11/04/2015
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Champions of the Flyway: Race day 2015

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After four intense, sleep-deprived days of recceing, the sound of my alarm shattering the silence at 01:15 wasn't particularly gratifying. However, the shock and mild irritation was quickly overcome by excitement. This was it, what we'd been waiting for. Twenty-four hours (or rather 22½ given the lie in!) of intensive birding around southern Israel — it was race day at the 2015 Champions of the Flyway (COTF) event.

After a quick shower I stumbled into the hotel lobby to meet my Birdwatch-BirdGuides Roadrunners team mates — Mike Alibone and Alan Tilmouth. Both were raring to go and, after officially registering our embarkation and posing for a couple of quick team photos, we were in the car and off. Evidently 01:30 was a late start, judging by the number of messages already sent to the COTF WhatsApp group — a handful of eager teams were already out night birding and the Next Generation Birders (NGB) team had provided us with the perfect start …

It had been reported that the gulls roosting on the saltpans by the International Birding & Research Center Eilat (IBRCE) were illuminated by streetlights, so our first stop of the day was literally just around the corner. Who'd have predicted that the first bird on our day list might have been Pallas's Gull, at 01:45? This black-headed beauty was roosting among Black-headed, Slender-billed, Heuglin's, Armenian and Caspian Gulls and meant that we were already on six species before we'd even got going in earnest!

Our race-day strategy involved heading as far north as possible — namely to Yeruham Lake, where a number of difficult-to-find birds would hopefully be encountered as the sun rose — before heading west to Nizzana and then back south via the Sde Boker area, the Negev and finally down into the Arava Valley and Eilat area from mid-afternoon onwards. Acutely aware that our schedule was perhaps a little cluttered and that time was at a premium, we dragged ourselves from the illuminated gull flock and headed north.

A chance stop at Lotan 45 minutes later produced a bonus Barn Owl sat on the kibbutz fence — a species the Roadrunners didn't see in 2014. Empty roads meant our progress north was quick; though there were no Eurasian Scops Owls audible in Mizpe Ramon, we added House Sparrow and White-spectacled Bulbul singing in the darkness. The WhatsApp group was to thank for our next bird — a smart Long-eared Owl silently winging its way around the perimeter of Sde Boker kibbutz, where there was also a singing Blackbird. After unsuccessfully chasing a Scops Owl report at nearby Midreshet Ben Gurion, time was already getting tight — first light was on the horizon and we knew it would soon be birdable. We had to get to Yeruham, and fast … it was already clear that it was going to be a long day!

Dawn came and with it the birds arrived thick and fast. A number of teams had elected to follow a similar strategy to ours and thus Yeruham was bustling early morning — cars driving unnecessarily fast, birders running around like headless chickens and deranged shouts of more desirable species made for an entertaining if frantic picture. Our personal highlight was a Brambling — a great race bird — plus other species such as Syrian Woodpecker, White-breasted Kingfisher and a barking Little Bittern, all of which we saw (or heard) nowhere else during the day.


Sunrise at Yeruham Lake (Photo: Josh Jones)

Bird races are traditionally competitive, elitist and sometimes even suppressive, but the constant pinging of WhatsApp notifications and the overall camaraderie of the participating teams helped convey a unique vibe for this sort of event. While keen to extend their own team's list, it was great to watch birders helping other teams get on to birds while, at the same time, watching a number of Israel's top birders racing alongside children as young as eight — the future of Israeli birding, no doubt. It was heart-warming to stand and watch as the pandemonium unfolded around us, shattering the tranquillity of an otherwise unsuspecting chilly March morning in the Negev. Then a Common Myna called, and it was back to reality — we had a race to win, and there was no time for sentiment!

The sat nav had informed us that our drive west to Nizzana would take about 50 minutes but that proved conservative: 'competitive' driving ensured we managed it in just over half an hour, even accounting for brief stops for Long-legged Buzzard and Black-eared Wheatear. At Nizzana two of our main targets — Macqueen's Bustard and Cream-coloured Courser — were added instantly thanks to a Dutch tour group watching both species on arrival. A handful of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flying over were a bonus, while Song Thrush, Sand Partridge and Desert Finch were all useful additions towards Ezuz.

