Our Almost Big Day

Barak Granit 02/04/2015 00:00

When Eyal Shochat and Nir Sapir asked me to join their team for the Champions of the Flyways bird race, I hesitated. I felt that bird races are both anti-birding experience and stupid, so of course I joined them. I had only one condition - that we take it extremely seriously. And so we ridiculously did.

We had no time for scouting. Luckily on my way back to Tel-Aviv from the Eilat Bird Festival, 5 days before the race, I found a male Hooded Wheatear and a male Spectacled Warbler, two good birds for the race, on road 40. That was almost all our scouting, a big disadvantage when embarking on such an ambitious mission – to compete with over 30 teams, many of which were roaming the desert for a week before the race.

So instead of pre-birding, I invested my time in making huge Excel sheets, that detailed the exact birding time allowed in each chosen location. Such was the strategy I devised: the winners would be the team who will reach Eilat first. As it turned out I was totally wrong, but let's not rush, yet.

 

 

The evening before the race, at Yerucham near the lake, we understood clearly that: A. our plan was too tight; B. there were no Black and white flycatchers around; and C. There was no good crake corner. However, we did found a small wadi by the lake holding Blue Rock Thrush and, at another corner, we found almost all the northern species including Great Tit, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Syrian Woodpecker, Chaffinch, Blackbird and Robin. So with that secret knowledge we went to our guest-house at Yerucham to have a 3 hour sleep.

The Race – the night

We woke up at 01:00 am and drove to Tlalim junction to meet Meidad Goren – the race gatekeeper. The double espresso Nir had there kept him awake throughout the night and the following day. I took the torch and flashed some Stone Curlews - our first species. Easy one. Then Yuval Dax, from the race-media coverage, showed up and took our team photo. That's us, acting as expected:

 

 

And the drive starts. First we checked the Syrian Serins' roost but there was no one home. We continued to Kibbutz Sde-Boker to get some owls. The JBO group just sent a WhatsApp message reporting they had a Long-eared Owl there. It took us ages to find one. Later, in another place, we tried for Little Owl, but in vein. Luckily I decided to imitate an Eagle Owl. It answered immediately to our amazement. Apparently we were the only group to get that species. Next stop was Ben Gurion Grave Park. I imitated Scop's Owl but no one answered. We left that place back to Yerucham when we got another text message: "Scops Owl, Ben Gurion Grave Park"… here I started to curse the team who found the bird -  a habit we adapted and developed throughout the rest of the race… All in good spirit, folks…

 

 

Sunrise

A bird-race means running isn't it? We literally ran while birding. We ran into the wadi to get that Blue Rock Thrush, we ran to the lake corner to get a Savi's Warbler, I ran into the reeds of the artificial lake to bring out a Little Crake, we ran to get the northern species. I ran that day more than I ran during the past 5 Years altogether. Then we got another text message about a Little Bittern and a Great Reed Warbler at the lake's southern side but our plan said that at 06:10 we must leave the lake and it was 06:20 already. And I allowed no legging behind schedule, comes what may. So we left the place with a bang, leaving behind our amazed competitors.

Then, a phone call from channel 2 came in: "Hi, am I speaking with Barak? I want to join you for a while…" Me: "Sorry, no time, Bye".

God, what this race took out of me… I had to apologize personally to many people by the end of that day.

Next stop was "Haroa camp site". Our target species was Hawfinch. Quite easy in the north and in the center, pretty scarce down south. After 30 sec we were amazed to spot a flock of 30 coming from the south and landing in the trees just above the unsuspecting Oz Horine, who didn’t understand why we were rushing to our car slamming the doors and leaving the place in a dust cloud. A hell of a flock, by the way, probably the biggest ever recorded in the Negev Mountain region.   

 

 

 

 

Back in Sde Boker we were so tight we didn’t even get inside the Grave Park. A big mistake. We did get Lanner at the nest, Griffon and Egyptian Vulture and Long-legged buzzard but we didn't got some crucial species such as Black-Bellied Sandgrouse, Southern Grey Shrike, Syrian Serin (2 were seen at the Grave Park) and a Linnet. We even didn't wait for the Bonelli's Eagle to show up. We just rushed south, losing without knowing the best chance we would have of winning. So faithful we were to our principle not to twitch anything the other teams reported on WhatsApp, that we ignored all the messages we got just minutes after we left Sde Boker.

 

And these messages just kept showering of course: every target bird we aimed for. We swore like hell and continued driving. At least we got our Spectacled Warbler on road 40 after 5 minutes of search and we headed to the Meishar.

