Hula Swamp Trail - Birdsong at the Hula

The Hula nature reserve is at its finest at this time of year. Take the Swamp Trail for an easy family outing and see nature in the raw.

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July 30, 2009 13:10

 
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Ever wonder what it would be like to soar through the sky like a bird (isn't that how the Wright Brothers ended up inventing airplanes?) No problem! Just head for the Hula Valley Nature Reserve and ask to see the fantastic production called Euphoria. Then feel the wind in your wings as you fly!



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Winter is a wonderful time to visit the Hula, for it is chock-full of cranes, cormorants, ducks, kites, moorhens, harriers and even a few spotted eagles. Come after lunch and do the walk as it gets dark to enjoy the entrancing spectacle of birds returning and settling down for the night.
To reach the reserve, take Highway 90 north from Tiberias. It is three kilometers north of Yesud Hama'ala Junction.



Although people have been known to complain that there is nothing to see in the Hula Reserve (compared to the Agamon), what you view along the Swamp Trail is nature in the raw. True, you may find that it takes patience to spot the fallow deer, brought here so that the species can be preserved should disaster overtake those who have been returned to Galilee. And some of the native water buffalo that inhabit the reserve will be hiding in the marsh - but there is still much to see, ambience to absorb, and the opportunity to commune with nature.

There is only one path to follow, and it is such easy walking that you can keep your eyes on both the sky and the water. Stop at the first observation point for a lovely view of the reserve's three natural habitats: swamps, a lake, and the meadows. This is the spot from which, with binoculars, you may spy some of the reserve's nearly three dozen fallow deer, and a good point from which to view the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon to the east; Galilee to the west.
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As you follow the trail through parts of the swamps and lake that covered the valley until only a few decades ago, pause often to watch large carp jumping in the water. You will also notice a number of coypus (nutrias), furry creatures imported from South America by Kibbutz Neot Mordechai when members decided to open a fur factory. Smart enough to flee to the Hula, coypus have become permanent residents at the reserve. A bit larger, with thick, shiny coats, the European otter (lutra) is more difficult to sight. But if you watch and wait you may see it crawling through the reeds.

Some of the foliage along your nature trail is rare. In late winter and early spring, for example, the reserve boasts stunning, extraordinary fields of papyrus. Indeed, this is the northernmost point at which papyrus is found! If you visit now, you will begin to see the enchanting papyrus plant with its delicate broom-shaped top as you stroll along a wooden walkway. The ancients prepared paper from this plant by peeling the stalk and processing the soft tissue within.

Teal, cattle egrets, night herons, mallard ducks and several species of migrating birds will be flying near, or swimming in, the water. You may notice a glistening on their bodies: water fowl of all kinds possess oily glands on their feathers that keep them from absorbing water that would make them too heavy to fly.
The special bird population in winter includes thousands of brown-and-white ducks with green heads and unusually wide beaks called shovelers. Others are called strainers because they take huge mouthfuls of water, strain out the water with the comb-like bristles on their beaks, and eat what is left.

Along with them are large black cormorants that reside at the reserve. Cormorants have a very distinctive and ultra-relaxed way of flapping their wings. Almost wholly black except for whitish throats and necks, they fly in procession with beaks thrust forward. Throughout the reserve you will see trees covered with black dots. These are cormorants, perched quietly on the branches.

Patient birdwatchers may spot flocks of glossy scarlet ibises, known for their scythe-shaped beaks. You should also see plenty of black kites, raptors that take advantage of rising air currents to help them glide gracefully in the sky. Called thermals, the currents begin as a stream of air from the west diverted upwards by the chimney effect of the cliff walls.



White tailed eagles once flew brazenly through the skies and stopped to rest in the marsh when the Hula Valley was still a swampy wilderness. Closely related to the American bald eagle, this huge bird has a light beige head, a very large bill, a distinctive white tail and a massive wing-span. A pair of disabled white-tailed eagles, brought here to breed as part of an ongoing project to return the white-tailed eagle to the Hula, can be viewed on a video screen outside the newly revamped reserve shop. In the past eight years a number of white-tailed eagles have been raised and successfully released into nature, and once again fly through Israel's skies.

The wings of marsh harriers tilt above their bodies when they fly. Common in swamps, you can also identify them by the dark brown color of their wings, their long, thin tails, striped brown-and-white heads and pale foreheads. Don't pass by the river foliage on the trail without noticing its variety, throughout the seasons. Water lilies flower in white at the beginning of spring. They are fenced in at the reserve to keep the coypu from eating their roots. In late spring, the stunning yellow flag iris, or Jacob's sword, will be in bloom. Commonly seen in wetlands, it features large, bright yellow flowers and long stems and leaves.

Return here in late summer and early fall to see lots of holy bramble with very prickly green leaves. Pop the little berries into your mouth for a treat! At the same time reeds, found all over the reserve, are topped with a large, wavy brush. During the dry season, when there are fewer birds and almost no ducks, the island in the lake fills with several common tern couples. Watch these little birds, with black 'skullcaps' on their heads, as they take care of their chicks. Other summer birds include bee-eaters, easily identified by their striking blue, black and yellow colors. Watch the trees for splendid golden orioles, hidden in the branches and seen clearly only as they take off and begin their flight.

Although there are two kinds of turtles in the reserve, the most visible are swamp turtles who love to sun themselves on the rocks. Large swamp turtles are endemic to the Hula, but a soft-shelled species was imported here from the coast. Zoology professor Heinrich Mendelssohn, one of the original nature lovers whose determination created the reserve, predicted that Israel's coastal rivers were destined to become polluted and he worried about the future of the Nile soft-shelled turtles that lived in their waters. His prediction came true within a few decades; fortunately he had already brought a handful of turtles to the reserve from the Ada and Taninim streams. Today, there are so many that they are being returned to the coast to swim in newly rehabilitated coastal rivers.

Turtles are not the only creatures standing as still as statues on branches in the water and among the reeds. White egrets and grey herons do the same in the jungle of foliage, as they wait patiently for breakfast to swim by before swooping into the water. Look for reed warblers - small songbirds that also inhabit the marsh.



A special walkway and tower along the path were contributed to the reserve by the family of Gail Rubin, an American-Israeli nature photographer who was murdered by terrorists near Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael on March 11, 1978, while working on a story about the fishponds.
Enjoy the swamp landscape below. Early settlers and Beduin would come here in small boats, pushing them through the mud and up to 40-50 centimeters of water, to catch fish or gather reeds.
A covered bridge on the lake offers you shelter from sun and rain. It is also an outstanding place for watching thousands of jumping catfish, and for observing colorful ducks busy eating plankton. Among the latter are green-and-brown mallards, and black coots with white beaks. A few pelicans, black storks and black-and-white storks remain at the reserve in winter. But you must return in fall to see them gathering in the reserve en masse; or view them in smaller numbers in springtime, when some leave the main group and cross continents at another spot.

In late fall and early winter, the sky is full of cranes: whole families flying in large flocks. They talk incessantly. One group wants to land, another vetoes the idea - politics, among the birds! What are they saying, you want to know? Probably: Follow me!
When you finish walking the path, head for either the picnic site or the Visitors' Center for the fabulous production. Unfortunately, the first displays and the great trivia game are only in Hebrew, but even if you can't understand the language you can still view the migration map, watch the very short film about the creation of the Hula, and see exhibits of stuffed animals and birds found in the Hula now and in the past.

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