What do you find most inspirational about birds? Perhaps their spectacular and endlessly variable plumages; perhaps their breathtaking displays or evocative songs; or perhaps their fascinating ecological and behavioural adaptations to survive in their specific habitats? Whatever the case may be, all birders will agree that birds’ power of flight is truly inspirational. We as humans, constrained by the limitations of passports, borders and airplane ticket prices, can only marvel at the freedom and scale of many birds’ movements across the globe.
The miracle of mass migration is something I’ve always dreamed of witnessing. In a few strategic places on the surface of the planet, millions of birds funnel through narrow geographic ‘bottlenecks’, providing an unparalleled visual spectacle. One of these magical hotspots, is around the trendy tourist town of Eilat in Israel, where the Gulf of Aqaba at the northern end of the Red Sea joins the Arabian mainland. This is exactly where I’ll be in late March this year. But first, let’s back up a little bit….
The flipside to using traditional and established migration routes, termed flyways, is that man can exploit migratory birds at predictable times of the year. Estimates of the number of raptors, storks, cranes, wildfowl and other large migratory birds that are illegally shot along their migration routes, every single year, are staggering. At the same time, smaller migrants such as the multitude of migratory warblers, shrikes, wheatears and flycatchers are trapped with mistnets or cruel ‘limesticks’. Seasonal killing of migratory birds is practice that occurs commonly in many Mediterranean countries. All in all, we’re talking about many millions of migratory birds that are killed every spring and every autumn, en route to or from their breeding and wintering grounds. This is in addition to the normal challenges that migrants face: deserts, oceans, headwinds, storms, predators, exhaustion, navigation and of late, changing global climates and diminishing natural habitats.
..we’re talking about many millions of migratory birds that are killed every spring and every autumn…
I firmly believe that migratory birds do not “belong” to any one nation. And no country has the right to kill them. The conservation of these astounding birds is critical in countries on their breeding grounds, transit routes and non-breeding ranges alike. What does it help that we protect birds here in South Africa, while hunters in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and elsewhere just kill them on migration? As such, I for one, am vehemently opposed to the illegal killing of birds during migration periods along the flyways that connect the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Declines in range and abundance are already apparent in many species.
This may sound like something that is happening far away, in some other region, and has no relevance to us down here at the southern tip of Africa. Far from true! The Mediterranean flyway is used by the majority of our Palearctic migrants. So a large proportion of the birds that we enjoy in summer had to run the gauntlet of guns, nets, traps and limesticks on their journey. These include:
- White Stork
- A great many of our raptors
- Corncrake and Spotted Crake
- A great variety of waders
- Many tern and gull species
- European Bee-eater
- European Roller
- Common Swift
- European Nightjar
- Common Cuckoo
- most of our migratory warblers
- Thrush Nightingale
- Barn Swallow and House Martin
- Red-backed Shrike and Lesser Grey Shrike
- Spotted Flycatcher
What can we do about this global-scale problem?
Champions of the Flyway, a week-long birding event held annually in Israel at peak migration period, is part of the answer. The event focuses on a fund and friendly birding competition in the desert, where teams all over the world celebrate the miracle of migration and compete in a 24-hour bird race. This year, race day falls on Tuesday 28 March.
But far more important than racing around the desert, ticking wheatears, sandgrouse and myriad migrants, is the amount of awareness that the COTF even raises. Through social media, magazine articles and media coverage, this event reaches a worldwide audience of people, and makes them aware of the plight of migratory birds, and for the challenges faced by local conservation organisations. This truly is a global birding event – arguably the biggest single highlight of the world’s birding calendar. Through constant live updates, millions of birders from across the world can follow the unfolding bird race.
Most importantly, the Champions of the Flyway event raises important funds that are allocated to deserving conservation bodies. Last year, more than $70,000 was raised. Where does this money go? Each year, a specific beneficiary is chosen as recipient of the funds generated, in a nation where immediate intervention is critical. This year the spotlight is on Turkey.
Funds raised by the COTF teams will go to Doğa Derneği, the BirdLife partner in Turkey. This phenomenal conservation agency has already put in place a number of hands-on projects to protect the large number of raptors and large soaring birds that funnel through Turkey on migration to and from their breeding grounds. The illegal shooting of such long-lived and slow-breeding birds is utterly unsustainable and cannot be tolerated – these migratory birds belong to all of us! Doğa has already invested an incredible amount of time and resources into the education of the local community and particularly children – in effect guiding them to become birders instead of hunters. Through the establishment of ecotourism projects, the local community can generate an income and therefor an incentive to conserve migrant birds. Another challenge is the influx of Syrian refugees, who have little knowledge of conservation laws and the importance of protection of the natural environment. Doğa Derneği has come up with innovative solutions to this problem.
ABOVE: Western Yellow Wagtail by Dylan Vasapolli.
ABOVE: Common Redshank by Dylan Vasapolli.
ABOVE: Northern Wheataear by Dylan Vasapolli.
ABOVE: Black Kite by Dylan Vasapolli.
ABOVE: Tree Pipit. All the birds pictured above are migrants that cross through the Mediterranean region on their way to the Afrotropics. They need your help! Photo by Dylan Vasapolli.
Hey, that’s me! As his name suggests, FAANSIE PEACOCK lives and breathes birds. He likes to describe himself as a professional birder: when he is not in the field studying bird biology or looking for rarities, he spends his time researching, painting and writing about birds. He has published a number of books, and is both author and illustrator of the best-selling Chamberlain’s LBJs – a ground-breaking guide to southern Africa’s ‘Little Brown Jobs’. The latter includes a number of migratory warblers, flycatchers and wheatears that are threatened by illegal bird trapping along the flyways connecting the Palearctic and Afrotropics. Faansie’s latest book, Chamberlain’s Waders, is a reflection of his passion for migratory shorebirds. In fact, Faansie lives on the outskirts of the picturesque West Coast National Park – arguably South Africa’s top wader-watching hotspot – and he brags that he can watch knots, godwits and turnstones migrating over his house. However, Peacocks may be spotted in a variety of natural habitats throughout Africa. Faansie is a prolific writer of popular and academic articles for magazines, journals and blogs. He is also a popular public speaker that has presented talks and courses on more than 30 topics. Faansie was previously a Curator of Birds at the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History. He holds degrees in Environmental Science, Zoology and Ecology from the University of Pretoria.