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The ABA-Leica Subadult Wheatears Ride Again; Here’s How to Help!

Each March, teams from around the world assemble in the Negev Desert of Israel for one of the world’s greatest birding competitions: a big day to see as many species of possible in 24 hours within the confines of Southern Israel. This epic game– fittingly named Champions of the Flyway– will take the players from barren deserts hiding sandgrouse and wheatears, to salt pans swarming with shorebirds, to lush kibbutzim, respite for migrants and vagrants alike. Sandwiched between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Arabian and Sahara Deserts, Southern Israel acts as a funnel for birds moving from Africa to Europe and Central Asia, and has made a name for itself as one of the world’s great migration hotspots.

However, this event is much more than an exercise in recreational listing and an opportunity to see amazing bird species. No, the competition is in fact mainly conservation oriented. Each team works hard in the weeks leading up to the race to raise funds for a particular bird conservation NGO. Historically, this has always focused on ending bird poaching in the Mediterranean Basin, a serious issue with up to 25 million birds slaughtered each year. However, for the 2019 race, the organisers have decided that there is another Old World conservation crisis that is so serious that it requires immediate action.

That cause is the illegal poaching of vultures in Africa’s Rift Valley, and money this year is being donated to Nature Kenya (the BirdLife partner in the country). Harmless scavengers, vultures are tragic collateral damage in the clash between humans and the natural world. As farmers increasingly come into contact with large carnivores such as lions and leopards, they commonly resort to putting out poisoned cattle carcasses to kill the perceived threat to their livestock. Unfortunately, these carcasses attract vultures too which are killed by the dozens. A single poisoned cow can directly kill up to 150 vultures– and many more tangentially due to feeding on carcasses of hyenas, jackals, and other scavengers that were killed by the poison. The statistics are bleak. Four African vulture species are listed as critically endangered with another three as endangered. The consequences are just as dire. Without vultures as scavengers, there has been an uptick in the spread of disease. This is most noticeable in India where rabies rates have peaked as vulture populations have crashed, with the inevitable result that India is now the country with the highest incidence of rabies in the world.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for the beautiful vultures of Africa. Nature Kenya is doing some incredible work to reverse these trends. Their most essential initiative is the creation of rapid response teams to deal with poisoning. These teams will arrive on the site of reported poisoned carcasses, remove them, remove any vulture carcasses that have already accumulated, and give veterinary treatment to sick birds. This approach has been extremely effective, with a BirdLife International article just a few weeks ago reporting of hundreds of vultures saved by a rapid response to a hyena carcass.

Photo: BirdLife International

Nature Kenya focuses on long-term solutions to the crisis too with efforts to educate local communities about the danger of poisoning and to spread awareness about the vultures’ plight. This is absolutely essential since, so long as communities continue to utilize poison, the vultures will continue to die.

Last year, I organised the first ever young birder team from the Western Hemisphere to compete in Champions of the Flyway. Dubbed the ABA-Leica Subadult Wheatears, this group of four passionate college students set out with drive and enthusiasm into uncharted waters. The opportunity to represent not only the community of birders at the ABA, but the young birder community specifically was an incredible one and we hoped that our experiences would help inspire future generations. When all was said and done, we raised over $5,000 for last year’s cause–BirdLife Serbia and BirdLife Croatia– had an incredible time in Israel, saw 147 species on the big day, and came away determined to do more and better next year (Editor’s Note: Get in inside look at last year’s Champions of the Flyway on the American Birding Podcast). 

This is where you come in. We’ve set an ambitious goal of $10,000 (twice last year’s goal) and are set on reaching it. The team has put in a ton of effort giving talks at bird clubs, crafting social media pushes, harassing friends and family for every last cent, brainstorming creative fundraising solutions, organising logistics, and everything else that goes into planning an effort like this. Already we’ve raised $3,000, and are aiming for more. If you can spare any amount– from $10 to $10,000– it will go directly to Nature Kenya and will have a direct, meaningful impact on conserving Africa’s imperiled vultures to halt their slide to extinction. As a bonus, you’ll also be supporting a group of talented, driven young people in our effort to make a difference and make sure that the young birders of the future still have vultures to appreciate.

If you want to learn more about Champions of the Flyway, vulture conservation, and our efforts, visit the Champions of the Flyway website and follow the team on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram where we will be posting regular updates, especially during race week in Israel.

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Aidan Place

Aidan Place

Aidan Place started his birding career while growing up on farm in rural Pennsylvania in the United States. It was there that he first fell in love with nature and particularly everything to do with birds. Since then, his love of birding has taken him everywhere from the steaming jungles of Panama to the barren steppes of Kazakhstan. Aidan’s particular birding interests include world birding (but this will be his first time in the Middle East!) as well as birding by ear and photography. He is also one of the editors of the American Birding Association’s young birder blog, The Eyrie, and writes his own personal birding blog, The Birding Place.
Aidan Place

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