A Champions’ account

Eilat, Israel
Eilat, (also Elat or Elath), is Israel's southernmost city at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba. Eilat is part of the Southern Negev Desert.

The Zeiss Arctic Redpolls was one of the three teams sponsored by Zeiss Sports Optics in the famous Champions of the Flyway bird race and conservation event, on 29th March in southern Israel. Our team of four enthusiast birders and ornithologists (team captain Roni Väisänen, Jarkko Santaharju, William Velmala and Vilppu Välimäki) from Finland, at the northern end of the Eurasian–African flyway, hooked up for the second time in this year’s race. With silver medals in our pocket from last year, some pressure for winning was put on our shoulders by other contestants.

We decided to take the same route in the race as last year. After all, in 2015 we were beaten by one species only, so clearly there was nothing wrong with the route. We did some re-planning in order to make the route more streamlined compared to last year, but generally we didn’t set any strict schedules for the race day.

The race is on

Starting from Eilat at midnight, we rushed through the Arava valley to the Negev desert. We were able to get 18 species on our list before dawn, including Little Bittern as well as Barn and Long-eared Owls. We spent the whole morning in Nizzana by the Egyptian border. Despite managing to tick some species that are really difficult to get elsewhere, such as Macqueen’s Bustard, Little Owl, and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, the desert was cold and smaller birds remained slow and silent. We left the area at 10 a.m. with 88 species in our bag.

The desert was cold and smaller birds remained slow and silent.

Nevertheless, we felt our bird list was growing slowly and after having seen further 10 species, including Common Raven in Sde Boker, we sported off with 117 ticks on our list.

On our way back south we stopped at Yeruham Lake, which gave us another 19 species, of which the most remarkable was a first-year Golden Eagle circling over the lake. Nevertheless, we felt our bird list was growing slowly and after having seen further 10 species, including Common Raven in Sde Boker, we sported off with 117 ticks on our list. Quick stops in Mitzpe Ramon and Ha-Meishar produced 5 respective 8 new species , including Hooded Wheatear at the latter site. With some new species popping up on the way, we finally arrived to the Arava valley at 16:25 – terribly, terribly late. At this point we had 133 race ticks.

Fun is crucial

For most parts, the race had not gone along our own expectations and we were certain that many teams were way ahead of us. The fact that, in the rush of the race, we had failed to write down some common species contributed to this, as we thought our list was shorter than it actually was! After a short sinister moment of despair in the wearing heat of the afternoon, we decided to enjoy the fantastic birding, no matter how the race went. For as much it is a tight competition, it is also a fun event. This was a mental turning point for our team. With the help of some caffeine and a much needed sugar rush from sweet mandarins, we were able to spank aside the feeling of frustration for not fulfilling the expectations put upon us. We started to really enjoy the action.

Along the southern stretch of the race area, we stopped only at Yotvata’s sewage, and thereafter accelerated back and forth through Eilat’s premier birding sites until it was dark. We had incredible luck and also lots of help from other teams and birders around Eilat. Yotvata gave us 9 species, a quick stop at Km20 pools 13, the North Beach 10 and two stops at the Eilat birding park and surroundings had as many as 7 additional ticks for our list. By the end of the day, we had 172 species. In the last one hour of daylight, we had managed to grab as many as 17 new species, including Turtle Dove and Mediterranean Gull.

Close to finish: Already 174 entries and counting

In the evening we still tried to find the Egyptian Nightjar. No nightjars, but we did get Black-necked Grebe at Elifaz reservoir and Quail at Yotvata’s fields, which finally set our list at the record-breaking 174 species. Although we had to sit a lot in the car, visiting many places on a large geographical stretch proved to be the bee’s knees for us. Our triumph was extremely tight, however, because a team of young Dutch and Israeli birders came very close indeed with 171 species.

However, we consider our greatest victory the 4,400 € that we were able to fundraise for the work against illegal killing of migrant birds in the Mediterranean. This is first and foremost a conservation event,

and participating in such an event feels natural for one who lives in a country where a vast majority of birds are migratory. We are thankful for Finnish birdwatchers for their commitment. We also want to congratulate all the people involved in arranging this successful event. May it prosper for years to come!

But we are also proud, of course, to have been able to fulfill the expectations put upon us regarding the race itself. And as a matter of fact, all of the three international Champions of the Flyway nominations went to teams supported by Zeiss. Clearly your support made a difference, so thank you!