Each year hundreds of millions of birds cross over Israel, migrating between their breeding grounds in Europe and Asia and their wintering quarters in the heart of Africa.
At dawn in the spring the salt flats north of Eilat are humming with life. Tens of thousands of birds stop off to eat en route to Europe and Asia, while hundreds of ornithologists from around the world enjoy the remarkable spectacle through their binoculars.
"We estimate that anywhere between 500 million to 1.5 billion birds will fly north this spring from Africa to Europe and Asia," says Dr. Reuven Yosef, director of Eilats International Birdwatching Center. "This figure represents 200 different species, including 34 types of birds of prey."
Dr. Yosef, who is a lecturer in ornithology at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, explains that there are three migratory routes between Africa and Eurasia – via the Straits of Gibraltar; via Tunisia, Sicily and Italy; and via Israel.
"Our research seems to indicate that between 60%-75% of all the migrating birds fly via Israel," observes Dr. Yosef. "Perhaps this is because it is the only land route, and because it offers better access to the breeding grounds in Asia. Eilat, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, is a junction for these birds. Those traveling to Europe carry on straight up to Turkey. Those flying to Eastern Siberia and Central Asia turn right and fly over Jordan."
Dr. Yosef notes that when the birds fly south to Africa in the fall they are relatively fresh and rarely stop over in Eilat. "But it is a different story in the spring," he added. "To reach here in the spring they have flown over 3,500 kilometers of desert. They are exhausted and hungry and the sea blite vegetation on the salt flats north of Eilat offer them their first good meal in a long time."
With increasing numbers of birds and thus intensified competition for food in the Sahil region of sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that only 40% of the birds who fly south in the fall return again in the spring. However, asserts Dr. Yosef, as the birds breed in Europe and Asia over the summer, most species are maintaining their numbers. The sole exception is the rare steppe eagle whose numbers are rapidly dwindling, possible because the raptor, which breeds exclusively in the Russian Steppes, is being affected by industrial pollution.
Other types of birds which regularly pass over Eilat include the booted eagle, lesser spotted eagle, snake eagle, imperial eagle, marsh harrier, osprey, black kite and honey buzzard, as well as large numbers of pelicans and storks. Since 1984 the Birdwatching Center in Eilat has been "ringing" birds in an attempt to keep track of them.
"Only 2 percent of the birds that we ring are subsequently sighted," explains Dr. Yosef. "Two buzzards that we ringed as long ago as 1984 were recently found – one in Sweden and one in eastern Siberia." When asked if a bird might be breeding in Sweden one summer and in Siberia the following summer, Dr. Yosef reveals, "We just dont know if birds return to the same breeding grounds. But there is evidence that birds do not always migrate along the same route."
High-tech methods are being mobilized in an attempt to collect data. The Society for the Protection of Nature has begun monitoring the migratory habits of storks by attaching small transmitters to the backs of the long-legged waders. The transmitters, which weigh only 50 grams, broadcast a signal via the French satellite Ergos which can pinpoint the birds position to within 500 meters.
Dr. Yosef notes that, in addition to the migrating birds, Eilat has over 200 indigenous species of birds, including sun birds, shrikes and hoop larks; with the expansion of urban sprawl in Eilat, sparrows and pigeons have also been seen. In recent years, though, the vast amount of hotel construction around Eilat has deprived the migrating birds of large areas of salt flats. But the Eilat International Birdwatching Center, together with the Jewish National Fund, has partly remedied the situation by covering over a large part of the citys garbage dump and planting it with blite and similar vegetation that can nourish the migrating birds.
Dr. Yosef, who is also president of the International Organization for the Conservation of Raptors, warns that denying the migrating birds the food that they enjoy in the Eilat region could cause a major imbalance to entire eco-systems in Africa, Europe and Asia, by decimating the number of birds. This environmental concern was one of the major reasons why a Voice of America radio relay station planned for the Arava savannah north of Eilat was re-located to Kuwait; it was feared that the radio waves would impede migrating birds.
For the time being at least, the migratory routes of millions of birds remain intact, making a springtime visit to Eilat an awesome experience for nature lovers.
Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry