Where birds of different feathers flock together

There are peak and off-peak seasons for almost every destination on the globe. But somehow, the idea of visiting a place in its “best time to visit” never appealed to me. Whatever part of the globe I went to, I just went whenever it suited me and not when the destination suited its visitors most. But that was till I went to Eilat in southern Israel this March.

I was on my way to Tel Aviv, when my guide Roley suggested that we visit the International Birdwatching and Research Center – Eilat (IBRCE), as Eilat is well-known in birders’ circles as one of the most incredible birding destinations. Waiting for us was Noam Weiss, Director IBRCE, who greeted us warmly on our arrival. Since we were short of time, he immediately started explaining the importance of visiting Eilat in the month of March. Late March and early April mark the biggest wave in Israel’s awesome spring bird migration. Weiss pointed at a map showing how Eilat’s strategic position helps millions of migrating birds twice a year to rest and refuel before they continue their journey from Africa onwards to Europe and Asia, or vice versa. For thousands of years, Eilat was a salt marsh surrounded by a desert. After thousands of km of continuous flight over sprawling desert, migratory birds were exhausted and were nearly starved. Eilat region, separating Europe from Asia and Africa, was the only place where these birds could find food for hundreds of km in all directions. Without this region, millions of birds would not survive the treacherous and gruelling migration which could have led to an ecological disaster.

“At this time of the year, the variety of species encountered daily can be overwhelming,” said Weiss, taking out a fluttering warbler which he had put in a small cloth pouch to show us. “Tiny birds like this travelling north arrive at the feeding station worn out and starving after a tiring journey of 3,000 km over the desert. An estimated 500 million to one billion birds, belonging to more than 230 species, pass through the Eilat region twice a year, once in spring, once in autumn.” These numbers represent the majority of those migratory birds that spend the warm months of the year in Europe and Asia. If they were to fail to reach their destination, all ecological systems dependent on them in the Black Forest, the fields of Provence, the Tuscan hills, the forests of Turkey and the steppes and taiga of Russia would eventually collapse.

Weiss took out more birds from the cloth pouches, and after explaining about them, we took turns to release them. Spreading the wings of a yellow-rumped warbler, Weiss said that individuals within these populations are especially vulnerable because they tend to be small in body size, and they load just enough fat to get across the hostile Saharan and Arabian deserts to the south and the Syrian and Arabian deserts to the east. A number of species, like the honey buzzard and the lesser spotted eagle, depend on the salt marsh for continuing their journeys to their northern breeding grounds. Many migrants reach the Eilat area after having flown for 20 to 40 hours without refuelling.

He further said that the salt pools and reservoirs near Eilat attract thousands of waders, ducks and gulls alongside herons, rails and crakes. The fertile agricultural areas host hundreds of pipits, wagtails, wheatears and shrikes. The picturesque valleys and canyons that surround Eilat offer a sparse cover of desert bushes and shrubs which tired migrants gratefully inhabit. Memorable birds can be found in the most unexpected of places and can turn up anywhere and everywhere.

Meanwhile, we saw many serious bird watchers, with their heavyweight cameras and binoculars, pouring in. Weiss informed, at the peak, an estimated 25,000-40,000 bird-watchers visited Eilat annually. While migrants set the tone during late March, it is also a great period to observe local residents which are at the peak of their breeding cycles. Seven species of larks, four wheatears and five sand grouse can be found without difficulty, and a host of common birds like little green bee-eaters, namaqua dove and Palestine sunbirds are a daily pleasure.

IBRCE came up in 1993 when it acquired the local 160-acre garbage dump to recycle a human-abused landscape. In 1990, in a joint initiative on the part of KKL-JNF, the Israel Government Tourist Corporation, the Nature and Parks Protection Authority and Eilat Municipality, development work began: the ground was levelled, the garbage heaps were covered up, water pools created and bird-friendly trees were planted. The park includes two pools: one, which contains freshwater, is also known as the Anita Pool, after one of the donors to the park, while the other pool, of saltwater, is the “contribution” of the salt production company located nearby. Apart from research, the IBRCE is also engaged in educational activities to promote conservation, ecological awareness and ecological tourism.

For me, it was quite overwhelming to see the dedicated efforts made to save the feathered creatures from extinction. I said a silent prayer for their protection and long life and left for Tel Aviv, hoping it too has something just as special.

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2020 4:45:16 AM |

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