Here, our speeding paid off: we were the only group that wasn't kicked out by the Army, since we arrived before they started their show-off.  So we had the luck to enter wadi Trashim and get some 10 golden minutes with Spotted Sandgrouses, 2 Temminck's Larks, Bar-tailed Lark, Tree Pipit (our only one for the day), Cream Colored Cursor and some 20 Crowned Sandgrouses that walked just in front of the car. Within 20 minutes only, we speeded off to our next stop – a spot out of nowhere on road 40 - where I found a Hooded Wheatear 5 days earlier.

 

The Hooded Wheatear.

 

A thought came to mind: what happens if a team would pass here, see our car with the flag and the bird-race sticker magnet, stop and see our secret Hooded Wheatear? So we took off the flag and sticker and hid them in the car. Now all left to do was to find the bloody wheatear. It was nowhere to be seen so we decided to…start running all directions till we bump into it. Then, just by chance, I happened to see something flying far away. Eyal ran and I ran after him, and finally we found it perching some 400 meters away. Breathless we came back running to our car only to meet Itai Shani, curious to know what we just found. Really super idea was that thing with flag and the magnet…

 

 

Noon and after

We stupidly wasted precious 40 minutes at Ovda Valley adding only 1 White Stork, a species we will see anyway later on at Yotvata. We added a few species at Neot Smadar and dropped down to the Arava at 13:00 pm.

At Yotvata we added Bimacs, Marsh Harrier, Citrine Wagtail etc. but again wasted a hell a lot of time searching the Pied Wheatear found there in the morning. No luck. A minutes after we left Noam Weiss reported a Namaqua Dove just there. Great… we decided to skip it, and continued to Elifaz Sewage for a Ferruginus Duck and a Pochard. About here we got panicked realizing we still have only 120 species while Noam reported 103 species 3 hours before. To add to our troubles, Eyal's Stomach started to give him hell, something that almost knocked him out for the rest of the day. Our morale stoop down like a Peregrine on a hunt.

At km 20 saltpans we met Dan Alon, the head of the IOC and the guy who was behind this amazing operation, who generously scolded me: "Barak – give up, you have lost the race". If he only knew I felt the same. It was nearly 14:00 and our list size was just shit. What can we do? We thought we are going to end the race with 140 species (last year's record was 169!). Total humiliation.

 

 

 

 

And then, all of a sudden, things started to turn for the best: Running madly, from km 20 saltpans to the nearby date plantation, to km 19 fields and sewage and to the bird park saltpans, we added without noticing tons of species. We even added Imperial eagle while driving. We got to the North Beach, got the Reef Heron, Common Sandpiper and Common tern, drove franticly to Holland Park to add Orphean and Ruppell's Warblers and back to the north beach to add White-eyed Gull and to miss a kingfisher and to get another f***ing WhatsApp about Pallas's Gulls and juv Bonelli's Eagle at km 19.

At the beach we found tons of frustrated birders, depressed, giving up, indifferent, just standing there. Bumping into my friend Gert Ottens, who I know now for 20 years, we barely had time to say hi. We spent there just one minute before driving like madmen to km 19 to get the Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse and Egyptian Goose. Now it was Jonathan Merav, the organizer, the face and the heart behind this bird race encouraged us on the way: "you'd never make it on time" although there was tons of time.

 

 

 

 

At Km 19, at dusk, I met my dearest old friend William Velmalla who was in the Arctic Redpolls team. It was truly a magical moment – all participants were there waiting for the Sandgrouses to come to drink. Finally everyone were relaxed and peaceful, digesting the day away. The birds, amazingly, landed a few meters away from us with no fear at all. I think that for the first time that day people (including us) were enjoying just looking at birds.

We spend the next 5 hours before the bell ring, adding just 1 species – a Scops Owl at Kibbutz Samar. We made an amazing score of 176 species, 56 of them in less than 4 hours of the afternoon. For a short moment we were sure we did the impossible comeback and won. Arriving to the hotel just before midnight we met Avner Rinot who claimed his victory with 3 species more than we did.

Well, let's put the cynicism aside: We had an incredible experience, greatest fun and laughs and at the same time we took it extremely seriously as we planned. We experienced highs and lows and all in between, but above all, it was just Love in the air, shared by everyone, competitors and organizers alike: the love for our hobby, the love for birds, the love for birding and for our birding community. And all that before mentioning the cause - raising money for nature and bird conservation in neighboring Cyprus.

So I want to make a big applause for everyone who organized and participated in The Champions of the Flyways, and above all the IOC team, Jonathan Merav and Dan Alon. Without their initiative and skill, this wonderful experience would not exist.

Oh, and I already gone through our mistakes and corrected the Excel sheets. The winner next year will be the one who reaches Eilat last…  

 

See you there,

 

Barak

 

 

 

land marks