Raptors in the Forests

Open spaces, which serve as a natural habitat for many species of animals, are becoming smaller and smaller, especially in central Israel. It may well be that the raptors living in these regions could help us in understanding the importance of the preservation of nature and protecting open spaces, thanks to a new research study, which KKL-JNF is partner to.

The research of Guilad Friedmann, a doctoral student in the Zoology Department of the Tel Aviv University, is being conducted in collaboration with the KKL-JNF Land Development Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the Kfar Etzion Field School.

Leading the study are Dr. Yosi Leshem from Tel Aviv University and Prof. Ido Itzhaki from Haifa University. The study is observing a curious phenomenon: The relocation of the Long-legged Buzzard, a species of raptors, from the cliffs of the Judean Hills to the trees in the forests of the Judean Plain, and the competition that has arisen between this species and the Short toed Eagle, another raptor.
The raptors, who are at the top of the food chain, serve as a good indicator of the state of the habitat. “If the raptors are in the area, it means there are also mammals, snakes and other birds", explains Friedmann. “If we understand what we have to do in order to protect these raptors, and how to preserve their habitat, we will also know which areas must be preserved and where it is possible to make compromises with nature for the benefit of development and building.”

Up until now, Friedmann has located 29 nests of the Long-legged Buzzard and 39 nests of Short-toed Eagles in the Lachish region. Many of these nests are in KKL JNF forests. The raptors usually select a tree on the edge of the forest, and the forest provides them with good camouflage for the nest while preserving easy access to hunting grounds in the open fields.

“A forest is not just trees, but a complex ecosystem,” explains David Brand, KKL-JNF Chief Forester. “The more we fathom the different factors at play in the forest, the better we will be able to manage the system.” KKL-JNF supports many studies in varied fields of research, investing 5 million shekels a year, with an emphasis on applied research. “The aim is to fill the information gaps and provide tools and solutions for the work being done by KKL-JNF,” says Brand.

The Lachish region includes the largest sequence of open spaces in central Israel, which, biologically speaking, creates a quality region. Friedmann is tracking the activity of the raptors for the duration of the nesting period - building the nest, hatching, care of the chicks, and the flight of the young from the nest. Such an in-depth study of these species has never been undertaken in Israel or abroad.

It is very likely that this study will prove that human activity in one region affects another species in another region. For example, expanding the forested areas in the Judean Hills is one of the causes for the relocation of the Long-legged Buzzard to the plain, because this raptor hunts in unforested open areas. Moving to the plain compelled the buzzard to forego building its nest in the cliffs and to suffice with trees for building its nests. The Short toed Eagle, a less aggressive raptor that also lives in the Judean Plain, is having difficulty coping with the fierce competition that has suddenly befallen it.

Raptors are being tracked with minute GPS transmitters that are affixed to the backs of the adult birds. The sophisticated transmitters broadcast data about the bird’s activity - if it is flying or sleeping, if it is busy hunting or feeding its young, if it is near its nest or distant. The transmitter transmits the data by wireless technology, so that there is no need to recapture the birds. Four buzzards and three eagles have been equipped with transmitters to date. The cost of the transmitter is the main obstacle to fastening additional transmitters and expanding the data base.

Additional information is obtained by climbing to the nests and following the development of the chicks. What are they eating? How much do they weigh? What is their size? How do habitat and nutrition affect their development? Friedmann checks each nest twice in the course of the season, takes the chicks out, weighs them, measures them, and attaches rings to their legs.

Climbing to the nests is very delicate work, and for this the scientist is accompanied by a professional climber. Care must be taken not to harm the tree or the nest. If the parents are disturbed too much, they could abandon the nest and their young. Of course, these activities are done only with the approval of the Israel Parks and Nature Authority and with maximum care for the raptors' welfare.

It turns out that bird watchers and nature photographers, who may have the best of intentions, cause nests to be abandoned if they remain in the nest's vicinity too long. Of course, they are not the only natural enemy. Many of the chicks are eaten in the nest or immediately after flying away from it, and 90% of them do not reach adulthood. “Obviously, the research study disturbs the birds,” admits Friedmann, “but we are taking great pains to minimize the disturbance. If we do not learn how to protect the habitats, these species could be in danger of extinction in Israel".

