The first Italian team at Champions of the Flyway (Israel)

With the friends Menotti Passarella and Gianfranco Colombo I had the honour to be in the first Italian team to participate to the International birding race called “Champions of the Flyway”. It’s a very clever idea to involve teams from all over the world to enjoy Israeli nature and compete in observing the higest number of birds in a day on one hand, but also a big fundraising in which the teams compete as well in order to keep the attention and to provide a concrete help to the fight against the illegal killing of birds in different hot coutries. 

In the 2017 were collected $60,000 to help the Turkish partner of Birdlife International in their actions against the poaching of migrants!!

Our team was named “Po Delta Pygmies“, in order to promote one of the best Italian birdwatching areas and with the mascot in the Pygmy Cormorants that, in the last 20 years, colonized for the first time all the Adriatic sea coast.

Trip report of the adventure

  • 24th March 2017

We started our experience early in the morning, when we landed at Tel Aviv airport. After rental of a car, we headed south to the Negev desert: the race took place in the most southern point of Israel, around the city of Eilat.

We arrived there 5 days in advance to have the time to scout a little bit areas that were almost new for all of us. To plan an efficient strategy for the big day, stopping just to tick quickly the new species, without waste time in unfruitful places, it’s essential to know very well the territory.

Our first sample of migration was when we stopped at a petrol station near Be’er Sheva: we spotted in the weird mist of that morning a first Rüppell’s Warbler, followed by White-spectacled Bulbul, Common Myna, Laughing Dove, Brown-necked Raven and Spur-winged Plover.

Rüppell's Warbler (Sylvia rueppelli)
Rüppell’s Warbler (Sylvia rueppelli)

So the sky got clear and, with the blue, the migration started: tens of Short-toed, Booted and Lesser Spotted eagles, Egyptian Vultures, Black Kites, Steppe Buzzards, but also one White Stork, Pallid, Alpine and Common Swifts, Red-rumped Swallows, a non stop influx of birds coming from the South!!

Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)
Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

But we were still out of the race territory, a big triangle that spreads from Eilat north to Nizzana and the Arava Junction.

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We entered in that area when we stopped at the Yeruham lake: it’s a rather big water body surrounded by an oasis with large trees, reedbeds and bush.

Yeruham lake
Yeruham lake

Here we observed: 1 Lesser Kestrel, 1 White-breasted Kingfisher, 5 Syrian Woodpeckers, some Graceful Prinias, 1 Sedge Warbler, some Eastern Bonelli’s Warblers, 2 Arabian Babblers, 2-3 Palestine Sunbirds, 2 Cretzschmar’s Buntings, but also common Western Paleartic birds like 1 Great Cormorant, 3 Night Herons, 10 Grey Herons, 2 Little Egret, Song Thrushes, Chiffchaffs, Chaffinches and Greenfinches that are never guaranteed in the desert.

Then we drove south to Sde Boker village, another oasis in the Negev desert. Here there were some sewage ponds, but the best birding place was the Ben Gurion’s Tomb Park. A number of trees and some nice green lawns usually attract a lot of migrants together with typically desert species. We spotted: Desert Lark, Common Redstart of samamisicus race, Blackstart, Masked Shrike and Palestine Sunbird.

Blackstart (Oenanthe melanura)
Blackstart (Oenanthe melanura)
Desert Lark (Ammomanes deserti)
Desert Lark (Ammomanes deserti)

A female of Nubian Ibex and some Starred Agamas were unexpected adds.

Starred Agamas (Stellagama stellio)
Starred Agamas (Stellagama stellio)

The view from the Ben Gurion’s park into the Ein Avdat valley was fantastic, but we couldn’t see any interesting raptor from there.

Ein Avdat
Ein Avdat

At the entrance of the Ein Avdat National Park we found some very confident Tristram’s Grackles and Crested and Desert Larks.

