Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Israel is for the birds

I was told this story by an ornithologist, Richard Wagner, who works in Vienna, Austria, and despite his name is Jewish.  Yossi Leshem is an Israeli ornithologist who is the Director of the Intl. Center for the Study of Bird Migration in Latrun and a member of the Zoology Dept. at Tel Aviv University.   He has been called the ornithologist who saved Israel.
Israel is on the path of a major bird migration route from Europe and Asia to Africa in the autumn, when birds fly south to avoid the winter, and from Africa back to their nesting grounds in the north in the spring.  Since the birds prefer not to fly over the Mediterannean sea and the Arabian desert, they converge on the narrow strip of coastal land that is Israel.  During these migrations millions of birds of many species pass though Israeli air space.  During the 1950s this became a problem when several IAF planes crashed due to collisions with bird flocks and even large single birds such as cranes. Also commercial air liners were at risk, with some being forced to make emergency landings due to birds sucked into their huge jets. 
Yossi Leshem decided to study the brid migration patterns, with the help of an army of spotter volunteers on the ground and his own travel in a glider, following the migrating birds.  He was able over a few years to obtain specific data on where the birds flew and which species landed in which locations to rest and eat and drink.  He was also able to persuade the IAF that this was an important issue for them, since each plane that crashes loses some m$5 as well as potentially the life of the pilot (who usually have to eject), and they allowed him the use of sophisticated radar to map the bird migrations.  Eventually he was able from the three sources, the spotters, his own direct observations and the radar plots, to come up with a statistically accurate prediction of where and when the birds fly.  Progamming this into the plane's computer made it easy to avoid the bird migration routes.  This has saved countless planes and lives and made the IAF combat-ready at any time, even when the skies are full with millions of migrating birds.
Incidentally, Israel is now one of the favorite sites for bird-watchers in the world, who can see the many species of birds flying over Israel from Eilat to the Galilee, where they stop to rest at the Hula swamp area. There is a new bird watching and research center there near Kfar Ruppin, as well as centers in Eilat and Latrun.  Israel is for the birds.


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