Walk in Jesus’ footsteps, explore the ruins at Masada, or take a dip in the Dead Sea, but don’t forget to look up. A half billion birds fly over Israel each year, making the Holy Land one of the world’s top birding destinations.
Rockets came crashing down here. Flames dashed across the slopes and leapt up tree trunks, leaving scars of barren ground still visible today. “This area got a lot of heat,” says Jonathan Meyrav, of the 2006 conflict with Lebanon, raising his binoculars to look out over Israel’s Hula Valley toward the Golan Heights and Lebanon.
Today Meyrav, a former Israeli soldier, is scoping for birds, not bombs. Thirty-three, with an earring, darkly tinted wraparound sunglasses, and a long brown pony tail, he shares a dream of transforming the Middle East from a geopolitical hot zone to a birding hot spot to rival such popular nature destinations as Costa Rica, the Galápagos, and New Zealand.
More than three million people traveled to Israel last year to retrace Jesus’ steps through Jerusalem, explore the archaeological ruins at Masada, bask on Tel Aviv’s beaches, or bob in the Dead Sea. A small but growing number of visitors are also discovering that Israel is at the heart of one of the world’s most important and heavily traveled migratory flyways. Each spring and fall a caravan of 500 million birds funnels between three continents—Europe, Asia, and Africa—straight through this country about the size of New Jersey. Veining the skies from dawn to dusk are seemingly endless flocks of pelicans, storks, ibises, common cranes, and such birds of prey as the Levant sparrowhawk, a small blue-gray raptor whose entire world population passes over Israel in as little as 10 days. By night, the air is filled with the chirps of migrating songbirds navigating by celestial signposts. In total, 540 bird species have been recorded in Israel so far.
“In such a small country, it’s possible to see large numbers of birds within very short distances,” says Meyrav. “There aren’t many places where you’re surrounded by birds like this. You don’t have to go anywhere. You just have to look up.”
For most of the year, Meyrav works on various avian monitoring and conservation projects for the nonprofit Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and leads tourists on circuitous birding trips around the country. For the next 10 days, an equal number of travelers from the United States and Europe, including me, will loop the northern part of the country, from Tel Aviv to the slopes of Mount Hermon and the shores of the Sea of Galilee to the holy city of Jerusalem, then carve our way through the Negev Desert, to see a total of nearly 200 species of birds and meet the people in the trenches of Israel’s wildlife conservation.
Few locations could provide a better entree to this country’s birdlife than the fertile Hula Valley, where steep, rocky slopes are enclosed to the east by the Golan Heights and to the west by Upper Galilee’s Naftali Mountains. The Hula is an oasis for the tens of thousands of common cranes, as well as pelicans, storks, and waterfowl, that migrate between Europe and warmer climates in Africa.
On a misty November morning we find a piercing choir comprising thousands of gray-feathered bodies trumpeting and shifting in unison. Cloaked in fog, glowing in puddles of light, they peel from the water in a tumult of flaps, hoisting themselves above the papyrus-fringed lake and gliding overhead as if they are slow-moving arrows tipped in fiery paint. Moments later an adjacent field becomes their landing pad and they drop, like paratroopers, legs dangling to cushion their descents.
In certain parts of the Hula Valley, farmers encourage some of these long-legged gliders to stay through the winter by feeding them corn. With mealtime under way, the cranes’ crescendo grows to a deafening reverberation. On the edge of the torrent a greater spotted eagle, mahogany colored with piercing eyes, sits on the ground, eagerly watching for an opportunity to clean up any casualties.
More than 150,000 people who come to see the cranes each year have put the Hula Valley at the core of Israel’s budding wildlife tourism. At the birding center there, you can hop on a mobile blind towed by a tractor or climb aboard tandem bicycles to get some exercise while seeing the sights.
On the day of my visit I find all types of tourists: a group of uniformed army officers—guns slung over their shoulders—pedaling colorful four-wheel carts; schoolchildren riding in the tractor blind, pointing and laughing each time a crane honks or fans its wings; serious birders lined up behind a spotting scope for a glimpse of three greater flamingos out on Lake Agmon.
