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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Israel: It’s for the birds (and for you)

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When I met my first husband, I told him about our family's annual camping trips to provincial parks where we'd drive in, park on the site, pitch the tent, and head to the beach or river or forest or whatever to enjoy nature.  Sometimes, those campsites would have running water, other times, you had to walk somewhere else to get water.  My father's strategy was sending the kids to wash dishes in the bathroom -- strictly forbidden according to all provincial campground rules, but you know.  Someone has to be an exception to the rules.

So that was camping.

But my first husband quickly declared, "It doesn't count if you can get to it with a car."

He would have had a hard time with Israel.

Here, camping sometimes means that your tent is just a few feet away from the next person's…

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(© Tiberias municipality via Wikimedia)

… and hiking usually means taking one of quite a few well-used routes, like the Israel Trail, a 1025 km. (look it up!) route – nothing to sneeze at, really, given that National Geographic has called one of the world's 20 most "epic trails."  But there certainly isn’t the variety, and from what I’ve heard, you’re very likely, in most stretches and hiking-friendly seasons, to bump into a number of fellow travellers.

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(It’s also perhaps the only one that apparently features a lending library so you can pick up reading material along the way -- People of the Book, indeed.)

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(photo credit © royisoko via Wikimedia)

Finding a nature getaway definitely isn't hard in Israel.  But as with so many things when you make aliyah, you may have to (slightly) redefine what you mean by the term. 

Since almost every spot is within half an hour's drive of a big city, and there are factories and processing plants of all kinds everywhere from north to south, you're probably not going to get total solitude and silence to commune with nature unless you take to the deep south.

But that has its upside, too, like the fact that you can hop in a bus in Nahariya and within not very long, be standing in the middle of one of the world's most extraordinary bird sanctuaries -- the Hula Valley.  A crucial migration spot between Europe and Africa (and back), the Hula Valley hosts about 500 million migrating birds every single year, and an incredible range of birds as well.

And it happens to be crane season RIGHT NOW.  Well, okay, as our guide explained, these days, it's crane season all winter long, at least until March.

That's because of the Strange History of the Hula Valley, which I'll sum up here very briefly.
Maybe in Hebrew school you learned how amazing it was that the early Zionist pioneers drained the swamps, put an end to malaria, and turned all that icky swampland into fertile, productive farmland?

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Well, like everything you learned in Hebrew school, it’s true – kind of.

Swamps were a problem for settlers, and malaria definitely was, but what they didn’t realize was that a) Hula Valley was ecologically sensitive, with hundreds, if not thousands, of species depending on its water and indigenous plant life, water insects, and so on, and b) it wasn’t really the best farmland after all.

I feel like I have some understanding of the situation because they tried this, on a smaller scale, in a park near our house in Toronto. 

Every year, there was a muddy, swampy corner that the city tried, for years, to keep green and grassy like the rest of the park.  They’d reseed it and rope it off and tend it and it never got better.  It was muddy 3/4 of the year and icy the other 1/4.  And if there’s one thing grass hates, it’s drowning.  The grass never took off.

So one year, they quit trying. 

Spearheaded by a neighbourhood group, the city undertook a massive planting of native moisture-loving species in the area instead.  They fenced it off, annoying some frisbee players, but within 3 years, there was actually a pretty serviceable wetland and it was a lot more fun to stop by there and visit.

So that’s what they did in the 1990s with the Hula Valley.  Various Israeli nature organizations (a complicated web of nonprofits and semi-government agencies, from what I can tell) as well as JNF took over the Hula Valley site and set about restoring part of it as a home for all these migrating birds.

Today, there’s a little lake (“Agamon” in Hebrew) with nice flat paths around it where you can ride bikes or drive golf carts, and the admission costs subsidize the massive million-bird-feeding operation they’re running for the cranes, storks, and all their migrating buddies.

Bird feeding operation???

Yup.  Because people are still farming in the area, if they just reflooded the lake and opened the doors to millions of migrating birds, the crops would be gone in minutes.  This is a bigger quantity of birds than you could ever possibly imagine.

