TEL AVIV (Apr. 10)
Early on the morning of April 1, a German biologist received an urgent message: Princess was in Israel, only a short distance east of the Gaza Strip. This was no April Fool’s joke. With his film crew in tow, ornithologist Christoph Kaatz held up his tracking antenna to locate the flock of storks that his satellite had indicated was somewhere east of Sderot.
Sometime during the night, Princess, along with her flock of 500 storks, had entered Israel. Just a few days earlier, she had been in Sudan.
“We only had moments to find her, as she was flying very quickly,” explained Katja Schupp, the scriptwriter for “Return of the Storks,” a documentary that will air on German TV next spring.
The 7 a.m. transmission would be the last signal the team would get before the storks left the area.
“We could have gone into the Gaza Strip had she flown there, but it probably would have been problematic with the passports and paperwork,” said Schuup, who knows it can take hours to cross the border between Israel and the Palestinian territories.
But the crew was lucky. The storks crossed through the Gaza area, heading north, to a small strip of grazing pasture adjacent to Kibbutz Nirim in Israel. From there, Kaatz easily spotted Princess, whose identifying transmitter — wrapped around her belly like a small backpack — could be seen with binoculars.
“This really showed us the concept of Migrating Birds Know No Boundaries,” Schupp said, referring to a peace and education initiative established by Israeli ornithologist Yossi Leshem.
Leshem, formerly the director of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, uses the program to unite Israeli and Palestinian schoolchildren through birds.
On computer screens around the world, and more particularly in schools in Israel and the Palestinian territories, children can trace migrating birds via satellite and radar transmissions. Signals indicate when the birds will pass through Israel, and show where they land in the spring for brooding and where they return for the winter.
The students meet at Leshem’s research center to study together, band birds and share year-end celebrations.
At the junction of Africa, Asia and Europe, Israel at peak season sees the greatest density in the world of migrating birds. The bottleneck is a favorite for large birds: Land, when heated from the sun, creates favorable flying conditions that can lift birds to optimal gliding heights, and Israel lies on the “flight path” of the African Rift Valley, which the birds roughly follow from Mozambique to Syria.
To date, about 250 schools in Israel and the Palestinian territories have participated in tracking birds that have been given Jewish, Arabic and Christian names, such as Leah, Fatimah and Ann-Marie.
So far, the German government has contributed $1 million to the project, and the U.S. Agency for International Development recently provided $1.5 million.
In parallel with the Migrating Birds Know No Boundaries project, Kaatz’s son, Michael, also an ornithologist, had tagged Princess in order to understand migratory patterns for stork conservation. Every year significant numbers of the birds are killed when they fly into electrical wires.
Princess, who spends summers in Loburg, some 60 miles west of Berlin, was found to be a champion traveler: While most storks that follow an eastern migratory route go only as far as Sudan, Princess went all the way to South Africa.
But her passion for travel has proven hazardous to her family life.
Princess generally takes two days to fly through Israel, but this year she passed the length of the small country in a matter of hours. Given what happened last spring, she may be trying to get back sooner to Loburg, where her nest awaits.
Upon arriving last year she wasn’t greeted by her mate of six years, Jonas — but instead found Noya, another female stork, in her place.
Apparently Jonas couldn’t wait for her, Christoph Kaatz chuckles.
Princess and Noya fought it out, but Noya won and had offspring with Jonas.
This year may be different. Jonas, who winters in Spain, usually arrives back at the nest earlier than Princess. The biologists and film crew are anxious to see what happens in the next month when Princess reaches home.
Kaatz reaches into his jacket pocket to show pictures of the female storks’ fight last year. He points to Princess and calls her by a German diminutive, as if she were an old friend.
For Kaatz, this trip to Israel has been charged with emotion. He was interviewed for the film on location near Kalkilya, next to Israel’s West Bank security barrier. The barrier triggered Kaatz’s memories of a time when the Berlin Wall was a reality for Germans.
For Schuup, the experience also has been emotional: Four weeks into the project last year she got pregnant, making her wonder if storks really do bring babies.
Some sources indicate that Muslims believe storks can reincarnate the souls of people who did not have a chance to go to Mecca. For a Muslim to kill a stork, therefore, is akin to killing a human being.
If they believe this, it could help conservation methods, Kaatz said, with no apparent irony.
The project also has helped Leshem, the Israeli scientist, make significant advances for the protection of bird welfare and flight traffic. One of the stories in the upcoming documentary will show Leshem’s work for the Israel Defense Forces.
As a graduate student, Leshem discovered that migrating birds cause a significant amount of damage to military aircraft. He now has officials from the United States to Jordan asking how his sophisticated tracking system for monitoring bird flight paths can reduce fatal air crashes and save millions of dollars — as well as birds’ lives.
Back in her hotel room in Tel Aviv, Schupp says she expects that about 4 million people will see the film on ZDF, one of Germany’s largest public broadcasters.
While the film is meant to convey the longing for home through the eyes of a stork, Schupp hopes the film will be translated into other languages. Perhaps in Hebrew, English and Arabic, she hopes, the film can serve as a catalyst for peace.
Princess and her cohorts can be seen in flight at http://www.birds.org.il/show_item.asp?levelid=792.