(photo credit: Shmuel Bar Am)
During the Great Fire of 1536, 2,300 houses in the Dutch town of Delft went up in flames. While the source of the fire is unknown, one thing is certain: a white stork, after trying unsuccessfully to rescue her young, chose to die with them rather then leave them to suffer their fate alone. Called hasidot (merciful ones) in Hebrew because of their kind nature, these large, distinctive birds are believed to repay their parents' nurturing by caring for them when they get old...
Storks being what they are, it is no accident that their pictures appear on the logo of the Birdwatching Center at Kfar Ruppin, a kibbutz on the Jordanian border. Indeed, the logo is a drawing of the black stork, far rarer than its lighter counterpart and a welcome sight in the Jordan Valley in winter.
Each year, more than 500 million migrating birds, representing 410 species, fly back and forth over Israel. Most of them stop here to "refuel" before continuing on their way, but tens of thousands remain with us for the season, mainly because our fishponds and the foliage nearby provide them with plenty of food.
Just now, a variety of birds - from raptors to songbirds - are enjoying life in the Jordan Valley. You don't have to be an avid bird lover to enjoy a wonderful tour, way off the track, with the center's director, David Glasner. Take a special tour, if you like - or join regular tours every weekend (the times change with the season: in warmer weather the tours are in the late afternoon).
The tour begins with a drive (in your own car) through the fields of Kfar Ruppin, where kibbutzniks are growing kenef. A tall plant with a woody base, cultivated for its incredibly strong fibers, kenef is used to enrich soil, in ropes and twine, and even to produce vegetable oil.
Soon you reach a wonderful off-the-track nature reserve called Tel Saharon. Featuring not only a large quantity of the fiery, red-flowered mistletoe known as the acacia strap flower (harnug hashitim), it also boasts the northernmost instance of the species in the world.
Acacia strap flower is a semi-parasite that attaches itself mainly to acacia trees, absorbs water from the host, and slowly drains it of life. Its eye-catching flowers attract Palestinian sunbirds with long, curved beaks who love to drink from its nectar. As they stick their beaks into the flowers to drink, and when they exit, stamens remain on their foreheads to be transferred to the next flower on their route.
Inside the nature reserve are springs, a stream, masses of river foliage, and a natural pool, making this a wonderful rest area for birds. Glasner will lead you through a path shaded by reeds to a little hideout with large slits for birdwatching without being seen. On our early February visit we saw enormous kites, one of them stretching huge wings to dry in the sunshine, lots of grey herons, plovers, and a few night herons. Black-headed night herons sleep during the day and at night operate a special mechanism that lets them spot fish inside dark, murky water. Look - and listen - to hear the cooing of doves and the croak of herons.
As you follow a path around the nature reserve to the center's ringing station, you will spot a number of donkeys. Lazily chomping on weeds and plants, they help keep the site clean.
Keep your eyes on the sky: every once in a while a rising thermal air current - called a termika - forms over the fields. Large and heavy birds, like hawks, kites and falcons take advantage of these rising currents to soar into the air looking for prey. They circle above you in large groups until the currents begin to weaken, then fly off in different directions.
Watch, too, for signs of courting. You may see, as we did, a dove's elaborate shenanigans as it showed off to a prospective mate.
Kfar Ruppin's ringing station is one of six operating in Israel (the others are in Eilat, the western Negev, the Hula Nature Reserve, Jerusalem and Ma'agan Michael. Here, visitors sit on date palm trunks, often peppered with the sticky seeds that help the acacia strap flower glue itself to their victims.
At ringing stations both in Israel and all over the world songbirds are fitted with tiny, lightweight numbered rings so that their flight patterns and survival rates can be traced. About 10,000 birds are ringed annually, but only a small percentage return. One little ringed warbler did come back - in the pellet of a barn owl (at least the ring did!).
Your tour now continues past the fields to fishponds belonging to Kibbutz Tirat Zvi and to Kfar Ruppin. On our visit we saw a head jutting out from a field of green, wavy grass. It was the head of a male gazelle, from a herd of about 10 of these graceful animals, out for a run with two of its offspring.
About 300 species of bird hang out in the area of Kfar Ruppin during the year, among them one or two ospreys. Very large raptors that feed almost exclusively on fish, they pose no threat to the fish industry. That's because they pick only feeble prey floating on or near the surface of the water. After catching a fish in their talons they fly away to some quiet place and settle down for dinner.
Both white and black storks were in evidence on our visit, along with shelducks, plovers, spoonbills with spoon-shaped beaks, white-breasted kingfishers, great and small white egrets, and lots of shiny black cormorants, impressive especially in flight, where their beaks are stretched out in front of them.
The last stop on the tour is a former army camp, complete with trenches, now being fixed up for visitors as an observation point. Located on the Jordanian border, it was used during the War of Attrition. From the top you have a fantastic view of the Gilead Mountains, Jordanian villages and the dense thickets of the Jordan River's flood valley. Best of all, no matter how hot it is outside, the air here is cool.
Kfar Ruppin's regular tours take place from October to March on Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. There are extra tours and activities on holidays. The cost is NIS 40 for adults and NIS 25 for kids. There is no fee if you stay overnight at Kfar Ruppin's guest lodgings. If you know no Hebrew, Glasner gives part of the tour in English. A private tour for your family costs NIS 350. For details on holiday tours, organized tours, and family activities, and to reserve both tours and lodgings, call (04) 606-8396.
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