Hula Agamon - Birds of a feather

After the Jewish National Fund developed the Hula Agamon in 1995 and re-flooded 1,000 dunams of former swampland with water, ibises began stopping there to rest and ’refuel’ before continuing on their way.

hulaagamon (photo credit: hulaagamon)
(photo credit: hulaagamon)

Until the beginning of this century, there were basically only two seasonsin which you could view the glossy ibis (maglan): spring, when the ibismigrated north, and autumn, when it flew south. You watched them in theheavens, large, dark, distinctive birds flying in formation, stretching outtheir long necks and letting their unusual beaks lead the way. But youcouldn’t get near enough to see anything more.

After the Jewish National Fund developed the Hula Agamon in 1995 andre-flooded 1,000 dunams of former swampland with water, ibises beganstopping there to rest and ’refuel’ before continuing on their way. Andlately, to bird lovers’ delight, many a glossy ibis has found the Agamonsuch a comfortable site that it hasn’t didn’t felt like leaving — and hasmade the Agamon its permanent home!

Today you can visit the Agamon any day of the year and watch the glossy birduse its scythe-shaped bill to probe the marshy wetlands in search of itsfavorite delicacies (crayfish, crabs, insects and snakes). For the best viewever, take the Agamon’s brand-new, paved bike trail along canals, lakes, andthrough beautiful groves. Whether you walk the 10-kilometer circular trailor ride your bike on the path, you will enjoy stopping often forface-to-face encounters with wildlife. The trail has an added attraction aswell: located well off the main byway running through the Agamon, it isunusually quiet and peaceful.

You will find the Hula Agamon — completely wheelchair accessible and one ofthe country’s most exciting recreational sites — off Highway 90 a fewkilometers north of the Hula Nature Reserve. The sign in English reads HulaLake but, as you probably know, the translation is incorrect: the Agamon wasnot named for its new lake (agam in Hebrew). Instead, the name is actuallyderived from a plant called agmon yami in Hebrew, seaside bulrush or seaclub-rush in English. The seaside bulrush, a hardy species about a metertall, grows in shallow water, swamps, ditches and ponds like those at theAgamon. Look for seaside bulrush on your outing.

Park in the lot and enter a large foyer that features snacks and a varietyof information about wildlife at the Agamon. Besides a nature shop, you caninspect all kinds of vehicles for making your visit fun, from golf carts tofamily bicycles. Also available: a tour bus that stops at each of three mainbird-watching balconies — and a ride inside a camouflaged truck that takesyou inside the swampy fields to a feeding site.

If you are taking the bike trail, you will begin by passing through unusualwoodlands featuring both a mulberry grove and Japanese raisin trees. TheJapanese raisin boasts fruit that resembles Japanese letters — and tasteslike raisins! Canals and pools line both sides of your route, providing youwith a close-up look at herons and cranes. There they stand on the otherside of the water, unafraid, going about their daily lives.

Herons feed on fish, frogs and similar fauna. You will see them perching onbranches, gliding gracefully above the water, or slowly wading through it.They may spread out their wings, or stand frozen while hoping dinner willappear. Should a heron sight possible prey, it quickly thrusts its headforward, grasps the victim in its long, straight beak, and swallows itwhole.

When resting, herons tuck in their necks so that you get the feeling theyare smaller than they really are. And they stand quietly, making no noise atall.

Cranes, the crowning glory of the Agamon, were the third largest birds toinhabit Israel in biblical times (first and second were the ostrich and thepelican). In migration such immense flocks passed over Israel as to darkenthe sky, and when they crossed the Red Sea they appeared to sweep from shoreto shore. Large flocks lived in the desert south of Jerusalem, and a few ofthem made their homes up north.

The species that we see in Israel today are called Eurasian cranes, with awing sweep of two meters from tip to tip, weigh more than five kilograms,and stand 1.5 meters tall.

As you continue, you will be able to hear different species of birdscommunicating with one another. The spur-winged plover has a particularlyraucous cry whose call gave it its Hebrew name of siksak.

There are lots and lots of spur-winged plovers at the Agamon. Watch themcarefully. Plover parents can communicate with their young, and even toembryos still in their shells. After building their nests on hot sand ordirt, plovers shade their standard four eggs with their bodies. Because theycan’t deal with offspring and cool off the nest at the same time, they sendmessages to the eggs and all four hatch promptly within hours of oneanother.

