The Champions of the Flyway – Racing for Conservation


Group shot of the Champions of the Flyway participants

The Champions of the Flyway competitors

“The Champions of the Flyway” is a new and exciting bird race based on the American “big day” concept. Teams from around the world assemble at the best stage for migration in the Old World (Eilat) and raise funds to target the illegal slaughter of millions of migrants along the Great Rift Valley. The project is a brainchild of Jonathan Meyrav and Dan Alon of the Israel Ornithological Center, the architects of the now well-known Eilat Birds Festival.

The Champions of the Flyway took several years to evolve and the final model seems to have hit the mark. The IOC people presented the idea to Birdlife International in August 2013, and after a few short meetings it was clear Birdlife were on board. Jim Lawrence, the program development manager at Birdlife loved the idea and took lead in coordinating things together with Jonathan Meyrav. In several months an engaging website was in the air and the project was launched. The Champions of the Flyway Big Day was set, April 1st 2014

14 teams of top birders from 10 nations stepped up and registered for the first ever Champions of the Flyway race. Leading teams included the Cornell Lab of Ornithology E-birders, the Birdwatchers Digest “Way off Coursers” (including Bill Thompson III and top birder and author Michael O’Brien) From the UK came the Birding Frontiers team (Martin Garner and Roger Riddington) and “The Media Birders” featuring Tim Appleton, Stephen Moss and the Urban Birder David Lindo. Birdlife International teamed up with Swarovski Optic to put together a strong team including Jim Lawrence and Dale Forbes, and an experienced Birdwatch/Birdguides team was led by Captain Dominic Mitchell. The Northern Lights team from Finland and the Focus on Wildlife Sprinters with a strong Dutch component closed the list.

Media Birders team in the field

Media Birders team in the field

The money raised through the 2014 Champions of the Flyway project was allocated to the Batumi Raptor Count project in Georgia. The BRC project was chosen in accordance with Birdlife International as one of the key projects along the East Mediterranean Flyway. In recent years the BRC, with the backing of Birdlife Georgia, have been doing some impressive work in the Batumi region. Besides holding regular counts and projects, they have embarked on several projects involving the local communities, addressing the issues of hunting, trapping and bird conservation. With the funds raised through the Champions campaign the BRC will be able to keep up the good work for the benefit of Migrants. Naturally the BRC project sent a team to compete and to talk firsthand about the project.

Batumi team with giant check

The Batumi team with the results of the fundraising efforts

Following a few days of scouting led by local birders, the teams hit the ground running at midnight on April 1st. It was a fascinating race both in terms of the species found but also in terms of strategy and route planning which turned out to be the key factor for the winning teams.

Champions of the Flyway succeeded in becoming the first major bird race that encouraged and acknowledged the sharing of information in real time. The teams besides being very competitive were super friendly and shared information both in the field and via social media. The race shone a new light on birding, a positive light of peer-hood and sharing, showing that the greatest teams are the ones that manage to find the most birds, but also share their findings with others.

Sunbirders birding

The Sunbirders team in the field

The winners:

The winning team and 2014 Champions of the Flyway are the Israeli-Palestinian team “the Palestine Sunbirders”. They worked the playing field wisely and came up with an incredible 169 species. Upon declaring their victory team leader Noam Weiss took the microphone and thanked his team mates, the sponsors (The Hans Siedel foundation) and the organizers and then surprised everyone. Noam informed everyone that he feels that the Sunbirders had an unfair advantage over the international teams, with him being a strong Israeli Birder and that they have decided to hand down the trophy to the team that scored the 2nd highest list the Cornell E-birders with 165 species logged! It was truly a dramatic moment and how gallant of the Sunbirders, the energy was incredible and half the hall was in tears! The Cornell E-birders took to the stage and thanked everyone but refused to take the trophy from the winning team and offered to share the honors and become co-Champions of the Flyway, a solution that was embraced by all.

The co-Champions of the Flyway

The co-Champions of the Flyway

The Israeli winning team was the “Black-winged Stilts” from Northern Israel with 155 species.

Besides the main title several more awards were handed:

The team that shared the most information before and during the race “The Knights of the Flyway” are the Focus on Wildlife Sprinters.

The Knights of the Flyway with trophy

The Knights of the Flyway

The team that raised the most money for the project – an incredible $10,000 – “The Protectors of the Flyway” are the Flyway Racers led by Colin Shields!

The Protectors of the Flyway

The Protectors of the Flyway

Some more facts:

  • 14 international teams (including a mixed Israeli-Palestinian team) and 10 Israeli teams.
  • 249 species were seen during the 24 hour race
  • The winning team logged a whopping 169 species!
  • The 2nd place team logged 165 species!
  • 75 competitors from 10 nationalities took part.
  • The youngest racer was 9 years old, the oldest 84!

Now for the important stuff:

  • Over 300 individual donations were received for the Champions of the Flyway project
  • The amount raised is currently just over $60,000!!
  • The Batumi Raptor Project of Bird Conservation Georgia are the main recipients of the money raised and walked away with a $30,000 check!

The Champions of the Flyway was an astounding success. It was well received and supported by thousands of people from the world over. Our goal is to turn the event into an annual race in Eilat. We will work with Birdlife International to choose the main conservation cause each year.

Check out the project website and maybe we’ll see you in 2015!

The trophies

The Champions of the Flyway trophis

Jonny in the field

Jonathan Meyrav

 Jonathan is an accomplished tour guide and the tourism director of the Israel Ornithological Center. He brings to the Nature Travel Network a combined experience of nearly 20 years of desert birding with intimate knowledge Read More

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