Tristram's Grackle (Onychognathus tristramii)
Tristram’s Grackle (Onychognathus tristramii)

In Mitzpe Ramon we saw 45 Shovelers, some Chukars and few Pale Crag Martins at some sewage ponds, but the highlight was the very close encounter with some herds of wonderful Nubian Ibex.

What is called “crater”, in the warm colours of sunset, was definetly breathtaking.

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We arrived in Eilat in the evening and we slept, for the first of five nights, in the kibbutz Eilot.

  • 25th March 2017

We decided to spend the morning exploring the desertic range of mountains along the border with Egypt. Since the dawn the peaks around were plenty of resting Steppe Buzzard that in a while started to soar.

Our first stop was at the Netafim spring: the place, with the few acacias and the sun firing the background was just superb.

17.jpg

The only birds we had there were a pair of Sand Partridges and a gliding Osprey, so we drove north, in the direction of Seifim plains.

We stopped for a male of Pallid Harrier, so we noticed a little patch of green near the border and we decided to explore it. It has been a very good idea, because the shrubs were filled in birds! We spotted 1 Wryneck, some Desert Larks, 1 Bluethroat, 1 White-crowned Wheatear, 2 Hooded Wheatears, 1 Isabelline Wheatear, 1 Northern Wheatear, 1 Common Redstart, 1-2 Eastern Subalpine Warblers, some Lesser Whitethroats, some Eastern Bonelli’s Warblers, 1 Chiffchaff, 1 Tree Pipit and some Trumpet Finches.

Eastern Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans albistriata)
Eastern Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans albistriata)

I’m not a botanist, but was impossible to not appreciate the amazing blooms of this side of desert, probably blessed by some rain recently.

The Seifim plains were rather empty…

Seifim plains
Seifim plains

…with just a couple of Mourning Wheatears, so we moved south again, passing near the Red Canyon where, at the end of a pretty wadi…

Red Canyon
Red Canyon

…on a colourful cliff, we heard a male of Sand Partridges calling: there was a nice pair there!

Sand Partridge (Ammoperdix heyi)
Sand Partridge (Ammoperdix heyi)

After that, we stopped in the Yoash mount slopes to watch the impressive migration of raptors: an endless stream of hundreds of birds (80.000 buzzards in that day, we heart in the evening), including Steppe Buzzards, Black Kites, Steppe, Lesser Spotted, Short-toed and Booted Eagles and a Black Stork.

Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis)
Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis)

Next stop was the Wadi Shlomo, where we spotted an interesting Cyprus Warbler.

Cyprus Warbler (Sylvia melanothorax)
Cyprus Warbler (Sylvia melanothorax)

We crossed Eilat stopping for a fast lunch in a shopping center with Laughing Dove, Pallid Crag Martin and Tristram’s Grackle around.

Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis)
Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis)

Arriving to the famous North Beach of Eilat, along the canal and in the palm groves we observed 30 Glossy Ibis, Squacco and Purple herons, Booted Eagle, Spur-winged Plover, Greenshank, Ruff, Pied Kingfisher, Little Green Bee-eater, Citrine Wagtail, Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler and House Crow.

House Crow (Corvus splendens)
House Crow (Corvus splendens)
Spur-winged Plover (Vanellus spinosus)
Spur-winged Plover (Vanellus spinosus)
Citrine Wagtail (Motacilla citreola)
Citrine Wagtail (Motacilla citreola)
Little Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis)
Little Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis)

At North Beach we met some more birdwatchers waiting as well the sunset in that wonderful place: it’s alway a pleasure to share our hobby with a lot of other people! Here we observed 3 Western Reed Herons, 400 Garganeys, some Ringed Plovers, 100 Slender-billed Gulls, few Heuglin’s Gulls, 1 Caspian Gull, some Baltic Gulls and 1 Caspian Tern.

