Israel: The Bird’s Eye View

By Sherri Mandell

Israel may be a small country, but thousands of birds annually take advantage of its passage-friendly flyway and the welcoming sanctuaries that dot the country.
The ancients considered Israel the center of the world, and it certainly feels that way if you look up at the sky in the spring and autumn. Half a billion migrating birds, more than 230 species, fly in Israeli air space on annual migrations between Europe, western Asia and Africa.

These journeys were noted long ago: “The stork in the heaven also knows her appointed times; and the turtledove, swift and the crane observe their time of coming” (Jeremiah 8:7).

“Tourists are sometimes afraid to visit here,” observes Alen Kasel, education director of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, “but [the birds] never abandon us.”
This makes Israel one of the best places in the world to admire them. “All of Israel is one big place for birding,” adds Reuven Yosef, director of the International Birding and Research Centre in Eilat.

It is also a hot spot for local species. In addition to the transients, more than 270 other species are native to Israel. Altogether, there are 500 species, about the same number as in England and only 150 fewer than in the United States. While Israel’s location is politically problematic, for bird watching, notes Yossi Leshem, director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration in Latrun, “it is a Garden of Eden.”

Spring in Jerusalem brings thousands and thousands of huge black-and-white storks with bright orange beaks circling in flocks, spiraling upward until they reach the high-level winds that allow them to coast and glide the thermals.

Tiny Israel is a land bridge: The Syrian African Rift (4,200 miles from Turkey to Mozambique), a major flight corridor, creates a tube-like wind channel, a natural flyway that funnels birds into the country’s airspace. Because Israel is connected to Egypt, birds don’t have to make the arduous journey over the Mediterranean.
Israel’s welcome is apparent in more than 10 main centers that protect, research, educate and offer viewing of birds—from north in the Hula Valley to Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava and the birding center in Eilat. The Eilat refuge was created in 1993 on a former garbage dump to provide food for migrating birds that had once depended on the area’s salt marshes for sustenance. But these were destroyed as hotels were built and the city developed.

The sanctuary is particularly crucial in the spring when storks and large birds of prey such as eagles, hawks and others return after a difficult winter in Africa. Many die there in the intense struggle for nourishment because the insects and fruit they rely on are unavailable during the cold months. After flying about 1,800 miles across the African desert for 20 to 40 hours, the exhausted and hungry travelers refuel in Eilat before proceeding to Europe to mate and nest.

Scientists have different theories, but nobody knows for sure how birds navigate their complex routes, often covering thousands of miles and arriving at the same spots year after year.
“We try and cater to every bird that’s going to come through,” says Jill Oron, an assistant at the Eilat sanctuary. “The center has planted trees and created lakes so [they] can find the necessary food and rest to help ensure their survival.” Inside the refuge is a shaded maze of walkways where, among other creatures, visitors can admire pink flamingos, perching on one foot, eating crustaceans in salt ponds.

In the middle of Jerusalem, tucked between the Knesset and the Supreme Court, is the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, established in 1995. Here volunteers and workers attach metal identification bands to birds’ feet for tracking after they are caught in a soft, loose net (about double the width of a tennis net) strung on the ground between trees. Sometimes 300 a day are registered—weight, sex and species recorded—before they are released. Between 10,000 and 12,000 a year are ringed at this observatory alone. When the center finds a bird (dead or alive) that has been ringed by another country, the foreign center is alerted. In this way, researchers learn not just the migration route but also feeding habits and age.

The first bird ever caught and tagged was from Sweden—a black-capped warbler. “Recently we got a letter from Estonia saying they found a ring of ours on a bird that had collided into a window and died,” says Alen Kasel.

The Jerusalem observatory maintains an automatic telephone-message system to notify local aficionados when a rare bird is sighted. For example, someone thought he saw a frigate bird in Eilat (they are more commonly located in the tropics). The moderator of the list was contacted and everybody was alerted. Anybody who was free rushed down to Eilat.

It is not only migrators that make Israel a hot spot for bird watchers. For its size, says Leshem, former director of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the country has an unprecedented diversity of year-round birds. The climate—from the snowy crests of Mount Hermon in the north to the Negev in the south—creates havens where different species can flourish. Among those living here full time are the bulbul, a songbird with gray or brownish plumage; the cooing palm dove; the strong-clawed Syrian woodpecker; the Sardinian warbler; and the brilliantly colored, almost iridescent Palestine sunbird (it is similar to a hummingbird and can fit into the palm of the hand).

Winter residents include cormorants, large, marine-diving birds with dark plumage and a slender hooked bill. In the north, the Hula Valley is the cold-weather destination of cranes from Moscow and pelicans from the Danube in Romania. Kibbutz Kfar Blum combines an evening of classical music with bird watching during the winter. If you want to see seabirds like gulls and terns, then Eilat is the place. Desert species like the Arabian babbler—with its long curved beak and long tail—hang out in the northern part of the Arava. So do the large land birds called houbara bustards; they give a fascinating display to attract their mates, dancing around them, and throw their tails over their heads.

Birds that come for the summer include the masked shrike and swifts, which sleep while they fly. These visitors nest and raise a brood in Israel before moving on to winter homes. Then there are vagrants that find their way here because they are lost. Some are Arctic species that usually winter in Europe.
According to naturalist Gerald Durrel, most people walk around as though encased in wool. But birding awakens observers to a wider world, to whole ecosystems. You see how seemingly disparate parts of nature are interconnected; how birds pollinate flowers and disseminate fruit seeds as well as stabilize insect and rodent populations.

Researchers also learn from what birds leave behind. When rodents were attacking and destroying the crops at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in the north, kibbutz managers analyzed the composition of owl pellets to pinpoint which species of rodent was responsible.

The recent widespread effort in Israel to save the Griffon vulture from extinction is fascinating. The greatly diminished population is being observed, nurtured and protected in several sanctuaries as part of the Griffon vulture nest surveillance project (in cooperation with Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Israel Electric Company: The Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem has a birds of prey aviary for Israeli raptors, in which a number of vulture chicks have been hatched in its incubation center—and have been adopted by two male vultures.

Israel’s bird conservation sites are important because experts estimate that almost 25 percent of migrating birds in the world fly over the country. Any damage to Israel’s sanctuaries could have repercussions in the ecology of other nations.

Bird watching and research can launch new relationships between peoples and countries and provide a conduit for connection. Jordan and Israel enjoy close cooperation in the area of ornithology. The German government commissioned Yossi Leshem to track the dwindling population of white storks beloved in Germany. Small satellite transmitters were attached to the backs of 120 storks, so scientists can analyze where they are most vulnerable—for example, near electric wires—and help protect them. Leshem has established (with the Israel Ornithological Center) a peace and education initiative, Migrating Birds Know No Boundaries, that allows about 250 Israeli and Palestinian students to track migrations. Students meet at the Latrun center to study and band birds. The German and American governments help sponsor the initiative.

Israel is a perfect theater to witness the sophisticated flights of birds. One woman awakens at dawn for the banding of the birds because, she says, their flight connects her to the rest of the world.

Most sanctuaries offer trips for immersing oneself in the richness of avian life. Ecotourism is sure to increase as more people become aware that Israel is also “for the birds.”

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