Everyone knows the joy of finding a good resting place on a long journey, and so it is also for the millions of birds that stop-off in Israel twice a year on their migration between Europe and Africa.
During October, it is estimated that up to 400 species of birds migrate through Israel, totalling between 350 and 500 million birds over the course of the year.
The birds include swallows, warblers, storks, pelicans and cranes and people come from far and wide to watch the spectacular show put on by these flying visitors. The place to see them is around the Hula Valley and the cranes have even been granted their own celebration week by the Agamon Hula Park, north of the Galilee. To keep our FOMO in check, we visited the park, this weekend, timing our usual tardiness perfectly for the sunset arrival of the cranes.
As you drive north, the landscape unfolds and suddenly the hills to the East and West seem much further apart with a huge flat expanse of agricultural land in between. The Hula Lake used to cover this entire area, but it had become a breeding ground for malaria carrying mosquitoes and the decision was taken to drain the lake in the 1950s. This was effective in ridding Israel of malaria, but it had huge ecological impacts on the ecosystem including the behaviour of the migrating birds.
During the 1990s restoration work was undertaken to restore a small part of the original lake and to irrigate the land and encourage the return of many species of birds and other wildlife. This appears to have been successfully managed and arriving now, you will find a green oasis with many natural habitats around the lake.
Like flocking birds ourselves, we followed the crowd through the visitor centre, towards the golf buggies which provide a fun and nimble way to explore the park. It is also possible to rent bikes (or to bring your own) but the challenges of the route, the nearly setting sun and the kids were against us opting for the more athletic option on this occasion.
An 8km track has been set to weave around several points of interest along the way. At any point along the route, interesting birds perch in trees or fly overhead, and the gentle and more incessant chirp of a cacophony of species fill the airwaves with their competing calls.
As well as the birds, we saw fish big and small, turtles and large otters lounging on the banks. A park ranger also pointed out the lumbering shape of a wild boar entering the water on the other side of the main lake.
The cranes and pelicans were the stars of the show however and as the time ticked on, we wondered when they would make an appearance. ‘Where and when do we see the cranes?’ we asked, and ‘they’ll arrive at 6pm’, we were told. We golf buggied ourselves round to an open space near the main lake and like a twitching audience, waited for the curtain to rise.
Incredibly, in a great reminder of the power of nature, at precisely 1758 one crane flapped its long wings and took flight from the nearby field which set in motion a domino effect. Hundreds of birds started to fill the sky and fly directly over our heads to the shallow lake when they would rest overnight. They came in waves, some in small groups of three and others in much larger families, connected to each other by a wings width so that they etched a dark line across the sky trailing their elegant long legs behind them.
It was one of those rare occasions where nature makes you stop in your tracks and think ‘wow’. We’re not alone on this planet and yet the current course of humanity towards over-consumption and over-development risks disturbing these natural patterns irreparably.