Just after 7:00 o'clock in the morning, hundreds of storks are hovering around one of the fish ponds in Kibbutz Maoz Haim in the Bet She'an Valley.

The huge birds take long strides, flutter their wings, linger for a moment and land next to a different pond. September is their big migration season and the storks observe the timing strictly.

Israelis are used to flocking to the Hula Lake to watch the spectacle of migrating birds. But Yossi Leshem and Dan Alon believe that the Bet She'an Valley is one of several lesser-known sites that have the potential to make Israel a bird-watching power on an international scale.

Alon is the director of the Israel Ornithological Center at the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel (SPNI ) and Leshem is a member of the center, a past executive director of the SPNI, as well as a senior researcher in Tel Aviv University's Department of Zoology. Leshem sets up a tripod to which Alon affixes a sophisticated telescope. Through the lens, every feather is distinct. Alon explains that in about one hour the storks will begin another chapter in their migration to the south, in advance of the winter. This is a long journey in which they cover about 300 kilometers a day flying from northern and Eastern Europe to eastern and southern Africa.

The birds look for the rising air currents, take off with their help, gain altitude and glide southwards. At 7:15 A.M. the birds do not look like they are in any hurry to continue their journey. The lush breakfast on the edge of the fishponds interests them more.

Every time I express my admiration for the feathers, wings or beak of a bird, they are happy. "We'll make a bird-watcher of you yet," reiterates Leshem. Alon smiles and says that in order to become a bird-watcher all that's needed is "a twist of a few screws in the mind and the ability to deal with problems in the neck, because you spend hours looking at the sky."

We drove to the Beit She'an Valley because the thrilling sight of the large flock of storks at Maoz Haim is proof of the major claim put forth by Leshem and Alon: that Israel can become a center that attracts bird-watchers from all over the world to a variety of well-developed sites across the country.

The Leshem-Alon duo is very good at persuasion. Their arguments helped bring about the passage in April of a government resolution, calling for the establishment of a network of seven large and well-organized ornithological centers in the next few years. The Israel Ornithological Center, part of the Society for the Preservation of Nature, is coordinating the project. Three centers will be established in the Arava − at Lotan, Hatzeva and Eilat ‏(where the existing center will be upgraded‏).

Additional centers will be established at Ein Gedi on the shore of the Dead Sea and at Kfar Ruppin on the Jordanian border east of Beit She’an, at Ma’agan Michael and at Sde Boker. These centers are linking up with active centers like the one in the Rose Garden near the Knesset in Jerusalem.

The cost of the project is about NIS 40 million, to be shared by the Tourism Ministry ‏(NIS 12 million‏), the Ministry for the Development of the Galilee and the Negev ‏(NIS 5 million‏), the Environmental Protection Ministry ‏(NIS 2 million‏) and the Jewish National Fund ‏(NIS 6 million‏). Additional funding is coming from the Prime Minister’s Office, which has recognized the development of bird-watching as part of its project of nurturing national heritage.

Only the duo of Leshem and Alon, apparently, is capable of persuading tough government officials like Zvi Hauser ‏(the government secretary‏) and Reuven Pinsky ‏(who is in charge of the national heritage site project‏) that bird-watching is an important element in our national heritage.

Tourism Ministry director general Noaz Bar-Nir is also on board. “Half a billion birds fly across Israel every year,” explains Bar-Nir. “There is tremendous potential here for bird-watching tourists. This is in keeping with our search for niches that will help the peripheral regions of the country. We want to spread tourism all around the country, take it out of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.”

According to Bar-Nir, about 40 percent of the tourists to Israel are returning visitors and it is necessary to provide them with new attractions. “When nature is given economic value, everyone will have an interest in preserving it,” he adds.

At 8:30 in the evening Alon and I stand on a small hill and watch the fish pond at the edge of Kfar Ruppin. The Jordanian border is not far away and beyond the pond we see army positions. The course of the river passes close to the pool. Our necks are bent back and our eyes are trained on the sky. Above us passes a large flock of European honey buzzards ‏(a bird of prey of the family Accipitridae, usually dark in color and about the size of a hen‏). Alon describes how the pond in front of us will become an innovative bird-watching center − a small island will be built in it and there will be full control of the water level because most migratory birds prefer to land and feed in shallow water.

A tourist trail will be laid, leading to the ornithological center. “Our aim,” continues Leshem, “Is to set in motion a move so the average person will know that if he comes to Kfar Ruppin he will see 2,000 storks. He won’t need binoculars − we will provide everything he needs.”

