A working visit to Israel by German journalist and photographer Thomas Krumenacker 11 years ago changed his life. After witnessing the seasonal migration of birds here, he made his hobby something much more serious. The result: his book “Birds in the Holy Land,” which has just come out in German and English.
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The work was published with the help of the Hoopoe Bird Foundation, founded by Rachel and Moshe Yanai and administered by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Krumenacker lives in Berlin but visits Israel often. He follows the birds from the heights of Mount Hermon to the Gulf of Eilat.
The book’s photos and accompanying text show why birds’ migration along the length of the country has been termed “the eighth wonder of the world.” In a short period, more than 500 bird species pass overhead, and almost every year a new species not seen before in Israel is observed.
Most of these birds leave Europe in the autumn on their way to Africa, making the long journey back in the spring. Some species arrive during the winter. Experts estimate that during the migration season some 500 million birds pass through Israel.
For some species, almost the entire global population moves through the region. For example, nearly all the world’s Levant sparrowhawks fly over the Holy Land during their migration.
Especially prominent overhead are white storks; half a million stop in Israel for food or rest, nearly all the ones from Europe and Asia. Another important visitor is the lesser spotted eagle, described by Krumenacker as one of the most enigmatic birds to nest in Europe. This is due to its penchant for remote forests.
Israel holds other records as well. For example, one birdwatcher counted no fewer than 8,700 black storks within an hour and a half in the Beit She’an Valley. This is the largest flock of this species ever seen.
Nature has undergone some destructive changes in Israel due to construction and the drying of natural water sources, but still, new and rich sources of food have appeared with the development of fishponds, agricultural fields and waste-disposal sites. These serve as welcome refueling stops for migrating birds. The Hula Valley in the north and the fishponds are a prime example of such resources, but the salt-water pools in Atlit near Haifa and Eilat in the south also offer food and shelter.
The migration has offered opportunities for collaboration between birdwatchers in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. It also brings thousands of birdwatchers here from around the world every year.
The huge flocks of course are impressive, not that they have an easy time along the way. Bird migration is in some sense a metaphor for freedom and an absence of borders, writes Krumenacker. But it also demonstrates the individual’s dangerous struggle against nature and the environmental changes constantly shaped by man. The struggle often ends in the death of a bird during its risky migration.
Krumenacker, for example, took a photo of a dark-feathered spotted eagle fighting an eastern imperial eagle over a treetop observation perch. These are among the largest birds of prey, and in this battle the older and more experienced spotted eagle won. This is one of the rarest birds of prey in the world, arriving in Israel during the winter.
The eastern imperial eagle, meanwhile, is among the most impressive eagles seen in Israel. It can catch mammals, but during the winter it mainly feeds on carcasses, including those of cranes. Some 60 to 90 of these birds are thought to pass through during the migration season. Sadly, these beauties sometimes meet their deaths by hitting hit high-voltage-lines.
This is a less-known species of storks. They love the fishponds in the Beit She’an Valley and stay there along with other species of water fowl that arrive in the area. Since political borders are of no interest to them, they can often be seen resting on hills on the Jordanian side of the border.
Krumenacker describes this bird as one with self-confidence. It prowls gardens but also remote desert areas. It belongs to the thrush family and spends much of its time on the ground eating insects. It builds its nests in crevices in rocks. It resides in Israel throughout the year.
Hume’s tawny owl (Strix butleri)
This owl species is one of the more mysterious species in the region; until recently there were hardly any photos of this bird. Over the last two years ornithologist Amir Ben Dov has managed to document it during mating and the raising of chicks in the Judean Desert. This species was defined as new only two years ago. Its Latin name honors Hadoram Shirihai, an Israeli ornithologist whose work led to its definition as a new species.
Black kite (Milvus migrans)
This bird of prey nests in forests near lakes, rivers or marshes. Krumenacker says this bird feeds on dead fish floating on water, but in Israel’s fishponds it catches live fish as well. In recent years these birds realized they could easily find food at waste-disposal sites. Thus thousands of kites haunt such sites, such as the Dudaim in the Negev.
Lake Hula, the Beit She’an Valley and other areas with fishponds are a vital resting and feeding stop for these birds when migrating. This creates conflicts with fish farmers. In recent years the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has operated reservoirs overfilled with fish in order to attract pelicans away from fishponds.
This is one of the most magnificent species, and it’s not surprising that Krumenacker put a photo of this baby beside the table of contents. Three species can be seen in Israel, all of which build their nests inside deep tunnels. These birds can catch flying insects, including bees, hence their name.
This bird of prey nests in the Judean Hills and the Golan Heights. During the winter it flies to Turkey and even to Eastern Europe. In recent years it has been racked by poisoning and fires. Ornithologist Gilad Friedman from Tel Aviv University has been studying this bird and its fascinating competition with another bird of prey, the snake eagle.
Cranes in the Hula Valley
More than 40,000 cranes from Europe and Russia stop in the Lake Hula area during the winter. They are fed by farmers and remain there for a long period. Cranes are one of the few large birds that fly at night as well.
This is one of the rarest birds in Israel. It can be seen in only a few locations, mostly in the western Negev, which it reaches during the winter. Experts say fewer than 15,000 remain in the world the reasons are the destruction of their nests by sheep and by hunting along their migration route between Asia and North Africa.
Lesser spotted eagle
Krumenacker says the presence of these birds indicates the quality of the local ecology. If they’re around, a complete food chain is probably active, confirming the presence of an entire ecological system. These birds nest in remote forests, but in Israel they gather en masse before moving on to Africa, a job usually done in a single day.