The lake is a restored fragment of the original Hula wetlands that were drained in the early 1950s to augment agriculture and control mosquitoes. An environmental fight against that draining project spawned the SPNI, which subsequently and successfully lobbied for the creation of this, Israel’s first nature reserve. “The idea is to bring people closer to nature,” says Itai Shanni, manager of the Hula Valley Birding Center, “and hope that something good will come of it.”
As the afternoon glow of impending dusk settles over the valley, a raft of white pelicans begins to peel away from Lake Agmon. Taking flight in clusters of several dozen at a time, they glide against the backdrop of the darkening sky, undulating in broadening flocks, transforming into a trail of white confetti caught in the breeze.
During my first days in Israel, I discover an essential birding truth: When you’re scoping for feathers in a desert, you had better be prepared to visit some, shall we say, unconventional destinations. The secret: Follow the sludge—be it sewage, fishponds, or garbage juice—and you will find birds. “Israel is 60 percent desert. Any place with water and food is a natural magnet for lots of birds,” Meyrav tells me. Consider it a test of devotion, he says. “A real birder won’t smell the sewage; he’ll just see the birds.”
Our group takes on the challenge with the fervor of hungry black flies at a picnic. The first stop on the pungent portion of our safari: Ma’agan Mikhael, a cluster of fishponds and a former swamp, on the Carmel Coast of the Mediterranean Sea, north of Tel Aviv. Even from the van, we can see pools teeming with gregarious black-headed gulls, metallic-bronze glossy ibises, graceful avocets strutting the shallows with ebony upturned bills, and white storks probing with their crimson beaks in the mud for a bug or a frog.
Outside the van we find it nearly impossible to step in any one direction without ogling plumage. Meyrav’s rapid-fire identifications almost make me dizzy: “Sardinian warbler here, graceful prinia over there; white-throated kingfisher on the telephone pole; pied kingfisher on the tree; black-winged stilt flying low over the pond; little stint on the mudflat; jack snipe in the marsh.” Few of us seem to notice the thrum of the traffic on the neighboring coastal highway, the training fighter planes climbing vertically into the sky and soaring overhead, or the gas cannon explosions employed to scare hungry birds off the hatchery ponds.
And the smell? The fishy odor wafting from the impoundments is but the symbolic perfume of avian abundance, and nothing if not harmonious with the salt whirling in the sea breeze. “Spoonbills overhead,” Meyrav shouts, and I practically give myself whiplash.
At another major stop early in our tour, one of Israel’s most endangered birds brings us to the edge of a rocky precipice near the Syrian border. Wind whistles through a cavelike blind, from which I hope to glimpse a griffon vulture. These enormous scavengers, with wings spanning nearly nine feet, soar among the hilltops and nest on the cliff sides in the Gamla Nature Reserve, a site in the Golan Heights that is studded with archaeological ruins, including the remaining stone walls of a 1,500-year-old Byzantine church and an ancient Jewish city entirely lost to the Romans about 2,000 years ago.
In the distance Gamla Falls is a silver thread unraveling 165 feet onto the valley floor. Above it two dark specks appear. “Is that—” someone asks, cutting short. “Yes,” comes the response, “and they’re flying toward us.” My eyes lock on the approaching pair, so imposing they might as well be royalty.
Gamla’s griffon vultures represent about one-third of the 260 left in Israel, and they used to be the largest nesting population in the country. But these birds have recently fallen on even harder times. “We are on the verge of extinction,” says Tal Evron, a 28-year-old park ranger perched in the blind. “We can only pray.”
The morning is cold enough for a warm winter jacket, though Evron wears just a button-down shirt, a wool sweater, and a scarf. Olive skinned with windblown dark hair, she is a former ambulance paramedic who came to Gamla for a change of pace. However, in June 2007, she found herself again in emergency response mode, rappeling down Gamla’s cliffs to scoop up seven remaining vulture chicks from their nests. Wildlife officials had discovered 12 dead griffons, the suspected victims of a toxin most likely meant to kill wolves, jackals, or foxes that were preying on cattle. If Gamla’s remaining adult birds hadn’t already succumbed, leaving their chicks to starve, they would likely soon return from foraging to feed them their last supper. “One poisoned cow,” says Evron, “can take down an entire vulture population.”
