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> The Rich Flavours of Palestine
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> Palestinians and Traditional Ecological Knowledge
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> The Extinct Mammals of Palestine
> Wadi Qilt: Nature, Culture and Religion
> Owls in Palestine
> Mar Saba Monastery A place where culture and...
> Dead Sea Sparrow
By Fajer Harb
Birdwatching (Birding) may seem to many Palestinians like a strange activity and even a waste of time. Nevertheless, for reasons of geographical location, diverse ecology and favorable climate, Palestine is an ideal birdwatching experience -- a veritable ornithologist's paradise. Palestine is located in the center of the only land bridge between Africa, Europe and Asia. This land bridge is a major bird migration route for an estimated 1.5 billion birds in the spring and autumn of every year (Cherrington, 2000). The ecology of this small land has important influences on ecosystems of many countries in Africa and Europe. It is not surprising that birdwatching is quickly becoming a popular outdoor activity in many countries of the world today. Birds come in many sizes, shapes and colors. They are ubiquitous life forms and so birdwatching may be practiced almost anywhere. Birding usually involves other recreational sports such as hiking, preferably camping and even traveling to different places or countries to enjoy the thrill of observing birds in their natural habitats. This thrill is enhanced by correctly identifying and getting familiar with as many birds as possible with the help of field guides available for almost every country. In a sense, birdwatching is a modified form of hunting, with the same thrill and success factors, but with different tools and attitude. Birding tools are simple and inexpensive. Keen eyesight and hearing skills are necessary to direct the birdwatcher's path, a pair of medium field view binoculars for close observation, a relevant field guide to make identifications and lots of stamina will be enough to enjoy the pleasures of this sport. Birds have a very sensitive nature, so they are easily influenced (Influences maybe detected by fluctuations in their numbers and distribution) by any change in the existing environmental balance. Since they travel very long distances, these influences may reflect changes in the environment of another country or even another continent. The changes may be as real as the pollution of water sources in a certain country or the usage of illegal pesticides in another which may threaten entire ecosystems, even cause extinction of life forms in that same country, another country, or a different continent. By watching birds and recording observations on internet sites or other convenient methods of mass communication, active birdwatchers all over the world are actually providing data on changes in many parts of the environment. Due to the degree of vulnerability of the global environment today, this type of data may bring some important revelations to light when analyzed by experts.
Despite the size of Palestine when compared to other countries, the diversity of its bird population is nothing less than astonishing. Over 470 different species have been recorded in Palestine. Such a number may not mean much to the person not interested in birds, but when compared to bird species of other countries much larger in size - for example Britain, France, Spain and Japan each have records that range between 400-450, while a huge country like the United States has around 725 - these numbers are very revealing. This astonishing number is owed to two major
factors: Geographical location and topography.
Being situated at the center of the junction between three continents makes Palestine accessible to birds from all directions and it is very often that the southernmost boundary for the birds of the north (Europe), the northernmost boundary for the birds of the south (Africa) and the westernmost boundary for the birds of the East (Asia), meet here creating a rich combination of birds from the three continents. Palestine is one of the most ecologically diverse countries in the world. This diverse ecology is a mere reflection of the variations in the topography and geography.
Driving through here one cannot help but to notice the distinct and clearly defined environmental zones. Every zone has its own unique climate, landscape and its own flora and fauna. More zones provide a more diverse plant and animal life. A more diverse plant and animal life generates more diverse habitats (niches) to be exploited. The more habitats there are to be exploited the greater the diversity of the bird population. In addition, rains accumulate in the aquifers of the West Bank as fresh water springs burst out of the rocky surfaces of mountain sides coupled with the rain water flow create seasonal rivers and sometimes wetlands. Natural springs, waterfalls and fresh water pools are abundant in the rift valley as rainwater flows down the eastern slopes of the West Bank Mountains. In Gaza Strip, water is very scarce. The threatened wetlands of Wadi Gaza were supplied by rainwater from the southern western slopes of the West Bank. Such places make good habitats for birds and are most ideal for bird watching.
