If it’s mid-October, it’s bird-migration time, when an enormous number of birds, large and small, fly over Israel, heading to their winter homes in east, south and west Africa. Israel is a narrow land bridge that leads to Africa, explains Yoav Perlman of the Israel Ornithological Center (IOC), part of the SPNI, or Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (BirdLife partner in Israel).
“Most of them don’t even look down; they just fly over us,” explained Perlman. “They take off in the morning from Syria and Lebanon and go down to roost in Egypt. They can travel 500-600 kilometers in a day.”
That said, some birds do use Israel’s best habitats for stopping over, refueling and resting, either during the day or overnight, added Perlman, particularly in the northern Hula Valley, Beit Shean Valley and Jezreel Valley.
With up to 200 species a day currently passing through Israel, local birdwatchers have been focusing on soaring birds for the last two months, said Perlman, referring to large birds that have to soar in order to make it from Eurasia to Africa. It would be difficult for those birds to flap their wings all the way to their destination, so they have developed techniques that allow them to instead glide, without flapping their wings even once. One method is using the hot air thermals that are created over still-sunny lands, as the sun heats the ground, creating columns of hot air that rise and help the birds fly.
Here’s a selection of soaring birds and smaller species that are currently passing through Israel right now:
1) It’s been a period for birds of prey, said Perlman, particularly spotted eagles — a close relation of the golden eagle — about 100,000 in the last 10 days. “We’re really receiving the last of those eagles now, because the air is cooling down,” he said, but noted that they’ll be back in the springtime.
2) Birdwatchers — both amateur and professional — can still catch a glimpse of large numbers of pelicans and storks for the next week or two, as they tend to take a rest in the Hula nature reserve. With huge flocks of 5,000-6,000 birds, it’s a “great experience” to come see them, and they tend to take a pretty westerly route, added Perlman; they can even be spotted over Tel Aviv. They’re also fairly vocal, easy to spot and hear from their calls as they fly up above.
3) There hasn’t been any particular species that really “knocked” Perlman off his chair this migration season, except for a few rare species of Siberian warblers. Those were an anomaly, due to a small error in migration that can happen with birds flying such huge distances. When a bird turns right instead of left, it can end up thousands of miles away from its planned destination. Birdwatchers call those “overshooters,” and they make for good surprises for those taking the time to look out for them.
4) The big story is about the small birds that aren’t usually noticed during the day or at night, commented Perlman, and that is the vast majority of birds that just flap their wings to fly. They also migrate in huge numbers, often at night, and the IOC has radars working to record the migration. “At night, it’s like the Ayalon Highway at 8 o’clock in the morning,” said Perlman. “There’s a huge, endless stream of millions of birds every night, but you need proper gear to really see them.”
5) Israel’s doing pretty well in protecting the birds that fly in its skies, but it is a huge responsibility to provide the right kind of habitats that help the birds, said Perlman. “We have this concentrated population from all over the world, so we have to keep the habitats protected and well managed.”
To get a look at migrating birds, head to the Hula Valley Nature Reserve now, or plan to go November 11-18 for the Hula Bird Festival. That said, head to any vegetated habitat, the beach, a back garden, a park, and chances are there will be more birds now for easy viewing, as they wing their way southwest.