Every fall, Israel, and specifically, my home in the Arava Valley, hosts the migration of 500 million birds from Eurasia to Africa. Needless to say, every spring, the same valley hosts the return trip, the largest mass migration of birds in the eastern hemisphere.
One group of birds, over a thousand flamingos, have decided to stop risking their lives and wasting their time and energy, and have settled permanently on the evaporation ponds located in the Evrona Reserve just north of Eilat. These pools were built to produce salt from piped-in seawater, but today they play host to a sparkling array of birds, who eat the brine shrimp that come in along with the seawater. Many varieties of water fowl make an appearance, but the star of the show and the largest population is the flamingos. Not as pink as I remember them from my childhood, but a startling contrast to the stark desert that surrounds us. The pools are on the border, and one can occasionally wave to Jordanian bird-watchers enjoying the display from the other side of the ponds, with the gorgeous red Edom Mountains as their backdrop.
Once upon a time, this was a secret known only to local tour guides, and one still arrives at the spot after driving past many “No trespassing” signs. A few years ago, the JNF built a little shaded observation deck with benches and explanations. Still, there is a sense of having discovered something special, something wonderful and incongruous: Flamingos in Israel.
Actually, though, it’s not as incongruous as one might think: Israel is a kind of geographic bulls-eye, the only land mass connecting Europe and Asia with Africa. Since before the written word, plants, animals, and people have moved over this land bridge to get from one continent to the other. Here Homo Erectus slowly made its way out of Africa 100,000 years ago. Throughout history, kings and peasants have roamed this stretch of land in search of battle, commerce, and greener pastures. Hence the wealth and variety of archaeological treasure, historical narrative, and architectural eclecticism. It is no coincidence that this land, the great crossroads of the ancient world, where ideas moved along with nations, gave birth to both monotheism and the alphabet.
And now we have flamingos: They too are colorful world travelers who have decided to settle permanently in what was once a way station. Long-legged, long-necked, hook-beaked aquatic birds whose appearance inspires lawn ornaments, they are a noble avian curiosity waiting for a visitor with time, patience, and a pair of binoculars.
I hasten to point out that a short drive south brings one to the wonderful Eilat Bird Watching Center, where bird lovers can get a tour, and learn about the great migration and the vast variety of species on hand. True birders might scoff at the accidental flamingo colony of Evrona.
But I think there is something that these birds unwittingly have in common with the plethora of languages, cultures, and religions that have left their mark on this land. Moving from place to place has always been a way of making your mark here, though often without meaning to. While the flamingos are not exactly Alexander the Great, who conquered the known world by the age of 30 and left a legacy of Greek writing and culture for a thousand years, they traveled similar paths and fascinate me no less.
Bill Slott is a licensed Israeli tour guide who has hiked and biked the length and breadth of the country. Bill is a member of Kibbutz Ketura, where he has lived since 1981 with his wife and three daughters.