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A modern day wonder in the Sea of Galilee, Israel's hotspot for migratory birds

By Nic Robertson, CNN
updated 10:55 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Located between three continents -- Europe, Asia and Africa, Israel is at a bottleneck on the migratory birds' flight path
  • The Hula Valley, in the Galilee, is an important resting and refueling place for migrating birds on their annual journey
  • The area has become a popular spot for amateur bird watchers and ornithologists

(CNN) -- The Sea of Gallilee, where Christ reputedly walked on water, is today home to another miracle of sorts.

It is where hundreds of millions of birds migrate across Israel and a paradise for bird watchers.

Located west of the Golan Heights, the area is part of the Great Rift Valley, which stretches from northern Syria to central Mozambique in Africa.

It is akin to a superhighway of bird migration routes, creating thermal currents that raptors and other birds can ride from central Africa to Europe.

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Israel is at a bottleneck on the migratory birds' flight path where an estimated 540 species converge. Compare that with 460 species in Germany, which is 20 times bigger.

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The Hula Valley, in Galilee, is an important resting and refueling place for migrating birds on their annual journey of thousands of kilometers from Europe and Asia to Africa and back.

In late autumn, tens of thousands of common cranes and pelicans flock to the area, as well as more than 25 species of raptors like the imperial eagles and spotted eagles. Some of these birds stay in the area for the entire winter.

It is a spectacular sight, and the area has become a popular spot for amateur bird watchers and ornithologists. There is even the Hula Valley Bird Festival held every November.

According to Yossi Lessem, director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration, every year the Hula Valley's Agamon bird sanctuary attracts 398 bird species, more than 400,000 visitors and 50,000 hardcore bird watchers.

Nadav Yisraeli, manager of the Hula Valley Bird Watching Center, has been studying birds here for years.

We are learning that there are certain species that are doing quite well with the changes, and some species are declining, so we can tell something is happening
Nadav Yisraeli

In the middle of the migration season, he will catch hundreds of birds a day, and they will be taken to the ringing station for inspection and measurement.

He showed CNN the ringing procedure. "First, I'm going to record the ring number," he said, before moving on to measure the bird's wing length, tail length and weight.

"We are learning that there are certain species that are doing quite well with the changes," Yisraeli said, "and some species are declining, so we can tell something is happening."

One of these change is the war in neighboring Syria.

"If they arrive on a war zone, and that was land on a stop for them and they can't stop and rest, then they are in a problem," Yisraeli said. "They have to move on and sometimes their body will not be fit for that."

Luckily food is abundant in the Hula Valley.

In the 1990s, as Israel started to restore its wetlands, more cranes began to stop here and many -- an estimated 30,000 birds -- decided to spend the whole winter in the area.

The cranes took a shine to the local peanut crops, costing farmers around $350,000 a year. To avoid conflict between farmers and birds, the Israeli government now provides corn and other bird feed.

Tourists can ride along the feeding tractor and the wild birds are hardly disturbed by the gawking visitors.

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Yenni Kwok contributed to this report.

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