Country Diary: An abundance of migrating birds that takes the breath away

Mitzpe Ramon, Israel: They’re on the move – kites, swifts, swallows, eagles, wheatears and warblers – on a route that’s served them since the ice age

“Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming.” We’re so consumed by our own achievements that we think of the Book of Jeremiah, from which this quotation is drawn, as ancient and reverent.

It dates to about 600BC, but the migrating birds that Jeremiah saw have been making the same journeys out of Africa since the end of the last ice age. The species themselves – storks, kites, eagles, swifts and swallows – and their north-south migratory pattern probably date back millions of years, before there was a hominid species to observe them.

They continue now, and Jeremiah at least captures something of the most dramatic bird-migration event in all Eurasia: the channelled flow of avian billions up the Great Rift Valley, all the way from Tanzania to Lebanon. Almost none of these birds will come to the UK (the lesser whitethroat is a remarkable exception), but what the flyway delivers to all parts of Israel, for the duration of the migratory period, is a bird abundance that is sometimes astonishing, occasionally surreal and always beautiful and moving.

The Makhtesh Ramon crater in the Negev desert, Israel.
The Makhtesh Ramon crater in the Negev desert, Israel. Photograph: Mark Cocker

Moments I recall include the 200 kites and storks soaring on thermals over a motorway garage; the osprey from a bar window as we drank beer; the wryneck in the tiniest park just adjacent to Jerusalem’s Knesset (where they’ve recorded 220 bird species). But most memorable was a flock of 1,000 white pelicans as we drove along the motorway. When I initially spotted it, for a split second I thought it was a mountain village with windows shimmering in late afternoon sunlight. It was actually the sheen from the white flight feathers, and the “windows” turned to blazing white 3.3-metre-long wings as the flock wheeled in a dense, slowly rotating gyre.

Most moving was the steady trickle, over two days, of migrant songbirds in their freshest African-forged summer splendour. Beautiful species – ortolan buntings, black-eared and Isabelline wheatears, hoopoes, wrynecks, eastern Orphean warblers, lesser whitethroats, flava wagtails, red-throated pipits – whose colours seemed more vibrant yet fragile as they moved steadily through the most dried-up wadi, in one of the most parched and austere desert panoramas I’ve ever witnessed.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Mark Cocker

The GuardianTramp

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