Birds are amazing navigators.Not only do they use the changing stars as their guides, not only are they able to see and filter light differently from the rest of us, but they also have an internal compass.A migratory bird that travels south in autumn will generally make it home in the spring. Even if something has caused it to deviate from its route, it will still find its way. For birds carry in their minuscule brains a map of the earth that we simply cannot comprehend.But according to Noam Weiss, director of the Eilat Bird-watching Center and our guide on a recent visit to the site, traveling over the sea in our part of the world poses a major difficulty for our feathered friends. That’s because tiny birds such as warblers cannot fly effectively above water, while heavy fowl such as buzzards, eagles and storks need hot-air thermals to rise like elevators and glide through the skies, and hot air thermals are created only by solid ground.
The Spanish sparrow, a species that comes from Bulgaria, Turkey and Cyprus. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM) No less important for migration are sanctuaries where birds can both rest and fill their stomachs. Thus, as the only land bridge between their starting point in Europe or Asia, and the warm climate of Africa, Israel has always played a crucial part in the migratory narrative.Indeed, for thousands of years its southern tip offered migrating birds over a dozen kilometers of salt marsh, fresh and saltwater pools and lush desert foliage.Here they rested and refueled before beginning their voyage across the Sahara Desert to the next forest, 3,000 kilometers away in Ethiopia. Without what southern Israel had to offer, they would have had to fly 10 entire days without stopping.All this changed in the late 1960s, with massive development of Eilat. Contractors built houses and dumped their refuse in the salt marshes. An airport and a desalination factory were constructed on top of the marshes, completely destroying Eilat as a habitat for migratory birds. The situation became critical. So in 1993 the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund cleaned up the marsh and established Eilat’s International Bird-watching and Research Center.Close to a billion birds fly back and forth over Israel each year, and Eilat hosts more birds than any other place along the route. And it is up to the Bird Center to provide enough bird fuel to keep them going.Birds store energy by eating and accumulating fat under their skin. Interestingly, while planting and harvesting are annual events in Europe (and even in other parts of Israel), Mother Nature has a different plan for Eilat: here the cycle is biannual, so the fruit and insects that birds are accustomed to are available in both autumn and spring.Eilat’s bird sanctuary, which today is spread over less than half a square kilometer, works hard to offer the proper habitats and correct food sources for the 350 species of migratory birds common to the area. They don’t all appear at the same time, of course, and different species have different needs.A wave of chiffchaffs shows up in February, when tamarisks flower and provide them with the pollen they require. Lesser whitethroat warblers feed on a different, specific yellow pollen, found in the sanctuary’s taily-weed bushes. Generally, this desert species is only a meter high. Here, however, and with proper irrigation, the bushes take on gigantic proportions. March migrators prefer Salvadora persica (or “toothbrush”) trees, which bring forth red fruit at just the right time.
The Eurasian reed warbler is beautifully adapted to its habitat. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)We never visit Eilat without spending a few hours at the bird center, a tranquil venue far from the madding crowd.Aside from enjoying the peace and quiet found there, we always learn new and exciting facts about whatever bird population happens to be visiting that season.Entrance is free and sometimes we wander around on our own. It is far more interesting, however, to take a guided tour along either the short (one-anda- half hours) or the long (two-and-ahalf hours) trail. Besides talking about the importance of the sanctuary and explaining fascinating bird habits, the guide offers a good close look at a variety of species.One of them might be a Eurasian reed warbler, like the small bird Weiss – our guide – gently removed from a soft cloth sack. As its name suggests, it lives in reeds. It is also beautifully adapted to its habitat, for it has relatively long, sturdy legs and especially powerful claws that can grab onto a reed three times its weight and hold on when the wind is very strong. It also moves vertically – up and down the reeds. Weiss showed us that its body could remain still, while its head was swerving completely independently.The little chiffchaff he presented next travels from Scandinavia to South Africa and back with stops in Eilat. In common with many other small species, chiffchaffs fly alone – without either family or friends. It feeds on leaves which, in Scandinavia, are covered in frost and snow from autumn to spring.Another bird we examined was the Spanish sparrow, a species that comes from Bulgaria, Turkey and Cyprus. A beautiful creature, it has a strong bill that is perfect for cracking seeds.In autumn, the tips of its feathers are gray, but while the sparrow sojourns in Africa, the gray disappears. Later that season, red feathers begin to sprout. By the time it reaches home a few months later, breeding season has begun, and the bird is prepared to look its best, with completely red feathers.Male bird mating rituals seem fascinatingly similar to those of some men.Certain male birds will fight in front of a female, for the ladies are interested in a mate that is a survivor, someone willing to take a risk. Male birds customarily dress up in dangerously bright colors – almost daring a cat or a hawk to catch them – and may even sing from the top of a tree.Experts come from all over the world (including Israel) to help in the center’s research, which includes ringing about 20,000 birds a year. Before attaching the birds with a band inscribed with the words Tel Aviv University and bearing a unique identification number, experts weigh the bird, measure its wings, check the feathers for molting and determine its sex. In addition, they record the amount of fat on its body.Weiss demonstrated the latter by blowing on the sparrow’s feathers, so that it was possible to see through its translucent skin. Red beneath the skin indicates muscle and blood – a sign that fat has been accumulated within. But this bird’s insides were yellow, for it had just crossed the Sahara and used up all of its fat resources. Now, said Weiss, it will eat – and then be in a hurry to get back home.Finally, Weiss showed us a yellow- vented bulbul. A youngster who had been listening to Weiss’s explanations asked if he could touch it. At first a bit frightened, the child eventually petted the bird’s head and feathers and then, on Weiss’s suggestion, let it fly off into the trees.
