For the Birds: Seeking Sanctuary in Israel

white-throated kingfisher

This white-throated kingfisher is just one bird species that spends time in the Eilat sanctuary. (Photo credit: RGB Ventures LLC dba SuperStock/Alamy)

Depending on where you live, you might be able to look out  the nearest window and see or hear birds. If you look out the window and see snow, or know that if you went out you would feel the cold of winter, then chances are there are probably few birds to be seen, as they have likely migrated to a warmer climate until spring sends them winging back home.

Birds migrate according to differing patterns, schedules, and destinations that have evolved over millennia. Some species find their way, often to exactly the same nesting grounds every year, by using their keen eyesight to recognize landforms and geographic features, memorizing the route the adult birds lead them on. Others have special chemical compounds in their eyes, bills, or brains that can sense the magnetic fields of the planet to orient themselves. Those birds that migrate at night actually navigate by the stars and constellations, just as ancient sailors did.

In the United States and Canada, millions of birds leave their summer homes and begin their long trip south. Large areas of the U.S. Gulf Coast are designated as bird sanctuaries. In these areas, it is illegal to hunt or kill birds unless it is a specified hunting season. So, even with humans encroaching on their habitats, sanctuaries provide food and rest for the birds as they move to their winter nesting grounds. But where do the birds in other parts of the world go?

The Syrian-African Rift, running 4200 miles from Turkey to Mozambique in Africa, acts like a wind channel, providing a natural flight corridor for birds from Europe and Asia to reach their winter homes. These feathered travelers play important roles in the economics of their countries of origin by distributing seeds of fruit-bearing plants, controlling insects and rodents, and pollinating flowers. By following this overland route, birds don’t have to fly across the Mediterranean, where there is no food or land to rest. Along the way, acting as a land bridge between the Middle East and Africa, lays Israel. There, near a resort town called Eilat, birds have found a refuge after flying across hundreds of miles of desert for up to 40 hours without food, water, or rest.

Where the Roded River empties into the Red Sea, large areas of salt marsh once existed. These marshlands provided nourishment and shelter for hundreds of millions of birds during migration. However, since Israel was established as a nation in 1948, the impetus has been to settle and develop the land for human occupation and use. On paper, nearly a quarter of the land in Israel is set aside as national parkland. In reality, many of these parks constitute less than half a square mile each. As more and more land was developed, areas that birds once used as rest stops could no longer provide for wildlife.

In Eilat, major development for the tourist and agricultural industries eventually converted all of the salt marshes to other uses. So, in 1993, when the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat (IBRCE) obtained an abandoned garbage dump, the organization set out to reclaim the abused land for the birds. Those involved in the restoration of the land faced immense opposition from the local community—not because they were working to restore the land, but because they were doing it for the sake of wildlife, rather than people. As they proceeded, the IBRCE dealt with pressure from locals in the forms of vandalism of equipment, destruction of the research center by arson, and even the killing of a researcher’s dog. Local police failed to pursue any investigation into the incidents. In time, despite all of the obstacles placed in the way, the IRBCE persevered and the Eilat sanctuary was born.

Now the foremost birding spot in the region, the IBRCE sanctuary has become a popular destination for tourists visiting the resort area. During migration times, some 500 million birds that comprise more than 400 species pass through the sanctuary, attracting bird watchers from around the globe.

More to Explore
Eilat Birding
Sanctuary in the Desert: Protecting Migratory Birds in Israel
Birding in Eilat

Country: IsraelLocation: Israel is located in the Middle East. It is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt.

Area: 20,770 sq km (land and water) (slightly larger than New Jersey)

Climate: Israel has a temperate climate. The southern and eastern desert areas are hot and dry.

Terrain: The terrain of Israel includes deserts, mountains, low coastal plains, and valleys.

Natural Resources: Clays, copper ore, magnesium bromite, natural gas, phosphate rock, potash, sand, and timber

Economics: $252.8 billion (est. 2012)

Environmental Issues: Desertification, limited freshwater resources, air pollution, groundwater pollution

Source: CIA – The World Factbook