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.

I didn’t hesitate for a moment when Callan Cohen, of Birding Africa, phoned me earlier this year with an invitation to attend COTF in Eilat in March. Truth be told, I still can’t believe that in a few weeks I’ll be standing in the desert in Israel, watching flocks of raptors thermaling above me. A lifelong dream come true. Oohing and aahing next to me, will be Dominic Rollinson, Ethan Kistler and of course Callan Cohen. Okay, so the team was chosen, but would should we call ourselves? We wanted something striking and powerful, but with a South African connection…so, after a bit of brainstorming we came up with The Birding Africa Black Harriers. This iconic raptor is near-endemic to South Africa. While it is not a Palearctic migrant, it still undertakes migrations and nomadic wanderings across our region – including a high-speed dash from the West Coast over the Karoo, to reach Lesotho’s highlands to prey on the abundant Sloggett’s Ice Rats there. We also feel that the Black Harrier is symbolic of the beleaguered conservation status of many Southern African species, and raptors in particular. In the new 2016 Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, this species is classified as regionally Endangered, with a population of <1,000 mature individuals. As an aside, the Black Harrier is also the mascot bird of Birding Africa. We emphasized the proudly South African angle by including the silhouette of Table Mountain in the team logo – lekker!

I am super excited and honoured to be representing South Africa in this important cause. In fact, The Birding Africa Black Harriers is not the only South African team that will be competing for the coveted “Champions of the Flyway” title. In addition to the many international teams already registered for the event, we will have some local competition: The Birding Ecotours Youth Africa Birders, made up of our friends John Kinghorn, Werner van der Walt, Jessleena Suri and Andrew de Blocq. While we are not underestimating this formidable team, we feel confident that our years of field experience will triumph over their youthful energy when it comes to the most bird species ticked on the 28th of March! Game on!

Which team actually wins is irrelevant. The Champions of the Flyway event is all about ensuring that future birders can also marvel at the miracle of migration. So whichever team you vote for, please help us to protect our Flyway migrants. We would really appreciate it if you could donate to Champions of the Flyway – no amount is too small. It only takes a few clicks, and every cent donated goes to this cause. Together we can make a difference. Simply click on the donate button at the bottom of this page. Or visit the official COTF website for more information. On behalf of migrants around the world, plus The Birding Africa Black Harriers, we thank you. See you in Eilat!


Meet The Birding Africa Black Harriers

CALLAN COHEN has spent much of his life traveling to the remotest parts of Africa in search of birds, with his highlights being finding Congo Peafowl after 17 days of walking in Africa’s largest rainforest in 2005, Warsangli Linnets in the Daalloo mountains of Somalia, and rediscovering Namuli Apalis in Mozambique, not seen since it was described to science in 1932. He has led over 100 tours and expeditions to 23 African countries for Birding Africa, a bird tour company he founded in 1997. Callan also founded Cape Town Pelagics which runs weekly pelagic trips and donates all its profits to albatross conservation. One of his main objectives is sharing Africa’s birds with others. He has co-authored two birding books, including the Southern African Birdfinder, a guide to finding over 1400 species in the southern third of Africa and Madagascar. Callan is also a research associate of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of Ornithology at the University of Cape Town, where he completed his doctorate on the evolution of African desert birds in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley.
Originally from the United States, ETHAN KISTLER began birding at the ripe age of 10 when he literally woke up one morning and decided that he wanted to become a birder. Since then he’s worked field jobs from Ohio to Alaska, traveled to over 30 countries on 5 continents, and led birding trips throughout North America and Africa (where he now lives). When not leading tours, he’s chasing vagrants showing up in the Western Cape, off on spontaneous birding jaunts, and reviewing data as one of eBird’s data reviewers for much of the continent. Previously the Education and Outreach Specialist for Black Swamp Bird Observatory and director-at-large of the Ohio Ornithological Society, Ethan’s main focus now is guiding full-time for Birding Africa having fallen in love with the continent.
DOMINIC ROLLINSON has been birding for most of his life, since a school project in second grade ignited his passion. Growing up in Zuluand (South Africa) he spent most weekends birding the various game reserves and forests in the area, and has travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He has since moved south to Cape Town for a PhD in seabird conservation at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. His PhD has meant he has spent many months onboard tuna longline vessels over the last few years aiming to reduce seabird mortality in tuna longline fisheries. He works as a part-time guide for Birding Africa and regularly guides pelagic trips off Cape Point for Cape Town Pelagics. One of his birding highlights was 3 weeks on the Shetland Islands (Scotland) during the autumn migration and he cannot wait to witness the spring migration in Israel.

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.


You CAN help. Be a Flyway Champion by donating to this important project. Your contribution, no matter how small, will make a difference in the race for saving migratory birds from illegal hunting in the Mediterranean. Say no to guns, nets, traps, limesticks. Your donation will help DOĞA DERNEĞI/the experts in Turkey to combat illegal killing of birds. There is no place for uncontrolled and unsustainable killing of birds for sport. Anywhere. Anytime.
In addition, please help spread the word! Share this blog post, or any other COTF media far and wide. Let’s make 2017 the best fundraiser yet! You can follow Champions of the Flyway on Facebook, or via Twitter: @flywaychampions and #COTF17.