The first week of January, John and I took a trip to the Hula Valley to witness the yearly winter migration of the Great Cranes from Europe to Africa. It was something we had planned on doing for two years, and was a spectacular sight.
Located in Israel’s far north, the Hula Valley lies just north of Lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee. Formed by the Syrian-African Rift, the valley is framed by the Golan Heights to the east; snow-capped Mount Hermon to the north; and the Naftali Mountain Range to the west. In this small area, a mere 30 km long and 7 km wide, is some of Israel’s most fertile agricultural land filled with fruit orchards, wheat, corn, peanut and barley fields, spotted with well-stocked fish ponds and lined with canals.
It is also one of the best places in the world for bird watchers. Israel, lying at the intersection of Europe, Asia and Africa – the Rift Valley especially- is a superhighway for over 450 species of traveling birds. That’s over 500,000,000 birds each year!!! The Hula is the last green spot before flying over the vast Sinai and Sahara Deserts in Africa. Thousands of visitors from all over the world come in the fall and spring to see the great bird migration.
At the end of the Ottoman Empire in the late 1800s, this area was a vast swampland inhabited by a few Bedouin tribes who made their living weaving papyrus mats, and a few early kibbutniks, mostly from Russia and Poland. It was a harsh land and malaria was always a problem. The Jews settling in the valley bought the land for their kibbutzim from the Bedouins at exorbitant prices. Even then, as they tried to farm the area, they were constantly under Arab attack.
Shortly after independence, in the early 1950s, the Jewish National Fund invested in the first national engineering project- the draining of the swampland. One third of the valley was totally swampy, another third had groundwater right under the surface. The water came from the aquifers of Mt Hermon, the Dan River and tributaries of the Jordan River which runs from the base of Hermon through the Hula Valley and into the Kinneret. The draining left spontaneously igniting peat bogs, which then had to be cleared, but which added to the richness of the soil. Canals were built parallel to the fields for adequate drainage, and in the late 1980s, man-made lakes and ponds were added and stocked with many varieties of fresh water fish. Today, not only is it prime agricultural land, but Agamon Hula has become a nature reserve for a number of animals.
Twice a year over 300 species of migratory birds (White Pelican; Cormorants; Great Spotted Eagles; Imperial Eagles; Cranes; Storks; Snowy Egrets;Herons) rest and refresh here as a midpoint in their travels.
We started our day early in the morning- entrance is free to wander the 8.5 km of meandering trails. Bikes are welcome and available for rent as well as golf carts and family friendly covered pedal carts. Our first stop was one of the beautiful bird watching platforms right on the lake. We took binoculars, but free telescopes are available for public use on each platform. Our morning sighting started with several varieties of duck, coot and loon as well as a few herons and graceful white egrets.
No one could have prepared us for what was in store next. We decided to buy a ticket to the tractor-hauled, camouflaged duck blind for a trip into the fields.
Passing through magnificent landscape, we finally arrived at a massive field where over 42,500 Great Cranes awaited. They had just arrived from Russia and were feasting on corn. In order to prevent these creatures from reaping havoc in the farmland, over 3 tons of corn per day is scattered in one of 3 fields specially designated for the ravenous sojourners. What a sight it was!
From there, we went closer to the lake to watch thousands of White Cranes and long legged storks.
Also in the adjacent fields were a herd of Water Buffalo being raised for their milk which is used by a nearby kibbutz for artisanal mozzarella.
Because these birds are so well fed here, many refuse to leave, staying in the area throughout the Hula, Golan and Galil year round. The White Cranes and Blue Herons are often spotted tagging after herds of local grazing cattle. The fish in the Kinneret are also an abundant food supply. Just last week, right above our house, there was a regal presentation of Aya, or spotted hawks. This truly is a land of diversity and plenty, and we are so blessed to be able to live in such a remarkable place.