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Land & Nature

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Palestine in Winter
   
submitted by This Week In Palestine
18.02.2007

By Sami Backleh

Winter is here now. Years ago I used not to like this dark cold season, the time of minimum sunlight and maximum night. It is true that one of the big mysteries of biology is precisely how living things, including us, are affected by the seasons. We know we are; we feel it most acutely in the darkest days of winter when most of us feel a little dormant, sluggish, gloomier than usual, and sleepier. Nevertheless, when the weather gets colder, leaves turn colour and fall off the trees. When people wear heavy coats outside, one could ask what happens to the animals here.

Animals do many amazing things to get through the winter. Some of them migrate. This means they travel to other places where the weather is warmer or they can find food. Some animals remain here and stay active in the winter. They must adapt to the changing weather in order to cope with a particular habitat’s environmental factors such as the air, water, soil, light and temperature. Many make changes in their behaviour or bodies. Some animals hibernate for part or all of the winter. This is a special, very deep sleep whereby they can use the stored fat they accumulate during autumn for the body’s metabolism.

In many countries winter could be very harsh to the wildlife; a season that appears lifeless with regard to wildlife’s abundance, with the cold weather causing a food shortage. However, in Palestine winter is a bit different. Even though temperatures may fall to zero degrees Celsius or less, winter here is not as severe as the polar winter. Instead, Palestine, with its diverse ecosystem, is considered as a wintering spot for many migrating wildlife species.

Located at the meeting point between Eurasia and Africa, where the plants and animals of three continents have interacted and spread throughout history, this has contributed to a rich diversity of flora and fauna. The diversity is also nurtured by the abruptness with which climatic zones, deserts, steppe, Mediterranean woodlands and even oases join one another in this compact geographical area.

Driving through the country one cannot help but notice the distinct and clearly defined environmental zones which represent the coastal line, the central highlands, the eastern slopes, and the Jordan Valley. Every zone has its own unique climate, landscape and its own flora and fauna, creating a diverse plant and animal life within its habitat.

In addition, rains accumulate in the aquifers of the West Bank as fresh water springs that burst out of the rocky surfaces of mountainsides, coupled with the rainwater flow that creates seasonal rivers and sometimes wetlands. Natural springs, waterfalls and fresh water pools are important spots for various wildlife species, in addition to being resting points for various bird species during their autumn and spring migration. By late winter, the fields of the West Bank become extraordinarily populated with all kinds of small-sized birds on their journey to breeding grounds in Europe. These 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 are essential for the continuation of their journey.

Although Palestine acquired the reputation as a major spring and autumn flyway for migrating birds, it is also considered an important wintering ground for thousands of birds. Several endangered and vulnerable bird species had been recorded during wintertime in Palestine. This list includes many species of raptors, waders and other songbirds in addition to the regular winter visitors to this country.

January is actually the only true full month of winter birds in this country, with winterers starting to depart as early as the second week of February. However, this is already a fine period to catch some of the vanguards of the spring migration, with species like the Steppe Eagle and the Pallid Swift migrating from the south in large numbers.

When I go birding during winter, the time and place are important aspects in order to spot specific wintering birds. The season extends from November to February. While November still gets the rearguard of the autumn migration, and especially some scarce migrants with an eastern aroma, it also marks the arrival of mass numbers of wintering birds such as the Chiffchaff and Lesser Whitethroat. The masses of wintering birds, especially water birds and raptors, arrive during this time. Among them is the globally vulnerable Imperial Eagle. This wintering species - mainly in the Middle East and East Africa - can be distinguished by its large wingspan (up to 2.15 metres) in addition to its stocky shape with black-brown feathers and a pale golden crown and nape. In Palestine, the Imperial Eagle winters mainly in the Jordan Valley as its preferred habitat.

Birding at the southeastern slopes of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley is quite different than elsewhere in the country. The cool winter temperatures provide ideal conditions for desert birding throughout the day. All the desert species are far more active and some of them, such as the Bonellis and Golden Eagles, may already start their breeding season. Good habitats are small and sparse and there are far fewer birds around.

Indeed, the Jordan River and the oases that exist along the Jordan Valley (both natural and man-made) are an excellent place to find rare passerines, in addition to local birds. Some wintering birds to the Jordan Valley are the Fieldfare and the endangered Radde's Accentor. The stonechat - as its name suggests, birds that utter a sharp loud call that sounds like two stones being tapped together - is another interesting species that is known to winter in the Jericho area. Some species, however, dwell in remote wadis and may prove extremely hard to find, such as the Striated Scops Owl. Winter is also a favourable time to see the Saker and Lanner Falcon, the Oriental Skylark, Desert Warbler, and House Bunting.

Palestine is not only overwhelmed with bird life in winter but also many wild flowers such as the iris, lily, tulip and hyacinth decorate its mountains and valleys. Soon after the first rains in October-November, the country is covered by a green carpet that lasts until the return of the dry season. Pink and white cyclamen and red, white and purple anemones bloom from December to March.



Sami Backleh is a conservation biologist. He can be reached at
sbackleh_2000@yahoo.com

This Week in Palestine
February 2007

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