The picnic site at Ezuz produced an elusive Common Nightingale, always a difficult race-day bird. We ended up spending 45 minutes in the vicinity as the legendary Dutch Knights had just seen a Semicollared Flycatcher, this elusive black-and-white sprite a rare lifer for myself when it eventually showed. A Masked Shrike showed by the bridge and a pale-morph Booted Eagle was seen tucking in to something dead by the road as we searched unsuccessfully for Little Owl. Each of these were seen just once throughout the day — the flycatcher aside, all are relatively common migrants but generally hard to pin down and thus potential race-day banana skins. Such is the fickleness of bird racing, as we were to find out — 'silly' species, normally seen every day and sometimes in numbers, were missing from all lists by nightfall. Indeed it was here that one of our team heard Savi's Warbler, a bird missing from our final total. At least two of three team members were required to see or hear a species, and the quiet 'buzz' of the Savi's was all too brief for two of us — would it prove costly?


Masked Shrike (Photo: Alan Tilmouth)

By this point many of the teams had been reporting back to event co-ordinator Jonathan Meyrav with updates on their progress. It seemed we were lagging behind both in terms of species and sites and, given the plethora of great birds reported over the WhatsApp group, we were a little anxious about our own progress by comparison. One team — the Palestine Sunbirders, last year's winners — had already passed the 100-species mark! A quick stop at Nizzana sewage ponds for our only Citrine Wagtail of the day meant that we were well behind schedule. Mid-morning was fast advancing and we had to be back in Sde Boker as soon as possible. Our only stop was for a couple of migrating Lesser Spotted Eagles and before long we were screeching into the car park at Sde Boker kibbutz — where we'd seen the Long-eared Owl five hours earlier. Crucial birds here were Hawfinch and Chaffinch, wintering species that we were unlikely to connect with anywhere else.

It was soon time to move on. Alan and Mike unearthed both Caspian and European Stonechats while I went to fuel up the car, Alpine Swift also working its way onto the list as I did so. Nearby Ein Avdat gorge produced Bonelli's Eagle, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, White-crowned Black Wheatear and Pallid Swift. Stopping for a brief interview on our progress, Alan provided a moment of comedy gold as he stumbled backwards over a rock onto his backside as the camera rolled — a You've Been Framed moment if there ever was one. Almost as embarrassing was my attempt to turn a distant perched Tristram's Grackle into a Jackdaw. My excuse was delirium, but in reality it was just wishful thinking: our progress had become lethargic as the heat of the day took hold and we were having trouble stringing, let alone actually seeing additions to the list!

Time was most certainly not on our side by this point. It was already past midday as we hit the road again — we were over an hour behind schedule. The briefest of breaks at Mizpe Ramon viewpoint saw us fluke a Trumpeter Finch before a stop at Wadi Nekarot produced Little Green Bee-eater, Willow Warbler and our only Woodchat Shrike of the day, though we couldn't find anything scarcer among the many migrant Lesser Whitethroats. Mourning Wheatear was a useful addition as we zoomed past a pair at K75 on Route 40, but there was no time to stop — with one eye already on the crucial final few hours of the day in the Eilat area, we really had to hurry.


Josh scanning the Ramon crater: Trumpeter Finch here! (Photo: Alan Tilmouth)

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Next stop was the Ovda valley, which offered our only chance at a number of desert species. By this point I was most certainly delirious and my decision-making was a bit all over the place. After a fair bit of shouting at one another we decided to take a walk out into the desert and what a decision it proved — five Temminck's Larks were a huge bonus, and a species not encountered by other teams at that point, and the frustration quickly turned back to elation. Further scouring produced Spectacled and Streaked Scrub Warblers plus a bonus Desert Wheatear, though we couldn't locate an apparently stationary Common Crane along the airport perimeter fence, primarily due to a chronic lack of time.


Five Temminck's Larks at Ovda were an unexpected bonus for the Roadrunners (Photo: Josh Jones)

Pulling up at Neot Smadar I suggested that Mike and Alan walk the fields while I stayed with the car. Off they went like a pair of unwalked terriers, bounding into the pasture and returning with a couple of valuable additions — Cretzschmar's and Ortolan Buntings. Having been scarce throughout the week, a male Lesser Kestrel was a real bonus here while the Grey Wagtail at the nearby sewage works was another useful species for the list.

