Race Day: the Birding Frontiers story…

by Roger Riddington

I woke soon after midnight, after an hour and a half of deep sleep. The alarm was set for 02.00, but excitement/anxiety levels were instantly high, and the prospect of further sleep quickly faded. By 2.15 I was up, showered, had cleaned the room, watered the geraniums and tracked down some packed breakfasts; by 2.30 Adam (Hutt) and I were at the Agamim to pick up Paul (French), our checklist, Israeli phone and register our start. Jonathan (Meyrav) was there to sign us off and wish us luck. Some teams were already out and about – the Cornell e-birders had ticked Brown Booby at North Beach and the Finnish team found the Yotvata Caspian Plover in their headlights.

Here are your heroes at the Agamim at the start, looking unreasonably cheery for 2.30 am (and tickled pink by Jonathan Meyrav's flowery pyjamas...)

Here are your heroes at the Agamim at the start, looking unreasonably cheery for 2.30 am (and tickled pink by Jonathan Meyrav’s flowery pyjamas…)

We had decided to leave night birding proper until the second night period, in the hope of a couple of hours extra kip, so by the time we were on the road we drove steadily north to Nizzana, at the top end of the Negev and in the northwest corner of the ‘playing field’. After driving for two and half hours, with nice views of Wild Ass and brief views of Wolf (for Adam at least), I handed over to Adam for the last 40k and promptly fell asleep in the back seat. Allegedly I was snoring almost immediately (though I reckon that that was the one stringy claim from my team mates on race day) – and dreaming about what our first bird would be.

And it was… a singing Crested Lark. A modest beginning. At Ezuz, just beyond Nizzana, still black dark; more critical things were to come though, with a distant Eagle Owl – only Frenchy and Adam could hear it – and a close Sprosser. As light came quickly, and we shivered – despite our matching (and fetching) Swarovski fleeces – new birds trickled in. It was light proper and we were at our third vantage point scanning over the rocky Nizzana terrain when one of the day’s stand-out birds hove into view – a displaying Macqueen’s Bustard in full headless chicken mode. Fabulous. Sadly there was no time to enjoy it, every new bird was vital, even at this early stage. We knocked off Pallid Harrier (a lovely male), Black-eared Wheatear (a lovely male), Chukar (a lovely… oh ok then, it was a Chukar), Cream-coloured Courser, Hen Harrier, Southern Grey Shrike and more.

Dawn at Nizzana...

Dawn at Nizzana…

Frenchy tries to find 'Chukar' on the checklist without getting his torch out...

Frenchy tries to find ‘Chukar’ on the checklist without getting his torch out…

By 7.00, we’d heard Spotted Sandgrouse but failed to record any other sandgrouse and our schedule said: move on. We hit the road, rattling along quickly towards S’de Boquer, picking up new birds steadily from the car, with the occasional emergency stop. S’de Boquer kibbutz was an oasis of calm at that early stage, and we set about trying to find as many of the ‘European’ species as we could. One of two wintering Yellow-browed Warblers was the highlight there, but Blackbird and Greenfinch were equally valuable. We met the Palestine Sunbirders, and Noam kindly pointed us to exactly where the Yellow-browed was. We met the Digitial Stringers too, who had had a remarkably good time at Yerucham Lake, which prompted a change of tack and a quick visit to the lake. We didn’t have nearly as much luck there: Syrian Woodpecker and a stunning male Collared Flycatcher were the hits but Little Bittern, Purple Gallinule, White-breasted Kingfisher and Great Reed Warbler were the misses. Pitta and hummus on the run was breakfast and we were back on the road, bound for Ben Gurion College…

We met several other teams at the grave, where the temperatures were now starting to soar. The high vantage point over this bleached and spectacular desert vista quickly gave us various raptors – Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Booted and Lesser Spotted Eagles – although a perched large falcon was more tricky, we simply couldn’t be certain that it really was a Lanner, so we had to leave it – and large falcons were to remain absent from our total. Alpine Swifts scythed over our heads, and Pale Crag Martin completed the five hirundines that we’d planned for.

Palestine Sunbird

Palestine Sunbird

From BGC, it was time to properly warm up the car engine; we headed south to the Uvda valley via a series of short (scheduled and unscheduled) roadside stops that gave us Desert Lark, Mourning and White-crowned Black Wheatears, but (not entirely unsurprisingly) no Hooded Wheatear, Sinai Rosefinch or Syrian Serin.

We were more or less on schedule by the time we reached the Uvda Valley, and at that point we reckoned we were doing ok. From memory we’d seen c. 75 species and while we had clearly missed some stuff, we’d managed to see many of our key target species as well. Uvda was a disappointment – we spent over an hour in the desert and expended a good deal of energy in the heat of the day, and added only Crowned Sandgrouse and Tawny Pipit. From there to Ne’ot Smadar, and that was disappointing too – we added a female Sibe Stonechat, a male Ruppell’s Warbler and a few waders; but at well past 2.00, and with a lot left to do, our score had advanced very little since the Ramon crater. We met the crack Finnish team – the Northern Lights, one of the pre-race favourites – at NS and they were perhaps even more disconsolate than we were, and were well behind their schedule.

Ruppell's Warbler

Ruppell’s Warbler

By the time we left NS we were still within sight of our own time schedule but we needed Yotvata to deliver. It did just that. Perhaps less in terms of species quantity, but the quality lifted out spirits immeasurably. We bounced down the track to the dunes flanking the Jordanian border, identified a likely looking pull-in, climbed the nearest dune to look for Hoopoe Lark and saw one in less than a minute! Boom!

