Endangered Bird Species Returns to Lake Hula, on a Wing and a Prayer

Eleven ferruginous ducks were released at the Israeli nature reserve last week. New technology will enable ecologists to monitor their behavior in the wild.

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Two ferruginous ducks take flight at Lake Hula for their first taste of freedom.
Two ferruginous ducks take flight at Lake Hula for their first taste of freedom.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

With their sharply contrasting movements and behavior, they made the perfect comedy duo. Just like Laurel and Hardy.

The first ferruginous duck was taken out of the crate. It tried to beat its wings and stretched its neck a few times, while three people checked the harness of the transmitter attached to its back. Then it was placed on the green grass on the banks of Lake Hula. Without hesitation, it spread its wings and energetically flew eastward, as if to say “Adios, Amigos!” Some 160 feet (about 50 meters) later, it descended to the surface of the lake, where it floated motionless and waited to see what would happen. Silence. Several other ducks, longtime residents of the lake, cautiously approached. It turned away from them and moved a little bit away.

The second ferruginous duck behaved totally differently. It looked very calm as its carer held it; when it was placed on the grass, it did not spread its wings. It just waited. Then it waddled directly over to the water, made its way through the reeds and vegetation, entered the water, rested a little, then paddled its way over to the nearest thicket to hide.

Two ferruginous ducks waddling toward Lake Hula, February 28, 2017.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Last week, 11 ferruginous ducks (aythya nyroca) were released into Lake Hula. They hatched nine months ago in the breeding center of the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. Initially, zoo workers looked after the eggs in the hatchery, and later fed the chicks, examined them and tracked their growth. Some of them escorted the ducks on their big day.

As they were “returned” to the wild, GPS transmitters were attached by a special harness to the backs of two of them, to enable their movements to be monitored so their exact locations can be determined.

Ferruginous ducks are reddish-brown or rust-colored, and tend to be very shy. They are not easy to find in the wild. On average, they are just 40-centimeters (15 inches) long and have a thick beak. Their wingspan is 65 centimeters and they weigh about a half-kilo (2 pounds). They have a hopping gait and generally stick to small bodies of water.

On this misty, beautiful morning at the Hula Nature Reserve, I thought of how many “duck” expressions we use without thinking about the actual creatures: “ugly duckling,” “lame duck,” “sitting duck,” etc. And with the unavoidable political associations of the name Donald, one also can’t help comparing Donald Duck and President Donald Trump.

The ferruginous ducks take flight at Lake Hula.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Ferruginous ducks are extremely rare in Israel. Until the 1960s, many of them lived in the Hula area, and then later by the Wastewater Treatment Plant in Rishon Letzion. Then Lake Hula was dried up, other bodies of water disappeared, and the ducks were declared in serious danger of extinction in Israel, and as an endangered species worldwide.

Dr. Nili Avni-Magen, a veterinarian at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, February 28, 2017.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Four years ago, several ducks were imported from France for breeding here. They adjusted well and reproduced at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. Last June, about a month after they hatched, I got to see the latest generation: soft, tiny chicks that instantly evoke a feeling of sympathy and a desire to stroke their feathers. But no touching was allowed.

Graduation ceremony

Last week, though, I got to attend their graduation ceremony as they were released at the Hula Nature Reserve. The excitement is not as noticeable on the stern faces of the ducks as it is on the faces of the happy “parents” who have gathered on the side of the lake – workers from the zoo and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, who came together to work on this unique project.

Dr. Nili Avni-Magen, a veterinarian with the Biblical Zoo, says this is the third year the zoo has released ferruginous ducks into the wild. In the past, ducks were also released at the Givaton reserve near Rehovot and in the Tzora reservoir near Beit Shemesh. In both cases, it was difficult for researchers to track the ducks after their release. So the transmitters being used in the current project are of great importance.

The ferruginous duck waddling toward Lake Hula, February 28, 2017. Credit: Gil Eliahu

As the ferruginous duck waddles over to the water, Avni-Magen looks concerned. “I’d rather have seen him show more energy. I’d like to have seen him fly,” she says quietly.