Heuglin's Gull (Larus heuglini)
Heuglin’s Gull (Larus heuglini)
Western Reed Heron (Egretta gularis schistacea)
Western Reed Heron (Egretta gularis schistacea)
  • 26th March 2017

This morning we arrived before the dawn in the Uvda valley, a wide sandy plain where some interesting desert species were reported. At our arrival was still crepuscle, but we managed to spot far away an Onager (or Asian Wild Ass) and our first Dorcas Gazelle. Few seconds and the two ghosts disappeared behind the hills.

Onager (Equus hemionus)
Onager (Equus hemionus)

We started to explore the area covered by short shrubs: there were some movements of big flocks of larks in the distance, but it was rather hard to identify them. We scanned carefully the plain by telescope, until we spotted a couple of birds on the ground. Bird by bird we recognized Short-toed, Bar-tailed and Temminck’s larks, plus Isabelline and Northern Wheatear, 1 Common Quail, 2 Black Storks and a male of Pallid Harrier.

Bar-tailed Lark, (Ammomanes cinctura)
Bar-tailed Lark, (Ammomanes cinctura)
Temminck’s Lark (Eremophila bilopha)
Temminck’s Lark (Eremophila bilopha)

Some other groups of birdes, many of them part of other teams of the race, in scouting as well, arrived, so we decided to walk further among the hills. In a little valley the vegetation was again green and plenty of lovely flowers.

About birds, here we had a couple of Desert Larks and Mourning Wheatears and some small flocks of noisy Spotted and Crowned sangrouses.

Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens)
Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens)
Crowned Sandgrouses (Pterocles coronatus)
Crowned Sandgrouses (Pterocles coronatus)

On the way back to Eilat we stopped at the kibutz of Neot Samadar and Yotvata, but the hours of midday were rather tough for birding: we observed just 2 Steppe and 1 Booted Eagle,  1 Hen and 2 Marsh Harriers, few waders, 1 Red-throated Pipit, 1 Woodchat Shrike and a ten of Dorcas Gazelles.

Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus)
Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus)
Dorcas Gazelle (Gazella dorcas)
Dorcas Gazelle (Gazella dorcas)

After lunch we passed through the desert of Timna park, seing a Hooded Wheatear and admiring the amazing scenaries…

Timna Park
Timna Park

…and visited the Evrona spring were in the days before was reported a Black Scrub Robin. We met there two Israeli photographers and we waited there for maybe 10 minutes, then this gorgeous bird appeared in all its beauty!

Black Scrub Robin (Cercotrichas podobe)
Black Scrub Robin (Cercotrichas podobe)

In the late afternoon we did the lakes and saltpans at the Km 19 and 20 north of Eilat, where we had a large number of water birds like 7 Purple Herons, hundreds of Flamingoes, Shelducks, Pintails, Shovelers and waders (including Kentish Plover, Little Stint, Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit, Spotted Redshank, Marsh Sandpiper, etc), 1 Bluethroat and a lot of Yellow Wagtails and Eastern Bonelli’s Warblers.

Eastern Bonelli's Warbler (Phylloscopus orientalis)
Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler (Phylloscopus orientalis)

In the evening we had dinner at the Birding Center of Eilat with the other teams of the race, meeting people from South Africa, China, UK, US, Spain, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, etc and enjoying this truly muticoltural party!

We also had our presentation by Jonathan Meyrav, of the Israel Ornithological Center, the organizer of the manifestation, as the first Italian team to partecipate to the race “Champions of the flyway”!

Po Delta Pygmies
Po Delta Pygmies with Jonathan Meyrav
  • 27th March 2017

Last day of scouting: we started at the graveyard of Eilat, where we found a Pallid Harrier and a nice desert Red Fox.

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

Then we tried to go back to the western mountains, but the green patch south of the Seifim plains was almost empty and even from the mount Yoash the migration was pretty quiet, with no evidences of passage of birds of prey. We discovered later that today the stream of migrants was passing above the main city of Eilat.

View from Mount Yoash
View from Mount Yoash

We came back to the Aqaba gulf coast, where we looked for the Striated Heron that was on its place.

