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Wings over Israel

After the Second Revolt against Rome in A.D. 135, Judea was left so desolate that olives, the ancient staple of the region, were not harvested again for more than a century, and according to legend, even birds avoided the once verdant hills. The loss of the birds must have been especially noticeable. Ninety-one resident species, 121 regularly migrating species, and more than 200 winter or summer residents -- an amazing number and variety for so small an area -- are found in Israel today. In ancient times, the variety and number of birds must have been even larger. Israel is located on the main migration route of the birds of Europe and Western Asia to and from Africa. For millions of years, migrating birds have followed the line of the below-sea Jordan Valley to the Great Rift Valley because they need warm air thermals to help them cover the distance between Europe and Africa. At times in the migration season -- an amazing spectacle that includes overflights of 500 million birds -- Israel hosts an estimated 85% of the world's stork population. Birds stop for several days' rest in the Galilee among the thriving kibbutz fishponds and farms along the Jordan River before continuing south across the Negev to Eilat.

The flight over the desert can be so difficult that exhausted birds commonly drop dead out of the sky in the Western Negev and Sinai, sometimes only a short distance from a watering hole on the fringe of Israeli agricultural land. Some migrants, including a dozen families of storks, have become so habituated to the lush agricultural scene developed in Israel over the past decades that they have begun to breed in Israel rather than their traditional European nesting areas. During migration season the skies can be so thick with birds that they are a major hazard to military and commercial flights in the area. Thanks to the peace agreements between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, the governments of those countries have begun plans to build a network of migrating bird radar-tracking stations throughout the area in an effort to save the lives of both human passengers and the birds themselves. Over the next several years, this network will also be put to use for the benefit of worldwide bird enthusiasts who visit the region. Meanwhile, the first station of the network, the Inter-University Institute for Research of Bird Migration, is operational at Latrun, in the foothills of the Judean Mountains not far from Jerusalem. It operates in cooperation with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, and Haifa's Technion, and includes a research center, a museum, and an auditorium for screening films. The institute will join Eilat's International Birding and Research Centre, the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel, the Zipori Bird Park in Tel Aviv, and the Nature Reserve Center at northern Israel's Beit Ussishkin in Kibbutz Dan as a major resource for bird-watching enthusiasts traveling in Israel.

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