Lake Hula Park awoke to another pastoral morning, with pleasant winter sunshine caressing its green grass and blue waters. The ducklings set out for a morning swim, and the songbirds filled the air with melody. The raptors, including the black-winged kite – spotted this year in Israel for the first time – circled overhead in search of a light breakfast before beginning another day’s work.
On the banks of the canals, coypus (water rats) pottered lazily, making particularly comical faces as they chewed on fresh green leaves, quite unembarrassed at being an invasive species that has made its home at Lake Hula. The tranquil morning silence was broken only by the calls of the tens of thousands of cranes that have arrived to winter here at the lake.
None of these creatures was aware that 1,700 sports and nature enthusiasts had flocked to Lake Hula to take part in the Crane Race, which is being held this year for the first time, as part of the events of the Bird Winter Second International Ornithology Festival underway in Galilee. Events at this festival, held in collaboration with Israeli tourist organizations, KKL-JNF and Israel’s Society for the Protection of Nature, include an international ornithological conference, bird-watching by boat on the Sea of Galilee and visits to the major ornithological sites: the Hula Nature Reserve, Gamla Nature Reserve, Ein Afeq Park and, of course, Lake Hula.
Lake Hula is one of Israel’s leading tourist venues and one of the world’s foremost ornithological sites. However, it is not just the birds that make the area a paradise for nature-lovers: there is also a magnificent botanical garden and a wide range of wild life, including swamp lynxes, foxes and jackals. The site can be toured by bicycle, golf buggy or bird-watchers’ hide (a shelter used to watch birds) hitched to a tractor.
The artificial lake was created in the 1990s by controlled flooding of the Hula Valley land, which, when revealed by draining, proved unsuitable for agriculture. KKL-JNF initiated the establishment of the site and today plays a major role in its management, development, research and educational activities. All these activities are made possible by the support of Friends of KKL-JNF throughout the world, including Switzerland, Canada, Australia, the USA, Germany, South America, South Africa and Israel.
The Lake Hula race was one of the main features of the Ornithology Festival, and it was held in three heats: the ten-kilometer competitive event (the Crane Race), the five- kilometer fun run (the Hoopoe Race) and the one-kilometer fun run (the Graceful Warbler Race). Schoolchildren, soldiers, families and competitive sports enthusiasts intermingled at this event that
celebrated both sport and nature. Even the cranes found it hard to ignore the unusual sight, as wave upon wave of runners passed before them.
The race’s starter was Dr. Omri Boneh, Director of KKL-JNF’s Northern Region, who told those present, “We are fostering a unique ornithological site here, and it warms the heart to see so many sectors of the population gathered here for this race: schoolchildren, soldiers, government ministries and private companies.”
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Ornithological expert Dr. Yossi Leshem, representing the Society for the Protection of Nature, made special mention of one particular group of people taking part in the race: a delegation of fifteen sports enthusiasts from Jordan. Delegation Head Majid Asher expressed his confidence that the combination of sport, nature and water was the best way to bring the two peoples together. “It’s much more important than any kind of political activity,” he said.
The schoolchildren taking part were led by Dr. Orna Simhon, Director of the Ministry of Education’s Northern District. “I regard it as a privilege to be involved in the education of Israel’s children,” she said. “Two of the principal subjects in which we educate the children are sustainability and a healthy lifestyle. I’m glad to see both these topics finding expression here today at Lake Hula.”
Large numbers of soldiers were also among the participants in the race, under the leadership of Yair Golan, Head of IDF Northern Command. “It’s a wonderful route, and our objective is to see more soldiers than birds here at the race next year,” said the Major General with a smile. This is a tall order, given that, at the last count, there were over 30,000 cranes at the lake. And that’s without mentioning the
raptors, the numerous water fowl and the innumerable songbirds.
Because of its varied flora and fauna, the site provides an exciting experience for any nature-lover; however, it is famous principally because of the large number of cranes that inhabit it. These birds are now being fed, in accordance with the Crane Project, which is designed to prevent damage to farmers’ fields nearby.
The Crane Race was organized jointly by the Lake Hula staff, KKL-JNF, the Society for the Protection of Nature and the American organization Ernst & Young. The event was held in conjunction with the Israel Defense Forces and the Ministry of Education, and all proceeds will be used to help protect the lake’s birds. After the race was over, trophies were presented to the winners, and the IDF Education Corps Troupe performed.
At the ceremony conclusion, competitors and guests went their separate ways, each one bearing the trophy or medal they had won. The cranes and the other birds for which Lake Hula is home went back to their daily routine. It seems that with a little good will on the part of those involved, everyone – animals, farmers, visitors and tour operators – can all get on quite well together.
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