A key stop on the great bird flyway, Eilat sees steep dive in migrating flocks

Habitat destruction, pesticides, hunting, invasive species, manmade obstacles such as wind turbines and high voltage power lines all take a toll, but reliable research lacking

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Mesmerized, children sat on parents’ shoulders or stood on tiptoe to get a better look as Noam Weiss deftly weighed, measured and attached an identification ring to the legs of several small birds.

Volunteers at the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat had been up before dawn to spread out nets to catch the birds, put each one into a cotton pouch and take them to the ringing station.

There, holding each bird gently in one hand, Weiss, director of the center, blew aside the stomach feathers to assess the amount of fat, measured the creature’s body, wing and tail and stuck it — upside down — into a tube attached to a weighing scale. He instructed the volunteer sitting next to him what to type into the database, and then placed the bird carefully into the hands of one of the parents, to be released.

“Hold it very gently, like this,” he said, placing the bird’s head between the parent’s index and middle finger and closing the other fingers around the bird’s body. “Don’t keep it there, let it go.”

The children crowded around for a last look at the tiny creature, with whoops of “Abba (daddy), can I stroke it?” Then the parent’s hand opened, and the bird quickly disappeared into nearby bushes.

Releasing a bird after it has been ringed at the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat, March 22, 2020. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Some 75,000 birds have been ringed at the park over the last eight years — the period during which data has been recorded in a standardized fashion that allows for reliable comparisons to be made. The data gathered is currently being analyzed by Weiss and a colleague, and though not yet ready for publication, the prognosis appears grim.

According to Weiss, the number of birds passing through Israel on their way from wintering grounds in Africa to breeding grounds in Europe and Asia is in “drastic decline.”

Weiss declined to divulge many details of his findings, which he hopes to publish in a peer-reviewed journal, but noted that while no migrating species have seen growth, some are experiencing a “very significant decline,” including long-distance migrants, such as willow warblers and red-backed shrikes — reduced by around half.

“It’s mainly the birds coming from the far north of Europe going back to Africa,” he said of the species in decline.

“We see fewer birds coming every year [overall],” he explained. “The migrating birds are disappearing. There’s a drastic reduction. We see it especially in the fall migration from breeding to wintering grounds.”

“The picture from Eilat is not necessarily the only or main one, but it’s one more point in a picture that comes from breeding areas, wintering areas and other stopover sites.”

One sign of the decline is that the birds he examines are nice and fat, indicating that there is not much competition for food.

“We’re giving them the conditions, but not enough of them are coming,” Weiss said.

Noam Weiss, director of the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat, talks to visitors, March 22, 2020. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

There is likely to be a price for declining migration, he went on. “Birds provide lots of ecosystem services. They pollinate flowers, help to scatter seeds, eat insect pests, clean up [carrion], and provide fertilizer. Each bird is unique in the services it provides. And as the species disappear, so do the services,” Weiss said.

Just deserts

Flanked by vast deserts to its east and the Mediterranean Sea to its west, Israel forms a key flyway and bottleneck for hundreds of millions of birds that travel between Europe, Asia and Africa every spring and fall, including perching birds (passerines), waders and birds of prey.

More than a million raptors pass through every year, including most of the world’s Levant sparrowhawks and endangered steppe eagles, and hundreds of thousands of honey buzzards and steppe buzzards.

According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s avian ecologist Ohad Hatzofe, some 550 species have been recorded in Israel — a richness that is more characteristic of the tropics on a per-kilometer basis. Of this number, some 120 to 130 are either resident year-round or come to nest.

To get to or from their wintering spots, forest birds must traverse either the Sahara or Hejazi deserts, a 3,000-kilometer (2,000-mile) gauntlet with little in the way of food. That means the Eilat area is their first or last chance to grab a bite to eat before or following the three-to-four day journey across the vast emptiness.

The area around Eilat was once home to extensive salt marshes where plant communities provided flowers in spring and fruits in the fall, precisely synchronized to feed the avian visitors. But as the resort city has expanded, the salt marshes have been replaced by urban sprawl.

People enjoy the beach in the resort city of Eilat, on November 6, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“A salt marsh is like a magical forest,” said Weiss. “It’s not dependent on rain. The salt in the earth catches the little moisture in the air or groundwater and there’s vegetation. But that’s all but disappeared.”

The new Ramon Airport — like most big development projects — is also having negative consequences. An anti-flood system built around it diverts rain-fed floodwaters away from the valley bottoms, where they once nourished wild vegetation, and away from parts of the Evrona salt marsh where many migratory and desert birds still feed, into manmade canals that eventually meet the sea.