The basis for this optimism is located about 60 kilometers north of Kfar Ruppin − at the Hula Lake. There, in recent years a bird-watching center has flourished and become one of the most popular tourism and nature sites in Israel. The site draws 370,000 visitors every year and it contributes between about NIS 80 million and NIS 100 million to the economy of the Galilee. Leshem and Alon aim to leverage this success in the countrywide network of bird-watching centers.

“We will put it all under one umbrella,” explains Leshem. “This will be a central network of ornithological tourism in Israel. In parallel, a portal on the Internet will be set up. A British bird-watcher will be able to follow the remaining vultures in Israel and will be able to follow the birds that interest him. We are sitting on one of the most important crossroads in the world for migratory birds and the potential is huge. There are 100 million bird-watchers in the world. The ornithological centers will attract them.”

Leshem estimates it will soon be possible to draw 100,00 birding tourists a year. The model is the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. This organization has about a million members, who manage 80 birding reserves throughout the United Kingdom. The RSPB has been in existence for 120 years and is considered one of the most successful nature conservancy organizations in the birding world. Each center will be a cooperative venture run by the kibbutz, in cooperation with tourism, educational and environmental protection organizations. Eventually, he would like to expand the regional cooperation to include nature authorities in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

David Glazner, a Kfar Ruppin old-timer, says that the establishment of the ornithological center is the most interesting project in which he has ever been involved. “Bird-watching is giving us the possibility of dealing with tourism that combines nature preservation and education. The kibbutz offers rural lodging to bird-watchers along with interesting observation of the migratory birds,” he says.

On the way from Kfar Ruppin to Ma’agan Michael, I ask Leshem and Alon about the significance of the initiative from the perspective of the Society for the Protection of Nature. “It is both a big risk and a big opportunity for a better future,” explains Leshem ‏(formerly the chief executive officer of the organization‏). The magnitude of the project might well change the image of the SPNI, he adds.

From his perspective this is a necessary change. After many years in which the society’s activity shrank because of economic and administrative reasons, it is likely to blaze a new path.

The current CEO of SPNI, Moshe Pakman, defines the bird-watching initiative as a flagship project of nature preservation. This is both because of its importance, as well as the scope and complexity of setting up the network. Pakman: “The Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel is the only organization in the country that has engaged in ornithology in all its aspects for many years, including focused tourism activity.”

According to him, SPNI is capable of taking on this large project. “Our financial turnover today is about NIS 150 million annually, so we aren’t talking about too big a bite. The nature preservation, education and tourism divisions are already involved in it.”

“The opposition to this move always comes from the direction of the money people,” notes Leshem. “For them, naturally, there are anxieties about a big move like this but I look at the society’s history and I say: If Amotz Zahavi ‏(one of the founders of SPNI and a veteran bird-watcher‏) had worked with a precise business plan, the society would never have got off the ground. Sometimes it’s necessary to believe in a big vision and to march ahead with it.”

We climb a tower overlooking the Ma’agan Michael fishponds and the Mediterranean coast, near the Nahal Taninim estuary. The houses of Jisr al- Zarqa are close by and a sizable flock of ibises ‏(large black birds with thin, curved bills‏) is taking off every few minutes and giving a short aerial show over the village.

Gershon Peleg, a member of Ma’agan Michael and a former CEO of the Society for the Protection of Nature, is currently coordinating the establishment of the ornithological center at the kibbutz. He is aware that there are many problems on his home turf. The fishing industry is one of the main sources of income at the kibbutz and the fishermen don’t like to have tourists, bird-watchers and just plain day-trippers wandering among the ponds. They are also not especially keen on the idea of having a number of ponds taken away from them and devoted to watching birds. Nevertheless, the members of the kibbutz have approved the development of bird-watching as part of the development of tourism there.

Peleg is certain Ma’agan Michael will be able to attract many tourists and visitors, almost like the Hula Lake. The proximity to the center of the country, the beautiful scenery, the large flocks of birds that visit the area at the start of the winter − all these, along with the irrepressible confidence of Leshem and Alon, make him optimistic.

A moment later, in the middle of a sentence about the size of the budget, Alon raises the binoculars dangling around his neck and points to an ibis: “Will you look at that. Its colors are amazing,” he says. The ibis, whose chest is brilliant turquoise, tilts its head to one side and then to the other, spreads its wings and flies to the other side of the pond. My neck is hurting, so maybe they will make a bird-watcher of me after all.