Swoop, pivot and soar – starlings embrace the southern Israel sky

Breathtaking “murmurations” – dark, shifting shapes that look like vast dancing clouds – fill the skies of southern Israel and surrounding areas in winter.

Starlings from Russia and east Europe winter in the Holy Land, swooping, pivoting and soaring, putting on a display to shame any aerobatics team anywhere.

A Reuters photo montage shows a remarkable display of shapes. Now they are a falling leaf, now a rising dove, now a giant whale swimming across the sky.

They embark on their spectacular aerobatics in the evening. They do it, according to ornithologist Yossi Leshem of Tel Aviv University, both to help each other find food and to fend off predators.

A falcon or hawk will try to focus on a single bird, Leshem said. By grouping together, the starlings not only find safety in numbers but their changing movements and shifting collective shape confuses their would-be attackers. 

They can even create a sudden breeze with their synchronized movements, he said, causing a hawk or falcon to fall flat on its back, not unlike an aircraft hitting windshear.

Until 20 years ago, starlings came to Israel in their millions, usually descending on the northern part of the Negev desert, which remains warm in winter. But for unknown reasons their numbers have dropped. In the past few years they have come in flocks of no more than a few hundred thousand. 

Avid bird watchers and families gather over the weekends to spot the dazzling displays, with the birds twisting and turning at high speed, creating dramatic, sweeping patterns in the sky, contracting and expanding like a spiralling tornado. 

They can be seen in Israel above a rubbish dump near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, where they feed during the day and circulate on warm air rising from the detritus. 

At dusk they begin to group together for the night. Some make off to streams near the Israeli town of Netivot, near Bedouin villages and an industrial park.

Birds of a feather flock together in Hula Valley

Every winter, hundreds of millions of tourists (some of them no larger than a finger) defy travel warnings to visit the Holy Land. They don’t spend much money in Israel, and some stay for only a few hours. They visit the country’s “pubs” before flying off again.

They also don’t say much – at least that we can understand. But Israeli officials say the annual bird migration from Europe and Asia to Africa has the potential to bring many more tourists to Israel’s Hula Valley.

“In less than 500 kilometers (300 miles) we have more than 500 species of birds,” Jonathan Meirav, the organizer of the Hula Bird Festival told The Media Line. “In comparison, the whole United States and Canada together have barely 1,500 species. Per square mile we have the most birds of any place in the world, which is rarely cool.”

Israel is located along the Great Rift Valley, the migratory flyway for millions of birds. It is the shortest route from Asia and Europe to Africa. The egrets, swallows, storks, pelicans, cormorants, eagles, songbirds, cranes and other birds need to feed and rest before they cross the desert to Africa. The gray cranes mate for life and travel in families. At sunset, their cawing fills the air as they alight on Lake Hula after a long day of flying.

“Many of these birds, especially the cranes, fly in big flocks,” Israel Ornithological Center Director Dan Alon told The Media Line. “Cranes need to be together all the time and they need to talk about it. They talk about food, where was the best place to be during the day, and they do it in a place we call a ‘pub.’”

There may not be beer in these pubs, says Alon, but there are plenty of snacks.

“The birds come to eat some peanuts or corn and to drink before they go to sleep — it’s just like the way we use the pub,” Alon said.

The sight of thousands of birds in the darkening sky can be breathtaking, but some farmers in the Galilee were not as happy with the annual visitors. Alon and others decided to put food out in certain areas around the lake to encourage the birds to stop there, and leave farmers’ crops alone. So far it seems to be working.

The Hula Valley used to be a huge swamp, which bred malaria. Soon after the state’s creation in 1948, Israel decided to drain the swamp. But a few years ago, after it flooded, the Keren Kayemet LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund quasi-governmental non-profit organization that owns the site decided to leave it that way and develop ecotourism there.

The Hula Bird Festival, which coincides with the annual migration, aims to bring bird watchers from around the world to Israel.

David Bismuth, an avid birder from France, has all the latest equipment, including powerful binoculars, for viewing birds.

“We saw thousands of cranes, but also some eagles that are very rare in Europe like the Greater Spotted Eagle and a lot of pelicans and cormorants,” he told The Media Line. “I’ve only been here for two days and I’ve already seen so many birds.”

Hula Valley

Hula Valley

There are an estimated 100 million bird watchers around the world. Israeli tourism officials say that even a small slice of that market could boost Israel’s annual tourist rate well above the current figure of 3.5 million annually.

“We believe that at this time of year, this is the place for bird watchers to be,” Alon said. “We call on bird watchers from all over the world to join us for field trips to see this amazing phenomenon.”

The only transportation through the park is either by foot, golf carts or special wagons designed to get as close as possible to the birds. The best time to see them is sunrise and sunset.

Some visitors say they would never have come to Israel if it wasn’t for the birds. Tristan Reid, who lives in England, would stop traffic almost anywhere, with his arms completely covered with bird tattoos. He says they depict endangered species from Turkey, threatened by the large number of hydroelectric power plants being built there.