Striated Heron (Butorides striata)
Striated Heron (Butorides striata)

Then we visited the Gan Binyamin Park: big trees, green lawn, shrubs, are a great place where find migrants. We managed to spot: Tree Pipit, Yellow Wagtail, Sedge Warbler, Blackcap, Common Whiethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Subalpine Warbler, Rüppell’s Warbler, Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler, Masked Shrike, Tristram’s Grackle and Cretzschmar’s Bunting.

Cretzschmar's Bunting (Emberiza caesia)
Cretzschmar’s Bunting (Emberiza caesia)
Masked Shrike (Lanius nubicus)
Masked Shrike (Lanius nubicus)

The second park we visited, Holland Park, was more natural, with a beautiful maquis of acacias and some resident birds, like Graceful Prinia, White-spectacled Bulbul, Palestine Sunbird and Arabian Babbler…

Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis)
Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis)
Arabian Babbler (Turdoides squamiceps)
Arabian Babbler (Turdoides squamiceps)

…but also migrants, expecially in the sky: we had some Black Kites, 1 Booted Eagle, 1 Short-toed Eagle, 6 Steppe Eagles and hundreds of Steppe Buzzard.

Steppe Buzzards (Buteo buteo vulpinus)
Steppe Buzzards (Buteo buteo vulpinus)
Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis)
Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis)

Despite me and my mates were maily birders, our interest in Holland Park was kept by a gorgeous grasshopper, the Poekilocerus bufonius: we had never seen before such a strange insect!

Poekilocerus bufonius
Poekilocerus bufonius

After a great lunch with hummus sauce and pita bread, we drove to the Eilat Birding Center: it’s nice reserve with hides and trails that allow to enjoy little ponds, bush and a large brackish water lagoon, plenty of birds. We observed 1 Kentish Plover, 1 Temminck’s Stint, 13 Little Stints, 3 Dunlins, 1 Marsh Sandpiper, some Common Redshanks and Ruffs, 1 Sedge Warbler and 2 stunning Bluethroats, one white-spotted and one red-spotted, both unequivocally ringed.

Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica svecica)
Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica svecica)
Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)
Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)
Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica cyanecula)
Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica cyanecula)

We finished the day with another sunset at the North Beach of Eilat, together with tens of other birders.

North Beach
North Beach

The red of the mountains at sunset, on the Jordan and Arabic side of gulf of Aqaba, gave the name to the Red Sea.

Aqaba (Jordan)
Aqaba (Jordan)

The last observations of the day were 1 Western Reef Egret, 20 Ferruginous Ducks, 3 Greater Sand Plovers, tens of Slender-billed and few White-eyed gulls, 1 Sandwich Tern and 1 Pied Kingfisher.

Greater Sand Plovers (Charadrius leschenaultii)
Greater Sand Plovers (Charadrius leschenaultii)
Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)
Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)

We had dinner very early, in order to sleep a couple of hours before… the meeting and the beginning of the race “Champions of the Flyway”!

We met with the other teams at quarter to midnight in the hall of the Agamin Hotel: the tension was rising…

Agamin Hotel
Agamin Hotel

At 0.00 a.m., Jonathan Meyrav declared open the race!!

  • 28th March 2017

During the race of this year was forbidden the use of any torch, so we explored the areas of KM 19 and KM 20 and Yotvata by car, hoping in some calls or in birds sitting on the ground. We were not so lucky, with just some waders and 3-4 Scops Owls, and the best photo of that night was this Turkish Gecko.

Turkish Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)
Turkish Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)

At the dawn we were at the South Beach of Eilat, where we spotted the Striated Heron, Heuglin’s Gull and an unexpected Common Kingfisher.

Then we did the Gan Binyamin and Holland parks, where we had some good birds like Sand Partridge, Turtle Dove, Wryneck, Rüppell’s Warbler, Subalpine Warbler, Masked Shrike, Palestine Sunbird, Tristram’s Grackle and Cretzschmar’s Bunting.

