Nomadic birds from far and wide stop in Eilat at a park built just for them: The International Birding & Research Center Eilat (IBRCE).
Aeschylus, the Greek playwright known as the "Father of Tragedy," died when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. The legend may not be as improbable as it sounds. The eagle, which drops its prey from on high to crack open the tortoise shell, apparently mistook his bald pate for just another rock.
Eagles in Israel are both native and migrant. As the sole land link between Africa and Europe or Asia, Israel sits astride one of the great migration routes for birds. The Rift Valley provides a cushion of rising hot air, helping raptors and other large birds ascend high enough to glide comfortably to their next stop.
Eilat, on the north shore of the Red Sea, is one of the world's largest recuperation spots, especially for birds flying north in the spring. After an exhausting flight over hundreds of miles of inhospitable desert, they land in Eilat for their first square meal of marshland sea-blight or wadi desert shrub (Ochradenus baccatus). "Those traveling to Europe carry on straight up to Turkey. Those flying to Eastern Siberia and Central Asia turn right and fly over Jordan," according to Center Director Reuven Yosef, who himself migrates between Ben-Gurion University in the Negev and the University of Amsterdam. "We estimate that anywhere between 500 million to 1.5 billion birds will fly north this spring from Africa to Europe and Asia, more than 200 different species, including 34 types of birds of prey."
In the late Sixties and early Seventies specialists in birds of prey began to visit Eilat during the migratory season, in particular to track buzzards and eagles. Today, alongside its many other attractions, Eilat ranks among the world's most popular bird-watching sites. One sees not only spectacular numbers of raptors, storks, waders and songbirds but also swarms of humans flat on their backs, binoculars trained skywards.
The town's development threatened the birds' natural habitat. The last natural patch of marsh was plowed under in 1996, and sand buggies have been upsetting the delicate ecological balance in the wadis. The International Birding & Research Center Eilat (IBRCE) stepped in to develop a Bird Park, aided by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Government Tourism Corporation. Together they rehabilitated the former municipal garbage dump; water from desalination plants fills a newly dug pond, the area has been replanted with a birds-eye view, and new pergolas provide birds with a comfortable perch from which to eye visitors. Other pergolas shade observation points for learning groups or families to stare back.
Gently cupping a small bird, 12-year-old Cindy oohs and ahs. "It's so soft – what is it?" she asks. "This," the park guide tells her, "is the very bird that kept the Children of Israel alive in the desert – a quail." Cindy, from Nashville Tennessee, is on her bat-mitzvah trip to Israel. She, brother Josh, mom and dad, and half a dozen other families rose before the sun to watch the birds take off for the day, to learn about the birds ringed and tracked by the Center as part of a world-wide effort.
The park's research station rings passerines (perchers – with gripping feet, the first toe directed backwards) and raptors (birds of prey), monitors raptor migration, keeps censuses and even outfits the fowl with transmitters. Few places on earth offer comparable opportunities for studying Palearctic species (birds found in Eurasia north of the Himalayas, in North Africa and the temperate part of the Arabian peninsula). Research results make their way into both scientific and popular ornithological literature.
The research facility doubles as JNF's tree-planting center, with recycled water feeding the plants. Drip irrigation is computer controlled and fertilizers, sprays or chemicals banned. Local vegetation sprouts amid the planted trees and shrubs, the aim being to promote indigenous vegetation.
Meanwhile, more than 30 shrubs and trees serve birds a varied menu. Plant-loving birds eat young leaves and flowers; fruit lovers gorge on – of course, fruit or berries; some birds prefer insects which themselves hunt out fruit and flowers; while falcons, harriers, ospreys, kites and honey buzzards, feast on whatever is unfortunate enough to have been spotted by their eagle eyes.
Cindy, her family and friends were enthralled by their visit, according to guide David Solomon. The IBRCE appeals to all, from pre-schoolers to retirees. The birds, in their droves, are the star attraction. Storks circling choreographically before landing at dusk, or raptors soaring on a crisp spring morning – are an unforgettable sight.
Just remember Aeschylus – and wear a hat.