At least 500 million birds of 200 different species fly across Israel each spring and fall on their way to and from Africa, Europe and Asia. Israeli conservations are taking care of them along the way.
By Avigayil Kadesh
Late one December afternoon, a tractor-toted wagon took Judith and Shai Schwartz and three of their granddaughters on a guided tour around Agamon Hula Ornithology and Nature Park in the Galilee. Here at sunset, thousands of large migrating birds grab a bite before a nighttime dip in the lake.
"There were some 25,000 cranes crowded around us this evening," reports Judith Schwartz, a Kibbutz Ginosar resident. "One night last week there were 42,000. Your eyes can’t quite believe what you’re seeing. They stand in the lake all night, safe from the bobcats in the area. And here they rest, and lift off in their masses at dawn, blackening the sky like a swarm of gigantic locusts, to continue their 5,000 mile trip to their winter home in Africa."
At least 500 million birds of 200 different species fly across Israel each spring and fall on their way to and from Africa, Europe and Asia, says Dr. Reuven Yosef, director of Eilat’s International Birding and Research Center. And more than 70 native Israeli species head to warmer Africa in winter, such as the cuckoo, Egyptian vulture, short-toed eagle, hobby and lesser kestrel.
This is what brings hordes of birdwatchers like the Schwartz family to strategic locations along the migratory route twice yearly. It also keeps several staffs of naturalists busy year-round in an effort to preserve the flyways, examine the birds to better understand their needs, and teach Israelis and tourists about these colorful creatures in their midst.
Jerusalem Bird Observatory
"To see the birds of Europe you come to Israel, because they all migrate here," says Jerusalem Bird Observatory (JBO) manager Alen Kacal. "Israel is one of the best places in the world to view bird migration, along with Panama, Morocco and Gibraltar."
The JBO, Israel’s first urban wildlife center, sits between Israel’s Knesset (parliament) and the Supreme Court. When they were boys, nature artist Amir Balaban and ornithologist Gidon Perlman hung out here. In 1994, they returned as adults and put up nets to catch birds with the intention of "ringing" them – putting an aluminum band around one leg engraved with contact and ID information so as to monitor the birds’ progress over time. Almost immediately, the net yielded a lesser whitethroat banded in Sweden.
Armed with this evidence of the site’s position on the migration route, the men turned it into a nature center replete with sheltering trees and shrubs to attract the kinds of insects that birds like to eat, as well as a pond for bathing and drinking. Kacal tells visiting schoolchildren that it’s like a highway rest stop, where thousands of birds stop to fill their bellies and take a breather before continuing their long trek through the air.
"They can see it from above, like an oasis," says Kacal. Some, including European robins and chaffinches, choose to make the JBO their permanent home and enjoy nutritious goodies put out for them on the trees each day.
The center’s ringing operation, which bands more than 10,000 birds a year and records each one’s weight, gender and species, has provided a wealth of information about the feathered visitors.
"If a bird we ringed ends up in Estonia or Kenya, they contact us and tell us where the bird is, and we do the same," she explains. "We’ve been able to make detailed maps of where the birds go, how long it takes them to get there, what their route is and where the most important ‘gas stations’ are along the way. These are the places we need to preserve."
Human visitors, from nursery schools on up to senior centers, flock to JBO daily for informal bird-watching as well as lectures, demonstrations and creative programs in the center’s gallery, which features the works of local wildlife artists.
"We want people to be aware of what’s in their backyards, and we want them to make a personal connection with the nature around them," says Kacal. "Any environmental work we do with kids falls flat unless there is a face-to-face connection. We also try to make a global connection: The little bird they see here has come from Sweden on a huge journey and if we don’t take care of our environment it cannot eat or drink and it will die. So we have a global responsibility."
International Birding and Research Center, Eilat
International Birding and Research Center (IBRCE) ringer, tracker and guide Rea Shaish explains that once upon a time, the natural salt marsh at this southern tip of Israel was an important pit stop for birds heading north in the spring. "After crossing the deserts south of us [in Africa], they have to refuel," he says. "They have to stop every few days to regain their fat sources to support them energetically and stay hydrated."
Due to overdevelopment, the marshes disappeared by the 1960s and the birds lost their special spot. However, about 20 years ago the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemeth LeYisrael helped cover a rubbish heap in the same area with soil and transform it into an inviting green sanctuary with freshwater and saline lagoons.
"We have made it as close as possible to the old salt marsh. Here they have an area in which to rest and refuel without disturbance," says Shaish.
It’s not just human traffic that could potentially bother the birds. Several years ago, a Voice of America radio relay station originally planned for just north of Eilat was relocated to Kuwait because of the possibility that the radio waves might disorient the migrants.
The sanctuary’s research facility is monitoring the effects of environmental changes, such as global warming, on banded birds by tracking their movements and migration across several years. "We also have an educational project with schools here in Eilat and guided tours for tourists every week, where we explain about ringing, which is our main research tool," Shaish relates.
