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For The Love Of Wild Birds; Our Journey To The Guardians Of The Flyway Trophy 2018

  • Mon 2nd Apr, 2018

What does birdwatching, Yorkshire terriers, pumpkins, friendship across borders and the fight against illegal bird hunting have in common? They all had a special place in my heart on my journey between Yorkshire and Israel.

Mark Pearson and I first discussed the idea of putting together a team for this year’s Champions of the Flyway (COTF) event before the British Birdwatching Fair in 2017. Mark had attended the 2017 COTF and was keen to up his game in 2018. Right from the start we wanted to win the Guardians trophy which is presented to the team that raises the most money. We have both been involved in nature conservation all our lives and believe strongly in devoting a large amount of our time to causes close to our heart. We also wanted to bring the trophy back to Yorkshire!

The Bird Fair is a great place to put your team together and look for major sponsors as wildlife enthusiasts from all over the world gather to share their love of nature. Lots of hushed discussions ensued; talk of who was up for it, who would fit the bill and who was mad enough! Enter Darren Woodhead, one of the most talented bird artists in the world, committed to giving loads of his talent back to conservation, Yorkshire born and terrier like in his obsession. Our fourth team member was a close friend of ours. Jono Leadley works for Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, has been an obsessive York birder all his life, an excellent naturalist and, York bird recorded and most important of all, he exploded with enthusiasm when we asked him to join our team. Mark secured team sponsorship from Zeiss Optics who paid for our transport and accommodation. This was a major boost and meant that all our sponsor money could be donated to the cause.

Our Yorkshire Terrier T-shirt design © Jo Ruth DesignOur Yorkshire Terrier T-shirt design © Jo Ruth Design

The Yorkshire Terriers, the name chosen by our team captain Mark, created curiosity amongst non-birders, reflected our home county and our dogged tenacity in gaining sponsorship. The humorous logo with us all characterised as terriers was expertly crafted by designer Jo Ruth who also gave her time for free. So by the end of November 2017 we were champing at the bit to get going with our fund-raising. Our strategy was to start by approaching as many big NGO’s and companies as possible to give us a big lift off and create momentum. This worked a treat as we had large donations by the North York Moors National Park, Ark Display Graphics, Evoluted New Media, Wold Ecology Ltd, and Indus Experiences. Soon other groups and companies came on board supporting us with generous amounts; York Ornithological GroupRackham’s Accountants and the Inglorious Bustards. These donations brought us close to £5,000.

Nubian Ibex © Richard Baines Nubian Ibex © Richard Baines

Our second strategy involved doing as many public talks as possible to local and national interest groups. This was made possible because Mark and I already had talks booked in our professional conservation roles. My part time job as the North York Moors NP Turtle Dove Project Officer meant I could explain the terrible toll of illegal hunting to the decline of European Turtle Doves and many other birds. We gained many supporters this way from local naturalists groups to parish councils and the Women’s Institute.

Semi-collared Flycatcher © Richard Baines Semi-collared Flycatcher © Richard Baines

The third element to our success involved the power of social media. From day one we calculated that all our Twitter and Facebook friends and followers came to a massive 15,000 potential sponsors! But to get out our message we needed terrier like tenacity and a big time commitment. I take my hat off to our team captain at this point. Mark put in an enormous amount of time and carefully crafted each message for maximum effect. He was also on our case like a crazed terrier every day over the four months and it worked a treat.

Darren Woodhead painting the Blue-cheeked Bee eater © Richard Baines Darren Woodhead painting the Blue-cheeked Bee eater © Richard Baines

The final piece in our sponsorship jigsaw was the Flyway sale. The main part of this strategy involved Darren spearheading a campaign to sell unique art at discount prices to the first customer to email us. His work flew out of our terrier kennel as fast as he could produce it, bringing in thousands of pounds in the process. In order to vary the sale I included Whale Watching trips and a National Park Wildlife Safari with Yorkshire Coast Nature. As we boarded the plane at Luton on the 19th March we had raised £18,400. An even bigger figure of £20,000 seemed far away at that point as our attention turned to birding!

So, why were we straining at our terrier leads to go birding in Israel? Migrant birds travelling between Africa and Europe follow land areas as much as possible rather than the more hazardous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. There are four main crossing points with food and shelter and least resistance along the way:

  • Spain and Morocco over the Straits of Gibraltar
  • Italy and Tunisia over Cyprus and Malta
  • Israel and Egypt alongside the Red Sea
  • Yemen and Eritrea/Djibouti/Ethiopia

Of all these crossings, Israel and Gibraltar were the only areas where the illegal hunting of wild birds was found to be negligible by Birdlife International in their recent report. In combination with this relatively safe haven, Eilat itself has long been famous as the best area in Israel for bird migration. Its location on the northern shore of the Red Sea combined with its position at the start of a wide valley flanked by Mountains on both sides creates a funnel effect. Huge numbers of birds follow this irresistible wildlife corridor of habitat and food.

