Champions of the Flyway - Winner 2017

Imagine being in one of the world’s best spots for visible migration, in right time, surrounded by talented and inspiring birdwatchers and doing this for good cause – doesn’t that sound good? Well, this is what Champions of the Flyway is about.  It is a fund raiser against illegal killing of the migratory birds around the Mediterranean Sea and a famous bird race, which takes place in southern Israel each March. The Zeiss Arctic Redpolls is one of the teams that Zeiss Sport Optics has supported during many years.

We are a group of 4 birdwatchers from Finland. We had scored the 2nd place on 2015 and 1st place on 2016, so the burden of winning had worn off. We aimed to have a nice intensive day of birdwatching and lots of good time. We were also putting the new Gavia Conquest spotting scope on a hard test.

Will it be an asset in the game or should it be dumped? Well, we got what we aimed for and more – here is how it all rolled out.

Our team captain Roni Väisänen has participated every race since the beginning of the event, and the rest of the team, Jarkko Santaharju, William Velmala and Vilppu Välimäki, took part for the third time.

Our start was at midnight at the hotel Agamim. As the use of heavy flashlights was (reasonably so) banned this year, we decided to skip the fields of Yotvata, where traditionally you can spot species coming to feed on the fields in the darkness. This was sort of a mistake, since when we were already heading towards north, a WhatsApp message from the Zeiss Reservoir Birds shook our socks. Nothing less than a Desert Eagle Owl in Yotvata fields, seen in the car headlights and a good picture to accompany the message.

We knew that the Eagle Owl would be gone for the night, but made a quick plan to try the nearby fields of Lotan. And lucky we were, a loud and clear call of Eurasian Scops Owl was the first species in our list. Then avoiding clashing with wild asses in the desert, we headed up north, where another surprise waited us. Competing team had found a woodcock from Kibbutz Sde Boker. While the species is seen regularly in winter, this one was extremely late and an Israeli tick for the most of us.

When the night was over we had gained 18 species. We spent the morning again in Nizzana near the Egyptian border. We scored most of the species we aimed for, despite struggling heavily with the so common Little Owl. However, just before leaving the area we had another highlight moment of the day.

A Jackdaw flew by, calling on its way. A common bird in Finland, but so scarce on the race area! At this point we had listed 79 species, including Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Merlin and Collared Flycatcher.

While heading south, we drove again via lake Yeruham. That was a good route, since we added 4 species of migrating raptors including Short-toed, Lesser Spotted and the mighty Eastern Imperial Eagle. We were on fire! We spotted nice species like White-Bellied Kingfisher in Yeruham, Lanner seen from the Ben Gurion memorial site and a Black Redstart in Sde Boker. Heading further south we added another 37 species totalling 119. The hottest hours in desert gave another 15 beauties like Sinai Rosefinch and Trumpeter Finch in Wadi Neqarot and Bar-tailed Lark and Crowned Sandgrouse in Ovda.

It had been a joyride during the day, but while we descended to Arava valley at 15.40, we realized how late we were of the suggestive schedule that we had planned.
We had to step up the game and find the 6th gear. A good stop in Yotvata added 5 species, 2 minutes in Hai-Bar produced Black Bush Robin and species galore in K20 and K19 pools increased the list with 23 more valuable points. The evening watch at North Beach was way too short but the most important large gulls and few valuable waterbirds were still a nice addition.

Finally, we drove to the Eilat Bird Park for the last lights and that was a good decision. William spotted a Mediterranean Gull amongst the Black-headed Gulls and the evening was crowned with a single Black Stork flying south high above, spotted by the JBO Orioles team. When the sun had set, we counted our species list: 180 species was 6 more than we scored the previous year. Stunning result, but would it be enough? Without flashlights there was not much to do, so we added a Little Bittern from the Dolphin Reef roundabout and handed our species list in at 21.00. The amazing day was over.

We were not sure how the race would end as there had been so many good observations throughout the day and especially the Zeiss Reservoir Birds seemed to be one step ahead of us in every turn and the smooth Wallcreepers seemed to be having the birding day of their lives.

However, it ended well for us and we had the opportunity to thank each donor, participant and organizer of the event on the podium. In total over 60,000 dollars was raised for Doğa Derneği (Birdlife Turkey) for their environmental education work. This would not have been possible without serious commitment of all the teams and the organizers.

And how were the SF and the Gavia? Well, if you can win the Champions of the Flyway with it, they cannot be bad!

ZEISS Arctic Redpolls

The ZEISS Arctic Redpolls is a team of four enthusiast birdwatchers and ornithologists from Finland, with bird races close to the heart. For them, the Champions of the Flyway is first and foremost about protection of migratory birds and raising funds for them. But at the same time, it is a mixture of great birding, meeting good friends and colleagues, as well as lark around during the birding cliffhanger. The ARP are happy to be supported by ZEISS.