Champions of the Flyway 2018 Race Day 26 March

Car number ten Israel 2

"Car Ten" our trustee transport - more like a skip at the end of the day!

So the time was approaching, we had tried to rest but the adrenalin was pumping, we collected our gear and loaded it into “car ten”. We were ready for the 24 hour bird race that is Champions of the Flyway here in Israel. A short drive from our Eilat hotel and we were at the start line in good time for the midnight bird-off. Five Welsh birders, me, Marc Hughes, Arfon Williams, Robin Sandham and Rob Jones, we were the first ever Welsh team to compete.

Binoculars at the ready the seconds were counted down, five, four, three, two, go! The race was on! Thirty-two teams competing to see the highest number of species in just 24 hours, and all to raise money for and awareness of Birdlife Internationals campaign to stop illegal killing of migrant birds.

A short jog along one of the trails at the Eilat Birdwatching Centre, in the dark of course, brought us to a hide. With our amazing Leica Noctivid 8x42 binoculars we could make out bird number one, Egyptian Goose! Hey, every species counts as one on bird race day! Adding a few more species mostly by sound we headed for car ten and high-tailed it north. The roads were good and empty and with Marc at the wheel we made good time. The excitement was high in the car as we talked about the birds that lay ahead and how many we might see.

A coffee stop took longer than expected as the guy in the 24 hour garage insisted on sweeping the whole floor before serving us, kind of weird, but it was 3am and we weren’t going to argue! At a nearby Kibutz we walked around the houses and heard both Long-eared Owls and European Scops Owls – brilliant and we were out of there heading further north.

We arrived in the Negev Desert, at the northern end of the defined “playing-field” where we were allowed to count birds. It was still pitch dark, but the millions of stars above us were amazing. We tried to rest a little before dawn but no one slept. A greyish light came in the eastern sky and we were out! A Crested Lark began to sing in the still very cold desert air, now was the time we would pick up birds fast, we hoped.

Two disused railway carriages could be made out on a low ridge just ahead of us, very odd indeed, but these were make shift hides for looking for special birds. We were the first team in and set up our scopes, even though it was too dark to see birds yet. It was cold, very cold, but thankfully calm, and slowly the light came. Our amazing Leica telescopes and binoculars magnified the available light giving us an advantage over other birders that were arriving. Rob was first to spot one, McQueens Bustard! One of the must see birds here. It was distant and an amazing spot, top man Rob. We shared the sighting with our competitors, good that this sharing took place throughout the race.

It was tense wait as we scanned and re-scanned the vast open desert plain before us, but no new birds were coming, this was bad. Time ticking away, sun coming up fast, no new birds, how long do we wait? Then it was Rob again, he picked out a Cream-coloured Courser our other must see bird here, whew! It took a while for everyone to see it as it was distant and ran fast!

Back at the car we piled in happy with our two must see birds and cranked the heater up! We hadn’t got out of the car-park when a Southern Grey Shrike popped up on a small bush, nice. Not far down the road we leapt out to bird near an old bridge in an area of boulders and scrub. With the sun now well up new birds were coming thick and fast and was hard to keep track. Chuckar called from the rocks, a Scrub Warbler showed off in a dead bush, a wonderful Masked Shrike posed in the sunshine, mad birding!

White crowned Black Wheatear 1

A stunning White-crowned Black Wheatear - wow!

At nearby sewage-ponds, and yes they did stink, again new birds were coming at a crazy pace. Waders, warblers, wagtails and even a party of Black-bellied Sandgrouse all made their way onto the Leica Welsh Red Kites day list. We were bouncing and loving every minute of this.

Driving was hard as we kept seeing birds! Huge flock of White Storks, stop! Lesser Kestrels migrating across the desert sky, stop! Bird on a wire, stop, ok it’s a Hooded Crow, go! Poor Marc had four back-seat drivers and was bombarded with requests, stop, go, left, right, reverse!! Chaos but we were seeing lots of amazing birds!

A freshwater lake gave us a huge boost! A pair of Whiskered Tern showed off in the sunshine, a Spotted Crake crept along the shoreline towered over by leggy Black-winged Stilts. The woodland around the lake held Syrian Woodpecker and Collared Flycatcher. Overhead raptors were heading north – where to look next, crazy, fantastic birding.

Driving iside car photo 1

With time rapidly flying by we turned car ten south and headed back towards Eilat, we had seen a lot of birds and we reckoned a lot of easy birds lay ahead and it was only early afternoon. It seemed like a good plan to be driving in the hottest part of the day, some two and half hours would see us back in the prime birding around Eilat. The music was on full blast and Marc floored it across the desert landscape we were on a high from great birds and great birds to come!

Broad billed Sandpiper KM 20

A Broad-billed Sandpiper with two Little Stints.

As we hoped the area north of Eilat gave us so many new birds, easy wins, just what we needed after the long drive. Great Flamingos waded through the pools at KM 20 and the one lone Lesser Flamingo, a rarity here, was still present too. Waders and ducks boosted the list and the fields just to south held wheatears, larks and doves. We were pleased to see the Bimaculated Larks we had seen the day before were still in the pumpking fields along with a stunning Turkistan Shrike a real wow bird.

Citrine Wagtail Birdwatching Centre Eilat

Our only Citrine Wagtail of the race, Birdwatching Centre Eilat.

With the clock rapidly running down towards dusk we hit Eilat and the north beach where we quickly scored with White-eyed Gulls and, counting the same, Sandwich Terns. Not much daylight left, where do we go? Which site will give us maximum new birds? We opted for one of the parks in Eilat but it was devoid of birds! Last minute change of plan, a roll of the dice, dash to KM 19 in time to see the Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse come to drink! Marc again floored the accelerator and we sped off. Joining a group of other bird racers on the side of the pool we waited. Amazing we picked up more new birds before the sandgrouse came in. Collared Pratincoles swooped low over the surface of the water, an Osprey circled over and then amazingly an Egyptian Nightjar flew within feet of us! And the sandgrouse came in! Wow great move.

We headed back to the Birdwatching Centre at Eilat, now pitch dark, to regroup and check over the list to ensure we hadn’t missed anything off. We were on 159 species, and we were very happy with that as first timers. But we still had time before the midnight finish. We went back to the fields at KM 19 in the hope of Pharaoh Eagle Owl or Barn Owl, perhaps, if we were lucky. We were not lucky, after over an hour driving around in the dark no new birds were added and we returned to hand in our score just before midnight. We knew with that score we had not won but we were happy with a respectable number and some wonderful birds enjoyed on a crazy mad day of flat out birding. Time for bed.

End of race team photo 1

Five past midnight after the race finished, five shattered Welsh birders.

We loved taking part in the Champions of the Flyway and would like to send a huge thanks to all the lovely inspiring people that made the event possible. Huge thanks to our main sponsors too, Leica Sports Optics and Birdwatching Trips. Our Leica optics made a huge difference to the team and we genuinely think that the Leica Noctivid 8x42 binocular is the best in the world by some distance, do try a pair.

More blogs and photos to come please check back soon! Thank you.

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