Admiring a yellow-vented bulbul. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)Afterward, Weiss led the way through the sanctuary, where there were remnants of the once all-encompassing salt marshes. Salt marshes are created by floods and, he chuckled, if this were Switzerland, this would all take the form of a beautiful lake. In Eilat, of course, the water evaporates. Yet salt accumulates in the ground and absorbs the humidity, slight though it may be. As a result the soil is always wet, and provides a water source for many desert plants, like the tall tamarisk trees along the trail near some delicious salty seablite.One of the sanctuary’s two lakes is named Anita, and was a surprise birthday gift from her husband. Covered sheds near the water offer a shady respite from the sun while you view all kinds of birds. Weiss identified them for us laymen, pointing out a white wagtail catching mosquitoes and a western reef heron busy catching fish. A pied kingfisher opened its wings and searched for prey in the water but didn’t have much luck.All kinds of waders were in sight, including redshanks, and black-winged stilts whose white bodies contrasted remarkably with their black wings. A cormorant swimming in the water was easy to spot. Later, several herons dropped in, but then apparently decided there wasn’t enough room for them at this venue and moved to a different site in the bird refuge.Further along the trail we encountered other birds, from a long-legged buzzard to Dead Sea sparrows and brightly colored kingfishers. It wasn’t hot enough for the agamas (a species of lizard) to come out from hiding to sun themselves on the sand at Agama Land (eretz hardonim), but there were plenty of birds, including a few ruffs getting ready to return to the North Pole.The beauty of it all – the water, the birds, the sand and the trees, all on a background of the colored Eilat Mountains – took our breath away.Although they weren’t the brilliant pink species common in North America, there were lots of greater flamingos in both the water and the air. Watching them in the sky, you could see how extremely long and slender they are, with tiny wings. Weiss commented that with their anatomy, it seems incredible that they can even fly. They feed on a crab called artemia, or brine shrimp, of which there are plenty in the sanctuary’s lakes.The Raptor Observatory is covered with life-size illustrations. Raptors pass over in droves: the week before our visit, 4,000 eagles had flown by, and another 20,000 were expected daily.Finally, we stopped at a memorial to Idron Amar and five of his comrades, killed in Gaza in 2004 when their personnel carrier exploded. Amar, who was born in Eilat, was an avid nature lover and volunteer at the Bird Center.Although today no fewer than five bodies (KKL-JNF, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Eilat Municipality and the Tourism Ministry) contribute to its continuing development, the center’s main source of income is the tourist trade.Quite a few of the tourists are committed birdwatchers, who aren’t deterred even in wartime. Totally uninterested in the delights of Tel Aviv, or the holiness of Jerusalem, they begin looking for birds even before they get off the plane. Some come for a week or 10 days, others stay for months. All of them recognize Eilat’s unique importance and take advantage of the center’s help in locating a specific bird they want to find or get information on what birds have been spotted and where.Bird lovers attend international events as well, including the spring migration festival and a new, annual “champions of the flyway” competition in which (human) teams race each other to see who can sight the most birds.Weiss mentioned that 3,000 foreign and Israeli tourists to Eilat visit the sanctuary each year. But that’s not nearly enough to satisfy the director, who is intensely passionate about the center.“Eilat has this incredible asset,” he declared fervently. “Israeli tourists of all ages come to Eilat to shop and sunbathe.I want them here, where we can show them the importance of nature conservation; I want to help them love and appreciate nature and feel a sense of responsibility.“If migrating birds make it to Ethiopia and back, then I have done my part in this life,” he added. “But my true passion is to share all this with others. I want people to be part of it all.”Open all day every day, free of charge.Located just southwest of the border crossing to Jordan north of Eilat. To reserve a guide: 050-767-1290.