the Yotvada agricultural fields where the irrigated landscape offered water and lush green cover. The Red-throated Pipit above fed alongside Water Pipits, Wood Sandpiper, Common Snipe, & Little Ringed Plovers.
The entire area was full of migrants: bee-eaters, bluethroats, buntings, wagtails, redstarts, stonechats, shorebirds, shrikes, and warblers. Yotvada was a must for the race day route, but was a large area and there was no way to cover it quickly. Like Yeruham to the North, we would give this stop considerable time on race day. It was just too big and too productive to ignore and couldn’t be covered adequately in a hurry. We’d select just the best few key stops and hit this as quickly as we could, but it was still a major investment of daylight.
The whole purpose for scouting, of course, was to not only learn an area and figure out how to best bird it. We also wanted to see how it would fit in the course of a big day and see how little time you could spend in the area and still cover it effectively. We’d been moving slowly and enjoying new birds, new spectacles, and an incredible migration thus far. We were, once again, behind schedule. We needed to hustle to make it to Yeruham before 5 PM, so we sped up to Hwy 40 and began putting kilometers behind us in hurry. We would not stop at Hameyshar Plains again but needed to make quick stops at Ne’ot Smadar to skim the sewage ponds and lush fields here. Eurasian Linnets, Common Quail… moving on.
We decided we’d also select and scout a handful of desert wadis along our route between Ne’ot Smadar and Sde Boker far to the North. These green desert washes provided cover for migrants that might otherwise be difficult to find throughout much of the Negev desert region.
The first of these provided quite possibly one of the most memorable events of the entire trip for me. That’s an enormous statement given the miraculous migrations, life birds, and the event itself, but I think our entire team agrees this was an amazing highlight which left an enormous impact!
As we sped along we spotted a good looking wadi with many of the spiky bushes preferred by migrating „Sylvia“ warbler species and pulled over. „Let’s give this a shot,“ said Doug. The sign read „Wadi Zihor“ and it was on the route of the Israel National Trail. We spread out in a line and walked slowly between the intermittently-spaced bushes, watching for movement as we approached or passed nearby.
Despite the midday heat, Wadi Zihor was hopping. Obvious Spanish Sparrows and a perched Woodchat Shrike got the list started, but we soon noted MANY of the skulky „Sylvia“ warblers: Lesser Whitethroats, Blackcaps, Greater Whitethroat, Eastern Orpean Warbler, Ruepell’s Warbler, and a long-tailed Scrub Warbler. This place was incredible! „Whoa, good bird over here!“ It was Doug and he was motioning for us to follow him. A large darker warbler had flown out from a tiny bush between Michael & Doug and dove into a large tangle of brush. „I think it was a…“
We gathered around the tangle of brush and peered into the dark, clustered branches. Every so often someone would spot movement – a glimpse of a potentially good bird! We were quietly whispering to each other giving directions to the latest movement noted: „low at center, one foot up“… „jumping up and right“… an excited „There!“ But the bird dropped back down as quickly as I raised my camera. It had been in the open for a second, but I was a moment too late, catching only the tail (showing very promising dark-centered undertail coverts) as it dropped back into cover. Moments later, it showed itself again, this time bouncing off an open branch for half a second and continuing on to the next thicker clump of brush some 30 feet away.
Reflexively, we had all trained our camera lenses in the direction of the fleeting bird and were all standing on the shutter releases of our respective cameras. Imagine the sound of multiple cameras in full shutter burst mode here! The V-lux in my hand churred away as it captured in excess of 12 frames per second. Despite this, the event was so fast that the bird only appeared in the first 3 frames and I’d not captured sharp focus. Nonetheless, I’d managed three frames that were clearly identifiable as a male Cyprus Warbler! Slate gray back wings and flanks, charcoal-colored head and tail with bold black streaks below extending from head to undertail.
It’s not that this was the rarest of birds or the flashiest (although pretty good by Sylvia standards) that made this a special sighting. It was story behind this bird that was so special. It was a Cyprus Warbler – a tiny bird that made it’s home on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. The entire purpose of the Champions of the Flyway event in 2015 was to highlight and benefit the enormous conservation challenges faced on this tiny island nation. Indeed, the entire reason we were even standing in Israel appreciating this amazing migration spectacle and all of these new birds and wildlife species was because of the illegal hunting in Cyprus that the Champions wanted to end.
An estimated 2.5 million birds were trapped illegally in Cyprus last year to support a supposed delicacy: Ambelopulia or „Birds of the Vineyards“ – a dish of pickled songbirds that fetches up to 40 Euros per plate! As the price of the dish rises, so does the pressure on the birds. This puts poachers in a position to make tens of thousands of dollars capturing and killing songbirds indiscriminately. We’d been reading about it and writing about it, but it never seemed as real is it did at that moment. As we stood there in that desert wadi with that tiny bird, we knew for a fact it was heading directly for Cyprus. It would have to face an ever-increasing gauntlet of mist nets and sticky limesticks if it hoped to reach the breeding grounds, attract a mate and breed. It had already endured dangerous water crossings, bright-lit cityscapes, aircraft, raptors and other wild predators, and having to fly by instinct to a strange unknown land. Being captured, killed, plucked and pickled in brandy just seemed a horribly unjust end for this little survivor. I couldn’t imagine this amazing bird stuck on the end of a fork.
Donations for the Champions of the Flyway 2015 cause will still be taken through the end of April, so there is still a little time to make a pledge on behalf of the Champions to help stop the illegal hunting in Cyprus. Of course, you can always donate to Birdlife Cyprus directly.
At this point, we were even more committed to the cause than ever and even though we saw other great birds (including our first Ortolan Buntings, Spectacled Warblers, and Great Spotted Cuckoos) that evening. Nothing compared to the impact of that single warbler sighting. Seeing the rare Desert Tawny Owl & Nubian Nightjar in the company of most of the other Champions and some of Israel’s birding elite would have been magic, but I feel the fleeting moments with that single warbler were immeasurably rewarding!
Pledge your support for this worthy cause on behalf of the Leica / CMBO American Dippers: www.justgiving.com/cotf2015AD. You may also want to support Birdlife Cyprus in protecting the migrant birds migrating through Cyprus – the official 2015 COTF conservation cause here!