The JNF began draining the lake, swamps, and marshlands of the Hula Valley in the 1950s to eradicate malaria and reclaim the land for agriculture. Unfortunately, this was found to be only partly successful. The winds off the surrounding mountains began to erode the dry peat, and soil deterioration accelerated and threatened the water quality of Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) to the south, which is Israel’s main source of drinking water. The area began to be neglected due to its non-profitability. So, the decision was made in 1994 to re-flood the Hula Valley, transforming the site back into a haven for birds, a must for ecotourists, and a vital filtering process for the Sea of Galilee.
These new reclaimed wetlands of the Hula Valley are on the main migration route of birds between Africa and Eastern Europe. In fact, the only other “flyway” between north and south that compares in numbers of migrating birds and species is Central America. Every year, 500 million individual birds––representing about 550 species––travel through the Hula Valley or stop to reside for the winter.
Our guide told an interesting story about a couple of white storks (who mate for life). While being informed that some birds from Western Europe migrate across the Straits of Gibraltar, someone asked, “Where is the cutoff point? Which birds go through Spain and which go through Israel?” The supposed answer may be Germany. Princess and Jonas, a mating pair of white storks in Loburg, Germany, were fitted with satellite transmitters and have provided data to scientists for over 10 years. Each autumn, Jonas goes to West Africa through Spain, and Princess goes to North Africa through Israel.
Then each spring, on exactly the same day, they begin their return trip to the same rooftop in Germany. And so today, the nearly extinct ecosystem of the valley has been revived, though only a fraction of its former size. Twenty thousand noisy grey cranes have settled in for the winter, with another 25,000 having continued on to Ethiopia earlier in the season. In addition, there are significant populations of white pelicans, glossy ibises, a variety of ducks, reed warblers, black storks, kingfishers, herons, egrets, and 30 species of raptors. And I was very surprised to see water buffalo and wild boars crossing the shallow lake in the setting sun, and otters swimming in the canals.
The lake’s water, its banks, and the surrounding fields are full of life every hour of the day. Everywhere your eyes gaze, they come upon a different visiting or residing species of bird. From the vultures searching for food, to the ducks peacefully floating in the middle of the lake, to the storks and herons on the water’s edges fishing, to the warblers hiding in the reeds––the Hula Valley is an amazing sight of God’s creativity in creation. It is a bird lovers paradise. As we watched a tractor plowing a nearby field, we learned that the local farmers are taking advantage of the birds, hundreds of which will follow the big machines and eat the rodents, or voles, that are turned up by the blades. With such a large number of birds within a prime agricultural area, the potential for agricultural damage is high. JNF has taken measures, such as creating a specific feeding place for the birds, to prevent this.
The Hula Valley is rapidly becoming the center of eco-tourism in Israel. Many visitors come to see the flocks of cranes on winter evenings, as they glide in and congregate at their resting grounds for the night. The highlight of my trip was riding among these thousands of cranes in a camouflaged “safari wagon” pulled by a farm tractor at sunset.
By Sylvia Large
Bridges for Peace Photographer
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