Migration Magic in the Land of Milk and Honey-buzzards

May 3, 2015. I stand at my station in the Eilat Mountains, overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba, at the north end of the Red Sea. Stretching away to southwest, the mountains of Israel seamlessly give way to the mountains of Egypt, the boundary only recognizable thanks to the hand of man: the large, re-enforced border fence, interlaced with jagged barbed wire, threatening any foolish soul who would approach from either side. To the east, across the Gulf, loom the red mountains of Jordan’s Edom Range. South of these, through the morning haze that often hangs over the sea, we can just make out the coastline of Saudi Arabia and the mountains separating the coastal plain from the vast Arabian Desert concealed beyond. Standing beside me are my fellow operatives – two Brits, a Dane, and a Swede. There’s an Israeli military checkpoint a few hundred meters up the road from our position. Just over the border, various Egyptian military watchtowers are scattered. Israeli military vehicles tear up and down the border and along the mountain highway. Despite all this, we’re not here for anything having to do with the military, or any border disputes, though we are bearing witness to one of the largest and most concentrated Middle Eastern border-crossings in recorded history.

Here, a European Honey-buzzard soars over a valley in the Eilat Mountains, with the prominent border fence between Egypt and Israel visible amid the barren landscape in the background.

Here, a European Honey-buzzard soars over a valley in the Eilat Mountains, with the prominent border fence between Egypt and Israel visible amid the barren landscape in the background.

 

One of the hundreds of thousands of Honey-buzzards to pass through Israel this spring (a light morph) taking a quick peek down as it passes through, though it's possible that this bird wouldn't set talon on the ground between sunrise and sunset that day.

One of the hundreds of thousands of Honey-buzzards to pass through Israel this spring (a light morph) taking a quick peek down as it passes through, though it’s possible that this bird wouldn’t set talon on the ground between sunrise and sunset that day.

European Honey-buzzards are large birds of prey that winter in Africa and, in the summer, breed all across Europe and western Asia. A large portion of the population migrates through the Middle East every year. The species has been making this journey through the skies over the land of milk and honey every year for millennia, sometimes soaring above often-brutal human conflict. On this spring morning, the sky is yet-again a hazy blue conveyor belt of Honey-buzzards, following their age-old migration route over one of the most historically contested regions on the planet. Remarkably, the vast bulk of these birds pass through in one big push, which often doesn’t last more than a week.

One of the interesting things about Honey-buzzards is just how variable they are. This one is a good illustration of a fairly typical intermediate/rufous morph bird.

One of the interesting things about Honey-buzzards is just how variable they are. This one is a good illustration of a fairly typical intermediate/rufous morph bird.

This year, the push is extra concentrated. We are in the midst of the four craziest hours of Honey-buzzard migration ever recorded, and the second day of what will end up being the largest two-day passage of the species ever documented. Typically, only one person counts a raptor flight from this location nestled just below the crest of Mount Yoash, but today we started the morning off with extra manpower, expecting a strong flight after the big numbers of the day before. But even these already grand expectations didn’t fully prepare us for the parade of birds that is now underway. It’s two hours into the flight, and despite the fact that I’m ostensibly here to help count the unremitting flow of these remarkable migrants, I’ve just sat down, and my binoculars hang unused from my neck. Ribbons of northbound Honey-buzzards fill the sky, extending deep into the Sinai Peninsula as far as the eye can see, and undoubtedly well beyond. This sensory overload forces my brain to go blank in the face of a display of biomass that is at once exhilarating and mind numbing. I let the spectacle wash over me for a few minutes, merely shaking my head in awe, and eventually take a few deep breaths before rising again to get back to the math.

Part of the mayhem of May 3. From left, Johan Henrik Funder Castenschiold (Denmark), Doug Gochfeld (USA), and Tim Jones (UK) count the insane raptor flight as Honeys buzz all around them (Photo Johan Fjellstrom (Sweden)).

Part of the mayhem of May 3. From left, Johan Henrik Funder Castenschiold (Denmark), Doug Gochfeld (USA), and Tim Jones (UK) count the insane raptor flight as Honeys buzz all around them (Photo Johan Fjellstrom (Sweden)).

Numbers. As a migration surveyor, everything eventually boils down to numbers. It’s how we can compare one day to the next; a way to compare this season to the ones that have come before. We are not here just to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime performance – we are here to quantify it. We have been counting raptors from this location for more than three months, and the season is near its end. It’s typically easy for one person to count with a high degree of accuracy on a slow day, but on a day with this much action at all compass points, we need the additional sets of eyes if we want to have any hope of the final number approaching the ballpark of reality.

Even so, it seems virtually impossible to count a mass like this, but with four of us here this morning, we can make do. One of us counts the birds that are passing to the west of us, one of us counts the birds in a flight line over a mile to the east, one keeps track of the heaviest flight line, which is over the closer valley just to the east, and one alternately helps out with this latter flight line, or scans straight up to try and make sure nothing sneaks by overhead in the deepening blue sky.

A group of Honey-buzzards kettling up over the mountains with the Red Sea and Jordan beyond. The majority of the birds on May 3 passed by us to the east, with this breathtaking landscape as a background.

A group of Honey-buzzards kettling up over the mountains with the Red Sea and Jordan beyond. The majority of the birds on May 3 passed by us to the east, with this breathtaking landscape as a background.

 

An awe-inspiring aspect of the migration here is watching distant clouds of dark specks - resembling swarms of insects - get closer and closer until they turn into battalions of Honey-buzzards. Simply incredible!

An awe-inspiring aspect of the migration here is watching distant clouds of dark specks – resembling swarms of insects – get closer and closer until they turn into battalions of Honey-buzzards. Simply incredible!

 

Looking to the southwest from our vantage point, we could look over the closer peaks of Israel to the distant mountainsides well into Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Even though the majority of the birds ended up passing to our east, there were still tens of thousands that used this flight line.

Looking to the southwest from our vantage point, we could look over the closer peaks of Israel to the distant mountainsides well into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Even though the majority of the birds ended up passing to our east, there were still tens of thousands that used this flight line.

Numbers help bring a semblance of objectivity to evaluating how awesome a day is, and they help those who aren’t present get a sense of what it was like. By 11 AM, just four hours into the count, the numbers are mind-boggling – we have counted roughly 147,000 European Honey-buzzards. To put that in perspective, the day before had broken the all-time single site record – about 195,000 birds (and 250,000 through the entire Eilat area, surveyed from several sites), but that was through the entire day’s count, from dawn to dusk. The number from the morning of May 3 would easily speak for itself, but in this day and age of easy photography and video, it doesn’t have to. The following video combines several clips taken throughout the morning of May 3, 2015. While it isn’t a substitute for having been there, it may well speak more loudly than the simple numbers on paper, and hopefully give those who weren’t lucky enough to share the experience an idea of how impressive the phenomenon of mass Honey-buzzard migration can be. It was truly one of the most awe-inspiring natural spectacles that I’ve ever had the fortune to witness.

*When viewing the footage below make sure to click on the gray HD symbol at the bottom right section of the screen to view all of the Honeys in their full HD glory!