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The flock of the new

Helena Flusfeder reports on an Israeli bird migration research project Imagine logging on to the Internet and seeing the coordinates of flocks of pelicans, eagles and other birds of prey as they migrate between Europe and Africa twice a year.

Schoolchildren from all over Israel and neighbouring countries, will be able to do just that when they connect to a two-year-old research project on bird migration led by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI).

This program is a spin-off from a scientific research project into bird migration patterns being carried out by SPNI, Tel Aviv University and the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

Unlike traditional techniques for tracking bird migration using radar, this project uses miniature solar-powered radio transmitters mounted on the backs of a few birds, with the transmissions picked up by the French Argos satellite and then processed at a ground station.

Dr Yossi Leshem, a leading bird-migration researcher who set up the program while director of SPNI, said: "I saw that kids were interested in the huge numbers of birds flying overhead. We started to arrange a survey. Israel is the best place in the world to watch their crossing, since it is a junction of three continents."

SPNI started out in 1954 as an environmental lobby group and has gradually become Israel's leading force in environmental education, with the education ministry covering more than half its budget. The research project's original purpose was to analyse the birds' resting places along their migration routes and thus help decide which areas should be designated for nature conservation.

An estimated 500 million migratory birds pass through Israel's airspace every autumn on their way from Europe to Africa and back again in the spring. Leshem decided it would be valuable to give the country's schoolchildren a chance to understand the migration, including factors such as how the flight path changes according to the weather and what environmental benefits birds bring.

The birds tracked so far include more than 15 storks, four griffin vultures, and 25 lesser-spotted and steppe eagles. Leshem plans to track 100 storks by 1997. "We received signals from the birds from Germany every 90 minutes - through Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, the Sudan and South Africa," he says. "Each bird gives us a signal, marking its exact location and how fast it is travelling, charting changing weather conditions, transmitting back information on nature conservation areas."

In preparation for the project's opening in September, teams of scientists and teachers are writing the education programmes in biology, geography and computers that will help students understand the data coming from the satellite. The program will initially be launched in 12 Israeli schools and later extended to about 70, including several Palestinian and Jordanian schools, and a public Internet site on bird migration is being put up now.

Leshem hopes that this project will be part of a wider-ranging plan for educational co-operation in the Middle East. Israel and most of its Arab neighbours can already communicate via the Internet, although the Internet infrastructure in the Arab world is undeveloped. "If kids are talking via the Internet on environmental issues," Leshem says optimistically, "it could have consequences for the peace process."

* Contact Dr Yossi Leshem, Department of Zoology, Tel Aviv University, Ramat

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