Namaqua Doves at Yotvata

Namaqua Doves at Yotvata

 

We backtracked quickly to the southern circular field, and nailed Corn Bunting and Namaqua Dove en route to the weedy strip in the middle, where we found: Oriental Skylark! But wait, what were those other two birds? They looked just the same as the first one, but surely there were not three OS at this well-watched site? After two flushes, we were all happy with the calls and the flight views, and we managed decent scope views of one bird. Kerrrrrboom! At this point, and not without a good deal of soul-searching over standards of decency and general manliness, we staged a boom! photoshoot for our absent leader, although taking the picture was as far as I personally was prepared to go… (And Frenchy is still mildly traumatised by it.)

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The rest of the Yotvata fields added no Caspian Plover, sadly, but White Stork joined the list; while the sewage ponds added a few waders, and the only Bluethroat of the day. We finished the Yotvata leg at K50; our schedule said we should have left already (it was now 4.00) but the light was good, we had over three hours of light left and we decided to invest time in a the more-or-less guaranteed Little Green Bee-eater and the possibility of Arabian Warbler. The Bee-eater was easy, and Frenchy and me jammed in to great views of the male Arabian Warbler. One last little boost, to compensate for the lack of the reported Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin.

Little Green Bee-eater

Little Green Bee-eater

But it was now pushing 4.30, and we had 90 species… It was time for the K20 saltpans. Arriving in a cloud of dust and spitting gravel, we proceeded to eat up the waders (including at least two Greater Sandplovers, 20 or so Collared Pratincoles, Marsh Sandpipers, Red-necked Phalaropes and plenty more) and other waterbirds on offer; all more or less as expected although the only tern was Gull-billed (a super flock of 11) and there were no real surprises. Red-throated Pipits were calling and we added Osprey here as well.

Black-Winged Stilt - easy at K20

Black-Winged Stilt – easy at K20

Bouncing down the rough tracks past the canal, the previous days of scouting paid off as Dead Sea Sparrow, Common Snipe and Citrine Wagtail all appeared on cue so by 5.30, things were looking a little better. We’d need a faultless performance from now until the finish, but adrenalin was back, and optimism with it.

We headed for North Beach via the birders highway and the rough tracks past the birding centre. North Beach did us OK – we missed Brown Booby but not much else, with three spp of terns, three of gulls (incl. White-eyed) and Western Reef Egret. We knew we had no time for Holland Park, and its Sand Partridge and Sylvia warblers, nor any spots that might yield Scrub Warbler or Silverbill; we invested five minutes in a fruitless search of the imax park for Common Myna (the one trash town bird we were missing) and for one final time wound up the standard issue Renault Floozy to head north again to the K17 sewage pools for Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse and (we hoped) a slew of late ticks. We gratefully took on board Little Crake, Night Heron and the expected sandgrouse, although we failed with Tufted and Ferruginous Ducks and Gadwall.

With the light gone, we headed back to our hotel, via the birding centre, where we failed to hear Scops Owl but scored a hugely satisfying Great Black-headed Gull in the roost, courtesy of the extraordinary light gathering of our 95mm Swarovski giant scope.

Scoping Great Black-headed Gull in the dark...

Scoping Great Black-headed Gull in the dark…

And then we really did take a breather, with some dinner and a comfy seat. We were back out just after 9.30, and we spent a couple of hours on a gentle run to Yotvata, where we found several species in our car headlamps (White Stork, Stone-curlew, Quail  – as well as Desert Hedgehog) – sadly none of them boosting our total of 151.

And so 151 was where we ended. Three more species (Goldfinch, Penduline Tit and Whimbrel) were heard by just one team member, so had to remain off the final list. As the following day’s ceremony revealed, that score wasn’t enough to win, but we consoled ourselves that it was at least halfway respectable. We were all well behind the co-champions – the joint Israeli/Palestine Sunbirders, who notched a blistering 169, and the superbly organised e-bird/Cornell crew, who ran in 165. It was an entirely fitting end to the whole event that these two teams elected to share the inaugural Champions of the Flyway award. Guardians of the Flyway, the award for the most money raised (a whopping $12,000+), went to the Flyway Racers, while the Knights of the Flyway award (for sharing information) went to the Focussing on Wildlife Sprinters – click here for more details

The Batumi Raptors team (Alexander Rukhaia, Brecht-Verhelst, Johannes Jansen and Pim Wolf) receive a cheque for $30000

The Batumi Raptors team (Alexander Rukhaia, Brecht-Verhelst, Johannes Jansen and Pim Wolf) receive a cheque for $30000

The event as a whole was brilliant. As competitors we couldn’t have asked for more. The organisers – Jonathan and Dan, supported by an army of others, not least Yoav Perlman – laid out the red carpet for all the teams. Thank you guys.

Jonathan Meyrav and Dan Alon

Jonathan Meyrav and Dan Alon

Massive thanks to all the sponsors of the event as a whole, to the backers of the Frontiers team (Swarovski, Spurn Bird Bird Observatory, Yorkshire Coast Nature) and to everyone who sponsored us or one of the other teams. The whole event was characterised by great spirit and friendship, among the teams and within the wider army of people involved in the event. Most importantly, the event did its job of generating some serious cash for conservation – and if it provides the platform for an annual flyway race, raising awareness and funds for key conservation projects it will have been well worth all the effort.

All pics by Paul French, Adam Hutt & Roger Riddington, apart from the first one – by Jonathan Meyrav