The rescued chicks have been raised in captivity, and several are now kept in cages on Gamla’s cliffs, acclimating to the environment before they might one day be released to soar again. “In the Hebrew Bible, it says, ‘We will bring them on the wings of vultures,’ ” says Evron. “They are not beautiful. But I love them. When they glide next to you, it’s like seeing the aurora borealis. It’s magic.”
Few tourists visit Israel without stopping at Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock or the Wailing Wall. Our van barely slows for a panoramic snapshot of the ancient city because we have an early morning appointment at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, a modest wooden building, bird blind, and banding area on a one-acre plot directly adjacent to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
Yoav Perlman has been here since 5:00 a.m. minding 16 mist nets with two volunteers and his dog, Leica (yes, as in the binoculars). He is a thin, 34-year-old with short cropped hair and a close-shaven beard, dressed today in classic bird-banding attire: khaki field pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt adorned with ducks. Behind him hang several little cream bags holding recently captured birds, and in his right hand he has a chiffchaff, a brownish-green warbler that is roughly four inches from head to tail and fond of summering in Europe and Ireland. “This is the smallest migratory bird we have in Israel.”
Olive with a yellow eye streak, the chiffchaff pecks Perlman’s fingers and flutters its wings as the bander takes a closer look. “It is quite full of fat,” he says, explaining that such migrating passerines collect fat tissue (natural rocket fuel) in the cavity above their sternum. “It’s most probably going to migrate another 1,000 to 2,000 kilometers [roughly 620 to 1,240 miles].”
When Perlman started working on this small scrap of land in 1994, the infrastructure was minimal, just “an old storehouse for the rose garden, and no electricity,” as he remembers. Slowly he and the rest of the staff rehabilitated the area, building an education center and planting native trees such as pistachios, olives, and persimmons that would provide food for birds. “Now this place acts like a green island in a metropolitan area. We have a broad front of birds migrating through Jerusalem, and they quickly realize this is the place to be.”
Some 40,000 people visit each year, from Israeli schoolchildren on field trips to the occasional politician seeking a quiet, reflective moment. Of the birdlife, Perlman says this is a rare but reliable place to “tick” a brown-necked raven, a species seldom seen outside of the desert and identifiable by its bronze nape and crowlike grumbles: grreu, grreu, grreu.
Meanwhile, a little fruit fanatic whose buffy plumage and blue-gray wingtips remind me of a sandy Mediterranean beach is stirring a frenzy of excitement and camera shutter clicks inside the blind. It’s a hawfinch. “That is a very good bird,” Meyrav whispers, in obvious satisfaction, before herding our group to the van.
Over the next few hours we wind more than 1,300 feet below sea level to the Dead Sea. These waters are the saltiest on earth and almost entirely devoid of life, but they are surrounded by mountains teeming with wildlife. Nubian ibex, wild mountain goats with mythic giant curved horns, scale treacherous hillsides. Hyraxes sunbathe on rock ledges, their pudgy, gopherlike appearance belying the claim that they could be related to elephants. Wild predators—jackals, foxes, even leopards—prowl the valleys.
Soon we cross the spine of Israel, traveling toward Latrun, the gateway to much of the country’s military history, and now to some of its natural history as well. On a sunny mount overlooking rows of at least 100 tanks representing every era in Israel’s military history, we meet ornithologist Yossi Leshem. He is a barrel-chested, bespectacled 62-year-old who wears a kippah pinned to his tuft of fuzzy gray curls and speaks with a staccato cadence befitting an auctioneer. “This is an armored [corps] memorial site,” he begins. “A lot of battles happened here, including the Israel War of Independence. You can still see the bullet holes in the buildings. Ariel Sharon was badly injured here. The memorial wall names 4,951 soldiers killed in the battles. But I told the general: ‘You are telling the story of the past, the bloodshed, the tanks, the battles. I’m coming with a story of the future.’ ”
Through his powers of persuasion, Leshem got the landowners to designate nine acres within the property for his International Center for the Study of Bird Migration. He also got a vintage Russian MRL-5 weather radar system (and, for good measure, hired a former Soviet army general with the experience to run it). He points toward the radar, a giant, green golf ball–like mass sitting at the crest of the memorial, and at the shattered, skeletal remains of a fallen F15 at its base. “On August 10, 1995, this F15 was traveling at 560 knots when it hit a stork. The impact was equivalent to 50 tons. Both the pilot and the navigator were killed.”