The types of birds seen here change with the season. At the peak of spring, there are hundreds of species from Asia and Europe, including large raptors such as steppe eagles, sparrow hawks and white storks, but mostly (as Shaish puts it) "small, shy, ordinary birds. The dominant species are blackcap warblers, barn swallows and European bee-eaters, one of the most colorful birds in Israel."
People also love to view the center’s year-round population of several hundred pink flamingos, he adds. Eilat boasts more than 200 indigenous species including sunbirds, shrikes and hoop larks.
Like the JBO, the IBRCE welcomes visitors 24/7 to watch the birds and walk along the trails. "To conserve this place, we must have the public on our side," explains Shaish. "When they see and hear about the birds and our role in their migration, they are immediately fascinated by these creatures."
The IBRCE offers a two-week session for volunteers during the autumn and spring migration. They learn how to handle different species as they extract them from traps and nets for ringing, such as swallows, prinias, little stints and shrikes. During off hours, they can take part in desert bird-watching tours in the region.
International Birdwatching Center of the Jordan Valley
"The main thing people don’t know is that our winter is very light and warm, so a lot of migrating birds stay here for the winter," says David Glasner of the International Birdwatching Center of the Jordan Valley at Kfar Ruppin, founded in 1997.
Winter visitors encompass 94 species, such as the grey heron, black kite, robin, common crane and various ducks. Glasner says they provide an even more impressive and dependable population for birdwatchers than do the hordes of birds crossing overhead. "If you come on one day in September, you may see a huge number of white storks [migrating], but maybe you won’t see any at all," he points out.
"Even the numbers of some resident species in Israel grow during the winter because others come from northern countries like Turkey or Greece. We have 350 species on our local checklist, at least 120 of which are wintering birds."
Kfar Ruppin is situated in a northeast area dotted with green fields and commercial fishponds. These are tempting magnets for the hungry travelers, but they can be lethal. Agricultural areas may be full of pesticides, and the ponds are topped with nets in which the birds may become entangled as they dive for a catch. The center implements solutions to protect the birds, the farms and the fish.
In terms of agriculture, its biggest project is setting up barn owl and kestrel nesting boxes as part of a national effort to introduce this natural rodent-control method in fields and orchards. Farms that provide a habitat for these flying predators are able to reduce drastically the amount of pesticides they use, offering benefits not only to the migratory birds but also to the air, water and people who eat their produce.
The IBCJV rescues, rings and sets free fish-eating pelicans, cormorants and herons that get stuck in fishpond nets. The staff has also partnered with Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority to offer the fish farms alternative nets that spare the birds.
"We did research several years ago on which nets cause less damage to the birds, and we discovered that if the holes are small and the string is wide, the birds see the net and will not get stuck in it," says Glasner. Any wounded birds are collected by the center and sent for treatment at a hospital in the Ramat Gan Safari.
In another longstanding cooperative venture, the IBCJV partners with the Israel Electric Company to keep larger migrating birds such as pelicans, herons and white storks from getting electrocuted on power lines.
"Our part in this is to find the places where the birds are getting electrocuted and inform the Electric Company," says Glasner. "They come and install insulation around the high-voltage wires so when the birds sit on the poles and touch the wires with their wings, they do not get electrocuted and do not damage the system."
The center offers up-to-date bird-watching information for visitors and correspondents, and maintains a rural lodge in walking distance of the bird-watching hot spots on its grounds.
The IBCJV helped organize "Bird Winter," the first international ornithology festival in the Galilee (gogalilee.org), held December 16, through January 8, 2011. Participants have a chance to meet migrating birds ranging from little songbirds to cranes, ducks, seagulls and storks in the cisterns, forests, beaches, fields and open areas of the north. There are bird ringing, photography and drawing workshops, skits, tours and lectures, and even sailing with birds at the Sea of Galilee.
The International Center for the Study of Bird Migration
Award-winning Israeli ornithologist and Israel Air Force veteran Yossi Leshem, Tel Aviv University’s senior researcher in the department of zoology, founded the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration with the cooperation of the university and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). It is situated on eight acres in central Latrun along the migration route.
The ICSBM has developed research contacts with ornithologists in European, Mideast and African countries. One of the areas of joint research is how migrating birds can be used as an innovative sensor to predict climatic changes.
A radar warning station at Latrun transfers real-time data to the Israel Air Force in a successful effort to prevent bird strikes, a common danger particularly during takeoff and landing. When planes hit birds at high speeds, these accidents are not only fatal to the birds but also extremely dangerous for the pilots and cause costly equipment damage.
"Through joint research with the Israeli Air Force, we reduced the number of collisions due to bird strike by 76 percent and since 1984 saved the Israeli government $700 million – not to mention the lives of pilots," reports Leshem, who also worked with Jordan, Greece and Turkey to develop a regional radar warning system for pilots.
Leshem was instrumental in introducing kestrel and barn owl pest-control to farmers along with the Palestine Wildlife Society and the Amman Center for Peace and Development, as well as developing a national network of 10 bird-watching stations in cooperation with the Israel Ornithology Center, which he founded in 1980. He is working with Palestinian and Jordanian authorities to raise the profile of the Middle East as a destination for eco-tourists and birdwatchers.