Expanding agricultural activity in the region has bolstered the populations of generalist bird feeders, who can eat almost anything, at the expense of so-called specialized niche feeders — with beaks adapted for just one type of food — whose food sources are being replaced by cultivated crops.

Agriculture is “the number one enemy of conservation in Israel,” said Hatzofe.

He blamed everything from the diversion of water from nature for irrigation and the drying up of wetlands to create fields to the “greening” of the Negev desert, the practice of monoculture (cultivation of a single crop) and the use of chemical pesticides toxic to all living things.

Manmade environments are replacing natural ones

The Eilat bird park, which sprawls over 640 dunams (158 acres) carved out of a former refuse tip in 1993, is designed to help mitigate some of the habitat loss, providing a dense oasis of flowers, fruit, insects, pond life and vegetation cover to as many species and habitats as possible.

Aerial view of the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat, southern Israel. (Dov Greenblat)

“Each bird needs its own specific fruit or nectar at a specific point in time,” Weiss explained. “The park combines habitats to provide a solution for each one.”

Ponds offer different water conditions and quantities of light and shade. With the help of wastewater used by a nearby desalination plant to rinse its membranes, a salt marsh has been recreated to serve warblers, rare species of sparrows and shrikes. There’s a freshwater lake that attracts waterfowl, herons, kingfishers and waders, salt pans populated by flamingos and gulls, reed beds for crakes and reed warblers and a forest with a wide diversity of species.

One of the ponds at the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat, March 22, 2020. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

To track who is stopping over at the site, the park nets birds every morning during migration seasons (March to May and August to November) to examine their physical condition, enter statistics and other details into a database, and ring their legs so that the data on returning visitors can be compared.

Employed by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, one of seven bodies involved in the park, Weiss started working at the center in 2005 and has been its director for seven years.

The recreated salt marsh at the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat, March 22, 2020. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

With his own eagle eye, he sees, and is seemingly able to identify in a split second, everything that moves. On this particular morning, one of the highlights is a gloriously colorful bee-eater.

A bird enthusiast since he was 10 (“birders usually start between the ages of 10 and 15”), Weiss sees the main challenge as providing as much habitat as possible for both migrating and sedentary birds. His method of tackling the issue largely involves adapting manmade locations, from home gardens to industrial ponds.

That often means engaging with the community, to make people aware of the importance and value of the birds passing through or sticking around.

Noam Weiss, director of the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat, tries to spot which birds are visiting, March 22, 2020. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Attracting 80,000 visitors annually (pre-coronavirus), the center brings school groups and runs two-day community events, five times a year.

A demonstration ‘insect hotel’ at the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat, in southern Israel, March 22, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The public can meet the birds, and get tips on how to turn their yards into stopover sites by planting native species, using fewer pesticides, building insect hotels, providing water, seeds and fruit, and keeping cats indoors during the migration season.

“Take the Eilat sewage recycling farm,” said Weiss. This is a magnet for cormorants, ducks, herons, gulls, passerines, waders, rails, and herons.

“Why should the water company of Eilat care about looking after birds? Because the people who work there came to a community event here. There’s been a dramatic change in awareness. The result is a project involving us, them, the SPNI and the Environmental Protection Ministry which will give NIS 100,000 ($30,000) to make the sewage pools safer for birds.”

“Public opinion is what drives the decision-makers,” he said, citing a campaign of “community-based nature conservation” that managed to convince nearby Kibbutz Elot to cancel an agreement for French firm EDF Renewables to erect 13 wind turbines in the area, which could have proved disastrous for the flying birds.

“Preventing turbines along the migration route is a continual battle,” he said.

The Melach Haaretz salt company has meanwhile removed obstacles at its evaporation pools in both Eilat and in Atlit in northern Israel, in cooperation with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. These are among the only resting areas for flamingoes and other species of waterfowl seeking this particular habitat, and the birds can be watched from observation hides erected at the site.

With the area’s farmers, the approach is different. “The farmer’s profit is small,” said Weiss, “so we looked into the extent to which the migrating birds can be an asset. More than 90 percent of them are insect eaters, which means that they carry out pest control.”

A research and development project at the Agriculture Ministry, now in its second year, found a strong statistical correlation between the numbers of red-throated pipits and tiny insects called thrips in onion fields, he said, while swallows have been found to be voracious feasters of whiteflies in melon and pumpkin fields.

But for the birds to do the job, the center must first persuade the farmers to cut down on chemical pesticides.

Red throated pipit at the International Birding and Research Center Eilat. (Noam Weiss, IBRCE Director)

Center staff visit local kibbutzim to explain the importance of birds and encourage them to become more bird-friendly, and it cooperates with the navy to build perches and nesting platforms for seabirds that have been edged out as humans have taken over the beaches.

