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Europe and Central Asia

Using a ‘race’ to celebrate migration and prevent illegal killing of birds

By Jim Lawrence, 15 Mar 2016

Springtime’s natural momentum is beginning to build and primal urges are causing migratory birds – including iconic returning summer visitors like swallows and storks – to hurry back to their breeding grounds. Those particularly fascinated by Earth’s natural avian rhythms – birders – are preparing to gather where the miracle of migration can be witnessed at its best.   

Nowhere provides a better opportunity for this than the Red Sea coastal resort of Eilat in southern Israel, where bird migration is always spectacular. As well as being a natural bottleneck that birds pass through in huge numbers, Israel is also one of the few places migrating birds fly free, unthreatened by the terrible persecution they face in so many other countries further north. During peak times, clouds of migrating buzzards, storks and eagles, borne high on thermals (warm air currents), soar over Eilat’s spectacular Moon Mountains. Lower in the valley, freshly arrived wading birds form fascinating feeding frenzies at every available patch of fresh water.

It is fitting then, that the BirdLife Partner in Israel, Society for Protection of Nature in Israel, (SPNI) proudly stages a now annual 24-hour bird race event called Champions of the Flyway in Eilat each spring (to be held this year on 29 March) to highlight the plight of migratory birds on behalf of the BirdLife International Partnership. With some 40% of all migratory species in decline globally, the media attention it receives is extremely valuable.

Now in its third year, 15 international teams will take part in this well-choreographed promotional event that focuses international eyes on the issue of illegal bird killing. Leading birders and celebrities from around the world take part and reach out to their many followers through social media.

This raises global awareness and conservation funds to address the urgent threat to migratory birds in the Mediterranean-Black Sea Flyway. With half a billion birds on the move, this is the second largest migratory route in the world.

Champions of the Flyway is unique. Unlike most other bird races, it celebrates the joy of sharing great birding experiences. The high profile participants, the ‘champions’, actively promote their involvement during the build up, creating a buzz around their preparations. By tweeting their sightings and progress in real time during the race, all who follow them can experience the thrill of the event live. Everyone can join in by following here on Twitter and Facebook.  

Each year, Champions of the Flyway shines a light on the issues faced in a different country and helps a leading national conservation organisation tackle the illegal trapping and killing of birds there. This year, the BirdLife Partner in Greece – the Hellenic Ornithological Society (HOS) – will be the recipient of funds raised by the event.

Two priorities will be tackled by HOS; the illegal shooting of birds, like the now globally threatened Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur, in the Greek Islands, and the illegal (and often indiscriminate) trapping of small songbirds such as the European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis for the cage bird trade on the Greek mainland.

While the team who sees the most birds in 24 hours receives the title ‘Champions of the Flyway’, an equally meretricious award, ‘Guardians of the Flyway’, is bestowed on the team raising the most money for conservation.

Please consider becoming a ‘Champion’ yourself and help stop the illegal killing of birds in Greece by making a donation to help one of the three BirdLife teams that are taking part reach their target. The BirdLife Swarovski Optik Racers, The SEO/BirdLife Iberaves Team or The Pterodromoi BirdLife Greece Racers.

Visit the Champions of the Flyway website here and watch our latest video here.