Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hula Valley in Israel - A Paradise for Birds and for Bird Watchers

For thousand of years, swamps covered most of the Hula Valley and served as a home for tens of thousands of migrating birds and many types of rare plants and fish. Following the drainage and drying project, begun in 1951, in which 14,800 acres of swampland were drained in order to free land for agriculture, it was decided to preserve a small area of about 790 acres of swampland as the first nature reserve in Israel and one of the most important, particularly for those interested in bird watching.

During the migration seasons, from Africa to Europe in the spring and from Europe to Africa in the autumn, the Hula Valley, part of the longer Jordan valley, serves as a transit route for migrating birds, and the Hula swamps are a transit stop for thousands of cranes, pelicans storks and various types of birds of prey.

A walk through the Hula reserve provides an unforgettable experience during these seasons. Visitors first enter the Visitors Center, a museum in which a three dimensional movie presents the Hula swamp flora and fauna both in the past and in the present. Following a visit to the museum, we enter the reserve and walk for about a kilometer and a half along comfortable walking paths, some of which are bridges over swamps, leading to seven observation towers. Looking down into the swamp from the bridges, we can see turtles sunning themselves on the stones, large numbers of catfish which have become the dominant fish species, and nutrias, remnants of an attempt to set up a fur industry using the skins of these water-loving rodents which were imported to Israel during the 1950s from South Africa. We can also see rich water vegetation: yellow water lilies, nymphaea, and papyrus, the plant from which the ancient Egyptians produced their famous paper. Perhaps the best part of the visit in the migrating seasons is the large number of ducks, herons, cormorants and pelicans, seen close-up with the binoculars which can be rented at the Visitors Center or the telescopes which are scattered throughout the reserve. From a far, we can watch the herd of buffalo, nourished by the vegetation, which maintain the character of the open grazing land in the reserve.

Several miles north of the Hula reserve is the Hula Lake, an artificial lake of 494 acres, created between 1993-1998 and surrounded by the agricultural fields of the Hula Valley. Until fifty years ago, most of the Hula Valley area was flooded by a giant swamp stretching for 14,826 acres. Following the establishment of the State of Israel, a national project was initiated to drain and dry the Hula. The principle aim was to settle this outlying area and to create thousands of acres of agricultural area, needed to intensify and increase food production for the young state which had been established two years earlier, in 1948.

As the years went by, it became clear that the peat which lay under the great swamp was not very fertile and that internal fires tended to break out underneath it. The peat was rich in organic compounds which found their way into the Jordan river and flowed into the sea of Galilee, one of the most important water sources of Israel, and this led to the flowering of algae which harmed the quality of the water in the lake. In addition, the east winds in the valley lifted the dry peat into the air, causing dust storms. Thus, it was ultimately decided to recreate Hula Lake. With the creation of the lake, a new resting site was created for the hundred of thousand of migrating birds who fly over the Hula Valley each autumn and spring on their way from Europe to Africa and then back again. These include tens of thousands of cranes, pelicans and birds of prey along with many different types of aquatic birds: coots, mallards, herons, cormorants and more.

The entrance to the Hula lake area begins from the Visitor's Center. We recommend that the visitor first watch the short film presenting the story of the lake. From the Visitors Center, bicycles or golf carts may be rented for an hour and a half to tour the lake area. The comfortable paths and the concealed observation points have made this spot one of the dozen best bird watching sites in the world.

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