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Birds of a feather flock together

Israel’s Hula Valley draws international birdwatchers

by Linda Gradstein, The Media Line

November 29, 2012 | 10:05 am

Birds in Hula Valley during migration season. Photo by Dror Feitelson

Birds in Hula Valley during migration season. Photo by Dror Feitelson

Every winter, hundreds of millions of tourists (some of them no larger than a finger) defy travel warnings to visit the Holy Land. They don’t spend much money in Israel, and some stay for only a few hours. They visit the country’s “pubs” before flying off again.

They also don’t say much - at least that we can understand. But Israeli officials say the annual bird migration from Europe and Asia to Africa has the potential to bring many more tourists to Israel’s Hula Valley.

“In less than 500 kilometers (300 miles) we have more than 500 species of birds,” Jonathan Meirav, the organizer of the Hula Bird Festival told The Media Line. “In comparison, the whole United States and Canada together have barely 1,500 species. Per square mile we have the most birds of any place in the world, which is rarely cool.”

Israel is located along the Great Rift Valley, the migratory flyway for millions of birds. It is the shortest route from Asia and Europe to Africa. The egrets, swallows, storks, pelicans, cormorants, eagles, songbirds, cranes and other birds need to feed and rest before they cross the desert to Africa. The gray cranes mate for life and travel in families. At sunset, their cawing fills the air as they alight on Lake Hula after a long day of flying.

“Many of these birds, especially the cranes, fly in big flocks,” Israel Ornithological Center Director Dan Alon told The Media Line. “Cranes need to be together all the time and they need to talk about it. They talk about food, where was the best place to be during the day, and they do it in a place we call a ‘pub.’”

There may not be beer in these pubs, says Alon, but there are plenty of snacks.

“The birds come to eat some peanuts or corn and to drink before they go to sleep -- it’s just like the way we use the pub,” Alon said.

The sight of thousands of birds in the darkening sky can be breathtaking, but some farmers in the Galilee were not as happy with the annual visitors. Alon and others decided to put food out in certain areas around the lake to encourage the birds to stop there, and leave farmers’ crops alone. So far it seems to be working.

The Hula Valley used to be a huge swamp, which bred malaria. Soon after the state’s creation in 1948, Israel decided to drain the swamp. But a few years ago, after it flooded, the Keren Kayemet LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund quasi-governmental non-profit organization that owns the site decided to leave it that way and develop ecotourism there.

The Hula Bird Festival, which coincides with the annual migration, aims to bring bird watchers from around the world to Israel.

David Bismuth, an avid birder from France, has all the latest equipment, including powerful binoculars, for viewing birds.

“We saw thousands of cranes, but also some eagles that are very rare in Europe like the Greater Spotted Eagle and a lot of pelicans and cormorants,” he told The Media Line. “I’ve only been here for two days and I’ve already seen so many birds.”

Hula Valley

Hula Valley

There are an estimated 100 million bird watchers around the world. Israeli tourism officials say that even a small slice of that market could boost Israel’s annual tourist rate well above the current figure of 3.5 million annually.

“We believe that at this time of year, this is the place for bird watchers to be,” Alon said. “We call on bird watchers from all over the world to join us for field trips to see this amazing phenomenon.”

The only transportation through the park is either by foot, golf carts or special wagons designed to get as close as possible to the birds. The best time to see them is sunrise and sunset.

Some visitors say they would never have come to Israel if it wasn’t for the birds. Tristan Reid, who lives in England, would stop traffic almost anywhere, with his arms completely covered with bird tattoos. He says they depict endangered species from Turkey, threatened by the large number of hydroelectric power plants being built there.

This is his first trip to Israel, and he says he was a little nervous about coming. But now that he is here, he feels comfortable.

“It’s amazing, it’s such an experience,” he told The Media Line. “It was misty one morning and then all of a sudden all of these cranes appeared out of nowhere. You suddenly feel your place in nature. It’s an emotional experience.”

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