The World’s Greatest Flyway Race

An intrepid team of Americans tackles a birding marathon in the desert.

Want to see adventure birding at its finest? Then look no further than the droves of binocular-wielding die-hards who flock to the baked deserts of Israel each year in a grueling, high-octane quest for birds.

On March 25, 15 teams of seasoned birders from around the globe convened in the Israeli city of Eilat for the Champions of the Flyway Race, an event organized by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. With 24 hours on the clock, their task was to count as many species as possible in the southern Negev Desert. “The whole thing is like a chess match balancing risk and reward, the one constant being the finite daylight hours, which invariably slip away faster than it seems they should,” says Jeff Bouton, a bird photographer and guide for Leica who competed this year with the American Dippers, a birding quartet that also included Doug Gochfeld, Glen Davis, and Michael O’Brien. The team, which represented the Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey and was sponsored by Leica, took home the 2015 Champions title with an impressive haul of 168 species.

Why go to such a hot, dry place to count birds? Although Eilat is in the desert, its watery network of lush oases, lagoons, and man-made features like canals and salt ponds, provide vital stopover habitat for hundreds of bird species that make the long northbound journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe each spring.

For international teams like the Dippers, the countdown began long before late March. “Trying to learn the lay of the land over a 125-mile-long track and figuring out where to bird, while learning new birds you’ve never seen or heard, is daunting to say the least,” says Bouton. For Davis, the “ears” of the group and a guide with BirdQuest, preparation meant weeks of listening to local birdcalls, over and over, so he’d know them by heart when he touched down in Israel. “I’m better with my ears than I am with my eyes,” he says.

Route planning was also a mammoth task. To plot their course, the Dippers spent months studying maps and carefully connecting the dots between canals, desert wadis (dry streambeds that swell with rain in the wet season), date palm plantations, marshland, and manmade habitat such as sewage lagoons—all potential reservoirs for migrating birds. “The key is to visit a wide diversity of habitats, and connect them in the most efficient way,” says O’Brien, a veteran Champions marathoner and a guide with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. According to Davis, the Dippers also had a “secret weapon”: Gochfeld, a bird guide with BRANT Tours, had been volunteering with the International Birding and Research Center to monitor the migrations over Eilat a month before the race. He was already familiar with the landscape and the birds by the time the rest of the team arrived. It was hardly a relaxing reunion: Right away, team members did a dry run of their carefully plotted route. Then it was time to catch some shut-eye.

Race day began at the stroke of midnight. Under the cover of starlight, the Dippers tracked down Negev’s desert owls. By sunrise they’d reached Eilat’s North Beach, where they scanned the Gulf of Aqaba, an arm of the Red Sea, for gulls and terns. From there they forged northward on a trail that sent them weaving through desert wadi habitat, where they ticked Trumpeter Finches and Eurasian Blackcaps off the checklist. On date palm plantations they spied Eurasian Blackbirds, Redwing Thrushes, wrynecks, and nightingales. At reservoirs and lagoons they found herons, egrets, grebes, cormorants, coots, and rails.

But the highlight of the day occurred at a stop that wasn’t on the itinerary. As they drove toward a kibbutz site called Yotvata, the Dippers spied streams of birds gliding over the foothills of the nearby mountains. They were witnessing one of Eilat’s fabled raptor migrations: thousands of Steppe Buzzards mixed with Black Kites and eagles. As the team watched, transfixed, precious minutes slipped away. But it was worth it, Bouton says. “It’s spectacles like this that you live for as a birder.” (And it was a nice addition to the checklist.)

Despite the feverish tallying and stiff competition, camaraderie is very important to the race. Competitors swap notes about sightings, and on race day, 600 tips were shared over an inter-team chat. “Everyone was chiming in, trading information,” Davis says. When one of the team’s cars was mired in sand, rivals diverted their time to help push it out.

This communal spirit was prevalent last year as well, when the winning team, the Palestinian Sunbirders, decided to share the grand prize. The Sunbirders, a mixed Israeli-Palestinian team, recognized their home advantage and decided to celebrate a joint victory with the runners-up. “The idea was not taking the prize,” says Ibrahim Salman, one of this year’s competing Sunbirders. “We wanted to raise the importance of being cooperative.”

Twenty stops and 24 hours later, the four dust-coated and weary Dippers had come full circle to the launching point. Their final sighting—a White-eyed Gull—occurred right before midnight; it ended up making all the difference. When the teams turned in their lists, the Dippers had come out on top, with 168 species—one more than the runners-up. The team donated its prize, Swarovski binoculars, to BirdLife Cyprus, for educating children and giving them an intimate view of their precious local birds.

“Despite the fun of birding here, the camaraderie with new global friends, and spirit of friendly competition,” says Bouton, “the key focal point of the event was to raise funding and global awareness for the specific chosen conservation cause the event supports—in this instance, the illegal hunting of songbirds migrating through Cyprus.”

Each year, almost three million songbirds cruise across the Negev Desert, only to be trapped by mist nets and lime sticks on Cyprus, where they are harvested for meat. For two years now, the Champions of the Flyway Race has focused on their plight, raising awareness—and cash—to mend the sad reality these birds face during migration. This year’s participants raised almost $50,000, all of which was donated to BirdLife Cyprus to help fight trapping and protect the island’s birds.

For the Dippers, the bird that embodied their conservation effort the most was ironically one that was spotted before race day. As they were scouting out part of their wadi route, the team saw a Cyprus Warbler—a secretive species that no one found during the race—which migrates to the Mediterranean to breed. “Its next stop from here was very likely Cyprus, where it would have to potentially face the gauntlet of illegal trappers,” Bouton says. The Dippers glimpsed the bird for only a fleeting moment, before it took flight. “Honestly, we could have just been done at that point,” says Davis. “We looked at it and said, ‘You’re the reason we’re here.’ ”


Correction: The article previously stated that Doug Gochfield works with BRAN Tours. The correct company name is BRANT tours.