A soaring success

The Agmon-Hula Reserve is establishing itself as one of the world’s leading sites for viewing wildlife, with visitors flocking in ever greater numbers.

By DAFNA LASKIN
November 5, 2010 16:56
CRANES TAKE a rest in Lake Hula

Lake Hula 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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‘This isn’t nature.” It’s hard to believe such a statement – two and half hours north of Tel Aviv at the Agmon-Hula Reserve, but Dr. Omri Boneh, northern director of the Jewish National Fund in Israel, isn’t wrong.

The brown sign signaling drivers to make a quick turn off Highway 90 is pointing to roughly 10 square kilometers of clever and complicated manipulation aimed at bolstering the local agro-economy and attracting and protecting the 500 million birds that pass through each year in an epic, transcontinental migration.

The outcome of this manipulation has been staggeringly positive, although concerns have been expressed over the high cost of visiting the reserve. Agmon-Hula attracts some NIS 60 million in annual revenue as tourists flock in greater and greater numbers to see the birds, who have also garnered international attention.

Last year, BBC Wildlife magazine listed Agmon-Hula as No. 9 out of 20 sites for wildlife viewing in the world, an impressive achievement considering the site has been operational for only seven years.

Last week, National Geographic chose the site for the official Israeli launch of Great Migrations, a new television series chronicling the massive, instinctive movement of migrating species across the globe.

“This is what National Geographic lives for,” says Adam Taylor, an executive producer with the company who travels to Israel every few months. Choosing Agmon- Hula as the premiere site for the new series “gives a sense of the way we take care of our planet,” Taylor said.

Though none of Great Migrations was shot in Israel, “National Geographic in Israel is very special to us,” said Taylor, adding that production in the country is planned.



Only 15 years ago, Agmon-Hula would have garnered scant attention. Lake Hula was drained in the 1950s to create a farming space in the valley, a decision made with little regard for the future of local wildlife and ecology, and whose benefits were short-lived. The drainage nearly destroyed the ecosystem and drove endemic plant and animal species to extinction. The long-term agricultural payoff fell far short of expectations, and runoff from the valley threatened the potability of Lake Kinneret, a vital freshwater source.

In response, the Hula Restoration Project initiated a reflooding effort in the early 1990s aimed at reversing the ecological damage, protecting the Kinneret and building up the natural migratory flyway into a serious ecotourism and conservation point, while keeping in mind the needs of local farmers who today utilize the swampy area to harvest peanuts.

It is a delicate and intricate balance that is in need of constant maintenance and restructuring, as the number of birds, and visitors, increases each year.

Autumn is peak migration season as hundreds of thousands of cranes, pelicans, storks and other birds set up temporary home in the valley, resting and building up strength for the last leg of a trip that takes them thousands of kilometers and over three continents every year.

This time of year, there happen to be 25,000 cranes at Agmon-Hula, confirmed by sharp-eyed staff members who conduct a one-by-one count at 4 a.m. twice a week.

The birds have landed in the Hula Valley – in the Northern Syrian-African rift, nestled between the Naftali Ridge and Golan Plateau – after a grueling journey from Europe and Russia, in order to refuel before continuing on through the desert and into Central Africa.

The reserve looks a lot like a rest stop or air force base, as families of cranes (the birds are monogamous and tend to stick together with mates and offspring), circle the area from above, scout for food and relax. The cranes each consume about 250 grams of peanuts, the main crop grown by local farmers, each day. To stymie the over-consumption of these crops, two tons of corn seed are spread each day for the cranes as well.

A group of pelicans, with a wingspan of three meters, resemble a fleet of Boeing-747s as they come in for landing on the small, re-flooded lake – a quick stop after having traveled from the Black Sea. Here each pelican will fuel up on some five kilograms of fish before taking off again. Smaller birds, such as great reed warblers, dart about, doubling their body weight in just two weeks, only to burn it off in flight.

The staff at Agmon-Hula takes advantage of the scientific research value of the migration as well. Birds are caught in small, elevated nets all over the site and brought to the ringing station, where they are carefully tagged with a lightweight ring stamped only with a number and “Tel Aviv Univ.”

This helps researchers all over the world track trends, migratory patterns and populations.

By many standards, the restoration has been incredibly successful.

When Agmon-Hula was officially established as a reserve in 1994, a morning count of cranes would have been in the hundreds only, making the current number quite a remarkable achievement, according to Boneh. Though the re-flooded area is much smaller than Lake Hula, even indigenous plant life such as reed and papyrus have returned.

Last month, the JNF and the government of the Canadian Province of Manitoba, home of the Oak Hammock Marsh, signed a formal agreement to cooperate on site development, field research and educational efforts. Covering some 9,000 acres, the Oak Hammock Marsh is much larger than Agmon-Hula and considered to be North America’s top migratory bird-watching site. The agreement serves as proof that Israeli’s own migratory reserve is quite capable of contending with these sites.

“We know that we have not reached an equilibrium with our environment,” Dr. Boneh says. The site is constantly working to improve its balance with the birds that pass through. With careful maneuvering, Agmon-Hula has turned into a model for the successful relationship between man and nature.

The best time to visit the Agmon-Hula Reserve is now through late December. The birds also pass through in February, on their way back north.

The best way to see the main feeding area on the reserve is by bicycle (NIS 52 per person, NIS 175 for a large family bicycle) or by golf cart (prices ranging from NIS 145- 250) The Safari Wagon, which includes a guide, costs NIS 52 for adults and NIS 47 for children older than three. Sightseers are allowed to enter the main feeding area with private bicycles Sunday-Thursday for NIS 3 each, but cannot enter on weekends or holidays.

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