Weiss is also advising the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Eilat, to ensure that a shelter garden for endangered plants is built with birds in mind as well.

The complexities of migration

Scientists are still at an early stage of trying to unravel the complex dynamics behind bird migration and the way it is changing. Of an estimated 10,000 bird species worldwide (though one study calculated that there may be over 18,000 species), around 18 percent are thought to migrate, according to scientific literature.

Most studies to date have been based on manual counting of birds in breeding grounds at a particular point in time, perhaps supplemented with information from birds that have been ringed.

Tracking devices, known as geolocators, have only become light enough for small birds to carry in the last five or six years, and anyway, they track individual birds rather than large populations. According to Nir Sapir, director of the Animal Flight Laboratory at Haifa University’s Evolutionary and Environmental Biology Department, it will take another ten to 20 years before comparative studies of flight patterns measured by geolocator over time will be possible.

Sapir’s team has been using the geolocators for research it will soon be publishing on swifts.

Separately, one of his PhD students, Inbal Schekler, is working to compare current data picked up by radar during the spring and fall migrations in two locations in the Negev desert with radar data collected in the same places in the early 1990s. The results should be ready in about a year.

Nir Sapir. (Courtesy Nir Sapir)

Sapir is not aware of reliable data on bird migration for this part of the world.

However, previous studies using ringing or counts of breeding numbers have already pointed to declines among migratory species. “Populations of migratory birds that breed in temperate regions and winter in the tropics have suffered sustained and often severe declines over the past few decades,” BirdLife International, a global bird conservation organization, reported in 2017. 

The Pan‐European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme has found that 71% of species studied that breed in Europe and winter in Africa had seen population declines from 1980 to 2009, though many of those species take other routes to Africa.

Sapir cited a seminal study published in 2019, which combined hand counts and radar data and found that one in four birds have disappeared from the US in the last 50 years — a net loss of nearly three billion birds, or 29%, compared to 1970 figures. The vast majority come from 419 native migratory species and from 12 bird families, among them sparrows, warblers, blackbirds, and finches.

These trends are thought to be connected to a variety of human-related phenomena, among them habitat destruction, the use of pesticides to kill insects on which they would otherwise feed, hunting, the introduction of invasive species and manmade obstacles such as wind turbines and high voltage power lines. Lights at night can disorient birds and bring them crashing into skyscrapers. The INPA is currently analyzing data on birds that have died near reflective mirrors at the Ashalim solar power plant in the Negev.

Great Egret at the International Birding and Research Center Eilat. (Noam Weiss, IBRCE).

Research suggests that with global warming making winters in northern Europe more habitable, some species are either staying close to where they breed or migrating shorter distances.

The same study suggests that birds adapted to shorter migration distances have an advantage in that they can better predict the earlier arrival of spring — another consequence of climate change — and thus find the best mates, carve out  territories for nesting and ensure a sufficient supply of insects before the long-distance migrants arrive.

A male pied flycatcher at Wood of Cree Nature Reserve, near Newton Stewart, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland. (Mark Medcalf, uploaded by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The changes work both ways. Another study found that populations of the pied flycatcher, a long-distance migrant, had declined by some 90% over two decades because the birds — evidently “programmed” by other factors such as their circadian clocks — had arrived too late to find enough food for their nestlings.

Hatzofe, from the INPA, cautioned against generalizations and emphasized that the picture was complex and varied between species and places. “It’s clear that there’s species extinction worldwide,” he said, “but other than that, there isn’t one trend.”

“We know that there’s been a global decline of steppe eagles for several years. But after figures for the lesser spotted eagle went down following the Chernobyl disaster, they subsequently recovered,” he added.

Hatzofe said he had just returned from discussions with the air force about black kites, whose population in Israel has rocketed from 3,000 some years ago to an estimated 80,000, and black storks, whose numbers have grown from zero to 2,000.

Both have found Israeli agriculture and fish farms to be bountiful sources of food and, as they increase in number, pose a danger to aircraft.

Black stork at the International Birding and Research Center Eilat. (Noam Weiss/IBRCE)

“Do the figures mean that the world populations [of these species] have grown,” Hatzofe asked, “or that instead of going to Africa, they are staying in Israel? Black storks would once pass through the country. Now they’re overwintering here before going back to Europe for nesting.”

“Overpopulation of specific species is problematic,” he went on.

Noam Weiss and his colleagues are currently writing a stopover masterplan for Eilat and the southern Arava and are cooperating, under the radar, with Jordanian and Palestinian counterparts to boost cross-border nature conservation.

“We have to keep spaces open and have landing sites,” said Weiss. “If [as a tiny country] we cannot impact the world’s carbon footprint, let’s at least manage this [migration] corridor and our wildlife.”

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