Birds of a feather

The Hula Agamon nature reserve is an animal and animal lover's paradise.

ot so many years ago, different methods were being used to keep migrating birds from gulping down Hula Valley and coastal plain fishpond and agricultural farm owners' profits every autumn and spring. The methods included huge nets stretched across the ponds, gigantic scarecrows and noisy cannons to scare the birds away. Pot shots could not be taken, as the law was on the side of the birds. For them, a concentration of breakfast, lunch and dinner was splashing about in a confined area surrounded by an abundance of peanuts and a selection of grains for pecking. While farmers were frantically trying to keep their stocks and crops by shooing away the annual masses of migrating birds, various environmental organizations struggled for the feathered pilgrims' right to maintain their annual Europe-Africa migration route and resting grounds in Israel. Certain species see no point in traveling farther, as all their needs for riding out the European winter are met in Israel. The Hula Agamon nature reserve is proof that the combined determination of the pro-bird lobby and the more than 300 species that do not let human conflicts put them off setting down in Israel, whatever the political climate, have won the battle for the right to flight to, from and over Israel. The most flown-over tourist site in the country has been short listed by UNESCO for official recognition as a World Heritage Site. Tens of thousands of birds now frolic in season in the Hula Valley swamps, that were dried, fried in the unrelenting summer heat and partially reflooded a decade ago following concerted efforts to find an alternative feeding ground for the multitude of pelicans, cranes, storks, cormorants, herons and many other feathered species. After it became apparent that the ecological balance of the Hula had been taken to the cleaners too zealously (creating a number of mini-ecological disasters), it was decided to reflood a small area of swamp left in its original form. Opened to the general public last year, the Hula Agamon (pond) is a feast for sore eyes - especially after a few hours' squinting through binoculars brought along for the day. "There are 22,000 cranes here at the moment - we count them every week," nature reserve guide Eli Galili, a member of nearby Kibbutz Ayelet Hashachar, told us on a recent visit. Galili could be called the Bird Man of the Hula Swamplands. Within minutes of his mentioning the cranes, a black cloud suddenly appeared on the horizon. With Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights looming in the background, thousands of cranes made their way to the site for a little rest and relaxation after a day of gliding through the skies above the Golan. The cranes were not the only feeders en masse on the swamp. Before them, we had been watching a huge flock of pelicans preening themselves on the ground, while dozens of ducks swam around a large pond that was invaded at one point by a wild boar. To appease farmers, fishermen and followers of fowl, the migrant birds' feeding pattern has been changed over a period of years. At certain times every day during the season, huge quantities of corn are spread around the swamplands, and the birds now stay away from the farmers' forbidden fruits. In another example of human-avian cooperation, birds are allowed to eat the leftovers in a nearby peanut plantation field, after the harvesting has been completed. Wide water channels, originally dug to divert excess water, now ensure that the wetlands stay wet because the area is also home to several species of rare plants and a rich wonderland of flora and fauna. The Hula Agamon is home to many non-flying denizens, the likes of jamous (a type of water buffalo), a herd of wild donkeys, and many wild boars and water hogs. As we moved around the paved outer road running alongside the waterways, many an otter eyed us with suspicion as they industriously worked at whatever they were up to, half hidden in the banks of the channel. In an innovative development to encourage visitors to take in as much as they can of the huge reserve, "public transportation" is on hand in the form of rentable bicycles and low-slung two-seater foot-propelled vehicles. Or one can be less energetic and rent a club-car. Of course, you can simply take off by foot. A shuttle service between the lookout points on this golden pond is planned for the future, and many other innovative ideas are as yet undecided upon. One thing the developers of the Hula Agamon are adamant about is that visitors' cars stay outside, in the parking lot.