While hundreds of thousands of Israelis flooded cities and highways this week to demonstrate over the government’s judicial reform plans, more than 150 bird enthusiasts, from Israel and overseas, ran around the southern part of the country to spot and photograph as many bird species as possible within 24 hours.
They came from as far afield as Colombia, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, Finland and the UK, forming around 30 groups to compete in the ninth annual Champions of the Flyway contest.
The groups were allocated different areas, stretching from Nitzana in the western Negev to the Arava Junction in the east, and southwards all the way down to Eilat on the Red Sea.
Competitors arrived in advance to scout out the areas and decide on tactics.
The contest, organized by the Society for the Protection of Nature and the international organization BirdLife, ran from midnight on Sunday to midnight on Monday.
This year’s winners were Clil Zeitlin (a two-time winner in the past) with his group, comprising his brother Asaf and his father Avner, who spotted 181 species. They were followed by a group of three volunteers from the Jerusalem Bird Observary — Adam Rosenfeld, Dror Lavi and Mai-Kinneret Korman, with 173 sightings, and a Finnish group, also a two-time winner in the past, which spotted 170 species.
This year, as in previous years, funds were raised to protect migratory birds, particularly from illegal hunting.
More than 35 million birds are hunted illegally in the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East, according to the SPNI.
Jonathan Meyrav, director of tourism and international events at the SPNI who organized the contest, explained that the more than $35,000 raised this year would go toward protecting the illegally hunted red-breasted goose, a rare species that migrates from the northern Russian tundra each fall to Kazakhstan and on to Bulgaria.
Yoav Perlman, director of the SPNI’S Ornithology Center, said, “The extensive international participation in the competition helps to raise global awareness about the problem of illegal hunting, and raises vital funds for the preservation of the red-breasted goose, which is hunted in alarming numbers. The Society for the Protection of Nature illustrates once again its important international role, to preserve nature in the region.”
Flanked by vast deserts to its east and the Mediterranean Sea to its west, Israel forms a key flyway and bottleneck for hundreds of millions of birds that travel between Europe, Asia and Africa every spring and fall, including perching birds (passerines), waders and birds of prey.
More than a million raptors pass through every year, including most of the world’s Levant sparrowhawks and endangered steppe eagles, and hundreds of thousands of honey buzzards and steppe buzzards.
According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s avian ecologist Ohad Hatzofe, some 550 species have been recorded in Israel — a richness that is more characteristic of the tropics on a per-square-kilometer basis. Of this number, some 120 to 130 are either resident year-round or come to nest.
According to Noam Weiss, director of the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat, though, the number of birds passing through Israel on their way from wintering grounds in Africa to breeding grounds in Europe and Asia is in “drastic decline.”