It wasn’t the first or the last time a bird downed one of the Israeli fighter jets that crisscross the country around the clock, training to defend the embattled nation. “In three decades we lost nine aircrafts, three pilots, and $75 million in damage,” says Leshem. “I told [the Air Force commanders], ‘You know how to fly fighter jets and how to manage people, but you know nothing about birds.’ ”
Like a general planning a strategic maneuver, Leshem was soon sketching the major bird migration routes. He recommended a ban on low-altitude flights in those areas during peak spring and fall migration. A military-wide campaign called “Take Care, We Share the Air” was launched. Commanders began calling the new no-go areas “Bird Plagued Zones” (as opposed to “Missile Plagued Zones”). The program became almost an immediate success. Bird–plane collisions fell by 76 percent.
Then Leshem expanded his efforts, piloting a motorized glider to actually fly among the bird flocks and report, via cell phone, to radar control units on the ground. He enlisted Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport to do radar tracking of high-altitude flocks, before eventually acquiring that radar system and hiring that Russian expert to send real-time warnings to air-traffic controllers.
In addition to saving pilots, airplanes, and birds, Leshem started an education program, called Migrating Birds Know No Boundaries, that connects classrooms throughout the Middle East, allowing school kids to track bird migrations over the Internet. “They make friends,” he says. “If Europe, Asia, and Africa form the three leaves of a clover, the Middle East is at the center. From the political view this is very complicated, but from the point of birds it’s extraordinary. We think the birds make a platform for bringing people together.”
Over the next few days we hook south, then west through the Negev Desert, seeking out such birds as the Macqueen’s bustard, strutting at the break of dawn in Nizzana. We visit a landfill where roughly 3,000 black kites roost at night, filling the sky at dusk with a dark vortex of blurred wings. And we sweep through agricultural fields surrounding the Urim Power lines, a well-known hot spot for imperial eagles, peregrine falcons, and lanner falcons. For as far as the eye can see, raptors perch on every available utility pole, most of which have been fitted with insulating devices to prevent electrocution.
Approaching Tel Aviv, we make a last stop, in the foothills of the Jerusalem Plains, at the Hulda Reservoir, where a glassy pond is covered with white-headed ducks floating in every direction. The scene evokes a childhood memory of plastic ducks whirling around a pond at an old-time carnival. “This is an area of extreme importance for white-headed ducks,” says Meyrav. “Maybe 8,000 are left in the world, and up to one-third of them winter here in Israel. This is the place to see this duck because you never see such numbers; there’s probably about 400 of them today.”
Meyrav’s commentary is punctuated by the roar of fighter jets rocketing skyward from a nearby training base. “Those are 22- and 23-year-old boys taking their first flights,” he says between blasts, forever etching in my memory the military stage upon which we have just witnessed so much extraordinary nature. As if he senses where my mind has gone, he tells me, “For us in Israel, especially people of my generation, we’re really fed up with wars. We don’t have a choice but to sit down and talk.”
As the sun sinks on the horizon, streaking subtle shades of violet and pink, the Middle East remains at an impasse. Still, these white-headed ducks have found a refuge from the human pressures that pummel birds the world over. They have found a place to wait out the winter under the watchful eye of people who believe that when peace does return to their corner of the world, it will soar on the wings of birds.
Israel: Making the Trip
Most international airlines operate flights to Israel, with El Al providing many direct ones from major U.S. cities. Visitors must carry a passport that is valid for at least six months from their arrival date. For more information, click here. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel organizes tours and accommodations for serious birders as well as itineraries that combine nature and cultural destinations. Visit The American Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, or call 800-411-0966.
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