By Bill Thompson, III
The Zeiss/Bird Watcher’s Digest Way-Off Coursers came back to the Champions of the Flyway after a year’s hiatus. But this year we had a new strategy in mind: less driving, more birding. After being the only team to do a north-to-south route for the 2014 race—a strategy which won the 2015 Champions event for the Leica/Cape May Bird Observatory American Dippers—the Coursers, with a revised line-up, decided to do a green big day at the Eilat Birdwatching Park, also known as the International Birding & Research Centre, Eilat.
Our team (new members Mark Cocker, Alvaro Jaramillo, plus former Coursers Ben Lizdas and team captain Bill Thompson, III) arrived at the IBRCE just after 4 AM and began chiseling away at our unstated goal of getting 100 species without ever leaving the park or getting back in our rental car. A calling spur-winged lapwing was the first species on the list, quickly followed by a variety of other roosting waterbirds and a distant long-eared owl.
By mid-morning the Coursers were past the half-century mark and pushing into the 70s. The park’s location on the edge of Eilat with both lagoons and large saltpans nearby, plus many acres of restored native scrub habitat make it a magnet for passing birds. It is perhaps the largest patch of fresh water and sheltering habitat for miles around and certainly the first prime habitat encountered by northbound migrants coming off the Gulf of Aquaba in the northern tip of the Red Sea, or the vast mountains and deserts of Jordan to the east and Egypt to the west.
We walked throughout the park all day long—totaling more than 10 miles in overall distance—with a couple of short breaks for coffee and beer in the afternoon heat. As teams entered the park throughout the day, we asked them if they had certain species that the park held: little bittern, little crake, water rail, Rüppell’s warbler, Mediterranean gull, turtle dove, and others. Many teams added to their lists with the birds we shared, which highlights the special spirit of sharing that’s inherent to the Champions race.
What was so exciting about staying in one place was the way this glorious multi-colored, international, border-free “river of birds” came to us. Suddenly there would be a couple of whiskered terns just in, then a rainbow flock of European bee-eaters. Another time it was a passing scramble of three swift species, a flock of black storks, a momentary Cretzschmar’s bunting. All of this was exhilarating and it reminded us precisely why we were there, what is at stake, and why the Champions of the Flyway event really matters.
At the end of the day the Way-off Coursers tallied a total of 109 species. A final examination of our list by race founder Jonathan Meyrav revealed that we’d probably missed a Levant’s sparrowhawk among the six or seven individual sparrowhawks we’d seen. No worries, though. We had a fantastic day of birding, highlighted the incredible diversity of the birdlife at the IBRCE. And we feel we set a precedent for future Champions teams to consider doing a green big day. We drove a total of 4 miles (6.6 km) on race day, and walked 10 miles—an average of 7.8 birds per mile. Can anyone top that for 2017?
Thanks to the support of our sponsors and contributors, the Way-Off Coursers were able to raise more than $12,000 in donations for the Champions of the Flyway 2016 cause.
We were honored and humbled to receive both the Guardians of the Flyway and Knights of the Flyway prizes for Champions of the Flyway 2016.
A special thank you to Jonathan Meyrav for the inspired idea to add an anthem to this year’s event, and for asking me to write it. What an honor to be able to contribute in this way to the incredible and far-reaching conservation impact of Champions of the Flyway and BirdLife International. May River of Birds in the Sky echo for years to come all along the flyway.
On behalf of the Way-Off Coursers and our sponsors: Thank you to all the Champions teams, staff, and supporters.