Real Israel: Fancy Flights

A trip to the Hula proves a soaring success.

Agmon Hula nature reserve 521 (photo credit: Liat Collins)
Agmon Hula nature reserve 521
(photo credit: Liat Collins)
You’ve heard of birds of paradise? Well, if you travel to the Agmon- Hula Nature Reserve in Upper Galilee you can see paradise for the birds and heaven for the bird-watchers.
The popularity of the site is soaring, not only among feathered creatures, but also among amateur ornithologists, nature lovers and ordinary tourists looking for an extraordinary trip.
Israel is a natural bottleneck for migrating birds traveling between Europe, Asia and Africa and it attracts some 500 million of them a year. Wherever there are large concentrations of birds – particularly rare species – you’ll find bird-watchers of all types flocking to see them.
The Agmon-Hula reserve has proved so noteworthy that last year BBC Wildlife magazine listed it in the No. 9 spot out of the Top 20 sites for nature observation in the world.
Currently (until January 8), the Galilee region is hosting its first annual International Ornithological Festival, aimed at the general public as much as dedicated bird-watchers, and intended to show the farmers and decision- makers that protecting the habitats available to birds is beneficial not just for avian species but also as part of the increasingly fashionable trend of ecotourism.
I had a chance to be an early bird, visiting the lake area earlier this month as part of what has been described as the “Almost Annual Hanukka Hula Trip” which set out for a memorable day from the Jerusalem Bird Observatory next to the Knesset.
It was not my first visit (I even had the privilege of attending the historic reflooding ceremony sponsored by the Jewish National Fund in the mid-1990s), but nonetheless I “ooh-ed” and “aah-ed” the closer we got – especially when a flock of storks flew past the bus near Afula and when, nearer to the Hula, a marsh harrier appeared to be accompanying us, flying just outside the window. (This was not the last bird we saw anthropomorphically showing off: In the nature reserve, a common kingfisher put on an uncommon show, hovering directly in front of our vehicle long enough for even the slowest and most amateur photographer and bird-watcher to get a shot.)
The JBO’s Alen Kacal took the English-speaking bus under her wing, and I found myself looking up to her and looking up with her as her eagle eyes homed in on species I hadn’t even heard off – for example, the black-tailed godwit, which she calls “a very nice bird,” and my bird-spotting neighbor and friend back in Jerusalem enviously described as “a rare and lucky find.”
Kacal is seasoned at guiding both keen amateur bird-watchers – some of whom can list the Latin names of species with alacrity – and people like me. I was armed with more enthusiasm than knowledge and equipped with a pair of children’s cheap zoo binoculars because I never quite got the knack of studying wildlife through anything more sophisticated. My nine-year-old, on the other hand, managed admirably with a pair of borrowed binoculars and welcomed the chance to look down Kacal’s telescope whenever he could. Even I managed to have the thrill of watching the pelicans particularly close up via the telescopic lens.
BUT THE crowning glory of Agmon-Hula is the cranes. Although we were visiting after the migration season, some 40,000 European cranes remain at the site and you didn’t need any kind of eyeglass to see them. Huge flocks of the birds flew in arrow-like formation and came to land in the fields which they call home. And incidentally they call it very noisily.
The cranes, it seems, are extremely communicative birds and apparently have been able to convince each other to change their migration pattern and turn the Hula into their yearround home.
Watching the graceful birds crossing the skies, it is easy to understand how certain Far Eastern cultures revere them. On a previous trip I was treated to the unforgettable sight of cranes making a song and dance out of courting. This time I could see that all the hard work was not in vain; many cranes – who mate monogamously for life – stood in trios: mother, father and offspring (known as colts).
The best way to see them is the guided tour in a safari wagon. The semi-camouflaged, tractor- pulled cart allows you to enter the heart of the cranes’ feeding grounds. The sheer majesty of the birds combined with the power of their numbers evokes a slightly surreal feeling. It also provides a bird’s-eye view of how a nature documentary is filmed.
To reduce the damage to the nearby cultivated fields – whose farmers have a less romantic view of the birds – the Nature and Parks Authority staff spread seeds out for the voracious eaters in certain defined places. This has a double effect of keeping the birds out of the crop-growing fields and concentrating them in an area which works as a tourism magnet.
There are other ways to see the site (which is wheelchair accessible) including individual and family bicycles, electric golf carts and (on weekdays) on private bikes.
FORGET YOUR common or garden variety birds – pigeons, sparrows and crows don’t count on these trips. Summing up, Kacal noted she had seen 45 species of birds and three mammal species. I also saw the water buffalo, wild asses and otter-like nutrias that roam freely. Less experienced at the birdwatching, I nonetheless saw and admired, among other species, cormorants, egrets, pelicans, avocets, plovers, herons, grebes, ibis, black-winged stilts and a magnificent imperial eagle.
The well-maintained site includes several observation points and a decent tourism center (with the inevitable but reasonable souvenir shop).
A word of warning, however: As dusk descended and we admired the last of the non-nocturnal birds settling down for the night, we discovered that the skies also carried mosquitoes whose size and viciousness made the reason the pioneers drained the original malarial swamps more understandable.
I hesitate to call the trip a once-in-a-lifetime experience – not because of the cliché but because it is addictive: You’ll want to see it more than once. Much like the birds, whether you live in Israel or are just passing through, the Hula is an irresistible attraction.
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