Story and photo by Sue Joffe
“Israel sits on the junction of three continents,” Prof. Yossi Leshem, director of Israel’s International Center for the Study of Bird Migration (ICSBM), told ISRAEL21c in an interview. “Politically, it’s a disaster, but for bird migration, it’s heaven. We have a huge bird bottleneck — it’s a superhighway.”
The Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet) developed an internationally acclaimed bird- watching park at the Hula Valley Reserve. You can hire a bike, a golf cart or opt for the Mystery Wagon in order to get a glimpse of the amazing sight of the migration of the millions of birds in the autumn and spring.
We chose The Mystery Wagon, a camouflaged wagon drawn by a tractor, which allows for maximum proximity to the birds. Warmly dressed and equipped with a Nikon D5100 camera and tripod, we made our way up north on a Saturday morning at 4am for the Hula Reserve.
We joined up with a group of amateur and professional photographers and at 6am, whilst still pitch dark, set out to get positioned facing the lake to await and welcome the sunrise .... and the birds.
Our first pictures look like black and white shadows, and you’d think that they were taken using special effects. However, these were taken before sunrise on manual mode - just as seen by the naked eye.
The time spent on the camouflaged wagon, which moved slowly from angle to angle to enable the excited photographers to get our “angles” was the most amazing 150 minutes.
Getting up at the crack of dawn in time to join the Mystery Wagon seemed like a difficult task, but it was easy compared to the time spent sorting out the hundreds of photos taken “from darkness - to first light - to sunrise – to clear skies.” This amazing experience left us with a feeling of being "up in the clouds” with the thousands of birds that we saw. We came home feeling ‘jetlagged’, but it was well worth the early morning start!
The Hula, a major stopover for birds
The Hula Valley, an agricultural region in northern Israel, is a major stopover for birds migrating along the Syrian-African Rift Valley between Africa, Europe and Asia and one of the top birding- sites in the world. During autumn and spring, the Hula Reserve, Agamon, and the surrounding fields transform into a bustling fueling and resting point for no fewer than 500 million migratory birds from 390 different species. In the spring migration, at the beginning of February, you can see Swifts and Swallows and early migrants like Quails, Black-Eared Wheatears, Great Spotted Cuckoos and Steppe Eagles. For bird watchers and photographers, the flapping of wings is great news, but bad news for farmers in the Upper Galilee. Local farmers, whose fields used to be severely damaged by the “hungry masses”, work together with environmental agencies in order to find a way to coexist. Farmers allocate a portion of their fields and scatter US$850,000 worth of kernels in designated locations every migratory season. This is approximately two tons of corn kernels daily during the migration periods, in the hope that the birds will feed on something other than their crops.