A few minutes later, sounding more encouraged, she explains the process. “There are very few examples worldwide of such a connection between a zoo and nature reserve authority. What we’re really seeing here this morning is an example of the right way, in our view, for the relationship to work between the zoo – where it’s possible to look after a breeding group for several years in a row – and the nature reserve organizations. The first element in the process is awareness of which species are in danger of extinction.” When this is known, adds Avi-Magen, “It’s possible to develop a breeding group, like we did with the ferruginous ducks, and which we’re also trying to do now with eagles – which is much more complicated – and with fallow deer and other animals.

“After we’ve gotten the ferruginous ducks to reproduce, the next stage is to return them to the wild,” she continues. “The zoo’s part in the story ends today. They need more space. We nurtured them in order to release them at Lake Hula. This species has almost completely vanished from the wild in Israel, but in the past it was an important part of our landscape. Lake Hula is the natural environment for the ferruginous ducks. It’s their habitat. We’re all a little emotional, because we made a big effort to be able to reach this moment.”

The ferruginous duck waddling toward Lake Hula, February 28, 2017. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Talk to the parents

Avni-Magen urges me to talk with the “parents” of the ferruginous ducks. She points to three people from the zoo’s birds department who have accompanied the ducks here. The trio look like an ad for social integration in Jerusalem: Michal Erez, head of the birds section, lives on Kibbutz Netiv Halamed Heh; Anan Abu-Tin, a longtime keeper in the birds section, is from Al-Walaja in southern Jerusalem, and has been working at the zoo since he was 14, over 20 years ago; and 19-year-old Hava Oritzky, from a religious family in Jerusalem, in her second year at the zoo as part of her national service.

Oritzky says she’s excited to be here at the Hula Nature Reserve for the first time. As she holds one of the ferruginous ducks just before its release, the creature relaxes completely. Abu-Tin says that if everyone worked with such things, we could all live here in peace.

LIFT-OFF! A ferruginous duck heads for the water at Lake Hula, February 28, 2017.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Erez describes how the chicks were very carefully nurtured at the zoo, right up until this moment. “Some of these ducks hatched right in our hands, so obviously this is a very exciting day for us – though we try hard not to become too attached. These are not pets, which is one reason we don’t give them names.”

Ohad Hatzofe, a bird ecologist with the INPA, is the other, scientific, side of the equation involved in returning the ducks to the wild. He is responsible for attaching the transmitters to the backs of two of the ferruginous ducks, and for monitoring them after their return to the lake.

The reason these birds became endangered is that their wet habitats have largely disappeared. “We dried up the swamps, and so this species – which used to nest in Israel in huge numbers – is now in danger of extinction. The ferruginous ducks still living in Israel don’t reside in the nature reserves, so we have barely any chance to track them and get a handle on their situation. It’s a timid species, especially during nesting season, so we really know very little about it,” he says.

The ferruginous ducks take flight at Lake Hula. Credit: Gil Eliahu

“What we’re doing here now is an unprecedented attempt to make use of transmitters,” he adds. “The problem is how to attach the transmitter. They can’t be attached to the ferruginous ducks’ feet because they hardly ever come out of the water, so we wouldn’t get signals from them. Past experiments in which transmitters were affixed to the beak didn’t work, and also hurt the ducks’ chances of survival. This time, we’re trying something new: affixing a tiny transmitter that’s attached to the duck’s back with a special harness. Up till now, we’ve essentially been blind when it comes to their behavior after their release. Where do they go? Do they stay in the place where we released them or do they go wandering? We’ve only had a few, random observations. Because they’re relatively small, their body size limits us in terms of the weight of the transmitter,” says Hatzofe. “The transmitters we’re using weigh 20 grams (about 6 percent of their body weight), which is within what’s considered a legitimate range. We’re aware that the harness is external and could hinder them in diving. It’s not standard practice to affix an external harness to an animal that dives, but we decided to try this solution after discussing it with experts around the world.”

Ohad Hatzofe.Credit: Gil Eliahu

After a brief pause, Hatzofe adds, “You learn more from failures than from successes. It’s possible that these ducks will be devoured by predators tomorrow, but we’re trying to achieve a situation where this population will grow and develop in Israel – and right now this looks like the best way.”

Hatzofe also notes that, once the ducks are released, a signal will be relayed to his cellphone every two hours, indicating their exact location. The big question, he says, is where the ducks will choose to go. “Now we’ll be able to learn what kind of habitats they prefer. To me, this is what nature preservation is really all about.”