A sea of birds overtakes the North

About two dozen bird experts from all over the world enjoy a field day among Israel’s bird oasis ahead of avian conference.

35,000 cranes at Agamon Lake in Hula valley 370 (photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
35,000 cranes at Agamon Lake in Hula valley 370
(photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Eager to chomp on the pieces of white bread flying through the air, a flock of black-headed gulls engulfed the small wooden skiff carrying a pack of international birding experts on a sun-splashed Lake Kinneret this Sunday.
“When you see one coming, they all come,” said Dr. Yossi Leshem, a senior researcher in Tel Aviv University’s zoology department, and founder and director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration in Latrun.
“Please take the bread and throw it and then we’ll have all of them,” he told the passengers.
“If you stop throwing, they leave.”
About two dozen bird experts from all over the world were enjoying a field day among Israel’s bird oases, prior to beginning a week-long seminar on GPS tracking of osprey migration paths, as well as the educational and conservation opportunities that accompany such research. For Sunday, however, they would explore the winter homes of an array of other birds found in the Kinneret basin, in the Hula Valley and in the Gamla Nature Reserve.
“This whole area is amazing,” said Tim Mackrill, senior reserve officer at Rutland Osprey Project at the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, who is also working on a PhD about ospreys.
Pointing out the country’s special geographic position, Mackrill explained that birds from the northeast and northwest converge in Israel on the way to Africa for their winter migrations.
“Israel is such a unique place where three continents meet,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “In terms of birds, it’s one of the most important places in the world.”
Likewise aboard the boat was Tomas Pojar, the ambassador of the Czech Republic to Israel and also a bird enthusiast who has worked on collaborative bird projects with Leshem in the past. His embassy cosponsored Leshem’s initiative promoting barn owls as natural pest control systems in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
Czech ornithology specialists are currently talking with Israelis about future projects, including research on swifts and black storks, Pojar told the Post.
“Birds know no borders – they are all about freedom,” Pojar said. “Coming from a former communist country, birds have always been about freedom to me.”
“Today it’s just about seeing the birds,” he added.
A second stop brought the group to the home of three nesting pairs and several other Israeli griffon vultures – the Gamla Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights. Careening high above the Gamla canyon, griffon vultures swooped in broad circles with their wings outspread over the green valley below.
There had been 1,000 such pairs of griffon vultures before the establishment of the state in 1948, but electrocution and pesticide poisoning caused most of them to die out, according to Leshem.
Last year, however, the Gamla reserve saw a revolution in griffon vulture breeding with the birth of three new fledglings, explained Nadav Israeli, manager of the Hula Valley Birding Center of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
As evening began to approach and the skies gradually started to dim, the group of ornithology experts found themselves in the middle of the Hula Valley aboard a “mobile hide” – a giant green John Deere tractor pulling a semi-open caravan with several levels of bleacher seating.
“Birds do not acknowledge that we are people in this bus,” Israeli said.
“They ignore our presence to a certain extent.”
The Hula Valley’s entire ecosystem had been destroyed after the government decided to drain the malaria-ridden swampland in the 1950s, an Israel Nature and Parks Authority guide explained to the group. However, following the construction of the manmade Agamon Lake in 1993, the valley began to receive birds once again.
“They started to flock back to the Hula Valley,” he said.
As the mobile hide turned a corner, suddenly the expansive views of green agricultural fields were replaced by an endless sea of the most graceful of birds – the crane, and 35,000 of them, to be exact.
Mates for life, the mother and father cranes squawked and jabbered together with their progeny in a coordinated mess, eager to reap the bounty of the tractor that had come to distribute corn kernels among them for the third time that day. The feeding system keeps the cranes, who stay in the valley until mid-March, satiated and unlikely to ravage the local agriculture, the guide explained.
As the sun began to set and the cranes abandoned the last of the stray corn kernels to lingering mallard ducks, the large grayish birds spread their wings, family by family, and flew to settle for the night on the calmness of Lake Agamon.
“This is the Hula Valley at its most beautiful days,” the guide said.