Eager to chomp on the pieces of white bread flying through the air, a flock of
black-headed gulls engulfed the small wooden skiff carrying a pack of
international birding experts on a sun-splashed Lake Kinneret this
“When you see one coming, they all come,” said Dr. Yossi Leshem,
a senior researcher in Tel Aviv University’s zoology department, and founder and
director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration in
“Please take the bread and throw it and then we’ll have all of
them,” he told the passengers.
“If you stop throwing, they
About two dozen bird experts from all over the world were
enjoying a field day among Israel’s bird oases, prior to beginning a week-long
seminar on GPS tracking of osprey migration paths, as well as the educational
and conservation opportunities that accompany such research. For Sunday,
however, they would explore the winter homes of an array of other birds found in
the Kinneret basin, in the Hula Valley and in the Gamla Nature
“This whole area is amazing,” said Tim Mackrill, senior reserve
officer at Rutland Osprey Project at the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife
Trust, who is also working on a PhD about ospreys.
Pointing out the country’s special geographic
position, Mackrill explained that birds from the northeast and northwest
converge in Israel on the way to Africa for their winter
“Israel is such a unique place where three continents meet,”
he told The Jerusalem Post. “In terms of birds, it’s one of the most important
places in the world.”
Likewise aboard the boat was Tomas Pojar, the
ambassador of the Czech Republic to Israel and also a bird enthusiast who has
worked on collaborative bird projects with Leshem in the past. His embassy
cosponsored Leshem’s initiative promoting barn owls as natural pest control
systems in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
ornithology specialists are currently talking with Israelis about future
projects, including research on swifts and black storks, Pojar told the
“Birds know no borders – they are all about freedom,” Pojar said.
“Coming from a former communist country, birds have always been about freedom to
“Today it’s just about seeing the birds,” he added.
stop brought the group to the home of three nesting pairs and several other
Israeli griffon vultures – the Gamla Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights.
Careening high above the Gamla canyon, griffon vultures swooped in broad circles
with their wings outspread over the green valley below.
There had been
1,000 such pairs of griffon vultures before the establishment of the state in
1948, but electrocution and pesticide poisoning caused most of them to die out,
according to Leshem.
Last year, however, the Gamla reserve saw a
revolution in griffon vulture breeding with the birth of three new fledglings,
explained Nadav Israeli, manager of the Hula Valley Birding Center of the
Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
As evening began to
approach and the skies gradually started to dim, the group of ornithology
experts found themselves in the middle of the Hula Valley aboard a “mobile hide”
– a giant green John Deere tractor pulling a semi-open caravan with several
levels of bleacher seating.
“Birds do not acknowledge that we are people
in this bus,” Israeli said.
“They ignore our presence to a certain
The Hula Valley’s entire ecosystem had been destroyed after the
government decided to drain the malaria-ridden swampland in the 1950s, an Israel
Nature and Parks Authority guide explained to the group. However, following the
construction of the manmade Agamon Lake in 1993, the valley began to receive
birds once again.
“They started to flock back to the Hula Valley,” he
As the mobile hide turned a corner, suddenly the expansive views of
green agricultural fields were replaced by an endless sea of the most graceful
of birds – the crane, and 35,000 of them, to be exact.
Mates for life,
the mother and father cranes squawked and jabbered together with their progeny
in a coordinated mess, eager to reap the bounty of the tractor that had come to
distribute corn kernels among them for the third time that day. The feeding
system keeps the cranes, who stay in the valley until mid-March, satiated and
unlikely to ravage the local agriculture, the guide explained.
As the sun
began to set and the cranes abandoned the last of the stray corn kernels to
lingering mallard ducks, the large grayish birds spread their wings, family by
family, and flew to settle for the night on the calmness of Lake
“This is the Hula Valley at its most beautiful days,” the guide