Europe and Central Asia
13 Aug 2018

A race against crime: 5 years of Champions of the Flyway

Champions of the Flyway © SPNI
By Gui-Xi Young

Over the last five years, Champions of the Flyway has raised nearly $350,000 to help BirdLife partners tackle the illegal killing of birds in the Mediterranean. We look back on five years of inspirational partnership.

Champions of the Flyway (COTF) is a race with a difference – not only is it a race against time, it’s also a race against crime: the illegal killing of birds. This annual real-time bird spotting race, organized by BirdLife partner, The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), as part of the Eilat Bird Festival, pitches small teams of world class birdwatchers against each other in a ‘race’ to spot the highest number of birds within a 24 hour period.

The “playing field” is the Israeli birding paradise of Eilat at the southern tip of the Red Sea – home to iconic birds of the region like Little Green Bee-eaters and Palestine Sunbirds. Eilat is also a vital stopover site for millions of migratory birds to and from their northern breeding grounds. The race takes place in late March, when the spring migration reaches its zenith, and keen birders are treated to a dazzling array of species in majestic flight. Soaring birds, such as Black and White Storks, Steppe Eagles and nearly two dozen other species of raptor fly over the Eilat Mountains and up the valley. Herons, crakes and other waterfowl and waders gather in throngs at the nearby salt pools. Passerines, such as wagtails, wheatears and willow warbler flock to irrigated fields in their thousands.

Eilat, Israel © SPNI

The “playing field” is the Israeli birding paradise of Eilat at the southern tip of the Red Sea – home to iconic birds of the region like Little Green Bee-eaters and Palestine Sunbirds

Millions of birders the world over follow the race online as competing teams – sporting names like ‘The Quail Warriors’ or ‘The Maltese Falcons’ – post their sightings live on Twitter. Also being counted is the number of generous donations, with each of the teams raising funding at home and abroad for direct conservation action to protect the birds of the Mediterranean flyway from the threat of Illegal Bird Killing (IKB). As BirdLife reported in its revelatory 2015 publication, the ‘The Killing’, more than 24 million birds are illegally slaughtered in the Mediterranean every year. Protected species are being shot, poisoned or trapped (i.e. with mist-nets or lime-sticks) in order to be eaten as a ‘delicacy’, kept as a caged bird or simply for the sheer ‘sport’ of it.

Race day at Eilat, Israel  © Jim Lawrence

National BirdLife partners at IKB hotspots around Europe and Central Asia are working tirelessly to raise awareness and take concrete conservation actions to protect target species. Thanks to Champions of the Flyway, SPNI has been able to raise nearly $350,000 to help several of our Mediterranean partners in their work. And so, with the autumn migration due to begin in only a few short weeks, and mindful of the perils they face on the flyways, BirdLife celebrates five years of Champions of the Flyways, and looks back on half a decade of conservation action that it has supported. We hope the stories below inspires you to join SPNI at the starting line in 2019. On your marks, get set, GO!


The 2014 Champions:

The Winning Team: The Palestine Sunbirds

Total funds raised: $30,000

The Cause: Tackling the Illegal Killing of Birds in Georgia with SABUKO (BirdLife in Georgia)

The ‘Batumi bottleneck’ in south-west Georgia is quite simply the most important bottleneck for migrating birds of prey in all Eurasia. Every year, more than one million raptors, including 35 distinct species, pass through this narrow stretch between the Black Sea’s east-coast and the high mountains of the Lesser Caucasus. As these enigmatic birds – buzzards, harriers, sparrowhawks and eagles – fly low through the gorge, they themselves become the prey, falling victim to illegal shooting. SABUKO, invested the funds raised by Champions of the Flyway to start a new on-the-ground initiative to turn falconers and local hunters into ‘ambassadors for conservation’. Ambassadors were taught to recognize different bird species – so as to distinguish between huntable and protected species – and were trained to ring and release raptors securely and independently. The project was a big success, proving that collaboration between different interest groups is essential to conservation.