Pallid Harrier © Richard Baines Pallid Harrier © Richard Baines

Our first big raptor movement occurred on the 21st. We had only just started to get acclimatised to awe inspiring but strangely casual observations of ghostly male Pallid Harriers drifting over the road near the supermarkets of Eilat when a big ‘kettle’ of circling birds of prey appeared above us! Steppe Buzzards were the most common raptor during our stay and prior to mid-day on the 21st 3,388 had been counted at the nearby High Mountain watch point! There can be few more impressive sights in nature than hundreds of big raptors spiralling upwards on thermals of warm air or speeding past you over the sun drenched golden Negev desert below. Over the following days we watched Steppe Eagles, Black Kites, Egyptian Vulture, Long-legged Buzzard, Marsh Harriers, Short-toed Eagles and flocks of Black Storks effortlessly glide past us heading northwards into Europe. On the 25th March, Maltese birder and conservationist Mark Sultana took this video of an amazing murmuration of White Storks as thousands spiralled above him in the mountains above Eilat. On the songbird front, one of our major highlights were many but finding a stunning Semi-collared Flycatcher in the garden of the lovely Pundak Neot Semadar Café and amazingly close-up views of a rare Black Bush Robin at Kibbutz Lotan were two of the best.

Black Bush Robin © Richard Baines Black Bush Robin © Richard Baines

During the COTF week there were several events. One of the most moving was the Youth Event, designed as a celebration and promotion of younger birders and naturalists. We will all remember with great fondness the talk by Palestinian conservationist and eco-tourism expert Ikram Quttaineh. She embodied the spirit of love and friendship across borders where nature has the power to bring people together. It was not the only time in the week when Terrier tissues were handed round! After the talk all the teams gathered together to meet each other and share stories of great birding moments. It was here we met the birding/Ornithological legend Hadoram Shirihai. Hadoram has inspired huge numbers of birders into the field so we had to ask him for some hot tips about the best places to go birding in our self-designed 28km race area. In a hushed voice he said “try the pumpkin field at K19”. Little did we know at that point what a great tip that was!

As race day got closer the heat was on, not only in the weather which was a cool 35°C but also in our attempt to reach £20,000. On the night of the 25th we managed it, after a few pestering social media messages “you could be the one who gets us over the line to a historic total!” Huge thanks goes out to Tina Lindsay for being the one but she probably didn’t expect the crazy terriers video sent to her a few minutes later as four scruffy birders barked out our love live from our flat in Eilat!

Steppe Buzzard © Richard Baines Steppe Buzzard © Richard Baines

The 26th was the big day. We decided to create ourselves a birding race map encompassing an area of 28km from the International Birdwatching and Research Center of Eilat (IBRCE). For every $1000 we had raised we granted ourselves another 1km in our race area. This was a much reduced area than the official race playing field within which most teams created their species score, but our birding priorities were laid firmly in the field, we just didn’t fancy the big drives taking us away from birding time. On the day this really paid dividends as we not only had more time to drink in the birds but also to allow Darren to paint. We targeted a total of around 120 species before mid-night.

At 0330 we jumped in the car with me at the wheel. “Here we go Terriers” was the cry which quickly turned into “Watch out Rich” as I started driving on the wrong side of the road with no lights! The excitement was getting to me already. But in reality we were being very cool and laid back compared to most teams, we even took breakfast bowls with us to the Birdwatching centre and ate our cereal like good little Terriers at 0430! Dawn was spent birding in the reserve at the IBRCE. In the dark a Little Crake and a Savi’s Warbler called from the reeds. Shortly afterwards as the first rays of sunshine lit up the Tamarisk bushes a Little Bittern and a Namaqua Dove flew past, a Common Crane drifted over the border with Jordon and a Bluethroat started singing. Nearby Red-necked Phalaropes were spinning below Black-winged Stilts. It felt like a good start so we headed as quickly as possible into the mountains to the awesome Seifim Plans before the heat of the day. However getting to our birding destinations without stopping was proving a bit tricky, especially when impressive mammals such as a male Nubian Ibex decides to pop down the mountain side to say hello!

