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The Hula Valley - Israel is for the Birds
At least 500 million birds - including pelicans, cranes, storks, falcons, eagles and warblers - wing their way across Israel's skies twice a year during the transcontinental migration seasons. In the fall, they make their way south to Central Africa and in the spring they return to Europe and Asia to mate and reproduce.
Israel owes its remarkable avian biodiversity to geography: the country - situated between the equally impassable desert and the Mediterranean Sea - lies astride the birds' major migratory corridor along the Syro-African Rift Valley. As well, 525 species of birds live in Israel year-round, which is quite high for such a small country. And to the fascination of professional and amateur ornithologists, the best bird-watching site of all is the Agamon Hula Preserve in the Galilee Panhandle (www.agamon-hula.co.il). (Agamon is the Hebrew diminutive of agam, meaning a little lake.)
Hula Valley Nature Reserve. Photo courtesy: Travelujah - Holy Land tours
The wetland preserve was ground zero for the week-long 2nd International Hula Valley Bird Festival, which wrapped up Nov. 18. (See www.hulabirdfestival.org.)
"Sometimes the birds are in conflict with the farmers," explains Dan Alon, director of the Israel Ornithological Center. "But the conflict can also make an excellent tourist attraction."
Indeed watching vast flocks of pelicans with their three-meter (nine-feet) wide wingspan fattening up before flying south to Africa's Lake Victoria is an awe-inspiring sight.
Thomas Krumenacker of Berlin, Germany is one of those mesmerized by the Hula Valley migrations. "I'm a birder since childhood. My father used to raise exotic birds. I love the phenomenon of migration. I really appreciate to see birds I know from Germany here. I came by flight, and they came on wing. I love to tell people that Israel isn't only about conflict," he enthused.
Krumenacker, 47, gave the opening lecture at this year's festival, which was held at Kibbutz Kfar Blum's Pastoral Hotel - a name well-suited to the Hula Valley's peace and quiet.
Martin Garner, 48, of Sheffield, UK was in Eilat for the spring bird migration and compares it favorably with the fall avian spectacle. "Birds pass through here from a very wide vector. There's a lot to be discovered here in Israel," he noted. "Israel is a massive wow. There should be way more people coming here. The festival is excellent."
Tristan Reid of Cambria, UK concurred. "I'm having a fantastic time. The range of wildlife is very impressive. To see 30,000 cranes before breakfast is very emotional. This is an experience I need to share with people."
An ecologist by profession, Reid, 37, has tattooed his torso with birds in the hope of promoting conservation. His website www.TheInkedNaturalist.co.ukspeaks to his passion for birds.
Two years ago BBC Wildlife magazine listed the Agamon Hula as No. 9 out of 20 sites for wildlife viewing in the world. That coup was followed when the U.S.-based National Geographic picked the site for the launch of Great Migrations, a TV series chronicling the instinctive travels of migrating species across the globe.
"This is what National Geographic lives for," said Adam Taylor, the show's executive producer, who travels to the Upper Galilee every few months. Choosing Agamon Hula as the premiere site for the new series "gives a sense of the way we take care of our planet."
While today birders from across the world come binoculars in hand to see the wonder of the Hula Valley, a scant two decades ago the site was all but unknown except to experts in ecological disaster. Once a vast wetland akin to the Florida Everglades, in the mid-20thcentury Israeli politicians and planners decided to drain Lake Hula and convert the malaria-infested swamp into farmland.
The draining of the shallow lake dovetailed with the Zionist ethos of conquering the wastelands. But few understood how marginal would be the newly-reclaimed farmland - and how complex the environmental impact.
Apart from destroying the unique habitat of flora and fauna, the peat soil proved unsuitable for agriculture. Once ignited, fires there proved extremely difficult to extinguish. Moreover without the wetlands acting as a vast sponge and filter for the spring runoff from Mount Hermon and the Jordan River, the dirty water threatened the quality of Lake Kinneret - Israel's primary freshwater aquifer.
Thus in the early 1990s the government initiated the Hula Restoration Project aimed at undoing the ecological fiasco by re-flooding some of the original wetlands. Officially opened in 1994, Agamon Hula has proven that eco-tourism and conservation along the flyway are a far bigger bonanza than growing peanuts. Today farmers in the area spread two tons of corn seed daily during the migrations to appease the hungry cranes and keep them from consuming the peanut harvest.
"We know that we have not reached an equilibrium with our environment," explained Dr. Omri Boneh, northern director of the Jewish National Fund. The staff at Agamon Hula are constantly working to improve the balance between the farmers and the visiting birds. Their work has turned the site into a model for the successful symbiosis between man and nature.
The peak time to visit Agamon Hula is October through December. The birds begin returning north from Africa in late February.
The best way to see the 8.6 km-long route through Agamon Hula's feeding area is by bicycle (NIS 52 per person) or by electric golf cart (prices ranging from NIS 145-250). The Safari Wagon, which includes an ornithologist guide, costs NIS 52 for adults and NIS 47 for children. Sightseers with their own bicycles may enter the main feeding area Sunday to Thursday for NIS 3, but cannot enter the site on weekends or holidays.
Apart from the Agamon Hula, Israel offers bird lovers a series of bird watching sites stretching along the main migration route. These include the Beit Shean Valley's Kfar Ruppin, Neve Eitan, Maoz Hayhim and Tirat Zevi where there are major concentrations of fishponds, i.e. lunch for raptors.
The Jerusalem Bird Observatory (http://www.jbo.org.il/Eng%20index.htm) is located on 5,000 square meters of prime real estate between the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) and the Supreme Court. The site includes a ringing (banding) station and a visitors center with a computerized classroom.
Further to the south in the Arava desert north of the Red Sea port of Eilat, the birding center at Kibbutz Lotan is also a favorite spot. One only needs to look up and see the sky full of eagles, storks or pelicans. At Evrona just north of Eilat a flock of wild flamingoes are tickled pink not to have to commute to Africa any more, preferring to dine at the local fish ponds.
At the peak of spring, hundreds of species from Asia and Europe stop by Eilat's salt ponds, including large raptors such as steppe eagles, sparrow hawks and white storks. "The dominant species are blackcap warblers, barn swallows and European bee-eaters, one of most colorful birds in Israel," according to Rea Shaish of the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat.
As well, the Gamla nature reserve in the Golan Heights is the home of the spectacular Griffon Vulture which uses its 2.5 meter (eight-foot) wingspan to soar on hot air currents.
These centers include telescopes and conduct guided tours. The most important of Israel's several bird research centers is Tel Aviv University's International Center for the Study of Bird Migration at Latrun, which uses radar to track the birds, and updates the birds' movements on the center's website (http://www.birds.org.il).
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Gil Zohar is a Jerusalem-based journalist and tour guide and writes regularly for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours, the leading Christians social network focused on travel to the Holy Land.
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