Ongoing Problems for Vultures and Eagles

The Champions of the Flyway event has become something of a tradition. Launched in 2014 to promote birdwatching while also raising money for conversation efforts, bird watchers from around the world now meet in southern Israel every year to take part in a 24-hour birdwatching marathon. The goal: to register as many bird species as possible while fostering birding as a group. This period in the spring is advantageous because many bird species are already heading to their breeding grounds up north, passing over the Sinai and stopping for the occasional rest in the verdant patches and watering holes along the desert. In Israel, these birds are safe from hunters.

Unfortunately, house cats in Eilat’s city parks lie in wait for the birds, exhausted from flying across the desert, and kill many of them. Even worse, the migratory birds pass over several neighboring countries along the Mediterranean, where large numbers of them are caught in nets and tortured to death or shot out of the sky for sport. The international event is focused on preventing this slaughter.

Over the past five years, Champions of the Flyway has raised a total of USD 350,000 in funding which goes directly to instructing the local populations in Serbia, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey.

While the focus has been on the slaughter of migratory birds in the Mediterranean region, this year particular attention was paid to the vultures in Africa.

They have been given the conservation status “critically endangered” because the same fate awaits them as that suffered by the entire population of vultures in India: mass poisoning due to drug-contaminated livestock. Diclofenac, which is used as a pain killer and an anti-inflammatory drug in people and cows, is highly toxic for birds and kills off any raptors that eat the flesh of contaminated cadavers. However, these same vultures play an important role in the countries affected because they police animal health.

With the vulture population of India decimated, the entire Steppe Eagle population is now at risk. Experts assume that all Steppe Eagles that migrate to Asia in the winter will die off in the coming years if no suitable countermeasures are put in place immediately, primarily in India but also in Pakistan. The situation isn’t looking much better for vultures in the Rift Valley in Africa. That’s why a team from BirdLife Kenya sponsored by Nabu and ZEISS in Germany were there at the start of the event in Israel.

Collectively, the teams raised USD 80,000, which will be put directly toward preventing vultures from being poisoned by working together with the local authorities and providing the local population with comprehensive information.

The conclusion of the bird race was particularly memorable and bodes well for the future: this year’s winners weren’t the experienced seniors among the birdwatchers, but the youth team “Spectacled” – with their energy and persistence ultimately leading to them to victory. 173 bird species were spotted over the course of the day.

This figure was somewhat lower than in previous years, which could indicate a drastic reduction in the bird population.

This year, rare species were few and far between.

Bird watchers were particularly interested in spotting the Oriental Honey Buzzard, which appeared almost daily over the center of the event, the IBRCE (International Bird Ringing Center Eilat). By being patient, sometimes for hours on end, all birdwatchers were ultimately able to see it as it flew overhead. The bird has only recently become a visitor in Eilat during the winter months. Unlike the European Honey Buzzard, the Oriental Honey Buzzard – as its name implies – comes from Asia rather than Europe. Local ornithologists assume that these birds have followed the Asian bees, one of its sources of food.

Another unique sight was a rare melanistic “Black” Flamingo, which lingered in the salt ponds north of Eilat during the entire event. This bird, with its distinctive appearance, was first spotted in Eilat back in 2014. In the years that followed, it was seen in Turkey and on Cyprus before returning to Eilat.

The participants at the Eilat Birdwatching Center also had the chance to observe other attractive avian species. Thousands of Steppe Buzzards and Black Kites flew across the sky, presenting quite the spectacle. And every now and again, a Booted Eagle, Osprey or a Steppe Eagle returning to the Asiatic steppe from Africa made an appearance.

For weeks, a Little Crake could be spotted up close in front of one of the observation areas. From time to time, a familiar sight – the Pied Kingfisher – passed across the surface of the water designated for the birds, while Little Bitterns slowly made their way through the reeds. Up to 80 Collared Pratincoles congregated on the adjoining dam, in front of which 13 Red-necked Phalaropes searched for food at the usual great speed they’re known for. The Spur-winged Lapwing found all around Eilat was one of the species you don’t get to see every day in Germany.