Top birders from around the world recently gathered in Eilat, Israel to compete in the fourth annual Champions of the Flyway (COTF), involving 17 multiple-nationality teams from countries including Finland, South Africa, China, Turkey, the UK, United States, and an Israeli-Palestinian Authority team. The goal of the birding race, which was organized by the Society of Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI –Birdlife Israel), together with BirdLife International, was to document as many bird species as possible within 24 hours to raise funds for conservation efforts.
This year, over $60,000 were raised during the Champions of the Flyway, which took place on Tuesday, March 28. The money will go to Doğa Derneği (BirdLife in Turkey), an organization that aims to increase educational initiatives on the ground to end the illegal practice of hunting and trapping songbirds in southern Turkey.
“Over 250 species of birds were sighted during this year’s Champions of the Flyway race, which took place from midnight to midnight,” Jonathan Meyrav, the Tourism Directior for SPNI’s Israel Ornithological Center told Tazpit Press Service in an interview. He noted that participants included both the young and old, ranging from age nine to 80, with people coming from all over Israel and the world to participate in the competition which has both an Israeli and international division.
“Eilat is the best stage in the world to witness bird migration,” Meyrav told TPS. “You can see tens of thousands of birds of prey, for example, passing through the Eilat Mountains during this time of year.”
As one of the busiest migration hotspots in the world, Eilat is strategically positioned at the tip of the Red Sea. Millions of birds during the peak of spring migration in late March and early April, fly over the Eilat Mountains and the up the valley to rest as they travel to their northern breeding grounds across Eurasia. Indeed, the East Mediterranean Flyway, which is shared by Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, and Georgia, is the world’s second largest flyway during the spring and autumn migration of birds.
However, in many of the countries that share the East Mediterranean Flyway, like Turkey, the migrating birds are trapped and hunted either for food, trade, falconry and sport.
“Each year the race raises funds for programs working to prevent illegal bird hunting along the Eurasian-African flyway,” commented Meyrav. “In the past, we have donated funds to bird conservation causes in Georgia, Greece, and Cyprus.”
He also pointed out that Champions of the Flyaway is the largest international competition of its kind, with birdwatching teams coming from many places. “This year we had a new team from China. Teams from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and other countries also took part,” said Meyrav who noted that inspiration for the Israeli birding competition originates from a birding race in New Jersey.
The team to raise the most funds for this year’s initiative was the South African team, the Birding Ecotours Youth Africa Birders, who won both the the Guardians of the Flyway Award as well as the Knights of the Flyway Award for their work to promote the Israeli birding competition back in Capetown.
For the second consecutive year, the Zeiss Arctic Redpolls of Finland, were the winning Champions of the Flyway. The Finnish team was able to document 181 different species of birds.
Meyrav explained that the teams came a week before to scout the desert across southern Israel and to take part in the Eilat Birds Festival. “That’s how you win a bird race – you need to prepare and get to know the playing field beforehand,” he said.
“We are proud to be able to work together on an international level to protect birds that share the East Mediterranean flyway through this amazing initiative. Many of the birds that pass through Israel and then fly on to Turkey, are often hunted and killed,” explained Meyrav. “This kind of cooperation will help educate people about keeping migrating birds safe .”
BirdLife International, which SPNI partners with to organize Champions of the Flyway, is the world’s largest nature conservation group with 120 BirdLife partners. The global partnership of conservation organisations aims to conserve birds, their habitats and global biodiversity.