It’s not easy to be an eagle in the Judean Desert, and it’s even more difficult during nesting season. But a survey by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority shows a small but hopeful rise in the number of nests built by both the Bonelli’s eagle and the golden eagle. The findings also reveal the host of threats looming over these birds, for whom the future poses real risks.
During the winter and spring months, INPA employees surveyed the nesting patterns of these eagles in the Golan Heights, eastern Galilee, eastern Samaria, the Judean Desert and the Negev highlands. The survey was conducted with the help of a project called Taking Israeli Raptors Under our Wing, whose partners include not only the authority but also the Israel Electric Corporation and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
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During the observation period, eight pairs of golden aagles were spotted, begun nesting and produced 13 chicks, compared to seven pairs and only eight chicks the previous year. Among the Bonelli’s eagles there were 16 pairs that nested and produced 19 chicks, compared to 14 pairs and 14 chicks the year before. In the past, as many as 40 to 50 pairs of both types would annually nest in Israel.
Behind the statistics hides an ongoing drama linked to the threats faced by these birds of prey and their efforts to cope with them. Some of the nests of both species had to be protected so the chicks wouldn’t be stolen. They are generally stolen by Palestinians who keep the birds caged for their whole lives because of their impressive size.
In one of the nests, a pair of eagles spent 80 days trying to hatch an egg that wasn’t fertile. INPA employees managed to get to the nest and replace the egg with a fertile one taken from the eagle breeding center at the Hai-Bar Carmel Nature Reserve. One of the chicks from another nest in the Judean Desert left the nest but was electrocuted on a high-tension line.
All told, five Bonelli’s eagles were electrocuted last year, four of which had come from the breeding center. This year there have already been two electrocutions on electric lines that have already been given high priority for installing protection against electrocution.
It also emerged that nests in two major Judean Desert streambeds, Arugot and Hever, were abandoned. The assumption is that the abandonment is connected to the increased number of shepherds and hikers in the desert highlands. According to the INPA, there is a longstanding lack of control in this area and means of supervision and enforcement are limited. This situation increases the threats to area wildlife.
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The plight of these birds of prey can be learned from a story of a young golden eagle found injured in the Jordan Valley around 10 months ago. The eagle was brought to the Safari Wildlife Hospital in Ramat Gan, where it was discovered that he had been shot and was suffering from chronic lead poisoning. After two months, the eagle was taken to recover at the Hai-Bar Carmel; two months ago it was released into the wild in the Golan Heights, fitted with a GPS transmitter to monitor its movements. The transmitter showed that the eagle had made its way to Turkey.
Despite the efforts, it seems that it will be difficult to sustain the nesting of these impressive species over time, as the number of nests remains small and the threats of shooting, theft of chicks and electrocution continue. A rather accurate estimation is that at the current rate of reproduction, both species will become extinct as nesters in Israel within 50 years (though they will continue to nest elsewhere in the world).
This is not just a problem for these two types of eagles. The situation for birds of prey in general in Israel is dismal. Vultures, for example, are in danger of extinction, and the threats they face will only increase with the construction of several wind turbine power plants. This is a global threat: An article in a Dutch newspaper this week discussed the risks that turbine blades pose to birds and how to address this issue. As part of the efforts to preserve these species, this week the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem moved two vulture chicks from the hatchery it operates to Hai-Bar Carmel, so they could be prepared for release in the future.
The state of Israel’s birds of prey reflects the achievements of local nature conservation activities, but also its limitations. The commitment and professionalism of the INPA has enabled eagles to survive and continue to raise chicks in the desert. The authority has succeeded in developing breeding centers that use a variety of new developments and refinements in breeding methods.
But over time, given the increasing pressure for development and construction and the growing presence of hikers, hunters and collecting enthusiasts of all kinds, it will be challenging to secure a future for these rare species. Birds of prey desperately need distance from humans and functioning ecosystems, where they can find suitable food. Their success will be our success, because it means that in the future it will still be possible to come to the desert or the Golan Heights and enjoy the unforgettable sight of an eagle or vulture soaring above us. We humans will have to restrain ourselves and not approach the places where these birds are busy raising their next generation.