This Judean Long-Legged Buzzard, inset, named <br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->Abigail by the researchers, was tracked by GPS every five minutes of her migratory flight, which was followed by fans on the Internet. Abigail’s flight path took her through some of the most unsettled territory in the world. (Photos by Guilad Friedemann)
This Judean Long-Legged Buzzard, inset, named

Abigail by the researchers, was tracked by GPS every five minutes of her migratory flight, which was followed by fans on the Internet. Abigail’s flight path took her through some of the most unsettled territory in the world. (Photos by Guilad Friedemann)
Things are not well along the Great Rift Valley.

With Syria deep into a civil war, Egypt teetering, and rockets launching from both sides of the Gaza border and Israeli ground troops marching into one of the bloodiest conflicts in years, the Great Rift seems to be as much a political statement as a geographic feature that winds for almost 4,000 miles through the Middle East and deep into Africa.

And yet, the Great Rift Valley is not only home to migratory herds of zebra, giraffe and wildebeest, it is also a continent-long corridor that one billion birds migrate along every year, for decades, for centuries, perhaps as far back as 3,500 B.C. when what is now Iraq was the cradle of civilization and the first person was putting the first word on a piece of papyrus.

Certainly flocks of thousands of storks spiraled upwards to catch the warm thermal air and migrate along the Great Rift corridor long before the area was arbitrarily carved up by Europe, the United States and Russia along political lines. Before the modern Middle East, before the Persian Gulf crisis, before the Arab uprisings, large and astonishing flocks of Black Kites, White Storks, Honey Buzzards, Pelicans, Steppe Eagles, Red-Footed Falcons, and likely a rare sighting of the Slovakian Imperial Eagle - half a billion birds twice a year in all, 280 different species, predictable enough to set a clock by - passed through on their way to Europe to nest in the spring and south again on their migratory route to their wintering grounds in the fall.

Migration is always hazardous. Birds expend tremendous energy to move long distances. Weather can blow them fatally off course. Drained wetlands can dry up their food stop-over sites. Songbirds are caught for food in the Mediterranean countries and hunting birds of prey is a major sport practiced without limit in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

In the single day that it takes a migrating flock to fly over the tiny, militaristic country of Israel, gliding on warm updrafts created by the steep-walled Great Rift, the migrants also face fighter jets, which can not only be fatal to the birds, but also to the military pilots and crew.

Yossi Leshem, a professor at Tel Aviv University and Israel's number-one bird expert, who spoke about his bird conservation research at Camden Public Library earlier this month and taught advanced sessions on birds of prey at Hog Island Audubon Camp in Bremen, came up with a solution in the early 1980s that reduced jet-bird collisions by 76 percent. He mapped when and where the birds migrated, then worked with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to navigate planes around them, saving the IDF hundreds of millions of dollars and sparing the loss of the lives of air crews.
The effort also garnered Leshem substantial funding for bird research.



In those early days, Leshem energetically set a pattern of forming alliances across political and geographic boundaries, among Arabs, Jews, Christians, farmers, tribesmen, intelligence analysts, agricultural leaders, educators, scientists, and heads of state from around the world. While there may never be enough money to do all the projects he wants to do, Leshem has successfully allied his interests in birds and environmental conservation with those of others who are willing to fund solutions to solve their particular problems.

Barn owls instead of pesticides for rodent control in Israel and Jordan, including convincing Arab farmers who think owls are bad luck? Done. Converting old military bunkers into habitat for bats that control insect populations? Funded and done. Teaming up bird watching and conservation with art and music? Done and done, with Paul Winter and the Dalai Lama in attendance.

For the past three years, the annual Crane Race, an educational project that combines running with raising awareness of bird watching and migration brought several thousand runners, 600 army soldiers and officers and 600 Arab and Jewish fourth-graders to the Agamon-Hula Lake area, an important bird migration stop-over.

Leshem is a relentless one-man promotion machine, working primarily on behalf of migratory birds, particularly birds of prey. If he has a political stance, he doesn't wear it on his sleeve. When asked about the current Israeli-Hamas conflict, he brushes it aside.

During this current military conflict, one project Leshem is advancing stands out:

In partnership with two retired generals of the IDF, Leshem launched the "Army for the Protection of Nature" project, which provided nine Israeli military units with $30,000 each to launch a conservation project in their locale. The projects include protecting rare reptiles and mammals, creating special passages for large mammals to cross between Sinai and Israel, and removing invasive species.

"There has always been conflict. There will always be conflict," he said. "I'm under no illusion that watching birds will bring peace in the Middle East."

What it can do is to bring people who would not otherwise have a reason to meet, to be together in a shared passion that can lead to better communication and effective conservation. And that is measurable progress in the Middle East.