Agmon Hula nature reserve 521.
(photo credit: Liat Collins)
You’ve heard of birds of paradise? Well, if you travel to the Agmon- Hula Nature
Reserve in Upper Galilee you can see paradise for the birds and heaven for the
The popularity of the site is soaring, not only among
feathered creatures, but also among amateur ornithologists, nature lovers and
ordinary tourists looking for an extraordinary trip.
Israel is a natural
bottleneck for migrating birds traveling between Europe, Asia and Africa and it
attracts some 500 million of them a year. Wherever there are large
concentrations of birds – particularly rare species – you’ll find bird-watchers
of all types flocking to see them.
The Agmon-Hula reserve has proved so
noteworthy that last year BBC Wildlife magazine listed it in the No. 9 spot out
of the Top 20 sites for nature observation in the world.
January 8), the Galilee region is hosting its first annual International
Ornithological Festival, aimed at the general public as much as dedicated
bird-watchers, and intended to show the farmers and decision- makers that
protecting the habitats available to birds is beneficial not just for avian
species but also as part of the increasingly fashionable trend of
I had a chance to be an early bird, visiting the lake area
earlier this month as part of what has been described as the “Almost Annual
Hanukka Hula Trip” which set out for a memorable day from the Jerusalem Bird
Observatory next to the Knesset.
It was not my first visit (I even had
the privilege of attending the historic reflooding ceremony sponsored by the
Jewish National Fund in the mid-1990s), but nonetheless I “ooh-ed” and “aah-ed”
the closer we got – especially when a flock of storks flew past the bus near
Afula and when, nearer to the Hula, a marsh harrier appeared to be accompanying
us, flying just outside the window. (This was not the last bird we saw
anthropomorphically showing off: In the nature reserve, a common kingfisher put
on an uncommon show, hovering directly in front of our vehicle long enough for
even the slowest and most amateur photographer and bird-watcher to get a shot.)
The JBO’s Alen Kacal took the English-speaking bus under her wing, and I found
myself looking up to her and looking up with her as her eagle eyes homed in on
species I hadn’t even heard off – for example, the black-tailed godwit, which
she calls “a very nice bird,” and my bird-spotting neighbor and friend back in
Jerusalem enviously described as “a rare and lucky find.”
seasoned at guiding both keen amateur bird-watchers – some of whom can list the
Latin names of species with alacrity – and people like me. I was armed with more
enthusiasm than knowledge and equipped with a pair of children’s cheap zoo
binoculars because I never quite got the knack of studying wildlife through
anything more sophisticated. My nine-year-old, on the other hand, managed
admirably with a pair of borrowed binoculars and welcomed the chance to look
down Kacal’s telescope whenever he could. Even I managed to have the
thrill of watching the pelicans particularly close up via the telescopic
BUT THE crowning glory of Agmon-Hula is the cranes. Although we
were visiting after the migration season, some 40,000 European cranes remain at
the site and you didn’t need any kind of eyeglass to see them. Huge flocks of
the birds flew in arrow-like formation and came to land in the fields which they
call home. And incidentally they call it very noisily.
The cranes, it
seems, are extremely communicative birds and apparently have been able to
convince each other to change their migration pattern and turn the Hula into
their yearround home.
Watching the graceful birds crossing the skies, it
is easy to understand how certain Far Eastern cultures revere them. On a
previous trip I was treated to the unforgettable sight of cranes making a song
and dance out of courting. This time I could see that all the hard work
was not in vain; many cranes – who mate monogamously for life – stood in trios:
mother, father and offspring (known as colts).
The best way to see them
is the guided tour in a safari wagon. The semi-camouflaged, tractor- pulled cart
allows you to enter the heart of the cranes’ feeding grounds. The sheer majesty
of the birds combined with the power of their numbers evokes a slightly surreal
feeling. It also provides a bird’s-eye view of how a nature documentary
To reduce the damage to the nearby cultivated fields – whose
farmers have a less romantic view of the birds – the Nature and Parks Authority
staff spread seeds out for the voracious eaters in certain defined places. This
has a double effect of keeping the birds out of the crop-growing fields and
concentrating them in an area which works as a tourism magnet.
other ways to see the site (which is wheelchair accessible) including individual
and family bicycles, electric golf carts and (on weekdays) on private
FORGET YOUR common or garden variety birds – pigeons, sparrows and
crows don’t count on these trips. Summing up, Kacal noted she had seen 45
species of birds and three mammal species. I also saw the water buffalo, wild
asses and otter-like nutrias that roam freely. Less experienced at the
birdwatching, I nonetheless saw and admired, among other species, cormorants,
egrets, pelicans, avocets, plovers, herons, grebes, ibis, black-winged stilts
and a magnificent imperial eagle.
The well-maintained site includes
several observation points and a decent tourism center (with the inevitable but
reasonable souvenir shop).
A word of warning, however: As dusk descended
and we admired the last of the non-nocturnal birds settling down for the night,
we discovered that the skies also carried mosquitoes whose size and viciousness
made the reason the pioneers drained the original malarial swamps more
I hesitate to call the trip a once-in-a-lifetime
experience – not because of the cliché but because it is addictive: You’ll want
to see it more than once. Much like the birds, whether you live in Israel or are
just passing through, the Hula is an irresistible