Not Just the Stork: Israel’s Migratory Bird Season Has Surprises in Store

From cranes and pelicans to warblers and swallows: The choice birdwatching sites to witness Israel’s stunning migration season

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A half a million storks cross Israel's skies twice a year.
A half a million storks cross Israel's skies twice a year.Credit: Barak Granit
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Dozens of storks perch on long slender legs beside a fish pool in the Jordan Valley’s Kfar Ruppin. With a flap of its huge wings, one bird takes off, stretching its red legs back like an Olympic gymnast. Two more follow, and soon a flock of several dozen assembles above my head. Round after round, they swoop above me, growing smaller as they glide on a warm air current that draws them upwards. The sun is blinding, and I can barely see them anymore.

Twice a year, a half million storks pass through Israel. The storks are just one of the 280 species of migratory birds that are currently passing through Israeli skies – making Israel a birdwatching paradise. The large birds – cranes and pelicans – draw the most attention. It’s unsurprising, given that the two species have a long migration season and put on quite a show. Hundreds of thousands of birdwatchers visit Hula Lake every year to witness the amazing sight. Many also come to the Hula area or make the trip to the VIcker Birdwatching Observation Deck in Emek Hefer to see the pelicans, who also provide plenty of thrilling moments. But the migration season has many more players and more surprises to offer.

It’s hard to quantify exactly how many birds pass through Israel each autumn. Dan Alon, longtime director of the Israel Ornithological Center, says that many researchers dispute the 500 million bird estimate that is often cited, saying it is somewhat exaggerated. Alon says a more accurate figure is 350 million, still quite an astronomical sum.

“We’ve been conducting migration surveys in Israel since the late 1970s,” Alon says. “They give birdwatchers and researchers precise information about the number of migratory birds during daylight hours. The problems with counting begin when the sun goes down. Most of the migratory birds are small birds that migrate at night. We use a special kind of radar to estimate their numbers.”

The gliding birds, also called soaring birds, like storks, cranes and pelicans, “only” amount to about three million, making up less than one percent of the total number of migratory birds. The vast majority is composed of songbirds and waders (shorebirds), like the willow warbler, the yellow wagtail, various types of pipits and swallows, among others. These birds get very little attention, because they are much harder to spot.

“Most of these birds migrate at night,” Alon says. “And we birdwatchers generally see and document them at their stopping places – fields, groves, gardens, watering holes and so on. In October and November, tens of millions of songbirds from numerous species – chaffinch, siskin, pipit, roller, white swallows and many more – arrive here. They come from the sea to Israel’s shores by ‘active migration,’ i.e. by flapping their wings, unlike the gliding birds, which hardly flap their wings. You can watch migrating flocks passing at relatively low altitude over the coast. There are days when you can see tens of thousands of birds in one morning.”

Choice birdwatching sites

The best place in Israel to see migratory birds of all species, but particularly cranes and pelicans, remains the Hula Lake, which is administered by the Jewish National Fund. The Hula Nature Reserve, run by the Israel Nature & Parks Authority, is also an excellent place to see migratory birds at this time of year. Both sites charge an entry fee.

At all the other sites, entry is free: In Emek Hefer, beside the Alexander River, there are two birdwatching sites. The best one is the Vicker Birdwatching Observation Deck which overlooks a reservoir. During migration season, thousands of pelicans can be seen landing in the evening and taking off in the morning. Not far away is the Hefer Lake (Agmon Hefer), which was created out of several former fish ponds. It’s a lovely place with well-tended walking trails and various scenic spots, but in all of my visits there, I saw very few migratory birds.

Aside from these, there are a number of city parks that have bodies of water and observatories. These include Rosh Tzipor next to Ganei Yehoshua in north Tel Aviv, Park Ariel Sharon (Hiriya), Park Petah Tikva opposite Beilinson Hospital, the Herzliya City Park and the Hod Hasharon City Park. Jerusalem has two terrific centers operated by SPNI – one next to the Knesset (the Jerusalem Bird Observatory) and a second one in the Gazelle Park. In the Haifa area, your best bet is the Ein Afek nature reserve in Kiryat Bialik.

And having said all of that, an ideal option is just to sit down very early in the morning or at last light next to a fish pond, no matter where. Either some amazing birds will show up, or it will be a very peaceful experience.

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