The Wildlife of IsraelText and photography copyright Niall Benvie. All rights reserved.
Try, if you can, to forget the associations that comes to mind when you hear
”Israel”. Attempt the impossible and erase all knowledge you have of the
politics, religion and history encapsulated in that name and think instead
of a geographical space in the south east of the Mediterranean Basin. Think
of a meeting of Africa, Europe and Asia. Israel is about a whole lot more
than culture and how people have conducted their affairs over time. It is
about a variety of wildlife, resident and itinerant, that can be matched by
few other areas outside of the tropics.
In Spring 2004, I was the guest foreign speaker at the Society for the
Protection of Nature in Israel’s annual photo competition. After this
well-supported event, my hosts, Yossi Eshbol, Israel¹s premier nature
photographer, and his wife Shuli, opened my eyes to the region¹s rich
biological diversity. Many species I thought of as typically African such as
brown hyena, jackal, caracal and rock hyrax are present while those more
familiar in northern Europe such as crane, black stork and marsh sandpiper
are in evidence too.
For an introduction to desert wildlife, we traveled down to Judea to the
oasis of Ein Gedi, close to the dwindling Dead Sea. Oases, naturally,
concentrate an area’s wildlife and in spite of over-extraction of water by
the neighbouring kibbutz, Ein Gedi remains an important haven for species
such as ibex, Tristram¹s grackle, blackstart and, occasionally, leopard. We
arrived shortly after dawn and by prior arrangement with the nature reserve,
set off up the steep rocky path into the ravine of Wadi David. Within ten
minutes we found a curious rock hyrax warming itself in the early morning
sun. An evolutionary anomaly whose closest relative is the African elephant,
the hyrax superficially acts and looks more like a large rodent than a
pachyderm. This particular one fixed me with an intense stare as I edged
close enough to use the 500 mm lens but once it sneezed a warning to others
in the colony, I withdrew and left it to enjoy the sun in peace. Wadi David,
with its combination of bird song, humidity, splashing water and lush
vegetation, particular close to the main waterfall, gives the visitor,
particularly one from northern Europe, the sensation of being in a botanical
garden. Startling flashes of iridescent green as Smyrna kingfishers fly by
heighten the sense of the exotic.
The best opportunities for bird photography, however, came at the
neighbouring Wadi Arugot where a steady supply of crumbs from visitors and
dripping tap attracts many birds. Shortly after dawn on the second day we
were watched by a tribe of 15 male ibex from an arid ridge above the car
park. Yossi has successfully photographed ibex on many occasions, but this
particular group wasn’t so tolerant. In contrast, the starling-like
Tristram¹s grackle, whose sad, mellifluous song is strangely at odds with
its swaggering behaviour, came boldly to bait hidden on the top of a stone
wall, even although I sat in the open just six meters away. By this time the
light was rather brighter and flatter than I normally work in so I made use
of what colour there was by getting low and portraying the birds against the
upper part of a rich blue northern sky. Just as confiding was another
species characteristic of rocky desert country - the elegant, tail-flicking
blackstart. One pair was building a nest in a low wall near the picnic area
and continued to bring in nesting material and small stones to decorate the
entrance while we lay on the ground seven meters away.
After the shirtsleeve comfort of the desert in March, a return visit to the
Hula Valley in January 2005 offered much more familiar conditions with
pewter skies, indecisive rain and single figure temperatures. Yossi had
invited me to photograph some of the 20 to 25 thousand European cranes that now winter in the area and I was keen to learn too about an unusual co-operation
between farmers and conservationists, centered on these birds.
The valley, close to the borders with Syria and Lebanon, is an important
flyway for migratory birds and the Hula Lake and surrounding wetlands
historically hosted large number of resident and migrant species. In the
mid 1940s, however, a huge reclamation project drained Hula Lake and many
of the adjacent marshes (leading to the extinction in 1956 of the endemic
Palestinian painted frog) in a bid to eradicate malarial mosquitoes and to
provide 15,000 acres of fertile farmland. By the 1990s, however, problems
associated with long-term intensive agriculture, such as the loss of
structure and subsequent erosion of the peaty soils, and nitrate and
phosphate run-off into the Sea of Galilee, were so acute that in 1994 the
Hula Project was initiated in an attempt to remedy the situation. Central to
the strategy was a desire to assist farming with the introduction of
irrigation systems, not only for economic and social reasons but for
ecological ones too. Flooding the land periodically helps to prevent the
peat from drying out (at which point it is very hard to moisten again),
reducing erosion, underground fires and run-off pollution.
The new irrigation systems allowed a shift from cotton (seriously under
attack from spiny bollworm) to maize (corn), wheat and peanut production.
These new food sources, in addition to restored wetlands and the newly
excavated 250 acre Lake Agmon - a safe night-time roost - transformed the
area from stop-over to wintering grounds for a large percentage of the 30,000 plus European cranes routing through the valley. During the first 5
years, local farmers lost in the order of $500,000 worth of crops as the cranes
feasted on this new bonanza. A solution was reached when local farmers,
green NGO’s and the agency responsible for the original drainage, then
restoration programs, the KKL-JNF, agreed to set aside a 175 acre field
for the cranes, luring them from surrounding crops with 2 tons of maize and
nuts each day from December to March. Access to the field is normally
prohibited to visitors and locals alike so that the cranes are not forced to
disperse back on to crop lands. The farmers, who provide about 50% of the
finance for this scheme, each contribute around $15 annually for every
acre they farm.
Owing to the position of the hide, I needed to enter it well before dawn and
the arrival of the first cranes from nearby Lake Agmon. Departure couldn¹t
come until darkness had fallen again, eleven and a half hours later. Yet
I’ve rarely found time pass so quickly in a hide, not least because of the
constant activity throughout the day and the fascinating, absorbing
symphonics of the cranes. This bore no resemblance to the brassy, atonal
duets I have often heard from the depths of an Estonian bog; it was an
altogether more bewildering cacophony at close range. So diverse was the
range of sounds, that at different times I was sure I could hear bitterns,
guillemot chicks and a didgeridoo. Mostly, though, it was a goose with its
neck stuck in a long plastic drainpipe.
The soft, slightly cool lighting was sympathetic to these northern birds,
making it easier to record detail in the pale grey parts of their plumage. I
used the Nikon F6’s spot meter to read from the tail which, so long as it
was turned towards the light, provided a reliable reading. Uprated Velvia 50
shines in these low contrast conditions and I changed to Provia only when
the clouds thinned and the light became stronger. In contrast to the extreme
caution displayed on their breeding grounds the cranes showed little concern
about the hide or the lens moving slowly backwards and forwards six inches
above the ground.
The tractor and fertiliser spinner that spreads the food came round twice,
sometimes three times a day and by prior arrangement with the driver, the
maize and nuts could be placed at an optimal photographic distance from the
This particular region of the Mediterranean Basin - Israel - in spite of
population pressure and the adverse affects of intensive - productive
farming, retains more of its biota than most of the neighbouring areas. It
is a particularly rich and diverse heritage and one that can act as a focus
of pride for all the people who live in that region, irrespective of
cultural or religious affiliations.
Comments on NPN nature photography articles? Send them to the editor.
Niall Benvie, who runs Images from the Edge, is the UK’s most prolific writer on natural history photography, publishing almost 70 articles and a book (amounting to over 135,000 words) between 2000-2002 alone. But the scope of his writing extends much wider into issues of land management and the polarisation of nature and culture as well as travelogues and commentaries on subjects as diverse as species re-establishment programmes and eco-tourism.
Several thousand pictures from The Images from the Edge collection are accessible in its searchable online database.