From Cape May to Eilat Bay, birding unites enthusiasts
Both New Jersey and the entire country of Israel are about the same size; and both happen to be happily situated among migratory routes for hundreds of bird species.
A "Big Day" in birding is when bird-lovers flock to a location and spend an entire day with binoculars poised and pencils ready to check off long lists of avian species. After excitedly traveling to and from different parks, lakes, and seashores, the team that spots the most species wins.
Big Days, such as the World Series of Birding in New Jersey, serve as fun and exciting events for birdwatchers and professional birders alike, and they also fund conservation efforts that are critical to ensuring that birds continue to thrive. In fact, to raise money to do just that, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) has started its very own annual Big Day birdathon, Champions of the Flyway.
In many ways, birding in Israel is comparable to birding in the U.S., even New Jersey. "The United States is huge and hosts many different and beautiful environments from desert to mountaintop, from lush subtropical to arctic tundra," Richard Wolfert, an avid birder from New Jersey who traveled to Israel, told From the Grapevine. "Interestingly, most of these environments can also be found in concentrated form in Israel."
A photographer captures photos of birds at the Hula Valley Nature Reserve. (Photo: israelphotogallery/Flickr)
With experience birding in these environments, a team of Israeli birders made their way stateside to the World Series of Birding in May — and won the county-wide competition for Cape May County, N.J.
"Our Big Day was one of the most amazing days of our birding lives," said Jonathan Meyrav, tourism director of the Israel Ornithological Center. "The birds were incredible and the New Jersey Audubon Society put together an incredible event, but what made the day for us was the team effort."
Clearly, the team's expertise birding in a country through which a half billion birds migrate every year has paid off.
"There's a tremendous amount of birding in Israel – it's a major flyway," Robin Gordon, New Jersey native and director of the American Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (ASPNI), told From the Grapevine. "Five hundred million birds migrate over and back every year from western Russia and Eastern Europe, down through the Rift Valley and along into the African continent."
In fact, birders from around the world can watch birds making their way across the country in the spring and in the fall in starkly different but equally beautiful locations: Eilat in the southern region of the country and Hula Valley in the north. The SPNI hosts two festivals each year to celebrate these migrations, with visitors from around the world taking part.
Rene Ebersole, Audubon Magazine features editor, traveled to Israel for a birding expedition. "I found the bird conservationists in Israel to be extremely passionate about birds and wildlife, as well as protecting wildlife habitats and monitoring bird migrations," she told From the Grapevine.
This year's competition in Eilat achieved exactly that. The 2014 Champions of the Flyway event saw more than 300 donations, raising about $60,000 – $30,000 of which went directly to prevent the hunting of migratory birds in the country of Georgia. Fourteen teams of birders from 10 different nationalities competed, with top teams featuring members from the U.S., the U.K. and Finland.
A cattle egret walks along the shore in Eilat. (Photo: Marcel Holyoak/Flickr)
"The race shined a new light on birding, a positive light of peer-hood and sharing, showing that the greatest teams are the ones that manage to find the most birds, but also share their findings with others," Meyrav said.
Next year, an American team will travel to the Eilat birdathon on March 25, Gordon said. Cooperation between the two countries has inspired Israeli conservationists and enabled them to set their sights higher for the upcoming event, which will target conservation efforts in Cyprus. "They are going to try to expand the campaign and get more sponsors in the way the New Jersey people do," she said.
Flamingos and other water birds flock to the Salt Pools in the northern region of Eilat. (Photo: Dafna Tal/Israel Ministry of Tourism)
Interested in starting up a birding hobby? We've gathered some advice for you.
"Find a local mentor and go on local bird walks," Michael Retter, editor of the American Birding Association's Birder's Guide magazine, told From the Grapevine. Grab a guide and know what birds to expect during the time of year.
"Watch with binoculars; use a camera only sparingly and briefly," Retter said. "When you're trying to get a photo, you're not really watching the bird, and you don't notice things like vocalizations and behaviors that may help you identify the bird later." And if you think a camera's distracting, forget the field guide until later. Additionally, Retter warned, refrain from playing bird calls in nature, as it has been shown to hinder breeding success in rare birds.
Retter's last piece of advice: join a local birding organization. Before long, you'll be on your way to the World Series of Birding – or even across the sea.
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