Able to fly long distances thus change locations, migratory birds have overcame the essential problem of finding enough food to raise their young. This quest for food has evolved for millions of years to become the set pattern of routs which migratory birds use in their annual migrations in many parts of the world today.
Around 2.0 billion birds migrate annually between Africa, Europe and Asia (Cherrington, 2000). These birds use three major routes to make this passage. The Western path crosses the Mediterranean over Morocco into Spain and is used by some 300 million birds. The Central path over Tunisia into Sicily and is used by some 200 million birds. The Eastern path over Sinai Peninsula, used by what some ornithologists estimate to be1500 million birds, divides in the northeast of Egypt and forms two separate paths which enter Palestine by way of two passage points. One path crosses the Red Sea over Southern Sinai and the flow of migrating birds is then channeled through the Aqaba-Eilat gulf area (a unique place to see them before they relatively disperse) into the Naqab desert entering the West Bank from the South. The other path passes over northern Sinai entering the Gaza Strip across its' southern boarder.
In the autumn and especially the spring,
between about 10 March -20 April, bird migration is at its peak. The fields of the West Bank become extraordinarily populated with all kinds of small sized birds on the journey to their breeding grounds in Europe. These small sized birds fill the land with their active presence, constantly foraging for food and always moving forward. Here, the unique bio-diverse ecosystem offers them a wide range of food sources and temporary habitats that is essential for the continuation of their journey. Large birds such as raptors and storks depend on air currents during their journeys of migration and rarely land. They fly in flocks by the hundreds and even thousands. Skies over the West Bank filled with swarms of these birds during migration. The path most of large birds take is the area between the eastern slopes of Palestine and the western slopes of Jordan, where they are visible from both sides. The Naqab desert crater and Jordan River rift valley provide air currents for these birds to glide and cross the land bridge.
Although Palestine's small size, moderate climate, ecologically diverse nature and concentrated bird population are advantageous qualities to bird watchers all year round, its' unique location provides the greatest advantage. During the time of migration birdwatchers get a chance to see an extra 121 bird species, in addition to 349 that live here over the year. These 121 species make up more than 50% of Africa's entire migratory bird population or more than 50% of Eurasia's entire migratory breeding population and are actually visiting our country twice every year making bird watching here an intense experience like no other in the world.
As for ornithological research, Palestine may be considered virgin country for this field. Even though they may claim otherwise, Israeli ornithologists and bird watchers are not active in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians are for the most part indifferent to ornithology. In the last few years however, bird watching started to pick up in some Palestinian communities. There are several active birders and a few organizations in addition to two ringing stations at Beit Jala and Jericho. The Beit Jala station is located on the property of Tahleeta Kumi Lutheran school. A small natural history museum includes the collections of a Palestinian scientist, Dr. Sana Attallah ,who worked in the 60s. Among the general collection of the museum are 300 specimens of 180 different bird species. One of the 300 specimens is a Wood Pigeon, now extinct in this country.
There is a great lack of data on bird life in the Palestinian territories. This has surely contributed to creating a gap in collective scientific knowledge about the ecology of this important area. The importance of Palestine supersedes the personal interests and pleasures of Palestinians or bird watchers or ornithologists only. Migrating birds that pass through here play important roles in the ecosystems of Eurasia and Africa, whether by the pollination of flowering plants or dispersing the seeds of trees or controlling insect populations. A threat to the Palestinian ecosystem is a threat to the migrating bird population and therefor to many of Eurasia's and Africa's ecosystems and vice versa. The effects are mutual and victims are on all sides. Unfortunately we have no idea of the amount of damage. Reckless human development of wildlife habitats is increasing in the absence of a clear vision.
This article is an attempt to expose Palestine's birding and ornithological potential as well as encourage conservation of the birds of this unique and biologically priceless country.
This Week in Palestine