Watching Birds Migrate in the Galil

Migrating cranes fly to Agmon Hula to spend the night on the lake in the Galil

Nir, the guide at Agmon Park Nature Reserve, told us to hurry and get off the bus. “The cranes are already coming. You can hear them.”

As I walked toward the lake, I could hear a faint sound.

Nir pointed towards the mountains to our south. “See?” he shouted. “Here they come!”

I looked towards a depression in the line of mountains, but I saw only gray clouds. And then I saw a large group of black specks, slowly getting larger as they came closer, resolving into tiny v-shapes, and then into bird silhouettes. The cries of the birds steadily grew louder, as the birds came closer, and as more and more flew towards the water. The cranes were coming from the surrounding fields to the lake where they would spend the night. The first group came near and circled over the lake. Another group appeared from over the mountains. A large flock flew in from the north and circled. The flocks kept coming—thousands of birds.

Israel is on the second largest migration flyway in the world. In the fall the birds fly over us on their way from Europe to Africa. In the spring they fly back north. More than four hundred species, five hundred million individual birds transit Israel twice a year.

Draining the Swamps

Throughout history, the Hula Lake and its surrounding swamps were major attractions for birds. In the 1950s, however, David Ben Gurion decided that draining the swamps should be a major project of the young state of Israel. The project was necessary to provide additional land for agriculture The new settlements being built for the influx of immigrants needed land for housing and to farm. Draining the Hula Valley would also decrease disease. Too many early pioneers had died of malaria, and the mosquito-borne disease continued to affect too much of the population.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF-KKL) built canals on both sides of the valley and deepened the channel of the Jordan River to the east. It was not until the swamps were drained that they discovered they had done too good a job. Swampy soil needs to stay wet or it becomes dry dust, unsuitable for growing crops. Migrating birds now found little food. Migratory paths were disrupted.

Farmers and ecologists realized the water engineering had gone too far. So the JNF-KKL undertook a project to restore the swamps and lake. They renovated the canal system to channel the water and keep the soil wet all the time. Today the water table is about a meter below the surface. The swamps are now much smaller and healthier—no anopheles mosquitoes. Agriculture flourishes in the area. The birds returned, and tourism has become a local industry. And the birds are happy—particularly the cranes.

Not all the birds migrate to Africa

The fall bird watching season runs from October through November. But every year several thousand cranes don’t continue on to Africa. They stay in Israel. That many cranes pose a problem to local agriculture. Farmers complained about the birds eating all the seeds and tiny sprouts, destroying the crops before they even started growing. Bird lovers became upset because it’s not right to wantonly destroy creatures who are just trying to survive. The birds that stayed were fledglings not yet strong enough to fly to Africa and their mothers, as well as injured birds. Eventually, a compromise was worked out.

When a farmer seeds his fields, Agmon Park workers keep the birds away from the field until the plants are too big to be eaten. Park employees scare the birds away from newly seeded fields by driving equipment through the field several times a day. They also put out food for the cranes in another part of the park, so the birds have no need to forage in the farmers’ fields. This bird feeding program runs from December through February every year.

The bird feeding program is a successful venture. The farmers are able to grow crops, and the cranes get the food they need. About 30,000 cranes overwinter in the vicinity of Agmon Hula.

Cranes are not the only birds that like the Hula Valley. We were too late in the year to see the eagles and storks. However, with the help of binoculars, we could see a small flock of fifteen white flamingos standing together on the far side of the water. My first reaction when Nir pointed out a pair of ducks flying over the canal was that Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were far away from the swan boats of Boston Garden.

Birds of prey encouraged

The park encourages birds of prey because they help control the rodent population. We walked past one of the many owl houses, which are not occupied at this time of year. The owls are such good hunters, when park staff clean the owl houses after the birds have left for the season, they find many uneaten carcasses of rats, voles, and other small rodents.

Despite the predations of the raptors, the rodent population seems to flourish.

Black Shouldered Kite rests on treetop during migration through Israel

We walked by numerous holes dug by a variety of rodents. But the only rodent we saw was a river rat, also known as a nutria. It looked a long dark brown furry blob crossing the road. I had never seen one before—I had no idea nutria were that big.

Around a bend in the road, we spotted a large black and white bird sitting on the bare top branch of a tree. It was a Black Shouldered Kite. It obligingly sat there staring off into the distance long enough for all of us to snap its photo. This species of kite is rarely around, so we needed those photos to prove we had actually seen it.

Cranes fly to lake at sunset

The highlight of the afternoon was watching the cranes come in for the night. Although they forage in the fields during the day, they spend the night on the water. Between sunset and nightfall they all leave the fields, fly over the valley, and land on the water. The first flock flew in from the south. And the next one, and then the next—too many birds in each flock to count. We were so focused on these birds, we did not notice those flying to the lake from the north until they were directly overhead. More flocks flew from the fields closer to the Jordan River on the east, and then a few from the mountains of Naphtali to the west. And still more came from the south.

There were too many in each flock to count. Nir had told us earlier that there were 33,000 cranes in the park that week. How, I asked him, do they know the number? He said staff count the cranes early in the morning, before sunrise when the birds rise from the lake to forage in the fields during the day.

Cranes settling on the water for the night at Agmon Hula

We stood there more than ten minutes, watching as more and more cranes filled the sky. After flying in large circles over the park, they began to land on the water, just a few at first, who were soon joined by others. The water in front of us began to disappear under its cover of birds.

The light had faded. The group coordinator told us we had to get back on the bus, but we stood there mesmerized by the cranes. Finally, the coordinator made the ultimate threat: if we wanted a bathroom stop on the way home, we had to leave immediately. Reluctantly, we headed back to the bus.

After finding my seat, I looked out the window. In the growing darkness, cranes were flying in from the east and the north, flying from Europe to Africa, as they had for millennia, as, God willing, they will continue to do for all the years to come.

Where is Agmon Hula Nature Reserve?