Letter from Israel

Letter from Israel

Crane crazy in the Hula Valley

Migrating cranes in the Hula Valley. Israel Government Tourist Office

Common cranes make an uncommon racket.

I now know this because my husband and I took a three-hour hike around the Agamon-Hula Lake in the Upper Galilee a couple of Fridays ago, in the midst of the mighty bird migration.

The Hula is the largest of several Israeli pit stops for half a billion – that’s 500 million! – migratory birds making their way from Europe and Asia to Africa in the early winter and back again in the early spring. Some stay no longer than a day, while others linger.

According to the Israel Birding Portal, the Hula Valley is a migration flyway for tens of thousands of common cranes, as well as somewhere between 300 and 400 other species. That includes white pelicans, ducks, waders, passerines, eagles, pallid harriers, buzzards, and rare European birds of prey.

My husband and I barely know a crane from a canary, and we certainly wouldn’t be able to identify, say, a Hume’s leaf warbler or a buff-bellied pipit if one should happen to fly over our heads – as apparently they do here in Israel with some regularity.

But we had visited the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and were fascinated to learn about the importance of Israel as a refueling station for migratory birds, and to watch the pros catch, weigh, band, and release the visitors in order to track their journeys from season to season. Amazingly, these winged creatures fly thousands of miles and return to rest in exactly the same points along the way each year – without assistance from GPS or Waze.

We had seen breathtaking photographs of the cranes’ descent over the Hula. Everyone we knew who’d been there urged us to go in season to witness the sedges – that’s the proper word for a group of cranes – coming in for a landing.

But nobody prepared us for the noise generated by thousands of cranes swooping in to gobble up the corn that the nature reserve spreads for them. It reminded me of a giant Kiddush scene where everyone’s exchanging exuberant greetings as they descend on tempting platters piled with herring, cholent, and kugel, and you can barely hear yourself think.

The hungry, tired birds would land in the Hula even if the corn were not provided, of course. Spreading it in a single field is a wise tactic, devised out of necessity – the need to keep the avian visitors from decimating the croplands of the Galilee. An unintended side effect is that the cawing is super-concentrated. You start hearing the holy hullabaloo well before you come in view of the vast crane congregation.

You can watch only from a careful distance, so binoculars are a must. The path purposely doesn’t get too close to the cranes, but observation posts with telescopes are set up along the way and staffed by knowledgeable park rangers.

You may choose to explore the reserve by foot, as we did; rent a single, double, or triple bike or golf cart, or book a seat on a sort of open truck in which you get a narrated tour. The paths also are filled with recreational bikers from the area.

We saw many other residents of the Hula, including many coypus – semi-aquatic rodents also known as nutria. Signs explained that they were introduced to Israel from Argentina in the mid-20th century by would-be furriers, but the warmer climate made for undesirable fur, and so the lucky coypus got released to the wild. They seem to coexist peacefully with all the ducks and other aquatic birds dotting the shores of the Hula (which is spelled with a “chet” and pronounced with the guttural “ch” as in Chanukah).

As in many areas of Israeli life, nature and innovation come together in a spectacular way at Agamon-Hula. Back in the pioneering days of the 1950s, the marshlands around Lake Hula famously were drained in order to create agricultural plots and to wipe out the malaria-carrying mosquito population.

The success of this project nearly eradicated the lake’s complex ecosystem and made it inhospitable for the migrating birds, however. To remedy the situation, environmentalists oversaw the reflooding of a section of the valley – the Agamon – to restore the wildlife in a controlled way. And the birds came back. Boy, did they ever!

Meanwhile, the Galilee indeed became a center for agriculture and commercial fish farms. Over years of trial and error, fish growers have invented clever pond coverings to keep out the migratory birds without injuring them, as the early nets did, and without smothering the fish for lack of oxygen.

The whole enterprise therefore has become a win-win, both for people and for birds.

If you’re planning a trip to Israel during migration season, I recommend putting the Hula Valley Bird Festival on your itinerary in mid-November or the Eilat Bird Festival on your itinerary in mid-March. For more information, see natureisrael.org or go to YouTube, search for “The Man Who Taught Me To Fly,” and watch the video that comes up as the top result.

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