Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Welsh Red Kites at Champions of the Flyway 2018

Last week after months of planning and fundraising the Leica Welsh Red Kites (Alan, Arfon, Marc and Glam Birder) returned home from Champions of the Flyway 2018 in Eilat, dusty-eyed, shattered after several long days birding, travelling and little rest but adrenalized by so many highlights and humbling company. One huge team all coming together to help our migratory birds. Now a chance to reflect after six days of non-stop birding- too busy even to keep notes on the go.  

Champions of the Flyway is a Bird race where teams from all over the world gather to record as many species as possible within 24hrs and in a defined area of the Negev desert and around Eilat. Three prizes are awarded annually to the teams which raise the most money (The Guardians of the Flyway), see the most birds (The Champions), and raise the most Awareness (The Knights).

Here’s how it went for us:

We arrived in Tel Aviv and rushed across to the Dead Sea to join a trip to see Nubian Nightjar and Desert Tawny Owl.  Very slow car hire desks and Tel Aviv traffic meant we were late and missed out on the Nightjar but joined the trip at the site for the Tawny Owl which showed despite a huge partying scout camp nearby.  Onwards to Eilat to check-in a sleep before waking to a new country and new birds.  We stayed local and got our bearings, birding the IBRCE, canal, beach and venturing north towards K19 and K20 getting our only Greater Sand Plover and meetinf up with the Yorkshire Terriers.   We saw some breathtaking raptor migration including 1000s Steppe Buzzard, 10s Steppe Eagle and Lesser Kestrel.  We got back to the opening evening in the hotel in Eilat which was great for meeting everyone involved.  It was especially good to see how much local educational work was being done with youngsters both in Israel and Palestine.  See  http://www.mahmiyat.ps/en for more on that great work.
                                                  Welsh Kites meet Yorkshire Terriers! 
The next day the World Youth Birders kindly let us tag along on a trip to the north of the race area to recce some sites starting off with dawn at the Macqueen’s Bustard site at Nitzana adding Cream-coloured Courser and Southern Grey Shrike.  Just down the road at Ezuz we had flyover Crowned and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse with close views of Pallid Harrier, Little Owl, Hoopoe, Desert Lark, Desert Scrub Warbler, Merlin, Wryneck, and Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler. A short drive round to Nitzana Sewage works gave good views of more Crowned Sandgrouse and a few water birds.  We headed to Yeroham Lake for Syrian Woodpecker, Great Tit, Grey Wagtail, then Sde Boker and Mitzpe Ramon where we had great views of Desert Finch, then stopped for a stroll in the crater for 3 Sinai Rosefinch and an Eastern Orphean Warbler.  Last stop was Ovda Plain for larks and Wheatears where we struggled a bit but added Mourning and Desert Wheatears then time had run out- we needed to get back for the opening dinner at the IBRCE in an hour’s time!  Racing back we just about made it for the evening which was well spent finding out about the other teams involved and some great al fresco food.
                                               Celebrating Sinai Rosefinch with the Champs!

Race-day-eve was spent at a slightly slower pace where we checked out Holland Park, IBRCE, K19, 20, Yotvata before going for the information swap at the IBRCE and up to K19 for Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse at dusk before heading to bed at 8pm for 3 ½hrs rest and then back to IBRCE for 23:45 and the start at 00:00!  Those teams choosing midnight and the IBRCE congregated as the countdown took place and we raced around the hides picking up a few species on call and silhouette.  Back to the car and driving north we stopped at Kibutz to listen for Scops and Long-eared Owl then on to Nitzana for dawn where many teams were waiting for the Macqueen’s at sunrise as Crested Larks serenaded the new day.  Bustard and Courser ticked we drove the short distance to Ezuz adding Blue Rock Thrush, Little Owl, Merlin, Streaked Scrub Warbler, Blackcap, Bar-tailed Lark, fly-over Desert Finch and Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler.  We went round to the sewage tanks at Nitzana and a flock of Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew around and landed briefly whilst we added Pallid, Common and Alpine Swift, Eastern Olivaceous  and Reed Warbler, Purple Swamphen and waterbirds.  Onwards to Yeroham for Syrian Woodpecker, Nightingale, Collared Flycatcher then we dashed to the lake as 2 Whiskered Terns were joined by a Common Tern.  At Kibutz in Mitzpe Ramon we added Serin, Blackbird and flyover Long-legged Buzzard.

