Hula Agamon - Birds of a feather

A biking trail in the Hula Agamon and an extended 'resting' period means that everyone can take in this nature reserve their own way.

Swampy fields to a feeding site (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM, ATIRA WINCHESTER)
Swampy fields to a feeding site

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

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. And lately, to bird lovers’ delight, many a glossy ibis has found the Agamon such a comfortable site that it hasn’t didn’t felt like leaving — and has made the Agamon its permanent home!

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

You will find the Hula Agamon — completely wheelchair accessible and one of the country’s most exciting recreational sites — off Highway 90 a few kilometers north of the Hula Nature Reserve. The sign in English reads Hula Lake but, as you probably know, the translation is incorrect: the Agamon was not named for its new lake (agam in Hebrew). Instead, the name is actually derived from a plant called agmon yami in Hebrew, seaside bulrush or sea club-rush in English. The seaside bulrush, a hardy species about a meter tall, grows in shallow water, swamps, ditches and ponds like those at the Agamon. Look for seaside bulrush on your outing.

Park in the lot and enter a large foyer that features snacks and a variety of information about wildlife at the Agamon. Besides a nature shop, you can inspect all kinds of vehicles for making your visit fun, from golf carts to family bicycles. Also available: a tour bus that stops at each of three main bird-watching balconies — and a ride inside a camouflaged truck that takes you inside the swampy fields to a feeding site (pictured below).

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

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

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

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

The species that we see in Israel today are called Eurasian cranes, with a wing 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 birds communicating with one another. The spur-winged plover has a particularly raucous cry whose call gave it its Hebrew name of siksak.

There are lots and lots of spur-winged plovers at the Agamon. Watch them carefully. Plover parents can communicate with their young, and even to embryos still in their shells. After building their nests on hot sand or dirt, plovers shade their standard four eggs with their bodies. Because they can’t deal with offspring and cool off the nest at the same time, they send messages to the eggs and all four hatch promptly within hours of one another.

Newborn plovers can leave the nest immediately and hunt for food in the company of one of their parents. If an enemy approaches, the parent signals its arrival and the young plovers immediately lie down on the ground to avoid detection.

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

Keep your eyes out for predators like eagles — look on the treetops and in the sky. You can identify them by their large size, powerful build and heavy head and bill. Like all birds of prey, eagles have big, strong, hooked beaks with which they tear the flesh from their prey. Unusually good eyesight makes it possible for them to spy possible victims from a long distance away.

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

And, of course, feast your eyes on the impressive glossy ibises in the tall grass on the banks. In Egypt, where they eat snake eggs and protect the fields by gobbling up locusts, the ibis is considered holy. Indeed, the god Tut had the head of an ibis. Want to rest? Feel free to set yourself down on benches hidden within a grove of Paulinas, where you can see but not be seen. An Australian tree that grows very fast and features beautiful purple flowers, the Paulina provides a nesting area for song birds that require broad leaves. Stop, again, at the fruit trees, although it is the wrong season for picking figs, mulberries or pomegranates.

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

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

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

Take your time on this pleasurable outing, and when you finish, head for a very special trail that looks out over the Agamon. Recently completed, it was developed by the JNF as a living memorial to reserves officer, Maj. Ran Kochva, 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 during your ascent — first go to the top and turn around.

An unusually talented and creative youngster, Ran Kochva was born in 1969 and grew up in Netanya. He was drafted into the air force and became a helicopter navigator. During his next eight years of service, Ran took part in numerous campaigns, and was awarded a certificate of merit for excellence by the Chief of Staff. In the reserves, Ran was always the first to volunteer 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 intimately familiar Israel’s trails, both on and off the beaten path. In the summer of 2006, the Second Lebanon War broke out. On July 20, his helicopter crashed and Ran was killed.

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

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