It was at this point that the NGB team pulled a Black Bush Robin out of the bag at Yotvata sewage works, and our earlier decision to leave this site out (due to time constraints) was reversed. On arrival it transpired that the robin was proving predictably elusive and so we quickly abandoned any hope of connecting. However hard it may seem, it's important to stay focused when bird racing and remember that every species — irrespective of rarity — counts as one and one only ... Little Egret, Common Whitethroat and Marsh Harrier were therefore just as important here, especially with the sun beginning to sink.


Cretzschmar's Bunting proved tricky on race day and it wasn't until mid-afternoon that the Roadrunners finally caught up with the species
(Photo: Josh Jones)

There had been an Eastern Imperial Eagle in the Yotvata area for some time but finding it could be difficult to say the least. Therefore it was extremely welcoming to discover that a hefty brown blob on a distant pylon was indeed the eagle as we cruised along Route 90 — our list was ticking along nicely again, and the only thing that could stop us now was the light!

Very few horses were spared as we sped towards the recently created reservoirs at nearby Elifaz — a drake Common Pochard and a couple of Ferruginous Ducks the reward for putting the car through some off-road punishment. Next came one of those golden moments that every bird racer savours: when the recceing pays off. Hooded Wheatear is a fairly uncommon and difficult-to-see species on race day, but we encountered a bird we'd staked out along the track to Amram's Pillars almost instantaneously. If only it was always this on point!

At times the drive to K20 salt pans felt more like we were competing in the Dakar Rally than a bird race, but it was necessary as the sun continued to sink dangerously low towards the peaks of the Eilat Mountains. It was clear we were well behind other teams that had followed a similar schedule — most were leaving the site as we arrived! Though we missed the Red-necked Phalarope seen by others (and an Avocet we'd had nailed down all week), our rushed visit offered us a further 17 species, which suddenly made our total look fairly respectable — we had passed 2014's total at least, and 150 was on the cards. Pied Kingfisher, Barbary Falcon, Purple Heron and Cormorant were crucial additions at K19 pools and pushed us past the 150 mark, though a Sparrowhawk, seen by Alan, frustratingly eluded Mike and I.

Given that we were still short of a few species, we made the decision to abandon the opportunity to add Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse at K19 and head for North Beach. We managed last-gasp House Crow, Common Kingfisher, White-eyed Gull and Garganey before the battle against the light was finally lost.


Closing out the day at IBRCE saltpans — the very spot it had all started 17 hours earlier! (Photo: Josh Jones)

Back at the hotel the adrenaline started to fade — for the first time, over dinner, I began to feel tired. We'd covered over 700 km in 16 hours, and the physical effects were starting to tell. After dinner we tallied up our scores — frustratingly we found we'd written Bluethroat down twice but this was more than compensated for by three additional species we'd forgotten to note — including our early-hours Pallas's Gull, no less. It had been an exhausting, amusing and exhilarating day. As someone who'd only competed in local bird club races (and not for some years) this was a real step up; a lesson in stamina and concentration. That said, it had been massively enjoyable and we'd seen some brilliant birds along the way — even if we weren't able to enjoy them for as long as we'd have liked!

Our final tally was 154 species. It was, as we suspected, not enough — the Cape May crew finished on a phenomenal 168, and the second-placed Tarsiger Northern Lights team registered 167. Two teams scored 163, and the Next Generation Birders were the highest British team with 157. Still, our mid-table finish was a great improvement on last year, despite our missing 'silly' species such as Wryneck, Black Stork and Steppe Eagle. And, thanks to the fantastic generosity of the Birdwatch and BirdGuides readership as well as significant donations from Northumberland & Tyneside Bird Club and NT Wild Bird Foods, we didn't go home empty-handed: the Roadrunners were crowned 2015's Guardians of the Flyway for raising over £4,700 for BirdLife Cyprus.

We really hope to be back next year with the aim of being crowned Champions of the Flyway 2016 ...