This is his first trip to Israel, and he says he was a little nervous about coming. But now that he is here, he feels comfortable.

“It’s amazing, it’s such an experience,” he told The Media Line. “It was misty one morning and then all of a sudden all of these cranes appeared out of nowhere. You suddenly feel your place in nature. It’s an emotional experience.”

Books: Bird-watching and ‘the Jewish question’

No doubt because I once worked at a Jewish newspaper and have written a novel about a woman rabbi — not to mention a work of nonfiction called “The Talmud and the Internet” — I am sometimes asked if my new book about bird-watching, “The Life of the Skies,” is a Jewish book.

At the risk of sounding like the joke about the zoology student obsessed with Jews who called his thesis “Elephants and the Jewish Question,” I invariably find myself answering, “Of course!”

It may seem strange that a book that talks about John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau and Roger Tory Peterson, and that includes a quest for the possibly extinct ivory-bill woodpecker, seems to me to be so obviously Jewish. Must everything be about Jews? The answer, of course, is yes, everything is about the Jews — or at least Judaism is about everything.

I began bird-watching 15 years ago and, unlike many activities, I can trace it back to its originating moment. I was at Shabbat lunch one day in Manhattan, and a man — a rabbi, as it turned out — observed that “the warblers will be coming through Central Park soon.”

It was March. I had no idea what warblers were, but I knew I wanted to go out and find them. I felt, almost mystically, that they might lead me somewhere.

I’ve been following them ever since, and they have led me many places — outward into this country and other countries — especially Israel, where birds are movingly abundant, and also into myself, my own evolutionary origins and the mysterious questions about what my relationship is to the natural world that produced me and from which I was nevertheless oddly cut off.

“Birds are the life of the skies, and when they fly they reveal the thoughts of the skies,” wrote D.H. Lawrence. That phrase, “The Life of the skies,” has theological overtones.

Whether you believe birds were created on the fifth day of creation, as the Bible tells us, or that they evolved in slow, painstaking eons from a dim reptilian past, their existence embodies and raises religious questions.

Are birds the life of the skies because the skies have no life outside of the biological world that fills them — no divinity? Or are they the life of the skies because divinity, creation itself, is implicit in them? Even as it may be implicit in us, animals though we be.

Environmental questions are at heart religious questions. What do we owe the natural world and why? Must we save the natural world because the earth is the Lord’s, as the psalmist said so beautifully? Or because it is ours?

Either way, we should care about saving it, but I think it is important to push through to the questions — the religious questions — at the heart of our interest in the environment.

I worked at The Forward newspaper for 10 years, beginning in 1990. It never once occurred to me that Abraham Cahan, the creator of the Yiddish Forverts, was a bird-watcher. But then I read that in 1903, when the Kishinev pogrom broke out, Cahan was off bird-watching in Connecticut and, according to a friend’s memoir, rushed back to New York, binoculars and bird guide in hand, because he “wanted to be with other Jews.”

This of course might tell you that there weren’t a lot of Jews bird-watching in Connecticut in 1903, when bird-watching was just coming into its own. But it makes great sense to me now that Cahan was a watcher and namer of birds.

His whole project as a journalist, in addition to the search for justice for working people, was to help Jewish immigrants feel at home in America. His newspaper, for that reason, used increasing amounts of English and answered questions continually about the habits of the country.

Birds for Cahan were, I suspect, another dimension of the vocabulary of America. We sturdy ourselves in new places by leaning on the natural world.

Audubon, who arrived in America from France in 1803, was an immigrant as much as Cahan, and by creating “The Birds of America,” he was in some sense assimilating himself into his new home, even as he was giving his new home a wild, animal aura.

Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, when he was off on a diplomatic assignment, “Do you know that European birds have not half the melody of ours?” That quotation appears as an epigraph in Alfred Kazin’s landmark study of American literature, “On Native Grounds,” which Kazin published in the dark year of 1942.

Kazin was himself a child of immigrant readers of the Yiddish Forverts, and one feels in his whole book the urge to establish himself as part of the American landscape. Much as any founding father — or founding mother, which Abigail Adams really was — he wanted to put his country on equal footing, both morally and politically and also environmentally, with Europe.

Birds are the language spoken by the land itself. In that sense, they are transcendent of any single nation, even as they reinforce national identity.

Birds raise complex questions of belonging, much as Jews often have.

I was once talking to Kazin, and he told me his daughter was living in Israel.

Well, I said, “She’s really on native ground.”

Kazin became extremely upset. “You think that’s funny,” he said, “but it’s not.”

He had labored too long as a child of immigrants to fit himself into a single place. He wanted to be a bird of America.

But even the birds of America nest in one region, winter in another, pass through a third during migration. I see birds in Central Park that come from Costa Rica and are on their way to Canada.

Kazin’s ethnic anxiety mirrors a larger anxiety about where we ourselves belong in the natural world. We all must figure out where we belong geographically but also metaphysically. We are technically in the animal kingdom but also in a kingdom of our own devising that sets us apart from the animals.