Migratory Birds Love Israel, Now Israel Is Out to Lure Bird-watchers

Kfar Ruppin in northern Israel is hoping its 300-plus species of bird will prove irresistible to tourist 'twitchers.'

Migratory birds at Kfar Ruppin.
Moshe Gilad

The entire European pelican population, 50,000 starved birds, passes through Kfar Ruppin twice a year. It happens now at the beginning of winter, when they migrate southward, and in the spring when they return northward. Israel’s skies constitute an important highway for world migration, some half a billion birds per season. Like tourists everywhere else, they seek a good place to eat.

This data for years has tempted bird-watchers to fulfill the dream and promises of turning Israel in general, and the Jordan Valley in particular, into a capital of the bird-watching world. The new visitors center in Kfar Ruppin, which is now opening, is the first swallow in the flight. The tourism potential of bird-watching is great, with an estimated 100 million bird-watchers internationally. Israel has six bird-watching centers, the Kfar Ruppin site being the northernmost. The next stage of development, converting an adjacent fish pool into a pool adapted especially for bird-watching, will commence in the coming months.

Pelican at Kfar Ruppin.
Moshe Gilad

David Glasner, director of the Kfar Ruppin center, says there are several breakthroughs with the new site. The dispute between fishers and bird-watchers is as ancient as any Middle East conflict. Fish farmers see birds in general and pelicans in particular as dangerous enemies. They have no will or desire to collaborate with the enemy. Allocating a large fish pool for bird-watching needs, planning accessibility to adapt to visitors, and adapting water levels and quality to the needs of birds is the equivalent, in the eyes of those dealing with fish, to a comprehensive peace deal with Hamas. Such a move requires a paradigm shift.

One morning at Kfar Ruppin, I saw the following birds: pelicans, great cormorants, kites, loons, grey herons, common bee-eaters, white-throated kingfishers, little egrets, pied kingfishers and black storks. I even learned how to identify some of them. The list of birds spotted at the center includes 331 species.

Pelicans at Ma’agan Michael.
Moshe Gilad

Dan Alon, director of the Society for the Protection of Nature’s bird-watching center, stresses that Beit She’an Valley is one of the best in the world for watching birds, especially for tourists from abroad. “Many of them will clearly rather visit Kfar Ruppin than the Hula Lake, a more northern station on the migration route. The big advantage lies in this place having residents who know bird-watching and provide hosting, explanations and a complete framework for promoting bird-watching,” he says. “Precisely the fact that the place is far and a little remote is likely to make it a considered advantage for bird-watchers.”

Alon attaches great importance to attracting bird-watchers to Kfar Ruppin, which needs an economic push. The place offers bird-watchers content as well as lodgings exactly on the birds’ migration route. The comparison to Hula Lake is no coincidence. The success of the bird-watching station, which the Jewish National Fund established at Hula Lake, is a paragon and object of envy. About 370,000 people visit Hula Lake annually, and the station contributes an estimated 80-100 million shekels ($20.6m-$25.8m) annually to the Galilee economy. A small fraction of this amount would turn Glasner into the darling of the Beit She’an Valley.

We arrive at the abandoned military post of Tel Maluah. Within two round structures, which once served the post’s soldiers, classes were started making it possible to bring groups of tourists and give them detailed information about bird-watching, the history of the region, the war of attrition fought with the Jordanians in the late 1960s and restoring the Jordan River. The height of the post provides a wonderful view – east past the Jordan, splitting between tamarisk trees, eucalyptus trees and canes. To the west we get a good view of the fish pools.

The loud sound of a blast shakes the post’s walls. Glasner laughs and explains there is no need to be frightened. Kfar Ruppin fishermen continue their war on the pelicans and fire guns to scare and shoo away the hungry flocks of birds, which are looking for a serving of fish for lunch. Through binoculars we can see the birds lazily taking off, moving in a broad arc around the pools and returning to land exactly where they took off.

It is a war that’s hard to end.