Israel is well known as one of the largest migration flyways in the world due to its unique geographical position: it forms a land bridge between the Eurasian land mass and the African continent, making it one of the most important bottleneck flyways in the world. Twice a year many millions of birds, representing over 300 species, migrate through Israel on their way to and from their breeding grounds. Israel also has an impressive list of resident birds, leading to a total list of over 540 species.
Most birders that visit Israel these days do so in the spring, and concentrate only on certain regions. Several thousands of birders visit Eilat and Southern Israel during March and April each year in order to enjoy migration in the desert. Only a small number of birders visit Northern Israel, and the ones that do usually only take in a swift 2-3 day trip to the north as part of a spring trip to the south.
This is a shame, since most people don’t realize that the autumn migration through Israel’s Northern and Eastern Valleys can be just as impressive and offers unique opportunities to enjoy both large numbers of birds and an array of rare “near-eastern” specialties. Israel’s mild winter weather and breathtaking scenery contribute to a comfortable and rewarding birdwatching experience. The diverse Hula Valley wetlands, the steppe-like volcanic terrain of the Golan Heights (up to 1,000 m above sea level,) the Sea of Galilee (230 m below sea level) and the numerous ravines dropping to the low lying eastern valleys, the beautiful Carmel Mediterranean coast, and more, all showcase interesting local specialties and hold huge concentrations of migrant and wintering bird species.
Besides serving as a well-known migration route, the Northern Rift Valley is the meeting point of several bioregions. It is here that European habitats meet African habitats, with many plant and animal species found here at their southern or northern limits of global distribution. Among birds the overlap of regions is vividly represented; European Great Reed Warbler and African Clamorous Reed Warbler breed side by side and other species of Saharo-Nubian origin like the Palestine Sunbird and Yellow-vented Bulbul nest alongside Blackbird and Great Tit.
Many “near eastern” specialties can be seen in Northern Israel with ease. These include: Pygmy Cormorant, Pallid Harrier, Black Francolin, White-throated and Pied Kingfishers, Oriental Skylark, Richard’s and Buff-bellied Pipits, Citrine Wagtail, Caspian and Siberian Stonechats, Moustached Warbler and Clamorous Reed Warbler, and many others.
Hula Valley, in the northern Rift Valley, hosts nearly 300 species of migrant, wintering, and resident birds, including 20 globally threatened species and 16 species that are considered under threat. Many of these birds rely on the fertile wetlands and a wide variety of habitats that represent the last lush and resourceful areas before the broad arid zone further south. Amongst the rarer species present are the endangered Eastern Imperial and Greater Spotted Eagles (that winter in good numbers), Marbled and Ferruginous Ducks (rare breeders), Basra Reed Warbler (exceptional breeder), and Sociable and White-tailed Plovers (migrant/wintering), to name but a few.
One of the Hula Valley’s most recognized species is the Common Crane. Every autumn, over 80,000 Cranes migrate through the Hula Valley on their way south and around 30,000 of these majestic birds remain to winter in the valley. The cranes usually congregate in specific areas and offer breathtaking views and photo opportunities.
Besides the cranes, several thousand White Pelicans winter in the valley, as well as good numbers of Black Storks, Great White Egrets, Eurasian Spoonbills, and thousands of ducks and waterfowl.
The Hula Valley Bird Festival, coming this year in November, celebrates this abundance of bird life.