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December 25, 1987 - Image 44

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1987-12-25

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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44

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 25, 1987

Bird Watchers Take To Skies
To Protect Israeli Air Force

BILL CLARK

Special to The Jewish News

erusalem — According
to the Book of Proverbs
(30:19), one of the great
wonders of the world is "the
way of an eagle in the air."
For nature lovers around
the world, the sight of a soar-
ing bird of prey (raptor) is a
tremendous thrill. But in
Israel, the land where Pro-
verbs were written, eagle wat-
ching and the observation of
other large birds of prey has
a special dimension. It is no
secret that the Israel Air
Force (IAF) has lost more air-
craft to collision with large
birds during the past decade
than it had to all Arab air
forces combined. IAF studies
have documented that a 15
pound pelican, colliding head-
on -with a jet fighter ap-
proaching the speed of sound,
has an impact equivalent of
about 100 tons.
An Israeli Air Force Colonel
flying a Skyhawk jet tells
what it felt like: "It happen-
ed during a routine training
flight. I was flying at an
altitude of approximately
3,000 feet, when I suddenly
heard a tremendous explo-
sion. Something hit my neck
with tremendous strength. I
did not understand what was
happening and was totally
blacked out. When I
recovered, I first checked
whether the plane could fly,
and found it could. I heard a
loud noise, the result of air
entering the shattered
canopy. My neck was covered
with blood. I did not know if
it was my blood. I looked
down and saw feathers and
shreds of flesh on the floor of
the plane. Only then did I
realize I had collided with a
bird."
This danger is one of the
reasons why conservationists
here, in cooperation with the
Israel Air Force are actually
soaring among the eagles —
indeed thousands and
thousands of eagles and other
birds of prey.
Twice a year, in spring and
autumn, vast numbers of rap-
tors migrate between Eurasia
and Africa via Israel. Last
year, for example, professional
ornithologists documented
the passage of 1,193,751 rap-
tors migrating past the
southern Israeli city of Eilat.
The reason for such immense
numbers is because Israel
forms the keystone in the on-
ly landbridge which physical-
ly connects Eurasia and
Africa. Large soaring birds,

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A glider soars among migrating pelicans: More aircraft have been
downed by birds than by Arab armies.

such as the raptors, storks
and pelicans, must fly over
land, where large columns of
warm, rising air called "ther-
mals" are formed. And
therefore, great numbers of
these birds funnel through
Israel, an area no bigger than
the State of New Jersey.
Ornithologists of the Israel
Raptor Information - Center
(IRIC), a project of the Socie-
ty for the Protection of
Nature in Israel (SPNI), have
been studying this great
migration phenomena for the
past six years and, in recent
months, they've learned one
of the best ways to get precise
information is to climb up in-
to the skies and join the birds
as they make their way across
Israel.
"We use a powered glider,"
explains SPNI-IRIC director
Yossi Leshem. "This aircrafat
can take off under its own
power, and fly to an area
where we know there are
migrating birds. As we ap-
proach them, we switch off
the motor and glide right
along with the migrating
birds."
Leshem explains that, at
first, some of the birds are a
bit wary of the glider. But
after a few minutes, they see
that it isn't aggressive, and so
they simply accept it as a
larger-than-average migrant
which has joined their flocks.
"There just aren't words to
describe the feeling, Leshem
says. "With the motor off, the
only sound is the air rushing
over the wings. At times, we
have had thousands of eagles,
or storks, or pelicans all
around us. And very close, too.
Sometimes as close as two
meters. You can almost reach
out and touch them."
Migrating across Israel
with the great soaring birds,
Leshem has learned a great
amount of very valuable in-
formation; information which

can be measured in the sav-
ing of human lives and of
millions of dollars. Birdwat-
ching in Israel is no idle
dalliance.
Working in cooperation
with the IAF, Leshem's con-
servationists have made
precise documentation of bird
migration times and routes in
Israel. This information is
then fed into military com-
puters which govern flight
plans of IAF aircraft.
Through the past couple of
years, the IAF reports a very
significant decline in the
number and seriousness of
mishaps involving midair col-
lisions between jets and birds.
Last year, Leshem logged
44 days in the air, wing and
wing with the eagles, storks
and pelicans. Few people alive
have literally flown so much
as a partner of these birds.
Few have had such opportuni-
ty to gain first-hand ex-
perience and insight into the
still largely unknown
phenomena of bird migra-
tions across the continents.
Some key elements are now
being revealed, however. For
example, most large birds
avoid taking off at first light
while on migration. Instead,
they wait until the sun has
warmed the earth a bit and
some of this heat is radiated
back upward in the form of
thermals. The birds actively
seek out these thermals and,
when they find one, they soar
in tight circles within the
mass of rising air.
Thermals can lift birds to as
high as 6,000 feet altitude,
where the air mass becomes
too weak to continue carrying
them. At the top of the ther-
mal, the birds break away
and glide in a straight line —
gradually losing altitude —
along their migration route
until they encounter another
thermal.

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