Europe and Central Asia
16 Apr 2020

Champions of the Flyway: Staying home to save the Steppe Eagle

Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis) © Moshe Cohen
By BirdLife Europe and Central Asia
Two human qualities that can’t be confined, even in the face of a global pandemic, are ingenuity and solidarity.
The incomparable classic fund- and awareness-raising global birding and conservation event, Champions of the Flyway (COTF), has overcome diverse challenges since its founding in 2014, but none so seemingly intractable as this year.  How do you bring together 30 worldwide teams in a bird-watching competition when the world’s watchword is #StayatHome?
Well Dan Alon and Jonathan Meyrav of the Israel Ornithological Center and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel were undaunted. The event was set to take place on 31 March in Eilat but by early March it became clear that lockdowns and quarantines were in everyone’s future so they got cracking.
Since 2014 the Champions of the Flyways event has raised over $500,000 for projects tackling the illegal killing of birds migrating along the flyways. Over the past six years they’ve shed light on the many challenging issues migratory birds face, helping seven different Birdlife International partners in their ongoing struggle against the slaughter of migratory birds on the ground. 
This year they and the Champions teams were set to support their fellow BirdLife conservationists in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to help protect the majestic but tragically fast-declining Steppe Eagle. These beautiful, iconic birds of prey, once widespread and common throughout their range, are now classed as Globally Endangered by the IUCN, who estimate there may now be as few as just 50,000 mature individuals left on the planet.
With global travel shutdown, gathering together to compete in the counting of migratory species seemed insurmountable. But in this digital, virtual world, teams were encouraged to look around wherever they were around the planet and count what they spotted locally - raising money from their supporters as the day unfolded. And count they did.
The 2020 Champions of the Flyway 30+ teams, comprised of over 400 birdwatchers, counted over 1130 species, 10% of the world’s species, in their 24 hour marathon. Even more magnificently, they raised well over $42,000 for the Steppe Eagle doing so. Teams with wonderful names such as the Warsaw Woodpeckers, the Little Bastards, Knightjars of the Round Table and the Boring Warblers sent in reports on-line from around the globe.
A week ago, Meyrav and Alon hosted a virtual FaceBook-broadcast ceremony to salute the undisputed champions of 2020. A diverse first-time all-women’s team, Women in Steppe, hailing from places as diverse as the east and west coasts of the USA, Trinidad and Tobago, Israel and Uzbekistan, they raised an astounding $15,500 for the cause, and in doing so snared the two prestigious prizes the COTF handed out this year. They are the Guardians of the Flyway award for the terrific monies they raised from the ether they were limited to, and the Bill Thompson III Knights of the Flyway award for doing the most to promote the cause and spread the word, not least through their very cool merchandising from tee shirts, to mugs and stickers.
Meyrav called all 400 participants “winners” and joined with Patricia Zurita, BirdLife International CEO, also attending virtually from her home in Cambridge UK, in saluting Women in Steppe and everyone associated with the event for overcoming and triumphing over the planet’s current circumstances. Zurita highlighted that the extraordinary even unexpected success of the 2020 Champions event is testament not only to the wonderful SPNI team, but the entire BirdLife family and their supporters who work in their lives daily to repair our connection to and protection of nature. If COVID-19 teaches us anything, it is that we must bring the same urgency to fighting climate change and the destruction of the planet’s biodiversity as we are bringing to fighting this virus which has emerged in part due to our cavalier disregard for nature.
2021 is sure to bring an exciting year of progress for the survival of the Steppe Eagle and also exciting developments in how the event will unfold physically and virtually with this year’s superb success under its belt.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.