Newborn plovers can leave the nest immediately and hunt for food in thecompany of one of their parents. If an enemy approaches, the parent signalsits arrival and the young plovers immediately lie down on the ground toavoid detection.

Plovers are very territorial — and aggressively protective. If anothercreature gets near their territory they will call — loudly — with theirscary cry. If that doesn’t work, they will attack with the quills on theirwings. They are said to have attacked birds four times their size — and Ihave heard that this is the only bird that can scare off a cow! One of theguides at the Hula told me about someone who raised an abandoned baby ploverin his yard. Recognizing the yard as its territory, it turned into a guarddog and went for a stranger who entered the yard!

Keep your eyes out for predators like eagles — look on the treetops and inthe sky. You can identify them by their large size, powerful build and heavyhead and bill. Like all birds of prey, eagles have big, strong, hooked beakswith which they tear the flesh from their prey. Unusually good eyesightmakes it possible for them to spy possible victims from a long distanceaway.

Large piles of sand were placed along the route for little, colorfulbee-eaters, with yellow mouths and blue eyes. They nest inside these tinymountains. Watch for spoonbills in the canal, appropriately called kapanim(from the word for spoon — kaf.) Curlew sandpipers, small birds with longthin beaks, search for lunch in the waters.

And, of course, feast your eyes on the impressive glossy ibises in the tallgrass on the banks. In Egypt, where they eat snake eggs and protect thefields by gobbling up locusts, the ibis is considered holy. Indeed, the godTut had the head of an ibis. Want to rest? Feel free to set yourself down onbenches hidden within a grove of Paulinas, where you can see but not beseen. An Australian tree that grows very fast and features beautiful purpleflowers, the Paulina provides a nesting area for song birds that requirebroad leaves. Stop, again, at the fruit trees, although it is the wrongseason for picking figs, mulberries or pomegranates.

From a special bird lookout, gaze at a floating island in the water; plansfor the future — already taking shape — include bridges for getting thereand back.

You are bound to encounter several coypus (nutria in Hebrew) on your jaunt.Furry dark brown little mommies, sometimes accompanied by their young, swimin the canals — or come out of the water to rest on the banks. They mayscratch themselves, shake their fur, or simply take a bath in the sun.

Also sunning themselves, but on rocks in the water, are turtles. The onesyou see are swamp turtles, typical of this area but nearly extinct not solong ago. Today they are eagerly reproducing! See if you can identify theagmon — seaside bulrush — near papyrus in the water. The Hula Agamon is thenorthernmost point in the world where it can be found.

Take your time on this pleasurable outing, and when you finish, head for avery special trail that looks out over the Agamon. Recently completed, itwas developed by the JNF as a living memorial to reserves officer, Maj. RanKochva, killed in action during the Second Lebanon War.

To reach the Ran Kochva Lookout, get back onto Highway 90 and turn right,then left at Koah Junction. Ran Kochva Lookout is located on your left,directly across from the first major bend in the road. Do not turn duringyour ascent — first go to the top and turn around.

An unusually talented and creative youngster, Ran Kochva was born in 1969and grew up in Netanya. He was drafted into the air force and became ahelicopter navigator. During his next eight years of service, Ran took partin numerous campaigns, and was awarded a certificate of merit for excellenceby the Chief of Staff. In the reserves, Ran was always the first tovolunteer for a mission.

As a civilian, Ran earned a degree in architecture and at the same time,studied law. Ran loved to explore the countryside, and became intimatelyfamiliar Israel’s trails, both on and off the beaten path. In the summer of2006, the Second Lebanon War broke out. On July 20, his helicopter crashedand Ran was killed.

Try to reach the lookout in the late afternoon just before the sun begins toset for an absolutely stupendous view of the waters of the Hula Agamon. Amap describes the landscape before you; a part of the helicopter thatcrashed very near this spot reminds you why you are here.

Leading up to the overlook is a path called the ’Riddles Trail’ which islined just now with cyclamen and asphodel. Along the route are littleplaques (in Hebrew) with questions or information about the region. ’Gaze atthe peaks on the northeast — to what mountain do they belong?’ asks one. Or’The Hula Lake covered 60 square kilometers and its murky waters causedmalaria,’ states another. On a third plaque you can read a phrase written bypoet Natan Yonatan: ’A land whose loving people gave their all.’ And thenthe question: ’Who gave his all in this place?’