Black Kite raptor Black Kite raptor A Black Kite on landing. (Photo: Vladimir Kogan Michael /Shutterstock)

Why the Mediterranean has the largest raptor migration in the world

Birds of prey numbering in the millions use a geographic shortcut to move between winter and summer habitats.

You don't have to be an ornithologist to appreciate one of the dozen or so great raptor migrations that take place around the world each year. From the shores of Cape May Point, N.J., to the skies above Veracruz, Mexico, tens of millions of birds of prey flood the skies as they pass between wintering and breeding grounds in spring and fall. 

The secret to the great raptor migration lies in the birds' efficient use of energy to cover the thousands of miles between sites over a short period of time. As a result, they migrate by soaring – taking advantage of thermals over mountain passes that send them coursing through geographic "bottlenecks." 

One of the best locations for "raptor rapture" takes place above Israel, owing to its location at the junction of three continents. Bird watchers report seeing some 35 species of birds of prey, including steppe eagles, honey buzzards, lesser spotted eagles and Levant sparrowhawks making their way each season.

"(Israel) acts as a funnel for birds pouring out of both Europe and Asia as they move south toward their African wintering grounds," Mike Alibone, optics editor for UK Birdwatch magazine, told From the Grapevine. "Literally millions of birds choose this route – those from Europe in particular, as it enables them to avoid a potentially long and hazardous sea crossing over the Mediterranean."

raptor migrationIn a raptor migration, thousands of one species can fill the skies between migration zones. (Photo: Alfredo Maiquez/Shutterstock) 

Alibone experienced firsthand the spectacular autumn migration through northern Israel several years ago, describing his time visiting several survey posts as memorable. 

"The sheer numbers of raptors provide a spectacle which is difficult to match anywhere else within the Western Palearctic," he said. "I was struck by the waves of larger raptors – particularly lesser spotted eagles – which are systematically counted as they pass designated raptor migration watchpoints in central and northern Israel. About 90 percent of the world population passes through this tiny country in autumn. I was equally impressed with the migration of smaller raptors: lesser kestrels and red-footed falcons feeding on the wing as they pass through the Hula Valley is a memory which will be with me for many years to come."

As one might expect, the migrations offer an opportunity for birdwatchers and researchers alike to monitor raptor populations and study large numbers of species that are otherwise scarce in other regions. For the birds, who have been recorded using these routes for more than 3,000 years, such attention brings an added benefit of protection from modern aerial competition. 

For those interested in experiencing this natural phenomenon, Israel offers two festivals: the Eilat Birds Festival during the spring migration (March 15-22) and the Hula Valley Bird Festival during the autumn migration (Nov. 16-23).


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