Champions Of The Flyway – An Inspiration

When my good friend, Yoav Perlman, first encouraged me to lead a China-based team for the Champions Of The Flyway, I was a little sceptical.  Travelling all the way to Israel for a bird race sounded like an indulgence.  However, the more I looked into it, the more I became convinced that it was a good idea.  It was clear to me that the bird race, although lots of fun, was a sideshow.  The real purpose was to raise awareness – and funds – to tackle the illegal hunting of wild birds that still, to our shame, happens on an incomprehensible scale across the Mediterranean and, indeed, the rest of the world.

Every year an estimated 25 million, yes 25 MILLION birds are illegally killed by poachers and trappers in the Mediterranean region.  That is a shocking statistic.  Birds such as the European Turtle Dove, Blackcap and Ortolan Bunting, to mention only three, are declining so fast that it’s possible they could be gone forever in the next decade or two…  And that’s just the Middle East flyway.. we all know that illegal killing is rampant in many other flyways, including East Asia, and some species, such as Yellow-breasted Bunting, are on the brink.  Wouldn’t the world be a poorer place without these beautiful songsters?

The international family of birders, post-race, on Eilat North Beach.

Migratory birds never cease to astonish and inspire me.  The journeys made by these birds are simply astounding..  they cross deserts, oceans and cities just to survive and breed.  And the journeys are perilous..  it’s not only the endurance they need – combating hunger, thirst and exhaustion – but also natural predators such as falcons and sparrowhawks waiting for tired migrants to show any sign of weakness..  This was brought home when, during the bird race, a tired migrant warbler landed on Eilat North Beach and, right there, died of exhaustion in front of a group of helpless birders.

Migration is tough enough without illegal killing by ignorant humans.

The last thing these birds need, or deserve, is a bunch of humans shooting them out of the sky or trapping them with evil glue traps or almost invisible mist-nets in the name of “fun”.

That is why The Champions Of The Flyway was conceived… to raise funds to support conservation organisations in raising awareness about the scale of illegal killing that continues to blight the world and to fight the battle against the poachers.

Having arrived in Eilat with my teammates, travel writer Chen Ting and birder, Tong Menxiu, we were immediately struck by the scale of migration in this part of the Mediterranean flyway.. with raptors, including Steppe Buzzards, Steppe Eagles, vultures and harriers streaming overhead.  What we experienced over the following days was nothing short of inspirational..

I could try for hours to compose the words to describe the spirit of #COTF17 but, instead, I encourage you to click on this link and read a Facebook post from Jessleena Suri, a member of the brilliant Youth African Birders team from South Africa.

The Youth African Birders from South Africa. Dynamic, skilled and great communicators, they are the future of conservation.

I was hugely impressed with the Israeli organisers, especially Jonathan Meyrav and Dan Alon who, at every step, encouraged an open, sharing and supportive culture…  teams were sharing their scouting finds and, during the race, even helped each other out after getting stuck in the desert..  everyone was united and focused in the common goal – to raise as much money as possible for Doga Dernegi, a brilliant organisation in Turkey who, among other things, are working with Syrian refugees (of which there are 3 million in Turkey) to raise awareness about the importance of the region to migratory birds and to encourage hunters to be bird protectors.

With more than USD 60,000 raised so far, it’s been a monumental effort and the guys from Doga were visibly emotional when they received the cheque..  they were so moved that the international birding community, most of whom had never visited Turkey, had come together to support them..

As if to stick two fingers up to politics and as a reminder that birds have no borders, the Turkish and Dutch teams embraced and the loudest applause was for the joint Israeli-Palestinian team, led by the brilliant local birder Noam Weiss..  inspirational stuff.

As for us, the Golden Pheasants, we recorded 143 species in the 24 hours, placing us in the top ten but way behind the Finns – the Zeiss Arctic Redpolls – who scored a massive 181 species and, for the third consecutive year, took home the winners’ trophy.  However, the scores seemed almost meaningless at the end as the large cheque was handed over.  We came away feeling inspired and The Golden Pheasants are doing all we can to raise awareness in China of the illegal killing that happens along the East Asian Flyway… I hope that, by bringing China into the COTF fold, we can encourage more awareness and action along the East Asian Flyway.  Watch this space for some exciting developments soon…

A huge shout to the Spokes Folks, led by Gary Prescott and with his wonderful team of Erin, George and Sam, who recorded an astonishing 122 species by bicycle.. you guys rock!

The Golden Pheasants (left to right – Chen Ting, Terry and Tong Menxiu) at Ovda during a search for sandgrouse and larks.

Massive heartfelt thanks to the COTF team for the immaculate arrangements, to Swarovski Optik, especially Jackson Chan and Julian Wengenmayr, for supporting The Golden Pheasants and to all the other teams for their brilliant cooperation, their company during the week and for sharing bird news throughout the tournament.  My only regret is not having enough time to spend with all the incredible people.

I very much hope to be back next year.. and, who knows, there may be more than one China team!

Finally, there is still time to donate to the cause and join the thousands of others in showing they care about migratory birds.  Every penny will go to Doga Dernegi.  Please give anything you can by clicking here.

Title image: The handover of the cheque for USD 62,000 to Doga Dernegi.  On the right, the Youth African Birders who picked up two awards for their outstanding contribution in terms of fundraising and embodying the spirit of COTF.