Falconer in Batumi © SABUKO


The 2015 Champions

The Winning Team: Leica Cape May American Dippers

Total funds raised: $60,000

The Cause: Tackling the Illegal Killing of Birds in Cyprus with BirdLife Cyprus

Hunting and trapping of birds is deeply rooted in the historical culture of Cyprus, dating back to the Middle Ages. In the past, small songbirds, such as the island’s iconic Blackcap, were trapped for consumption – a much-needed source of protein at the time. Today, though it is no longer a case of necessity, the Blackcap and other small passerines are illegally trapped in unsustainable numbers to meet demands for a culinary dish called Ambelopoulia which many consider to be a delicacy. The dish has been banned since the 1970s but it persists thanks to a multi-million Euro black market. With help from Champions of the Flyway, BirdLife Cyprus launched a major public awareness campaign – Say NO to Ambelopoulia. A big part of their activities centered on engagement with school children, educating the next generation about nature conservation and the plight of threatened birds through fun board games and cartoons.

Eurasian Bee-eater caught in a mist net  © BirdLife Cyprus


The 2016 Champions:

The Winning Team: The ZEISS Arctic Redpolls

Total funds raised: $67,000

The Cause: Tackling the Illegal Killing of Birds in Greece with HOS (BirdLife in Greece)

More than one million birds are illegally killed in Greece alone each year. For years, HOS has struggled to get support for better legal enforcement. With funding from Champions of the Flyway, it launched a new awareness raising campaign targeting tourists on two of Greece’s most popular holiday destination islands, Santorini and Zakynthos. Islanders here use a variety of methods to shoot and trap birds, some of which are particularly cruel. One common method, “The Lakes”, involves the placing of caged bait birds in a puddle of water in a bid to lure other birds. Yet the hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to these islands for their beautiful beaches, spectacular scenery and glorious weather are blissfully unaware of this. By revealing the dark side of paradise to these tourists, HOS hopes to prompt local authorities to take action to protect birds and avoid backlash from tourists.

Caged White-eared bulbul in Athens © HOS


The 2017 Champions:

The Winning Team: The ZEISS Arctic Redpolls

Total funds raised: $70,000

The Cause: Tackling the Illegal Killing of Birds in Turkey with Doğa Derneği (BirdLife in Turkey)

For more than 15 years, Doğa Derneği has been working to safeguard migratory birds in spring and autumn as they fly through the gauntlet otherwise known as the Bosphorus strait. With funding received from last year’s Champions of the Flyway race, they have been able to step up their on-the-ground local outreach at some of the country’s IKB ‘black spots’. Last autumn, they helped local group LeylekEL (Storkland) to organise the ‘Autumn Migration White Stork Census’ in the Büyükçekmece district of İstanbul. The survey – in which 18 volunteers counted 153,799 individuals – opened up new insights into the little known bottleneck. Since then, Doğa has teamed up with local NGO, Friends of Alakir, to conduct field studies of the Alakir Valley of Antalya – a reputedly important wildlife refuge which had yet to be properly studied.

White storks over Turkey © Cansu Kabakçı


The 2018 Champions:

The Winning Team: Birding Ecotours World Youth Birders

Total funds raised: $100,000

The Cause: Tackling the Illegal Killing of Birds in Croatia and Serbia with BIOM (BirdLife in Croatia) and BPSSS (BirdLife in Serbia)

This year, for the first time, Champions of the Flyway raised funds for parallel actions against IKB in two countries: Croatia and Serbia. The project aims to protect critical passages along the eastern and western Mediterranean flyways as well as the Adriatic flyway by establishing a bird-crime monitoring team in Croatia and increasing the capacity of Serbia’s existing team. BIOM and BPSSS have come up with highly promising on-the-ground actions, including measures to target the illegal use of tape lures during quail hunting. This problem is routinely ignored by law enforcement officers and more than 50,000 quails are illegally killed here each year, along with waterbirds and occasionally also raptors.

Common Quail © Alejandro Sanchez


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