Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Hula Valley©




The Fascinating Hula Valley
By Vardah Littmann

 500 Million Birds

The crane is the king of the Hula Valley with welcoming squawks and shrieks of sheer delight from the thousands on the ground and the many hundreds of those who are incoming form the skies above. They are surely calling out “Shalom aleichem, my friends, alechem shalom, so glad you arrived,” for it is known that cranes inform each other of favorable domiciles.  


Eretz Yisrael is literally and figuratively the center of the world, located at the crossroads of three continents. All the eyes of the world are on Eretz Yisrael, whether during discussions at the UN, or in ancient times when Eretz Yisrael was on the trade route of all the nations.

Eretz Yisrael also plays a major role for the approximately five hundred million birds (390 different species!) who arrive annually by air. Following the example of their ancient migratory ancestors, these guests do not have to wait to pass through passport control or watch the baggage carousel make never-ending circuits until their luggage eventually appears. These storks, cranes, egrets, gulls, cormorants, and ducks (to name but a few) using main bird migration routes are heading for the Hula Valley Nature Reserve and the Hula Lake Park in the Upper Galilee’s Hula Valley. 

History of the Hula Valley

The Hula Valley once contained a lake that was thousands of years old and one of the oldest documented lakes in history. It is referred to in Chapter 11 of Sefer Yehoshuah as the Mei Merom (Waters of Merom). Here Hashem delivered intoYehoshuah’s hand an alliance of city-states of the Canaanim who were completely routed and destroyed.   

Pharaoh Amenhothep IV mentioned the lake in the Tel el Amarna Letters written in the 14th Century B.C, calling it the “Samchuna."

In Baba Bathra (75), its Aramaic name is “Hiltha” (in the Second Temple Period its locality was identified as Hulata or Ulata). There it states that there are seven seas (Tiberias, Sodom, Helath, Hiltha, Sibkay, Aspamia, and the Great Sea) and four rivers (Jordan, Jarmuk, Keramyon and Pigah) surrounding Eretz Yisrael. This name survived in Arabic as "Buheirat el Hule," which is similar to its modern Hebrew translation Agam Hula.

It’s also named in the Gemara where it’s called “Yam Sumchi”. Josephus Flavius refers to it as the Lake Semechonitis. Maps of Palestine throughout the first half of the 20th century show this Lagoon along the Jordan River, about forty miles north of the Kinneret.

Lake Hula Before the Drainage

Since ancient times this water body provided a natural habitat for many species. Before its draining and drying out, Lake Hula probably contained the richest diversity of aquatic biota in the Levant. It was also populated by a rich variety of flora and fauna. In the area were found panthers, leopards, bears, wild boars, wolves, foxes, jackals, hyenas, gazelles, and otters.

Since it lies along the Syrian-African Rift Valley, it was a major stopover point and feeding station for traveling birds. Hundreds of species of birds used the Holy Land’s airspace as a part of their migratory route. Today in the springtime, as has been happening ever since the time of Bereishis, the Holy Land’s skies are filled with millions of birds, on their way to Asia and Europe from their habitats in Africa. In October, they re-track their journey in reverse.

Since the swamps surrounding the lake were the breeding grounds for mosquitoes, Jewish pioneers in the early part of the 20th century who settled in the Jordan Valley, suffered terribly from malaria emanating from the Hula swamps.  

The first modern Jewish settlement in the Hula Valley was Yesud  HaMa’alah on the western shore of the lake, established in 1883 during the First Aliyah. It was estimated that during the 1930s, 70% of local adults were infected with malaria. In most villages in the area, few, if any, children survived beyond the age of two.

From 1940, innovative measures were taken. Irrigation canals were flushed of their vegetation and the water was sprayed with kerosene. New improvements in health care were introduced, but it was only with the introduction of DDT in 1945 that the war against malaria could be won.
Before the drainage, the Hula Valley had a lake at the southern end and swamps in the north. The majority of the swamp consisted of dense impenetrable tangles of papyrus, with scattered channels of running water and pools. In deeper depressions within this papyrus "jungle" were open-water ponds covered with yellow water-lilies.

Transforming the Hula Valley
 
In 1948, it was decided by the fledgling State of Israel to drain the swamps and lake, which covered more than fifteen thousand acres, and convert the area into agricultural fields.

While this decision to drain the area could have put an end to the bird migrations, other considerations were more pressing. There was a critical need to create farmland for the budding Israelite agricultural society. In addition, a large number of unemployed olim had flocked to the Land at that time and needed employment.

In 1951, the Jewish National Fund began the colossal project of draining the Hula Lake and its surrounding swamps. The draining operations were completed by 1958. The project became the standard-bearer of the entire Zionist movement; it was a symbol of the re-establishment of the Jewish national homeland in Israel.

Nation-wide interest in the draining project was so enthusiastic that the drainage sites in the Hula Valley were major tourist attractions. So much so, that it was necessary to restrict sightseeing in order to prevent hindrance to the progress of the work.

Israel’s First Nature Reserve in the Hula Valley

Some scientists and nature lovers waged a vigorous battle to conserve at least part of the original landscape. As a result of their call to action, in 1953 the government agreed to set aside 800 acres for Israel's first nature reserve.

The impetus for the creation of the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel was the concern over the draining of the Hula. 

Although initially the draining had been perceived as a great national achievement for Israel, it soon became apparent that the “drying out” was ruining the region’s unique ecological balance. Part of the marine life disappeared, and the wildlife population declined. The Hula painted frog as well some rare fish species had vanished. Since 1996 the IUCN has classified the Hula painted frog as extinct as a result of the Hula marsh drainage. The restoration efforts have been successful, for in November 2011, park patrollers, saw the painted frog’s reappearance.

Also the rich indigenous flora was dying out, and strong winds (Sharkiyah in Arabic) in the valley blew away the soil which was now stripped of its natural foliage. The peat of the dry swamp ignited spontaneously, causing underground fires that were difficult to extinguish and dangerous caverns began to form within the peat. Plus, the weathered peat soils turned into an infertile black dust. This particular problem has been solved by keeping the fields watered by sprinklers that move along the fields on wheels.  

In addition, it was discovered that Israel’s main supply of fresh water, the Kinneret, was significantly deteriorating, since the Hula Lake was no longer there to serve as a natural filtration basin along the upper parts of the Jordan River

Due to these and other environmental considerations, the government, in an unprecedented move, decided to undo the damage by restoring a section of the Hula Valley to its former state. When the Hand of Heaven intervened in the early 1990s, part of the valley was anyway flooded in the wake of heavy rains. It was decided to leave the flooded area intact and develop the surrounding area into Hula Lake Park - Agamon HaHula. (Agamon is an affectionate diminutive from of Agam [Lake]). At the end of April, 1994, the waters of the Jordan River once again flowed into a restored section of the drained area.

The project continues into the 21st century. Visitors can now visit the Agamon HaHula and spend a few hours enjoying the rare species of plants, birds, and fish that live there.

The beautiful magical Agamon is one fifteenth of the original Hula Lake before it was drained. Its lush vegetation, green fields, and flocks of birds that enchant the eye offer a picturesque scene of serenity against the grandeur of Mount Hermon.

 A Bird Watcher’s Paradise

The lake covers an area of one square kilometer interspersed with islands that serve as protected bird nesting sites, and the new site has become the second home for thousands of migrating birds in the autumn and spring. Several tens of thousands birds, fleeing from the Eastern Europe and Russia winters, visit Agmon Hula.
The nature conservation authorities even feed the birds in order to avoid damage to the fishing industry in the area. After the original Hula was drained, great economic losses occurred since many of birds were quick to discover commercial fish ponds as an alternative source of food in the valley. This is the reason that the managers of the Hula Restoration Project do not take any chances in case the new lake cannot support enough fish production to draw birds away from the fish ponds. They supplement the food supply by artificial stocking.

It’s amazing to watch the birds feeding.  The English saying, “birds of a feather flock together” comes to mind when seeing how each different species arrive to feed separately.   

In addition, it was discovered that Israel’s main supply of fresh water, the Kinneret, was significantly deteriorating, since the Hula Lake was no longer there to serve as a natural filtration basin along the upper parts of the Jordan River

Due to these and other environmental considerations, the government, in an unprecedented move, decided to undo the damage by restoring a section of the Hula Valley to its former state. When the Hand of Heaven intervened in the early 1990s, part of the valley was anyway flooded in the wake of heavy rains. It was decided to leave the flooded area intact and develop the surrounding area into Hula Lake Park - Agamon HaHula. (Agamon is an affectionate diminutive from of Agam [Lake]). At the end of April, 1994, the waters of the Jordan River once again flowed into a restored section of the drained area.

The project continues into the 21st century. Visitors can now visit the Agamon HaHula and spend a few hours enjoying the rare species of plants, birds, and fish that live there.

The beautiful magical Agamon is one fifteenth of the original Hula Lake before it was drained. Its lush vegetation, green fields, and flocks of birds that enchant the eye offer a picturesque scene of serenity against the grandeur of Mount Hermon.

 A Bird Watcher’s Paradise

The lake covers an area of one square kilometer interspersed with islands that serve as protected bird nesting sites, and the new site has become the second home for thousands of migrating birds in the autumn and spring. Several tens of thousands birds, fleeing from the Eastern Europe and Russia winters, visit Agmon Hula.
The nature conservation authorities even feed the birds in order to avoid damage to the fishing industry in the area. After the original Hula was drained, great economic losses occurred since many of birds were quick to discover commercial fish ponds as an alternative source of food in the valley. This is the reason that the managers of the Hula Restoration Project do not take any chances in case the new lake cannot support enough fish production to draw birds away from the fish ponds. They supplement the food supply by artificial stocking.

It’s amazing to watch the birds feeding.  The English saying, “birds of a feather flock together” comes to mind when seeing how each different species arrive to feed separately.   


After breeding in summer in northern Europe (even as far away as Russia and Siberia or nearer from Germany and Norway, as well as Turkey and the Caucasus region, the cranes wing their way to warmer climates.  Before twenty years ago, about 100,000 cranes would pass over Eretz Yisrael on their migration route to East Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia. Nowadays, from Elul to Adar over 30 thousand (with the numbers increasing yearly), of the 100 thousand cranes remain here to spend the winter Hula Lake Park. They stay behind in Eretz Yisrael, undeterred by the country’s rising inflation or the threat of a third intifada.

Before twenty years ago cotton was grown in the Hulla Valley. As this was not profitable it was decided to plant corn. The cranes who were migrating though uprooted the newly planted corn plants, posing a serious problem for the farms in the area.  The farmers decided that the solution was to supply their winged visitors with some real hospitality. Now they feed corn kernels to the cranes on a daily basis by using a feeding tractor to dispense the corn which adds up to six tons of corn per year.

When the vehicle approaches and scatters the kernels, the cranes run towards it. They call out loudly, and their shrieks can be heard at a distance of four kilometers. In this way, they notify other cranes that it’s feeding time. They never fight with or trample each other for the corn kernels.
    
I witnessed how the tractor came into the field and sprayed around the corn. The birds were calling to each other to come eat. They didn’t trample each other but acting politely, calling to each other: “Come, take.”

In some cultures, the crane is a symbol of fidelity and good family life, in the same way that we regard doves. Cranes are family oriented, and they travel in family units of three, or sometimes four individuals. The adults, who have white/black heads, are very faithful to each other; once they “marry,” they stay together unless death parts them. In this way, they are similar to doves.

The young crane with its brownish head lives with its devoted parents for over a year in their winter quarters. For birds, this is a long time. The young crane then joins a bachelor or spinster group for a few years until it matures and is able to bear young.  At this point it will find a mate. The red crown on the top of its head appears when it matures. The rangers have taken note red varies in shade in different individual cranes. The more intense the red the more temperamental that particular bird is!!   
        
The wings of cranes are over two meters long and they are about one and a quarter meters high. They weigh approximately five and a half kilos, yet their hollow bones and their feathers make them light and able to fly. In the rain, the cranes all face towards the rain so the rain should slide off them. They appear to be as an army; all heads facing in the same direction.
Every evening the cranes sleep in the shallow (40- 80  centimeters deep) Agamon HaHula. It’s warmer inside the water than out of it. In the Hula Valley at night, it is so cold that ice can appear on the ground. Also this protects them from animals who may try to harm them. 

The corn that is fed to these cranes costs the farmers a lot of money, maybe even a few million shekels, and in order to cover this expense, they’ve made a whole enterprise out of this crane colony. People are attracted to this bird watching sanctuary from all over the world, and they pay good money to stay in nearby hotels and observe the cranes, as well as the other migratory birds that are flying overhead. 

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