Rachel Neiman
June 20, 2014

In the movie, The Big Year, two birding enthusiasts — played by Steve Martin and Jack Black — try to defeat the world record holder — Owen Wilson — in a year-long bird-spotting competition. That competition is a real thing in which the winners are, according to Wikipedia, “birders to see who can see or hear the largest number of species of birds within a single calendar year and within a specific geographical area”.

With the onset of the migratory season this spring, Israel got its own Big Year — really more of a Big Day — a new international bird race called Champions of the Flyway. The competition was held in the Eilat region, one of the world’s best and most rewarding birding destinations.

Champions-of-the-Flyway_Yoav-Perlman_pallid harrier
Image: Pallid harrier by Yoav Perlman

Competing teams from around the world came together to identify and log as many species as possible in an intense 24-hour contest. According to the organizers, “The birders taking part in the inaugural 2014 event were of many different nationalities and represented a huge variety of businesses, conservation organizations and bird clubs.”

Image: Rueppell’s warbler by Yoav Perlman

“On April 1, 2014, they all lined up together in Eilat with a common purpose – to celebrate the miracle of migration in this spectacular part of the Great Rift Valley and to help protect its future throughout the Africa Eurasia Flyway as part of the famous annual Eilat Bird Festival.”

Image: Courtesy

The Champions of the Flyway bird race was staged by the Israel Ornithological Center (IOC) of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) (which also organizes the Eilat Birds Festival) and is an initiative of the world’s largest nature conservation partnership, BirdLife International and its Migratory Birds & Flyways Program.


Image by Tom Norblad

The final results were announced on April 2. Champions of the Flyway stated, “The teams had achieved something quite remarkable, a cumulative total of 249 species, representing more than half the birds on the Israel list and twelve more than during the entire Eilat Birds Festival in 2013.”

“Leading the field with an incredible 169 species were the Palestine Sunbirders, a crack team of collaborating Palestinian and Israeli birders.”

Image: Courtesy

Given their considerable local knowledge and experience, the Palestine Sunbirders decided to share their title with the highest scoring international team, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology eBirders, “whose total of 165 was a quite remarkable achievement. The International team in second place was the Digital Stringers with a very creditable 159 species and, in third, the highly-skilled Birding Frontiers team recorded 155.”

In addition to receiving their trophy, each winning team member also received a pair of Swarovski CL Pocket binoculars donated by sponsors Swarovski Optik. That’s far more of a prize than the birders in the film who spend 365 days vying for the honor of simply being listed in the prestigious Audubon Society Magazine.

IOC continues its work throughout the year and just held its summer seminar at Tel Aviv University. Together with speakers from the Israel Air Force (IAF), the meeting focused on the topics of bird conservation, flight safety and birding projects in Israel

In this short 60 second video, Prof Yossi Yeshem talks about how he is working with the Israeli military to use Russian radar to track flocks of migrating birds over Israel.


To learn more about IOC and keep updated on next year’s Champions of the Flyway competition, visit their website and “Like” their Facebook page.

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