In the semi-desert Scrub Warblers called loudly, Hooded Wheatear and Mourning Wheatears perched chat like atop small shrubs whilst a bold as brass White-crowned Black Wheatear chased around our car for spare crisps! Even better was the sight of a Long-legged Buzzard above the hills. After a stroll to the Wadi and yet more crisps we headed out to High Mountain where the raptor watch was on. Hundreds of Steppe Buzzards soared overhead and a Black Stork circled over the road. This provided another opportunity to chill out and enjoy the craic of the birders with bird race teams from all over the world.

As we left the watch point, the COTF What’s App pinged into life with news of Blue-cheeked Bee eaters at K19, as we got closer the realisation dawned on us that they were in and around Hadoram’s pumpkin field! Luck appeared to be shining on us on the approach track as a magnificent Barbary Falcon few over the car.

Blue-cheeked Bee eater © Richard Baines Blue-cheeked Bee eater © Richard Baines

After what seemed like a frustrating search we were just about to give up when I casually looked up and caught sight of a Blue-cheeked Bee eater only a few meters away, wow! We spent the next 90 minutes in the company of this amazing bird. Many bees were caught on acrobatic flights whilst Darren painted beneath the flashes of iridescent green and blue. Beneath our feet a Quail flew out of the pumpkins, its tiny wings whirring across the monster veggies. This sighting was especially pertinent as the two countries receiving the money from the 2018 COTF event are Serbia and Croatia where hunting of Quail is having a terrible impact on these birds. All funds raised from this event go into education and advocacy projects aimed at stopping this mindless slaughter.

We eventually had to tear ourselves away from the Bee eater and pumpkins and head for the nearby Salt Pans. These saline pools are amazing places for wading birds, wildfowl and Greater Flamingos! In this area we managed to notch up many new species for our day including Gull-billed Tern, Garganey, Glossy Ibis, Marsh Sandpiper and Red-throated Pipit. Yet more species any birder in Yorkshire would be luck to see in a year never mind in one day!

Our final destination was the north beach in Eilat where the trusted White-eyed Gulls were duly perched on their offshore buoys. The beach however was too much to resist as yet more terrier chilling ensued. Jono decided in true British style to relieve his aching feet of his thick socks in the scorching heat. A bad move as it turned out, when he returned to retrieve them, a nearby birder giggled the news that they had been taken by a small child!

As other birders gathered in the same area news came in of a Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin among the nearby low scrub. Nearby a Temminck’s Stint and a Broad-billed Sandpiper fed in the muddy pools. Three excellent birds to round off our day. We finished on a total of 123 species, huge smiles and a very dusty hire car.

The following day we were up with the lark again, all spruced up in our Flyway T-shirts and ready for the presentation ceremony. Mark prepared his speech not quite knowing if we had won the guardians trophy. Cue posh hotel, even posher food and lots of anticipation! It didn’t take long for us to be called to the stage and I am pleased to say we let all our enthusiasm and excitement pour out, a very proud moment indeed.Big thanks to Sophie Jaquier of the Sempach Snowfinches for shooting our award video!

There were four trophies awarded; Champions of the Flyway won this year by the fantastic Birding Ecotours World Youth Birders team who saw a record breaking 186 species (five more than the winning team in 2017), Guardians of the Flyway, the Yorkshire Terriers a record breaking team total of $28,000. Team Spectacled won The Israeli Guardian’s trophy and Knights of the Flyway was won by the Leica Red Kites team from Wales, great friends throughout our trip! In total 32 teams took part from 14 countries raising a fantastic $100,000!

After such an emotional week there was only one thing to do after ceremony - go birding! We needed to treat our trophy to some pumpkin action. In the field behind our flying captain was a Turkistan Shrike, Isabelline Wheatears, Black-eared Wheatears, Lesser Kestrels, Short-toed Larks, Tawny Pipits, Montague’s Harrier, Pallid Harriers and many more migrants. To end on a high we decided to go to see the one bird we had put off until the final day, the amazing Pharaoh’s Eagle Owl and wow what a bird! She duly flew down from the mountains after dark and perched on her favourite rock in regal fashion, oozing power.

The winning teams at Champions of the Flyway 2018The winning teams at Champions of the Flyway 2018

Looking back on this amazing trip we have all vowed to help COTF in the future. Fighting the illegal hunting of our magnificent birds is a lifetime commitment. If you want to help the birds you love watching, make amazing new friends from all over the world and have the birding trip of a lifetime please consider putting together a team for 2019. Any advice or terrier pumpkin tips, please get in touch! Finally I wish to give huge personal thanks to the COTF family for creating such a special event brimming with love, friendship and great birds.

Richard Baines