UCT birders excel at Champions of the Flyway

04 April 2017 | Story by Andrew de Blocq
John Kinghorn and Andrew de Blocq peering through their spotting scopes. One of the highlights for the team was watching migrating raptors and storks over the Eilat Mountains. Photo Werner van der Walt.
John Kinghorn and Andrew de Blocq peering through their spotting scopes. One of the highlights for the team was watching migrating raptors and storks over the Eilat Mountains. Photo Werner van der Walt.

Three UCT students took part in the annual Champions of the Flyway bird race in Israel last week.

The race takes place in southern Israel, and pits teams from all over the world against one another in a grueling 24-hour race to identify as many bird species as possible. One of the main aims of the event is to raise funds and awareness around the illegal killing of birds along their migratory flyways – southern Israel is a bottleneck and hotspot of migrant bird diversity during spring.

Jessleena Suri (PhD in statistics) and Andrew de Blocq (MSc in biological sciences) competed with the Birding Ecotours Youth Africa Birders. The team managed to raise close to €9 000 up to and including race day, which was €2 000 more than any other team, and took home the title of Guardians of the Flyway for their efforts.

However, this was not their only success. They were also awarded the Knights of the Flyway title for their awareness campaign, which included various social media and even canvassing at street lights in creative outfits.

The title of Champions of the Flyway is given to the team that amasses the biggest list on race day, and this was convincingly won by Finnish team and hot favourites, the Arctic Redpolls, with a competition record of 181 species.

UCT birders excel at Champions of the FlywayIn the desert, vegetated wadis, such as K82 pictured, become very important habitats for hungry and tired passage migrants. Photo Jessleena Suri.

Dominic Rollinson (PhD in biological sciences) came close with the Birding Africa Black Harriers team who identified a very competitive 163 species, placing them a commendable joint sixth out of the 19 teams. This was an especially good result considering that none of the team had experience of birding in Israel.

The Youth Africa Birders were also on track for a competitive total before disaster struck – they lost a precious hour of daylight when they got stuck in the notoriously soft sand of the Israeli desert. They weren’t able to recover their momentum, and ended the day in 11th place with 144 species.

Birds were the biggest winners

“The Champions of the Flyway is so much more than a bird race”, de Blocq said. “The event brings people together from all over the world to help contribute to solving a problem that transcends political, religious and geographical boundaries. Once again, a joint Palestinian–Israeli team competed in the race, showing that it’s possible for conservation topics to transcend even the bitterest feuds. At the end of the day the birds were certainly the biggest winners, which is what is important.”

UCT birders excel at Champions of the FlywayThe Youth Africa Birders – (from left) John Kinghorn, Andrew de Blocq, Jessleena Suri and Werner van der Walt – enjoying the Ben Gurion Memorial Garden above the Ein Avdat canyon. Photo Werner van der Walt.

Suri added, “Attending Champions of the Flyway 2017 was one of the most inspiring things I have had the privilege of doing. I am a complete raptorphile, so a highlight for me was definitely the thousands of buzzards, kites and eagles that could be seen migrating over the Eilat Mountains on a daily basis. Migration becomes a real spectacle when you can see it on such a massive scale with your own eyes – wow!”

This year US$63 000 was donated to Doğa Derneği, BirdLife International’s affiliate in Turkey. They are undertaking a number of programmes to combat the illegal killing of migrant birds on Turkish soil, including educational programs with the children of Syrian refugees.

In the four years that the competition has been running, it has raised a total of US$240 000.

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