Bird-watching amid the coronavirus pandemic: We can't travel, but they can

Take a jaunt up North and spend some time with these “tourists.”

Hula Nature Reserve (photo credit: HADAR YAHAV)
Hula Nature Reserve
(photo credit: HADAR YAHAV)
Now that it is officially autumn and health restrictions finally allow us to venture farther from home, this is a good time to get out into nature equipped with masks – and binoculars. Although we humans might still be limited in how far we can go for the time being, birds are continuing with their travel plans as if they’d never heard of COVID-19. If we stop for a moment and lift our eyes to the bright blue skies above us, we will surely see the flocks of birds migrating overhead.
Since Israel sits right smack in the middle of the Syrian-African fault line, our country is a popular resting stop for thousands upon thousands of birds currently making their way to Africa for the winter. Areas in northern Israel are a popular rest stop for over 500 million birds each year, some dropping in for a quick visit, such as storks, pelicans and cormorants. Other birds, such as cranes – which adore the open spaces found in Agmon Hahula – tend to settle in and hang around for an extended visit.
Take a jaunt up North and spend some time with these “tourists.” Some of the best places to see these visitors frolicking on the ground include the Hula Nature Reserve, Agmon Hahula and Emek Hama’ayanot.
Hula Nature Reserve (Courtesy Hadar Yahav)
The Hula Nature Reserve – one of Israel’s most veteran sites – is a must-see for ornithological beginners and experienced birders alike. Every spring and autumn it becomes home to dozens of types of birds making their way from one continent to another. In fact, all year long the Hula Nature Reserve is visited by up to 200 different types of birds. At the current time, it is buzzing with the sounds of cranes’ rattling bugle calls, the flapping of ducks’ wings and the cries of excitement made by the human spectators enjoying the magnificent sights.
Because Israel is the only land mass where Africa, Asia and Europe connect to each other, an astronomical number of birds take advantage of northern Israel’s lakes and open spaces to rest and gather strength for the rest of their journey. In normal times, guests are welcome at the Euphoria Visitors Center where they can watch a 3D film illustrating the animal world and look through the telescope located in the observation tower. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, it is not open to the public at this time. Nonetheless, I believe that it is still worthwhile visiting the nature reserve to take in the natural surroundings and of course to watch the birds overhead and on the grounds of the park.
There’s also a great walking trail you can follow through the nature reserve, which starts with a visit to the three-story observation point, from which you can see out over the entire area. Then, as you begin walking through the reserve, you’ll constantly see flocks of birds flying overhead. Apart from birds, you might also catch a glimpse of other animals in the reserve, such as wild boars, water buffalo and otters. One of the most exciting attractions at Hahula is the floating bridge, which is a 15-minute walk from the starting point. This is a great place for a photo op since the observation platform is relatively concealed and functions as a bird hideout over the restored lake. The floating bridge stretches out over 600 meters and you can get up close to the birds without bothering them.
Directions: The Hula Nature Reserve is located three kilometers from Yesod Hama’aleh Intersection. Turn east onto Route 90 toward Rosh Pina and Kiryat Shmona.
Price: NIS 14 to 28.
Details: Due to COVID-19 restrictions, all visits must be pre-arranged.
Not far from the Hula Nature Reserve you will find Agmon Hahula, an artificial lake that has become a popular watering hole for migrating birds, and as a result, attracts many bird watchers. Normally, ornithologists would gather here from all over the world this time of year to witness the bird migration and the tens of thousands of cranes who make the lake’s shores their home for the winter.
Agmon Hahula is a great example of artificial development that has had extraordinary benefits on a region’s ecosystem. When water was being pumped into the valley to create the artificial lake, few people believed that the site would turn into such a popular attraction. Now, visitors can tour Agmon Hahula by foot on the well-kept trails – but be aware that the circular path is 8.5 km long, so if you don’t think you’re up for that much walking, you can rent electric bicycles, golf carts or take a guided tour on a safari wagon. There are also orchards around the lake, canals and shaded picnic tables, so you can easily spend a few hours there without realizing where the hours went and how much you’ve learned about nature and all the birds that you see flying overhead.
Although the migrating birds are the main attraction at Agmon Hahula, you should know that there’s also a botanical garden on site that has an incredible collection of aquatic plants on display, some of which are so old that they were collected when the Hula Valley was still a desolate swamp area.
The most recent addition to Agmon Hahula is the state-of-the-art visitor center that opened up earlier this year. It features a virtual reality station with VR goggles that will take you on an airborne trip over the continents and show you the paths the birds take as they make their way to Israel each year. There’s also a bird wall that is the largest in the entire Middle East, a globe showing migration patterns and a photography exhibition.
Directions: If you’re coming from the Hula Nature Reserve, drive back to Route 90 and turn left (south) and then turn left (east) between signposts 457 and 458. Follow signs to parking area.
Price: NIS 5. Entrance to the visitor center requires an additional payment.
Park Hama'ayanot (Courtesy: Amit Ben-Yehoshua)
Another place in the area that’s worthwhile visiting is Park Hama’ayanot in Emek Hama’ayanot. Birds congregate in this spot due to the bountiful watering holes. You might spot milvinae kites, which are raptors that fly in from Russia and Georgia; kingfishers, beautiful birds that are attracted to water sources and remain in the region for a long stay each fall; and other herons and songbirds. In addition, at Ein Modah, you might spot black storks, which fly in from Eastern Europe and Russia.
Guests are welcome to walk around the nature park by foot or ride bicycles they brought from home. Visitors can also rent electric golf carts or bicycles, and it’s very easy and safe to maneuver them around the park and between the natural springs. In the park, there are 15 km of paved trails, as well as lots of springs where you can go for a swim, while the days are still warm. There are also endless spots to stop and have a picnic.
Park Hama'ayanot (Courtesy: Amit Ben-Yehoshua)
Directions: Drive along Road 669 and turn off at Gan Hashlosha. Before the entrance to Gan Hashlosha, turn right and drive until you reach the parking area.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.