About 100 million bird watchers wander the globe with binoculars hanging round their necks, trying to add another rare specimen to their lists. Dan Elon is excited because a black-winged kite was sighted nesting in Israel - for the first time. The black-winged kite, a white bird with piercing red eyes and yellow legs, generally nests in the southern hemisphere, but apparently climate change has led it to nest here.
A Winter of Birds, the Hula Valley International Bird Festival, opens tomorrow and its events, centering on migrating birds, will continues for weeks. Elon, who heads the bird-watching center of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, says the festival's scientific conference will focus on the migrant birds' stopover sites. These are key areas or hot spots, Elon says, on their routes, and scientists invest much effort in understanding their tremendous significance as places where hundreds of millions of birds concentrate in high season, at the beginning of winter and summer.
The number of migrating fowl is constantly declining, a trend which worries researchers. The number of birds overall, in contrast, is rising swiftly. In the U.S., 20 million people have declared bird watching their favorite hobby, and that figure is expected to soar as the baby boomers retire.
Birds use their rest sites to eat and prepare for their arduous journey, covering thousands of kilometers from northern Europe or North America to the southern hemisphere. The Hula Valley, says Elon, is one of the most important of them. Millions of birds - some say hundreds of millions - stop there for short period. Elon is cautious about numbers, but is specific about some of the migrant visitors to the Hula: 90,000 cranes, 60,000 pelicans and 600,000 storks. Numbers of smaller birds are less exact but amount to many millions.
"This is really a unique place," Elon says. The Hula is unequaled in the number and variety of birds that visit, he says.
Bird watchers point out several migration routes: Birds going from Western Europe to North America stop in Panama and Costa Rica. Birds flying from Western Europe to Africa stop in southern Spain. And those migrating from Eastern Europe, the Baltic states and even Scandinavia, stop in Israel. Statistics indicate more birds visit Israel than Spain. Smaller "refueling" stations may also be found in Cyprus and Malta.
The experts coming for the conference includes Marco Lambertini, the head of BirdLife International, an umbrella organization for more than 100 bird-watching associations around the world whose goal is the preservation of birds, their homes and their biological variety - prevention of the extermination of species.
Lambertini, who lives in London, said in a phone interview that changes in bird migration are a cause for concern and he places great importance on the Hula conference. "There has been a downward trend in the numbers of migrant birds worldwide. There are species undergoing a swift decline and it is possible to discern such a trend even among more common birds, which are not in danger of extinction but whose migrant numbers are decreasing," he said.
Lambertini says the subject is complex as the migrants pass over so many countries under difficult conditions and with great effort. Bird watchers are looking for "where they suffer serious damage. Some of the changes stem from climate changes all over the globe, others from a serious reduction in living space, overdevelopment, crowding, problematic agriculture and damage to the nutrition of migrating birds."
Lambertini emphasizes that the national groups and the umbrella organization can offer the big picture, but not solve local problems. The national organizations cooperate with each other, he says, even when their countries do not have warm relations or are unfriendly.
Israel, though small, stands "at a strategic point for bird migration," says Lambertini. A huge amount of birds are concentrated in Israel during transitional seasons - "a significant bottleneck. In effect, you are sitting in the center of the migration highway and so we at BirdLife have a special interest in supporting you in preserving the routes."
Israel excels in developing the tourist value of bird watching, he says, and may be seen as a model for economic-minded nature preservation, something not understood in many countries. He is well aware of Israel's problems with overdevelopment and crowding, the conflict-ridden encounter of agriculture and nature preservation, but says Israel is also conscious of this and has the desire to treat these subjects from the point of view that they are potentially good for tourism.
"Bird watching is an important tourist niche today. It's still a narrow niche but an excellent way to develop tourism in areas lacking other attractions. People love to see animals in a natural setting. We still can't compete with African safaris but hundreds of thousands of people travel each year on bird-watching tours."
People are attracted to bird watching for several reasons, he says. "Birds are beautiful. They are small animals that know how to fly, which arouses the human imagination; they are musical, they come in breathtaking colors and have been inspiring people for thousands of years."
It's easy to watch them from any place, and "this gives a lot of satisfaction to bird watchers, to beginners, too." You just need two things, he says. Binoculars and a folding chair.
"You can bird watch in a city or outside one, in the tropics or at the pole, and there is another important aspect - competition," says Lambertini. Bird watchers are often competitive types, who keep an exact record of the birds they've seen and try to collect sightings of rare or especially beautiful birds. "The combination of the enjoyment of nature and competition is apparently the heart of the matter," he says.
Pete Dunne, one of the world's best-known bird watchers, whose books include a guide for beginners, will also attend the Hula conference. He spoke to Haaretz from his office in New Jersey, where he runs a small bird-watching organization. Dunne says he has been "intensively involved" in the field for decades, but still sets out every morning, just before sunrise, to watch birds. "When I was seven, I wanted to get away from adults. They were always telling me what to do, giving orders. When I escaped from the backyard with binoculars, I won my freedom. And so it's been up to this very day."
Dunne lives in Cape May, an important North American migration site, similar in many ways, he says, to Eilat. "The migration period is the most dangerous time in a bird's life, and its greatest adventure. It leaves a safe place to embark on a dangerous journey to another place, in the hope it will find more food." Dunne says: "Every morning, when I see birds arriving at the shore - exhausted at the end of a flight over the ocean - I think they are very brave. It is an image that moves me every time."
The world of bird watching has changed completely, according to Dunne. "Once we made an effort to collect information and statistics. Today, thanks to the Internet, there is an enormous amount of information and data on bird sightings. Our main problem today is to find the time needed to analyze and understand the data we've collected."
Dunne often meets people who come to bird watching from photography. "They send me a photo of a bird and ask me to identify it for them. I explain that the first time is free, identify the bird and recommend a field book or bird guide they can buy in a bookstore near where they live. They don't need more than this."
Bird watching, says Elon, is one of the few fields in science which depends on the thoroughness of amateurs for information. Some of the largest projects, such as the updating of the international nesting atlas, depend on information collected by amateurs, which is quickly uploaded to shared Internet files and used by researchers.
Academic research in the bird watching field in Israel is mediocre, Elon says. "We make a lot of noise, but there's not a lot of research on the subject in practice, and especially not about bird migration. Research in recent years dealt with cranes and pelicans, and concentrated on solutions to the problem of agriculture, that is, how to prevent the birds from causing damage to farmers, he says.
Elon's hopes focus on an investment package authorized by several government offices that is supposed to transfer NIS 40 million for establishing and upgrading bird stations in Israel. A bird-watching center will be established in Ma'agan Michael, Sde Boker and Beit She'an. Existing centers in the Arava and in Eilat are also be improved.
"I've seen how a revolution in thinking took place in the Hula Valley," Elon says confidently. "There, they once thought to build a hotel and in the end were convinced that nature preservation would help the area's economy more. This can and should happen elsewhere."
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