White-spectacled Bulbul (Pycnonotus xanthopygos)
White-spectacled Bulbul (Pycnonotus xanthopygos)

The North Beach of Eilat was not so rich (the usual Baltic Gull, Great Sand Plover, Pied Kingfisher, etc), while we had a good time at the Eilat Birding Center, with Booted Eagle, Steppe Eagle, Little Crake, Temminck’s Stint, Namaqua Dove, Water Pipit, Bluethroat and Penduline Tit.

Baltic Gull (Larus fuscus fuscus)
Baltic Gull (Larus fuscus fuscus)

After the lakes of KM 19 and KM 20, with interesting birds like 2 Black-necked Grebes, 1 Osprey, 1 Broad-billed Sandpiper, some Marsh Sandpipers, 2 Red-necked Phalaropes and 1 Whiskered Tern, we went to tick the Black Scrub Robin at Evrona spring and to the Uvda valley for larks. Here the hour was not the best, so we managed to find only Bar-tailed Lark and Isabelline Wheatear.

In hurry, because the time was running fast, we stopped along the way in Mizpe Ramon to see 1 Steppe Eagle and 3 Egyptian Vultures, at the carnage, and 1 White-crowned Wheatear.

Desert near Mizpe Ramon
Desert near Mizpe Ramon

In Sde Boker there was a crowd of coaches, students and people, so we decided to not stop.

We spent our last hours of light at the Yeruham lake, where we spotted Night Heron, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Hoopoe, Moustached Warbler, Robin, Bluethroat, Black and Common redstart and my favorite species of the day, a pair of superb Desert Finches!

Desert Finch (Rhodopechys obsoleta)
Desert Finch (Rhodopechys obsoleta)

When the dusk came, we were definitely tired after such a full day, but we still had to drive back to Eilat, about 200 km.

We arrived at the Agamin Hotel at 23.15: there were no left energies to look more for night birds and, on the other hand, our result was not so high to hope in the victory.

We finished our race with the official number of 124 SPECIES.

  • 29th March 2017

During our last day, after some hours of rest, we met again with the other teams for some group picture at North Beach…

The big group of Champions
The big group of Champions

…and then for the award at the Hotel Hilton.

The Finnish Team “ZEISS Arctic Redpolls” won with the astronomic number of 181 species in just a day!! The same result of the Israeli team “Wallcreepers”, which, however, partecipated to the Israeli race, not to the International one.

The winners
The winners

For us the feeling to be the “cinderella” of the race, without the help of any sponsor (most of the other International teams were sponsorized, mainly from Zeiss and Leica), with just few days to explore a truly wide area (the knowledge of the territory is basic to find the very scattered desert species) and a little knowledge of the winning strategies that are very important in this kind of contests. For example all the top teams did the Nizzana area, while we hadn’t the time to check that place, mainly because people told us that was too dry to be good for birding…

Anyway, we were very proud to be part of this amazing manifestation perfectly organized by the Israel Ornithological Center, to meet all these interesting people, to enjoy the fantastic Israeli nature!!

For the win ther will be other opportunities, hopefuly.

In the afternoon, on the way back to the airport, we stopped again at the KM 20, where we had a close view of the Marsh Sandpiper.

Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis)
Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis)

Then we stopped near Mizpe Ramon to watch 2 gorgeous Egyptian Vultures.

Egyptian Vultures (Neophron percnopterus)
Egyptian Vultures (Neophron percnopterus)

And we ended the day in Nizzana, where, at the funny wagon in the flat desert, we had some distant views of Macqueen’s Bustard, Cream-coloured Curser, Stone Curlew and Southern Grey Shrike: a wonderful happy end of our unforgetable experience in Israel!!

The team "Po Delta Pygmies"
The team “Po Delta Pygmies”
Sunset in Nizzana
Sunset in Nizzana

Luca Boscain

2 thoughts on “The first Italian team at Champions of the Flyway (Israel)

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