Little Friends

Friedmann has been visiting the nests of the Short toed Eagle these days. Their chicks are supposed to be taking off from the nests at the end of July, usually when they are 47 days old. The chicks of the Buzzards flew from the nests already in the beginning of June, at 35 days old. These young pilots can clearly be seen in the area - flying, landing and shrieking their loud shrieks. Meeting eagle chicks is en exciting experience. The most precise scientific description these creatures have been given is, “Wow! They are so cute!”

Friedmann quickly weighs the chicks, skillfully affixes a ring to them, collects food leftovers in an envelope, and then it’s back home to the tree. Within minutes the team has departed. The parents, who often circle overheard anxiously, rush back to the nest to make sure everything is okay. To their relief, the chick is alive and well, but what is that odd ring on its leg?
Raptors in the Judean Desert
One of the chicks Friedmann has met is named Pink 41. No, he's not a compulsive casino gambler; the name was given because of the color of the ring and the number on it. Pink 41 is already a big boy, 32 days old. He lives in a carob tree, and it’s time for him to go back there. Lior Hortmann, the climber, puts him safely back in his place.

Another friend, Red 31, lives on the top floor of an oak tree that is five meters high. He is younger, only 22 days old, and weighs 820 grams, including the snake he just finished eating. Snakes are a special delicacy for Short-toed Eagles. The chick has a full stomach and looks as happy and content as a baby that has just finished a bottle of milk.

Bird Stories

Friedmann is out every day on location - locating nests, catching raptors and attaching transmitters to them, tracking the development of the chicks and observing the relations between the different species. He knows every trail and every tree, and every site reminds him of a little story. “Now we will go to the place where we returned the owl,” he says. He is referring to an incident in which KKL JNF foresters found a Long-eared Owl that fell out of its nest, and he was asked to locate the nest and return the chick to its place.

And another term with a story behind it: “Now we will drive on the hyena trail.” He was referring to a hyena den that was found near a nest of Short toed Eagles. The hyena tends to sit by the entrance of its den, with its head sticking out, and you can see it when you drive by.

It is not easy for an objective scientist to stand idly by when he sees chicks in distress. On one occasion, Gilad found a Buzzard chick under a tree, covered with parasites. It was clear that the chick would not survive without treatment. For research purposes, he indicated it as a dead chick, but in reality he took the little creature to the wildlife hospital in order not to leave the wounded chick out in the open.

Another time, Gilad saw a Buzzard chick eating its little brother, who was two days younger. For a few minutes the Buzzard was pecking his brother to death. Grief notwithstanding, Friedmann did not interfere with nature in this instance.

Another time, Friedmann checked on a nest where he found three starving chicks, who were wailing and pecking his notebook, they were so hungry. The parents had not succeeded in hunting enough food in order to feed their young. When he returned to the nest after several days, he found the chicks dead. “It was preferable to give them a chance to survive rather than rescuing them and raising them in captivity,” the scientist explained.

Along with such difficult incidents, there are obviously many moments of happiness - to see a chick that has just flown from its nest, to recognize a familiar chick that has left its nest, to follow their development like a parent following the growth of his children. Friedmann was out doing fieldwork one day with his three and a half-year-old daughter Yuval. She was very excited about helping her father. She held the antenna for receiving the bird transmissions and observed the chicks taken out of the nest with great curiosity.

When Gilad was at his daughter’s nursery school to tell them about bird research, all the children there were thrilled by his stories about the birds. “I could never have worked at an office job, and I think the children are also more interested in hearing about birds than meeting a father who is a banker,” says Friedmann. It is not hard to imagine how proud of her father his little girl was. The study is expected to continue another four years, so her one-and-a- half-year-old little sister will also be able to tell her friends about her father and the birds.

The preschoolers were especially enchanted by the stuffed birds Gilad brought. Apart from impressing small children, the stuffed animals allow the scientist to investigate the relationships between the different species. He places a stuffed bird from a certain species in view of live birds of another species, emits the appropriate birdcalls, and sees if they start a war. If the stuffed bird has been torn by the talons of its foes, one understands that the Short-toed Eagle and the Long legged Buzzard are not the best of friends.
Friends or not, these raptors share the same habitat and territory. Mapping these areas and understanding the interaction between the various components of the system will not only contribute to our own knowledge, but will also give us the tools to take better care of other creatures who inhabit Israel. It is thanks to projects like these that we won't find ourselves all alone on the planet earth one of these days.