Saturday, February 6, 2016

River of Birds in the Sky

Saturday, February 6, 2016

European turtle-doves are shot by the thousands annually in Greece.
Did you know that an estimated 20 million birds are killed each year while migrating along the Mediterranean-Black Sea flyway? These birds are not dying of natural causes. They are shot, trapped, netted, and captured by glue smeared onto branches. This devastating "harvest" of wild birds is done by people in the name of tradition. Birds are shot for sport. They are netted and lured into traps for local markets where they are sold as food considered by some to be a delicacy.
A European bee-eater trapped in a net.
Black kites in migration.

An illegal shooting blind in Greece. ©Hellenic Ornithological Society.

I'm sure you're as horrified as I am to learn this. But you may also be thinking "Those people way over there in the Mediterranean region are nuts! That would never happen here in the U.S!"

The Mediterranean flyway connects Eurasia, the Middle East, and Africa. ©BirdLife International

And, you'd be wrong.

Humans have always had a love-hate relationship with birds—especially with birds that occur is such large concentrations that there seems to be a never-ending supply. Think passenger pigeon. What was once the most numerous species on the planet was reduced—from billions to none—in the span of a single human generation.
Dead hawks shot along the Kittatinny Ridge near Hawk Mountain. ©Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
Men with shotguns used to line the Kittatinny Ridge in eastern Pennsylvania just to shoot the passing hawks in the fall. They'd shoot so many of these "vermin" that they'd pose proudly standing next to a pile of carcasses. It used to happen in Cape May, too, during fall migration. And elsewhere, I'm sure. Anywhere there were large concentrations of birds you'd have somebody there with guns, having themselves a good old time.

Those days are gone now, here in North America. But they still are alive and well in countries such as Cyprus, Greece, Malta, and even in France and Italy, where this repulsive tradition continues. I'm not talking about legitimate hunting here. I'm talking about people shooting hawks and storks and cranes and cuckoos and lapwings and nightjars—simply for the heck of it. It's illegal, yet local authorities often turn a blind eye or cite their lack of jurisdiction on private property.
White-eared bulbul.

There have been a number of campaigns against this illegal killing. One I've recently become involved in was started by my friends Jonathan Meyrav and Dan Alon of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), with assistance from BirdLife International. 

Israel sits at the bottleneck of the migration route between Eurasia and Africa, which makes it a world-class birding hotspot. And while none of the shooting or trapping happens in Israel, it does in many of the other countries along the flyway.

Jonathan and his colleagues at SPNI came up with the idea of a birding competition during spring migration in Eilat, Israel's southernmost city. They called it Champions of the Flyway and invited teams from all over the world to come to compete for a number of prize categories. You can learn all about the Champions of the Flyway here on the event website.
Teams scouting for the 2014 Champions race.

Most importantly, the Champions event was designed to raise money through online donations and corporate sponsorship, all of which goes to a single BirdLife partner along the flyway each year for use in the battle against the illegal killing of wild birds. In 2014, the money went to the Bird Conservation Georgia in the former Soviet republic. In 2015, the cause was BirdLife Cyprus. And in 2016, it's the BirdLife partner in Greece, the Hellenic Ornithological Society.

I took a team over to the inaugural Champions event in Eilat in 2014 and had a great time. Our team, the Way-off Coursers, raised more than $3,000 for the conservation fund.
The BWD Champions Team in 2014: George Armistead, Michael O'Brien, yours truly, and Ben Lizdas (behind the camera).
 I missed the 2015 event. But when my good friend Jonathan Meyrav asked me to write a song for this year's Champions of the Flyway, I couldn't say no.

After a lot of writing and a bit of cogitating, a song began to take shape. The result is "River of Birds in the Sky," an  anthem for the birds and for their Champions. I recorded the song with my band, The Rain Crows, and with the help of some special birder-musician friends—in fact everyone who helped record the song is a birder! I am incredibly pleased with the song and the video we put together to accompany it. Here's the video and song.

So the Way-off Coursers are back, and we're truly honored and excited about participating in this year's Champions of the Flyway competition. We've decided to do a Big Sit in Eilat's famous birdwatching park. We're going to conserve resources (ours included) and let the birds come to us.

If you'd like to help us reach our goal to raise $5,000 to help stop illegal killing along the Mediterranean flyway, please visit our team page on the Champions website. 

You can watch the video and listen to the song for free right here. Or, on the Bird Watcher's Digest website, you can purchase an mp3 download of "River of Birds in the Sky" for just 99 cents. Every penny we raise will go directly to the Champions conservation fund. This year's Champions conservation cause is aimed at stopping the illegal killing of birds in Greece, working with the BirdLife partner there, the Hellenic Ornithological Society.

You can follow along during our Big Sit on Twitter (@billofthebirds, @bwdmag, @flywaychampions, #COTF2016, #riverofbirds) and Facebook. We'll appreciate any sharing you can do and any contribution you can make. 

After all, we're all in it to help the birds.

Peace, love, and a river of birds in the sky.