And because they feed the birds (and because the climate is changing), tens of thousands actually overwinter here in Israel, which is good for us because it extends the crane-watching season, but maybe bad for Africa where they’d ordinarily be at this time of year).

So one thing is certain when you go to the Hula Valley, at least for most of the year: you’re going to see birds.

Lots and lots and lots of birds.  If you’re afraid of birds, this is probably NOT a place you’d enjoy.

To feed the birds, every day, a tractor heads out into the field at a random time and deposits a load of corn for whoever happens to be around.  And in return, the birds agree to be counted daily as well as to pose picturesquely for tourist photos.

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(Photo © מינוזיג – MinoZig via Wikimedia)

See how picturesque???

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(Photo © Вых Пыхманн via Wikimedia)

You will probably never be closer to as many birds as if you visit the Hula Valley.

Today was our second visit, a Chanukah tiyul organized by Nefesh b’Nefesh, and it was better in a few ways than our previous visit, when we went on our own:

  • We had a guide telling us what we were looking at
  • We knew which birds were what
  • We had a tour bus to get off and on at relevant spots
  • We got to ride one of the special tractor-pulled birdwatching wagons that make you basically invisible to the birds so you’ll get close up

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(photo © Meaghan O'Neill via Flickr)

What we missed on this trip was the opportunity to ride bikes around the agamon, a not-very-challenging ride of maybe an hour on very flat, paved bike paths.  We also had to keep to the group schedule, obviously, rather than set our own pace.  The bus was great, but biking lets you feel more like you’re a part of what’s going on and the kinda-wild nature all around you. 

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(photo © Israel_photo_gallery via Wikimedia)

Biking around the lake is very, very peaceful.  It’s flat and calm and even on a relatively warm day, once you get going, there is a breeze, and plenty of shady spots to stop, catch your breath, and have a snack.

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Granted, when I was there biking with the kids, it was a cool winter school day when the park was almost empty.  On a busy day like today, you’d be bumping into a ton of other people at every turn, but that’s true almost everywhere in Israel.  Like I said, sometimes Israel can be a source of wonderful surprises – and sometimes, you have to shift your expectations and be delighted by whatever you find.

It’s not Canada.  It’s not Vermont, as one recent olah we were with today was probably thinking. 

You can see from all the photos that you’re not going to be that far away from civilization, with houses, a nearby small airport, and of course, farmed fields in every direction.  But again, you may have to give up on the goal of getting away from it all and realize, like many Israelis have and do, you can find peace just getting away from… most of it all.

If you’re interested in supplementing your studies about Israel with a kids’ book – and who wouldn’t be??? – two of my writing friends here have published books about bird migrations through Israel and the Hula Valley:  All Eyes on Alexandra, by Anna Levine, illus. by Chiara Pasqualotto, and Stork’s Landing, by Tami Lehman-Wilzig, illus. by Anna Shuttlewood.

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From All Eyes on Alexandra:

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From Stork’s Landing:

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Both are gorgeous books and a nice complement to most of the city-oriented reading in most families’ and schools’ Israel libraries.  Just like the Hula Valley, whether or not you consider it “actually” a nature spot is a great way to get out of the concrete and urban drone of ordinary Israeli life.

And if you want to find out more about cool, accessible, and family-friendly nature spots all up and down the country, a friend has a great book, albeit in Hebrew.  Don’t worry: your kids or grandkids will be able to read it and will enjoy it immensely:

Travelling Around Israel with Professor Pitzponteva (Tiny Nature Professor), written and illustrated by Miri Leshem-Pelly:

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This book is one of a series, but I love this little volume in particular, which has a few paragraphs about each site in very simple, non-threatening, meticulously hand-lettered Hebrew (with vowels!).  We’ve taken this along with us on a few trips as a guide to what we’ll be seeing when we get there.

Hope we’ll be seeing  you in Israel – with and for the birds! – sometime really soon.  Happy Chanukah!!!

(Top photo © Flavio~ via Flickr)


Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


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