I am a migration junky. I love it. No matter how many times I see certain species, I’m happy to see them again when the seasons shift. I also love large congregations of birds. I take comfort in that, when I see a huge flock of birds, I feel so insignificant, it’s liberating. And though there are plenty of places in the United States to enjoy migration (heck even right here in my state of Minnesota) I’ve been fortunate enough to take in migration in other areas.
One of those places is the Hula Valley in northern Israel, home to the large Lake Hula which was drained in the 1950s to make way for more agricultural opportunities and prevent malaria. At first this plan worked well but eventually the peat dried out leading to underground fires, causing farm equipment to sink into the ground and the land was unusable for agriculture. In recent years the valley has been reflooded, allowing the lake to reform, though not quite to the size it was in the past. But the birds need this valuable space, and millions of birds pass through on their migration.
If you look at where Israel is situated in the Middle East and how the area is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea and Arabian Ocean you can see how so many migratory birds get funneled through there. The entire migratory season will bring hoards of birds passing over.
I visited in late November during the Hula Valley Bird Festival when thousands of Common Cranes descend on the valley gracing an already gorgeous area with a cacophony of bird calls and elegant flocks whirling around you. I’ve seen a lot of crane watching here in the US but what makes the Israel experience so special is that the cranes really don’t care about you. If you’ve ever visited a crane blind in Nebraska in spring, you’re familiar with the jockeying for position in a dark blind, the heavy rules about not talking, not walking too loud, no flash photography. In Israel, they load you up in a “mobile hide,” essentially a bunch of covered bleachers attached to a tractor that not only gives you great views of cranes waking up on the water like the first photo in the blog…
…but also drives right into the heart of the flocks as the cranes feed. On top of that, your guide interprets and ids birds and mammals over the loud speaker. Fairly unphased, the Common Cranes walk or half heartedly flap/walk out of the tractors way, but you get outstanding views of very mellow birds.
The area is still surrounded by agriculture and when 30,000 cranes descend on the valley, it can create a problem for crops. The Israeli government has employed a unique plan. They have set aside some fields for the cranes to feed in, and hire people to scare them off from fields that are planted for human consumption (which sounds like an appealing job to 13 year old me, drive a vehicle amid the flocks firing off cannons and shots to scare the birds away). The cranes learn quickly which fields offer quiet and food. Since tractors drive around them in the fields they are allowed for forage in, they stay. And guides are able to use similar tractors to pull around blinds full of people among the cranes. Kind of a genius way to deal with the situation.
And if you think you’d be bored by cranes, there are plenty of other species like the Middle East’s version of a hummingbird, the Palestine Sunbird.
Even the brown birds are fun like this Crested Lark.
And here’s a White-spectacled Bulbul. And this is really just the tip of the iceberg, there are also francolins, pelicans, storks, vultures, eagles out the wazoo…but that’s a blog entry for another time. The bottom line is that migration can be enjoyed in so many places on this planet and Israel should be on your list to visit at some point.
One of the other cool things about this area is that there are different ways to enjoy it besides on foot. The Agamon Hula Refuge has bikes and carts so you can get in a little exercise as well as enjoying the awesome birds. To see a couple of other photos from Israel, you can visit this entry I did here on digiscoping with an iPhone.