In August 2013, my friend Jonathan Meyrav of the Israel Ornithological Center approached me at the British Bird Fair & first told me of the Champions of the Flyway. A fantastic new bird race (or Big Day) to benefit bird conservation along the flyways between Africa & Eurasia. The event would be modeled after Cape May Bird Observatory’s acclaimed and long-established „World Series of Birding„. The brain child of Pete Dunne in 1984, WSB has raised over $9,000,000 for conservation causes (mostly in the United States) since its inception. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a Big Day is a 24 hour event in which teams compete to see who can tally the most species of birds.
Each event has it’s own house rules but generally, birds can be detected by sight or sound, identification is by the honor system, and winners generally only have bragging rights. Most importantly though, teams solicit individual support to raise money and awareness for a specific, important conservation cause.
I assured Jonathan there was great interest for both corporate & personal support but I added that I’d have no real interest in competing. He asked, „Why not?!?…“
A good question. I enjoy big days and have competed in dozens over the years, from large, high-profile events to personal efforts trying to break local county or state records for fun. The answer was more a matter of pride. Knowing I could never be competitive in an area where I had no real experience birding, I answered bluntly, „Why would I want to make a fool of myself on such a public stage?!?…“
Despite my response back in 2013, I found myself as a last minute addition to the Leica / Cape May Bird Observatory’s „American Dippers“ team in last year’s Champions event (spent 4 consecutive fall seasons counting birds for CMBO back as a tike). The selfie above captures my emotions well. Lounging on the floor at JFK airport, awaiting the red-eye flight across the Atlantic Ocean, flipping through my new field guide, & eyeballing a dizzying assortment of unknown bird species thinking, „What the hell have I gotten myself into?…“
Birding Israel was a long overdue, dream come true for me and for that I was elated. But as a late addition, I was woefully ill-prepared on studying, and I had no past experience with many of the birds that would soon present themselves to me. The last thing anyone wants to do in a situation like this is to let down fellow team members or embarrass your corporate sponsors. I just hoped I could mount a competitive effort I could be proud of.
Eleven hours after take off and already exhausted, I landed in Tel Aviv and was directed by volunteers toward rental car shuttles with my fellow team member Glen Davis. Even the most common bird species were new to me so my learning curve was steep! We received our rental vehicle and started our way south toward Eilat picking off life birds along the way. In a foreign country & neither of us with a roaming data plan for our phones, we encountered our first major challenge of trying to follow an inadequate map to find the host hotel in Eilat. Sadly, neither of us had thought to print out driving directions to the hotel in advance so after a few wrong turns and happily discovering that most gas stations had internet hot spots, we were able to find our way, arriving near 10 PM local time (~20 hours after arriving at JFK).
The kitchen was closed but they offered to make some sandwiches and gave us our first taste of what would become a staple for our team over the next 5 days, tasty, tasty Gold Star beer! This delicious libation was our favorite local brew and was used to celebrate each day’s successes.
The following morning (March 21st), Glen & I woke as early as we could. Bleary-eyed and exhausted we struggled for a plan of what to do next. We had no knowledge of local birding hotspots, but knew our fellow team member, Doug Gochfeld, was working the local hawkwatch through mid afternoon so decided to find our way there.
Along the way, we’d see our first of many common bird species here: Rose-ringed Parakeets, Red-rumped Swallows, Chiffchaffs, Blackstarts, Palestine Sunbirds, Bluethroats, Pale Crag Martins(Rock Martin), White-crowned (White-tailed) Wheatears … With so many new birds to study, it took us quite a while to reach the watch.
It was mid-morning when we caught up with Doug and the raptors that poured overhead as we got our first taste of Eilat’s fabled migrations, that I’d been hearing about since I was a young punk working the Cape May hawk watch!
We had our fill of thousands of passing Steppe Buzzards in every imaginable plumage.
Steppe Eagles passed by the dozens, mixing with Osprey, Black Kites, and my first Short-toed Eagle & Black Stork. On the rocky slopes nearby, Sand Partridge called, Hooded Wheatears bounded back and forth, and Desert Larks posed proudly while various swifts & swallows sped overhead. We had gained some familiarity with about 30 bird species this AM, and it was already approaching 1:30 PM when we descended to got some lunch. Unfortunately, none of the locations we’d hit this first morning would be on our final big day route so we hadn’t done any proper scouting. It wasn’t until near 4 PM that we finally scouted an area we’d bird on our big day route, and within short order, the late evening shadows fell across the valley and the bird activity became subdued in a hurry. Our birding ended at 6 PM with a last light view of gorgeous Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse, before shuttling to the Eilat airport to retrieve our final team member, Michael O’Brien. So late that evening our complete team finally began our scouting plan over Goldstars at the host hotel. The reality was that we basically now had only two complete days to scout as much of the playing field as possible and create our potential route. Every daylight hour from here forward, would be like a Big Day covering much ground from dawn until well after dusk. Even at the risk of skipping some social opportunities.
We were fortunate that Doug had been here conducting the hawkwatch for weeks, and Michael had competed in 2014. However, neither of them had worked the far northern portions of the playing field, so day one was spent between HaMeishar Plains and Yeruham Lake the least known area. On our second full day we conducted a dry run of the daylight portions of our intended route and made a few more modifications to the route over (you guessed it) fine Goldstar Lagers that night!
All teams were required to be back at the host hotel in Eilat near midday on the 24th so our final morning of scouting had to remain local given the time restraints. While useful, the intelligence gained at the final Swap Meet offered little opportunity for route additions as there was no time to scout these new locations and add new stops. Most teams would at least try to sleep before beginning the 24 hour birding marathon at midnight. Before retiring though, the Dippers met one last time to fine tune the timing of our stops over pizzas and a few more Goldstars (note the theme)!
So it was from this perspective that we devised a plan for a helpful new addition to the COTF event in 2016. The Champions of the Flyway strives on cross team, co-operation and sharing of data. So much so, in fact that the team that provides the most useful assistance to other teams, is awarded the prestigious honor of „Knights of the Flyway“. It is in this spirit that the 2015, American Dippers team proposed an event held at the very beginning of the of this year’s Champions of the Flyway with refreshments (see the resounding theme).
The new strategic evening sponsored by Leica will provide all teams with a comprehensive planning packet with all of the tools necessary to start your successful bid for the cup: bird lists from past COTF events, precise birding maps, descriptions of the key areas in the playing field, and a copy of the detailed final route itinerary of the 2015 winning team. It’s understood that many veteran teams won’t adopt this route, however all may gain some insight from the template that could be useful in tweaking and developing their own routes. This evening will prove MOST useful though to new teams making their first visit and perhaps others with limited or no Big Day experience as strategic keys will be reviewed in a short presentation of the packet. The goal is to help eliminate the fear of failure by presenting new teams, with all of the tools necessary to build their winning route. After all the more new teams that attend, the brighter the spotlight on the event and globally important conservation cause!
Following the short presentation that will include introductions to some birds and key sites, & strategic tips on how to move from scouting to developing a fine-tuned route, teams will be able to meet with local experts and veteran COTF teams to discuss strategy for scouting and route development over continuing refreshments. You can even take a peek at the latest sport optics products from Leica as well. We hope all will attend and that the veteran teams will be on hand to help those less experienced & work their way toward their bids for „Knights of the Flyway“ as well! See the event description on the Champions of the Flyway website here!