We were on 103 species at 11:00 and we had to decide where next.  We didn’t really have time to do Ovda and then all the sites down the highway to Eilat so we decided to miss out Ovda and headed for Yotvata, K20, 19, the crop fields and then the IBRCE and Eilat.  News broke of a White-tailed Plover at IBRCE salt pan but we were too late by the time we got there.  K20 had all the waders, both Flamingos, Pochard, Water Pipit, and a few other bits.  We got Bimaculated Larks in the crop fields and then moved down to IBRCE for more waders Little Tern and Citrine Wagtail.  We tried the beach and got White-eyed Gull and Sandwich Tern, then back to K19 for dusk were we were treated to Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse, Osprey, Collared Pratincoles zipping past with the roosting flock of hirrundines and even an Egyptian Nightjar fluttering over the tank and over our heads.  We tried the fields for the Pharaoh Eagle Owl but couldn’t find it.  That was about it for us, exhausted but still buzzing we headed to the IBRCE for the closing gathering and got our record sheets in before retiring for a sleep.

                        Marc was out the next day early (he can’t sit still or sleep for too long) birding Ofira park then we headed to the Sheeba Hotel for the race breakfast and awards.  We were delighted to be awarded the “Knights of the Flyway” accolade for raising awareness of this year’s campaign which is going towards helping Birdlife partners in Serbia (Bird Protection and Study Society of Serbia) and Croatia (Biom). The project aims to protect critically important passages in the eastern and western Mediterranean Flyways as well as the Adriatic Flyway.

The Leica Welsh Red Kites, the first team from Wales to compete, were overwhelmed with their supporters who helped them raise £10,400+ which would have been an event record but those darn snappy Yorkshire Terriers (Mark, Darren, Jono, Richard) had other ideas this year and raised a mighty £21,000!). Well done chaps. A bar-raising effort and arguably they were on for the Knights award too. Your approach and pre-race mission was admirable and unprecedented.  The World Youth Birders (John, James, Toni and Jean-Michel
) won The Champions title with a species total of 187, a competition record! Congratulations to you all.  Award ceremony done meant time for more birding.  We ambled through Holland Park but news broke of the White tailed Plover at K20 so we raced there and looked for the tell-tale crowd of onlookers but there wasn’t one.  Then from nowhere the bird appeared alongside the car allowing some amazing but brief views as it took off high to the south.  3 Broad-billed Sandpipers were also on the tanks but then news filtered of the Black Bush Robin up at Hai Bar animal park near Yotvata just 15 mins up the road so we hot-wheeled up there and were soon watching the bird zipping around the bushes in all its black and white finery.  We celebrated with an ice-cream with the Besh Birders!

                     White-tailed Lapwing phone-binned with iphone and Leica Noctivids

The thoughts of a shower and a nice meal out were thwarted by another visit to the Lichenstein’s which got us the best views yet and then another attempt at the Pharaoh Eagle Owl which we narrowly missed before retiring for a sleep before an early start on the road back to Tel Aviv for our flight home.  

Thanks to Leica for the loan of some top optics kit in the form of APO-Televid 65 scope with Gitzo Traveler tripod and Noctovid 8x42 Bins, which were well and truly put to the test and all lived up to expectations.  See product info: https://uk.leica-camera.com/Sport-Optics/Leica-Birding  

We truly hope to be back at COTF and see you all again soon. Thank you all especially the organizers and the folk at IBRCE: I know I’ve missed many out but Jonathan, Yoav, Dan, Itai, Noam, Anat and Ikram you are a top team. Keep up the amazing work.

Thank you again to all of our supporters.


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