A large part of my trip to Israel was spent at the Agamon Hula in northern part of the country. The story of the cranes in the valley is quite amazing and quite recent. I've seen crane migration several times in the US, it's one of my favorite things to watch and encourage others to do (I've got a sandhill crane tattoo designed by Paul Johnsgard in the small of back, I love it so much).
But the Agamon takes to you see cranes in the way you've always wanted to view them. Close.
And I mean REALLY close. This is the closest that I've ever been to large flocks of cranes and it's really incredible how the whole situation works.
The story of the cranes at the Agamon started in the 1940s. There was a huge shallow Hula Lake was drained so the land could be farmed. All was well and good for about 10 or 15 years and then the peat dried out. Whole planted fields failed as dried peat combusted--some farmers lost tractors that sank in the combusting dried peat. In the late 1980s to early 1990s they began to rehabilitate the peat and the lake gradually returned, though not quite as large as it originally had been. As the Hula Lake reformed and several birds started using it on their migration south. Some had shown up in the lake's previous glory but nothing like this.
The first year, about 15,000 common cranes used it as a staging area. Many people came to view the cranes and the area began to grow as an eco-tourism site and at this point, roughly 30,000 cranes use the area. It's an incredible site. But what makes this special is that the cranes have developed a fondness for the surrounding farm fields which presents both an incredible wildlife opportunity and a challenge.
On the one hand it's incredibly amazing that the cranes are all wedged into this area and they have grown accostomed to farm equipment. Someone caught on to this and noted that people wanted to view the cranes and thought, "What if we attached a big box that holds 50 - 60 people to a tractor and drove it through big flocks of cranes in the Hula Valley? And it works! The cranes are very used to the equipment and as the tractors tote around groups of crane watchers, the birds casually walk out of the way but stay relatively close. In the above photo you can see the view from our blind and beyond the cranes is a tractor pulling another blind. As you can see, the cranes are relatively nonplussed by all the humans watching them.
It's not 100% an ideal situation. The cranes should be using the area for staging (gathering and feeding like crazy to continue their migration south). However, the cranes have found ample forage and several thousand are spending the winter in the Hula Valley roosting on the lake and foraging nonstop in the surrounding field. This is a problem, both for cranes and for farmers, as cool as the birds are, the farmers don't want to lose their income and really, the cranes should be migrating.
So, Israel has come up with a unique idea. There are fields where supplement food is set out for the cranes and a squad who patrols the area and flushes cranes from farm fields where they shouldn't be feeding by using loud noises like fireworks and gun shots--the cranes are not harmed, but flushed from areas where they shouldn't be, keeping the farmers happy and the cranes safe.
It's quite amazing how acclimatized to humans the cranes are despite being flushed from certain fields. In Nebraska, you can't get as close to the birds and if you went out into the fields where they forage during the day, the sandhill cranes take off. In the Hula Valley in Israel, you can get quite close and the refuge is happy to help you get there. It's great for getting photos, for sketching or for just sitting there and enjoying the spectacle of thousands of cranes.
Even in the hides built around the refuge to visit birds throughout the year are visited by cranes. You don't even have to keep quiet. While I was in the above blind several people were inside chatting animatedly in Hebrew. Even when we were in our tractor blinds our guides had microphones and speakers and spoke at a very normal level when close to the cranes and the birds were not perturbed.
Common cranes are only part of the magic of viewing birds in the Hula Valley, but they are a great part. To view them at their peak you need to visit in early November. There are always great birds at the Hula, but for a crane migration spectacle, plane on early to mid-November. After visiting the Hula Valley, I may have to adjust my tattoo.
Oh and to give you an idea of how similar they are to sandhill cranes in North America, check out this video, they sound almost exactly the same: