On and Off the Beaten Track in … The Hula Valley Nature Reserve

by | in Israel

imageFive hundred million arrive annually. They come by air, but do not have to wait in long lines at passport control or watch the baggage carousel make endless circuits until their luggage finally appears. The names of some of these visitors—storks, cranes, egrets, gulls, cormorants and ducks—detail a bit about their travels. And their destination? The Hula Valley Nature Reserve, the site in Israel most identified with numerous species of birds, many of which are just passing through. Administered by the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, the Reserve is located in the Hula Valley.

In October, Israel’s skies are filled with millions of birds, on their way from Europe and Asia to their winter habitats in Africa. In the spring they return, tracing their journey in reverse. Israel is located at the crossroads of the three continents, and hundreds of species of birds use Israel’s airspace as a part of their migratory route. As one “birder,” someone who visited the Reserve to observe the wildlife, put it in an online article:

At about a quarter to five the birds start arriving for their nighttime rest. 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 the day, they spread their wings over the Hula Valley for a final rest and continue on their way to Africa or back to Europe.

Maps of Israel through the first half of the twentieth century show a lake along the Jordan River, about forty miles north of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). The lake is apparently thousands of years old. It was called Semechonitis by Josephus Flavius, the first-century CE historian, and was known as “Hulata” in Aramaic. In the Talmud, it is referred to as “Yam Sumchi.” For thousands of years, the lake, known in modern times as the Hula Lake, provided a natural habitat for many species and was a welcome stopover point for migratory birds. Its surrounding swamps, however, were also the breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that brought malaria to Jewish pioneers who settled in the Jordan Valley in the early part of the twentieth century.

In 1948, the fledgling State of Israel made a decision to drain the swamps and pond, which covered more than fifteen thousand acres, and convert the area into agricultural fields. While this decision could have put an end to the bird migrations, there was an urgent need to create farmland for the budding agricultural society, and to provide employment opportunities for the large number of unemployed olim, immigrants, who had flocked to Israel in its early years. So in 1951, the Jewish National Fund embarked on a massive project to drain the Hula Lake and its surrounding swamps. This would also eliminate the constant threat of malaria.

It took seven years to reroute the Jordan River and eliminate most of the lake. In order to preserve some of the indigenous vegetation and wildlife, the government set aside 800 acres of the pond; in 1964, the Hula Valley Nature Reserve became Israel’s first nature reserve. However, it soon became apparent that the region’s flora and fauna were disappearing and the wildlife population declining. In addition, it was discovered that without the Hula Lake to serve as a natural filtration basin along the upper parts of the Jordan River, the quality of the water that was reaching the Kinneret, Israel’s main supply of fresh water, was significantly deteriorating.

In an unprecedented move, the government decided to undo the damage by restoring the Hula Valley to its former state. On April 25, 1994, as a first stage, the waters of the Jordan River once again flowed into a restored section of the drained area. As the project continues into the twenty-first century, visitors can now visit the Reserve and spend a few hours enjoying the rare species of plants and fish that live there.

The new Visitors Center in the Reserve offers a series of multi-media presentations about the wildlife of the area as well as a computerized quiz to ascertain how much you’ve learned during your visit. Unfortunately, to date, this part of the exhibit is only available in Hebrew. There is a wonderful 3D film, however, which can be viewed in both Hebrew and English. Its special effects are thrilling—especially when you feel as if you are flying over the Hula Valley on the wings of a migratory bird and can almost experience the cool, refreshing water of the lake as you touch down for a landing. Children and adults alike will enjoy this Epcot-like experience.

The Reserve’s main attraction is a one-and-a-half kilometer (one-mile) trail that leads you onto a specially designed covered walkway over the water, from which you can observe the various species of fish, turtles and birds who call the Hula Valley their home. You may also catch a glimpse of the herd of water buffalo grazing nearby.

Before your visit, check out the Reserve on the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority web site at www.parks.org.il. Follow the Parks and Reserves link to the “Golan Heights, Sea of Galilee, Galilee” link and you will quickly find the Hula Valley Nature Reserve.

The reserve is on Route 90 (Rosh Pina-Kiryat Shemoneh). Three kilometers after Yesod Hamale Junction, turn east into the reserve. Don’t forget to wear good walking shoes and bring a hat, water and, of course, binoculars. You will be rewarded with a delightful few hours, and, if your timing is right, you might see some of the many bird species that continue to visit Israel twice a year, undeterred by rising fuel costs or security considerations, as they follow in the footsteps of their migratory ancestors.

Mr. Abelow is a licensed tour guide and the associate director of Keshet: The Center for Educational Tourism in Israel. Keshet specializes in creating and running inspiring family and group tours that make Israel come alive “Jewishly.” He can be reached at 011-972-2-645-1865 or at peter@keshetisrael.co.il.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2008.

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