The Birdwatching Centre in Eilat (picture credit Yuval Dax)
Champions of the Flyway, in association with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and Birdlife International is a 24 hr bird race which takes place in southern Israel during the height of the migration season in March. The event has taken place since 2014 and raises money and awareness for bird conservation.
Israel is a global hotspot for bird migration with the event taking place to make the most of this incredible spectacle. Teams travel from across the globe as well as many local groups to take part in the race. The Champions of the Flyway Trophy is awarded to the team who documents the most species in 24hrs. Every member of the team has to either see or hear the bird in order for it to qualify so that it can be added to the list. To date, the unbeaten winning score of 186 individual species was achieved in 2018.
Additional awards are also up for grabs for the team who raises the most money as well as the team which promotes the event most successfully.
The playing field is situated in the Negev desert region of Israel down towards the Red sea in the southern city of Eilat. Competitors race through mountains, across desert and grass plains, fresh water pools and coastline.
The Negev desert, southern Israel (picture credit Yuval Dax)
Participating teams endeavour to raise as much money as possible from donations and corporate sponsors. For 2023 the beneficiary is the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK) and Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB), and all funds raised will help towards the protection of the critically endangered Red-breasted Goose - one of the world’s most threatened goose species.
Prior to the event, teams often arrive a few days earlier to give them chance to scout areas within the playing field – this intel can prove invaluable and essential to achieve a wide variety of species count. Based on these scouting missions, teams will develop a strategy and route for the race day. The champions of the flyway event kicks off with the opening ceremony, a chance for all the teams to be officially introduced, enjoy a meal and partake in a beer or two. The following day, a pre-race meeting is held at the Birdwatching centre in Eilat. This is a chance for teams to share knowledge of the areas and get themselves acquainted with all rules and regulations. One thing to note about the Champions of the Flyway event is that it is an extremely friendly one. The camaraderie between competing teams is wonderful with all teams sharing information freely.
Raceday itself begins at midnight and runs for 24 hours. Teams can be in any location within the playing field at the start of the race. Before the 24 hours expires, all teams must report back to the Birdwatching centre in Eilat to submit their list and have it verified by the organisers. The list is scrutinised thoroughly and it is not uncommon for species to be removed.
Team Kowa Scopers grabbing their gear on race day
Following the exhausting race day, the event closes the following day with an awards ceremony for the winning teams and a chance for teams to say their goodbyes before heading home.
Kowa had not previously taken part in the event, but Team leader Jeff Bouton from Kowa America Corporation was and is a Champions of the Flyway veteran having competed in previous years even taking the title with a former team.
Jeff’s idea was to do something different in 2023 - to enter Kowa as a pure digiscoping team. It seemed only fitting as Kowa is often regarded as THE digiscoping company. As the first ever digiscoping team – they had to write their own rules. They could not count bird songs, or flitting glances of species from the car like the others. Every bird had to be captured on a camera connected to a spotting scope or binocular and it had to be identifiable.
The Kowa team consisted of Jeff Bouton, Paul Kardos, Erik Ostander, Austin Bouton and Rob Wilton.
This was a mighty challenge and the team knew that they would never be able to submit the highest species list. Not only were they limited by technical digiscoping challenges, finding the species, photographing it and identifying it – but were also limited to the hours in which they could race. Whilst some teams left their hotel prior to the kick off time of Midnight to be in specific areas before sunrise. Kowa scopers enjoyed a few extra hours in bed ready to start digiscoping as dawn light first broke.
The team had a lot of gear to take out on the race day consisting of the fluorite crystal TSN-99/88 PROMINAR large objective Kowa spotting scopes – these optics really pack an optical punch and give the edge on low light performance, perfect for photographing species at dawn and the last few minutes of dusk. They packed digiscoping adapters for smartphone and DSLR cameras and had to carry additional battery packs to keep them powered throughout the day.
Digiscoping in action
The plan was for one team member to take a straight spotting scope with a DSLR adapter and camera body. This set up was ideal for capturing birds in flight or fast moving warblers in the bushes. The rest of the 5 man squad relied on smartphone adapters – for the ultimate in speed and convenience of connecting a camera to scope. The good thing about all Kowa adapters is that they are easy to use and connect, meaning the team could quickly swap between observation and photography.
The Kowa Scopers spent 15 hours in the field leaving their hotel at 4.30am. Starting their adventure with pre-dawn ambient light out in the desert and grass plains of KM72 photographing Larks, Pipits and Shrikes to name just a few. But, as dawn fully broke a real spectacle began to unfold as hundreds of Black Kites, Eurasian Marsh-Harriers, and Eurasian Kestrels began to take off from the shrubs around the team and fill the sky in an unbelievably close taste of the raptor migration that takes place in the Negev. As the day went on, so did their tally of unique species digiscoped. Jeff had an ambitions target of 100 individual digiscoped birds and as the hours ticked by they got closer and closer. By 7.30pm the light had gone with the final bird photographed – a beautiful Pied Kingfisher at the Birdwatching centre in Eilat. The team were grateful of the lowlight performance of the Kowa spotting scopes letting them utilise every moment from dawn till dusk.
The final list? 96 INDIVIDUAL bird species digiscoped. All captured via a connected spotting scope and camera and all identifiable. The team, though absolutely exhausted, were completely elated. It will be an experience they will never forget for the rest of their lives. A short drive back to the hotel and a few beers were enjoyed by all.
One of the many species photographed, a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
Who knows maybe next year we will see an official digiscoping competition included in the Champions of the Flyway event?
The 2023 Champions of the Flyway team awarded for the largest bird list in 24 hrs: The Wrens
The Guardians of the flyway awarded to the team who raises the most money for conservation: KOWA Women in Steppe
The Knights of the flyway awarded to the team for the most active promotion of the event: Vortex scrub Robins
The teams get together for the closing cermony
The 2023 event has so far raised $40,000 and rising for the conservation of the coitally endangered Red-breasted Goose.
If you want to learn more about this amazing event and donate to the cause, visit the Champions of the Flyway website: www.champions-of-the-flyway.com.