Leshem’s slogan, "Migrating birds know no boundaries," was the title of a 1998 to 2004 USAID-Middle East Regional Cooperation Foundation-funded program that trained Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian banders; set up ringing stations; and allowed schoolchildren in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan to participate in joint activities about birds such as tracking the movement of 120 migrating German white storks fitted with satellite transmitters.
Many of the projects that developed from the six-year initiative evolved into ongoing programs, described in a booklet entitled "Birds as Peacemakers in the Middle East: 15 Years of Regional Cooperation," which Leshem proudly shared at the 25th Ornithological Congress in Brazil last August.
Teach the children well
ICSBM co-sponsors numerous learning opportunities for children and adults. The 31st annual Birding Lecture Day at Tel Aviv University (TAU) in December drew 1,000 people and included greetings from Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and Leshem’s longtime colleague, Jordanian Gen. (Ret.) Mansuor Abu Rashid.
"Education doesn’t solve problems," the 63-year-old Leshem stresses in explaining why he focuses so much of his attention on teaching. "The idea is to have them learn about the problems now so they will care about nature and look for solutions at a later age."
Last year, ICSBM initiated the Blackbird Project along with SPNI and TAU, with the objective of pairing Arab and Jewish fourth-graders in a multidisciplinary study of birds in Israel. A pilot run with 10 schools was such a success that it was expanded this year to 94 northern schools. Each school’s bird club will help choose an official regional bird. (Israel’s national bird, the hoopoe, was picked by a popular vote in 2008.)
The 88-page Blackbird Project booklet and CD provides a forum for the pupils to engage in research, problem-solving and joint learning via dialogue. Every chapter is written in Hebrew on the right and in Arabic on the left, and there is an Arabic-Hebrew conversation manual. It includes lesson plans about "birds in our backyard;" migration; barn owls and kestrels in biological pest control; the endangered griffon vulture; and animals of the Bible and Koran.
In May next year, Leshem is planning for some 3,000 Blackbird Project students to gather in the Hula Valley for a closing prize ceremony to be headed by President Shimon Peres and the ministers of environment and education.
"If this succeeds, we will do it for the entire country next year," says Leshem. "In the future we might get Jewish schools to communicate about birds with classes in twinned Jewish communities in the United States."
At a November bird workshop held by the Northern District of the Ministry of Education in cooperation with several nature organizations, 120 Jewish and Arab science teachers learned about biological diversity and sustainability in the region; birds commonly found in schoolyards; migration; birds in conflict or coexistence with agriculture; endangered species; and birds in Jewish and Arabic tradition. These teachers and their classes also will participate in the campaign to choose a regional bird.
Leshem is planning to create packs of bird trading cards for children to collect, swap and display in albums. He has also partnered with a professional quiz-maker to formulate sets of bird quizzes for adults and kids.
"That’s how we get everyone involved in protecting the birds," he declares.
Under a protective wing
Aside from the migrating birds, Israeli birding organizations also work to preserve endangered habitats and species.
The griffon vulture, for example, has been native to this region since biblical times. But now there are just 61 pairs left. Several sanctuaries participate in a griffon vulture nest surveillance project in cooperation with SPNI and the Israel Electric Company.
Vulture chicks are also nurtured at the National Center for Artificial Incubation of Raptor Eggs at the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem. According to the zoo, the major threats to raptors in Israel are poisoning, habitat destruction, nesting disturbance, hunting, electrocution and egg and chick stealing.
The incubator program also harbors eggs of captive breeding pairs of white-tailed sea-eagle and lappet-faced vultures, Egyptian vultures, Bonelli’s eagles, lanner falcons and lesser kestrels. After the chicks are reared, they’re reintroduced to the wild by the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority.
When Leshem heard about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent intention to invest NIS 400 million in preserving national heritage sites, he got right on the bandwagon. Arguing that "national heritage is also the vultures and storks and sparrows," he took 30 government officials, including Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser, on a field trip to reinforce this notion.
The Kibbutz Lotan Ecotourism and Birdwatching Center, in the Arava, recommends these areas for prime bird-watching, particularly during the spring and fall migrations: Northern Israel (such as the Hula Valley); the Beit She’an, Jezreel and Arava valleys; Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael near the southern Carmel Mountains; the Negev desert; the Dead Sea; and Eilat.
Images of the migratory birds over the skies and in the lakes at many of these places can be seen on the Internet, including pictures taken at Agamon Hula.
As breathtaking as photographs are, there’s no comparing the experience of watching the migrating birds in person. As Judith Schwartz discovered, seeing the cranes up close was "truly exciting as they soared just over our heads, legs lowered; wings spread to their fullest, and skimmed a few inches above the lake making a smooth slow landing, tucking all the black feathers under their wings into a fold that creates the sleek, slim light gray body on long thin legs that photographers like to photograph. I didn’t photograph…" she said. "I just gaped and admired and loved being in their migratory midst…"