Where birds know no borders
More than 540 species, including the Little Green Bee-eater, traverse Israel each year. (Hadoram Shirihai)
Free, unrestricted movement between Israel and the Palestinian territories is not always possible for those on two feet. But if you shift your gaze upwards, something entirely different comes into focus.
Each year, one billion birds soar above this tiny stretch of ancient land, where Africa, Europe and Asia meet. Second only to Panama, this geographical intersection is one of the world’s largest bird migration paths, with more than 540 species traversing the airspace each autumn and spring.
Dr Yossi Lesham, director of Israel's International Centre for the Study of Bird Migration, explained that per square mile, the country has one of the highest concentrations of bird traffic in the world. “In one morning, we can see maybe 10,000 eagles. Just in one morning,” he said.
And birders from all over the world are flocking to see the spectacular show. In the Palestinian territories, there are 13 designated birding areas, including the Jerusalem Mountains, the Gaza coast and the ancient city of Jericho. Israel has seven established birding centres across the country: in the Carmel Coast in the south, Jerusalem in the middle of the country and in the Hula Valley in the north, with another eight in development.
Bird watching is especially popular in northern Israel, where the varied climates of the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon provide lush habitats for hundreds of thousands of birds, including the endangered Marbled Teal, whose only breeding havens are located here.
The stunning Hula Valley, nestled between the upper Galilee Mountains to the west and the Sea of Galilee to the south, became Israel’s first nature reserve in 1963. Today the Hula Valley is one of the world’s most abundant areas for wintering and migrating birds.
More than 90,000 cranes migrate through the reserve each year, and a third usually stay through the winter, settling in alongside the raptors, waterfowl and passerines that also spend the cold weather months in the reserve’s Agmon Birds and Nature Park. Entrance to the park is free, and while no vehicles are allowed inside, visitors can explore by foot, bike or electric buggy. With various habitats, hideaways and lookouts, the park is a bird watchers paradise. From May to March and September through November the sky is so full of migrating cranes, storks, pelicans and flamingos, it is hard for sunlight to peek through.
South of the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River Valley has gorgeous views of the Galilee Mountains and is truly one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Travellers looking for something a little off the beaten path will love the peaceful and secluded cabins at Kadita, perched on the southern slope of Kutar Mountain, about a 35-minute drive northwest from the Agmon visitor’s centre. Each of the five beautifully-appointed, wood cabins is equipped with a claw-foot tub for soaking, a cosy potbelly stove and most importantly, sweeping views of the valley below. Keep your binoculars handy and watch the flocks as they glide past the floor-to-ceiling windows.
According to Imad Atrash, the executive director of the Palestinian Wildlife Society, the 10,000-year-old city of Jericho, which sits 300m below sea level, also has rich opportunities for birdwatchers.
”Jericho is a bottleneck for millions of migrating birds, including many kinds of rare and endangered birds like the Lesser Kestrel, which hunt locusts in the desert and can be seen nesting here with their chicks in the spring,” he said.
Travellers interested in visiting multiple sites within the Palestinian territories should use the West Bank’s unofficial capital city of Ramallah as a home base. The city is centrally located to many Palestinian historical sites and bird watching areas, just 45 minutes west of Jericho, about 45 minutes north of Bethlehem and 50 minutes from Israel’s Tel Aviv International Airport.
Ramallah is home to a handful of decent hotels, including the sumptuous Movenpick, the West Bank’s first five-star accommodation. Within walking distance are a variety of dining options, including the very popular Orjuwan.