Migrating birds - Yaron Kaminsky - 07122011
Migrating birds making their way through Israeli skies. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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The Israel Air Force recently placed a specially equipped radar on the northern border in the hopes of heading off collisions between jets and flocks of birds. While safety is the main concern, the radars will also provide bird watchers with gaggles of information.

Hundreds of millions of birds fly through Israeli skies every year, especially in the north, and the radar, a cooperation of the Air Force, Tel Aviv University and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel will be able to follow, study, and immediately report the nature and size of flocks approaching Israeli borders.

The radar is the third of its kind in Israel, and is actually the fulfillment of a 20-year-old recommendation, following the death of three pilots and the loss of 10 fighter jets in a series of accidents.

According to research by Yossi Leshem of SPNI, who also lectures at Tel Aviv University and is head of The Israeli Birdwatching Center, the severe accidents were caused mostly by fighter jets due to their high speed. The faster a jet flies, and the larger the bird is, the higher the more damaging a collision between the two will be.

Two months ago, a group of Pelicans collided with an F-15 fighter jet that was forced to make an emergency landing at the Tel Nof air force base. "Five Pelicans that collide with an F-15 equal a 100-ton blow," explained Leshem.

Throughout the world, there are more than 250 airplane-bird accidents every year, some of them fatal. In 1996, an American Avax plane collided with a flock of geese and crashed, causing the death of 24 crew members. In the same year, a Belgian Hercules plane was downed, killing 35, after it flew into a flock of starlings that were sucked into the aircraft's four engines.

Leshem revealed the radar's placement during a talk at Mitzpeh Hayamim hotel, part of a month long birdwatching festival, in cooperation between the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration in Latrun - where another, similar radar is placed - The Israeli Birdwatching Center and the Zoology Department of Tel Aviv University.

Leshem also revealed that the Air Forces of Jordan and Turkey showed interest in developing a regional network that would enable information sharing on flock movement. That project is currently frozen due to tense relations between Israel and Turkey.

A major from the air force's birdwatching unit told Haaretz that "up to now the northern border officers received reports of expected migration patterns, but now can actually get feeds with live data. Our new advantage is that we can see the flocks before they arrive and warn our pilots. We're doing everything we possible can to avoid collisions. And we also love the birds."

Leshem says the radar will help bolster Israel's burgeoning birdwatching industry.

"In the future, we will establish a national birdwatching network that will assemble all the information so that every tourist or birdwatcher that gets up in a hotel in upper Galilee will be able to see on the web when and where a flock is expected, and will be able to plan his day accordingly."