Champions Strategies

Barak Granit 24/02/2016 00:00

One month and 5 days to go until the Champions of the Flyway race and I start to feel this funny itch in my fingers… I'm sure all COTF 2016 participants abandoned all secondary issue in their lives i.e. work, family etc. and focus on one thing only - how to win this bloody race!

 

In this article I will overview three strategies used by most teams. The common theme to all, is that every strategy chosen, no matter how good it is, has a cost - whether it's time, species or the precious morning hours that can be spent in one place only.

Racing the COTF is the 'art of trade-off' or any other cliché you'd like to use. Anyway - this is my take, and I have learned that the team that makes the best trade-offs has the highest chance of winning with a little help from Fortuna, the Goddess of Luck. Let's go:

 

 

 

Strategy 1: Eilat -> Yerucham/Nizzana

 

This strategy was used by the 2015 Champion's winners - the Cape May American Dippers.

The main advantage of this strategy is that you spend the entire morning in the southern Arava where the diverse birding hot-spots and habitats are all concentrated along a 50-60 km stretch, thus enabling very efficient morning without much driving dead-time. A big advantage, compared to the two alternative strategies.

 

The first night will be probably spent owling at Yotvata and nearby. The morning will start at Holland Park, North Beach, KM19 sewage ponds, KM20 saltpans or IBRCE bird-park in any order. Late morning will be dedicated to Samar or Elifaz date plantations and sewage, Yotvata complex including the Arabian Warbler site, perhaps Kibbutz Lotan, Ketura sewage, and other small sites, when time is flying and noon approaching.

Yet, the raptor migration that crosses over the southern Arava in the morning hours can add some important species which is another big advantage.

 

 

A 'luxurious' disadvantage for this strategy is that there are just too many sites to check and some good places must be left unchecked, but the choice which sites should be checked should be based on information gathered during the scouting days.

Teams choosing this strategy will probably have much bigger lists by noon compared to the teams that start in Nizzana/Yerucham, but here comes the big challenge: in order to win, the northern species must be added thus driving to Sde Boker and Yerucham or Nizzana is a must.

 

Teams doing that will arrive there late during the less productive hours and will probably miss some important scarcer species such as some of the sandgrouses, raptors like Lanner and others.

 

 

 

 

Another big challenge comes in the 2nd evening, when there will be limited time for owling around Sde Boker as all teams must be back at Eilat by 23:59, and it is not easy to give up Eurasian Scop's, Little, Barn, Long-eared and Eurasian Eagle Owl which are far harder or impossible to find in the far south.

You will also miss Lichtenstain's Sandgrouse drinking at km 19 - they only come in to drink at dusk and evening at the North Beach is often more productive than early morning at this time of year, but again, you won't be there to enjoy it while all the other teams will.

To sum up this strategy: it has the strongest 1st half of the day, including the best raptor migration but the  weakest 2nd half, least night-time birding and tiring long drive back to Eilat.

 

Strategy 2: Nizzana -> Eilat.

 

This strategy was the commonest among teams in the first 2014 COTF, but was less popular during the 2015 race.

The big advantage of this strategy is the possibility to safely get Nizzana specialties such as Macqueen's Bustard, 4 sandgrouse species, Cream-coloured Courser, Little Owl, some larks, Spectacled Warbler, Pallid and Hen Harriers (all 'priceless' species) already on the first half hour of the morning. On a good day Nizzana can hold many terrestrial migrants, and some raptor species that can be very difficult to get at Eilat, such as Lesser Spotted Eagle.

 

 

 

 

The teams starting here enjoy the advantage of two proper relaxed night birding sessions. The first night should be dedicated to Sde Boker area including the species that were mentioned in the previous strategy. The 2nd night should be dedicated to Yotvata area targeting Egyptian Nightjar, Pharaoh Eagle Owl and perhaps Caspian Plover.

 

However, teams starting at Nizzana will face the first big problem when they decide to move on to the next destination: whether it is Sde-Boker or Yerucham Lake, the teams will face 60 km drive equivalent to 35-40 expensive almost dead-birding minutes - the trade-off for the Nizzana species. Both sites hold important ‘northern’ species - Blackbird, Great Tit, Syrian Woodpecker, Great Spotted Cuckoo etc.

Sde-Boker adds important raptor species (Griffon and Egyptian Vulture, Lanner, Bonelli's Eagle). Yeruham can adds Purple Swamphen and has a very good wetland. Teams that decide to maximize the morning hours by 'squeezing the lemon' out of every site, and add some sites along the way south such as Uvda Valley and Neot Smadar may discover that they have only 2.5-3 hours left in the entire Southern Arava.

 

Since KM20, KM19 and North Beach are a must, some important hotspots such as Yotvata must be skipped! This is exactly what happened to the Arctic Redpolls - the Finnish team who ended 2nd International in 2015, one species short of the American Dippers. To summarize what we have learned so far: starting at Nizzana or Eilat will end in more or less the same number of species.   

And if you got confused by now, let's take a look at the 3rd Strategy which was the most popular in last year's COTF.

 

 

 

 

Strategy 3: Yerucham -> Eilat skipping Nizzana altogether.

 

The idea behind this strategy is simple and can be a winner: trade Nizzana specialties for extra time in the southern Arava with better morning coverage of Sde-Boker and Yerucham, and waste far less time on driving.

 

It is not an easy decision to let go of some Nizzana species. It means you have to compensate by being very accurate in what you do elsewhere. You may also discover the advantages of leaving the northern section 1-2 hours earlier than the 'Nizzana' teams. But the pro can be your con.

By running south too fast you might discover too late that on top of the Nizzana species you've already missed, some very easy species are still missing on your list. Don't count on Holland Park to provide you Subalpine or even Orphean Warbler as by the time you get there in the late afternoon you will find a very windy park, voided of migrants.

 

 

Still, there are big advantages to this strategy: you may compensate some lost Nizzana species at Hameishar or Uvda Valley, such as Spotted and crowned Sandgrouse, and some larks. You will also have enough time in the Southern Arava to cover properly sites such as Yotvata, Neot Smadar and the southernmost section, and connect with the scarcer species there. Most importantly, this is the most efficient and shortest route of all.

 

My team finished overall 2nd last year scoring 176 species, after very little scouting. This testifies that it can work, but again - it demands accuracy and good familiarity with the sites.

 

 

 

Eyal, Nir and Barak - the Yerucham team, getting over excited

entering the race checkpoint at 2 AM on the 2015 COTF

 

These are the commonest versions. There must be more options to play with. May your strategy be what you have chosen and remember this: it is not the remote secretive Hooded Wheatear that wins your race. It's the proper scouting, the proper planning and a late Meadow Pipit that counts in the end.

 

Good luck and more important great fun to all.  

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