Israel's Tourism Up Among Birdwatchers
The Hula Valley in Israel's Galilee has become one of the main wintering and migratory spots for birds on route from Europe to Africa. Although general tourism might be down in Israel, birdwatchers are flocking to the Hula Valley to get a glimpse of the many rare and varied species of birds visiting Israel this winter.
On a late November afternoon, busloads of tourists from places such as Germany and the Netherlands mingle with Israeli schoolchildren in the Jewish National Fund's busy Hula Valley Crane Center. With binoculars, cameras and their guidebooks, everyone is looking, pointing, and with various degrees of expertise trying to identify the species of the thousands of birds in the fields and skies.
Located at the crossroads of three continents, birds use Israel's airspace as a part of their migratory route at a rate unparalleled anywhere. Over 500 million birds cross Israel twice a year in the course of their migrations--a fact well known by bird enthusiasts everywhere.
"At about a quarter to five the birds start arriving for their nighttime rest," explained Joachim, a "birder" from Frankfurt, "They come from every direction creating a huge noise with their calls and flapping wings that lasts until darkness falls. The birds rest on the lake until the first signs of dawn when they again ascend to the skies and feast in the fields. At the end of November they spread their wings over the Hula Valley for a final time this year and continue on to warm Africa."
Covering only 50 square miles, over 300 bird species have been spotted in the Hula Valley, including the globally endangered Imperial eagle, Spotted eagle and Marbled Teal. In comparison, Germany, for example, has had only 350 species spotted throughout the entire country. Out of all the varied species visiting the Hula Valley, however, the deep-throated cries of the cranes are the loudest and most prevalent.
In 1988 approximately 1,800 cranes visited the Hula Valley but by the winter of 1998 experts estimated over 20,000 cranes were using the Hula as their winter home. This year, 17,000 birds were counted in the first week of November, and by the middle of the month numbers reached 35,000.
Even in the Bible the phenomenon of the birds' annual migration through the Land of Israel is recognized: "The stork in the heaven also knows her appointed times; and the turtle and the swallow and the crane observe their time of coming" (Jeremiah 8,7). There are two intertwined reasons, however, that the 1990s saw a virtual explosion of the Hula Valley's wintering crane population. In 1991, Jewish National Fund, together with the Israel Land Authority and the Ministry of Agriculture, undertook the Hula Restoration Project, and together with local farmers' move toward cultivating crops such as peanuts, corn and chickpeas, a rich habitat was created for cranes needing rest and fuel in the course of their winter migration.
The Hula Restoration Project was a multi-dimensional project to rehabilitate an environment stripped of its natural resources. In the 1950s Israel undertook its largest engineering project to date with the drainage of the Hula Valley--a project conceived to drain swamplands and free up land for agriculture. Although many still believe the drainage of the Hula was a necessity for the time, it is now clear that an environmental price was paid. The primary objective of the restoration project, the cost of which reached some $20 million, was to re-flood part of the valley by creating a 275 acre body of water in an area of sunken peat.
"The major goals of this re-flooding project was to protect the water quality of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) by stopping erosion and preventing water with nitrous and phosphorous compounds from streaming into Israel's primary source of freshwater, upgrading the agriculture of the area, and rejuvenating an ecosystem," said Effie Naim, JNF Director of the Hula Lake site.
The project brought back riverbank vegetation like reeds and papyrus and in its wake came birds and many of the animals that make their home among the plants. Moreover, the local farmers' simultaneous transition to crops such as peanuts and corn offered the cranes a high energy resource during their migration. In fact, their fields became so popular with migrating cranes that the farmers' crops were being damaged. By the winter of 2000-2001 the situation had become untenable and JNF stepped in along with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Nature and Parks Authority in a unique project that worked with the farmers to ensure that the Hula Valley is a site for cranes to enjoy themselves without harming the agriculture. Approximately 280 acres are now set aside to be scattered every day with two tons of corn seed and from dawn until just before sunset the cranes feast to their heart's content.
At the end of 2001, JNF worked with ornithologists to build a Crane Lookout which faces east towards the new lake and south to the cranes' new "restaurant." The lookout is designed to be user-friendly for everyone, with wooden platforms so that children can see better, as well as low-opening windows, ramps and other handicapped-accessible features. Over 75,000 people have visited the lookout since it opened. JNF professionals staff the lookout, offering visitors information about the area and help in spotting the different species, as well as ensuring that the birds themselves are not disturbed.
"The lookout gives us a great vantage point to see the beauty of nature," said Esther who had come up for the day with her husband from Jerusalem. At that moment, thousands of cranes rushed into the sky and in unison, international and Israeli birders, schoolchildren and their teachers all exclaimed "eizeh yofi"--what beauty.