The cranes that glided to a landing in the bird pub in northern Israel last Wednesday squawked up a rumpus. Were they screaming “Ahmad Jabari is dead”? Absolutely not, although Jabari—the commander of Hamas’s military forces in Gaza—had just been “eliminated” (in the newspeak of Israeli media). Blissfully aware for the moment of events in Gaza, I was in the north of the country with a group of foreign journalists to learn about the semiannual bird migration.
Israel is the bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa, and at least half a billion birds cross it as they fly south in the fall and return to their homes in the spring.
On this long trip, birds need “facilities,” said Dan Alon, head of the Israel Ornithological Society. We were watching the cranes at Agamon Hula, a park and artificial wetland created with water from the Jordan River. It is one of the largest bird restaurants and hotels in the world, according to Alon.
So what were the cranes saying as they settled down in the pub? “Check out the peanuts.” “The water here is better than any beer.” “The restaurant down the road is three forks.”
According to Alon this is not a fanciful description, but rather how researchers describe the behavior of cranes before settling down for the night; they’re as sociable as people in a pub.
More than 390 species—waterfowl, birds of prey, and songbirds—pass through the Hula on their migrations. This makes Israel one of the best bird-watching sites in the world and is the reason for the annual International Hula Valley Bird Festival, hosted in mid-November by the Pastoral Hotel in Kibbutz Kfar Blum.
Although most of the birds continue south to Africa, many stay in Israel for the winter. But as freeloaders in agricultural areas, they are not always welcome. That is why the Jewish National Fund, which built Agamon Hula, sets out meals for the winged visitors.
More than 100,000 cranes come from Russia and Finland, and about one-third of them stay for the winter, according to Inbar Rubin, content manager at the park. They are the first to go south and they return north starting at the end of February. Storks, on the other hand, are the last to go north and can be seen flying over Israel’s skies as late as May. Storks and pelicans migrate by day in big flocks, but small birds migrate at night to avoid being seen by predators.
And whereas the storks are silent, the cranes never stop talking, Rubin said. “The females make three times as many sounds as the males,” she added.
Cranes are monogamous and migrate as a family, arriving at the crane pub in family groups of three or four. At the end of February, they court by dancing. Often one can see a whole family dancing, because courting is one of the life skills the parents must teach their young.
Pelicans whose nesting place is in Romania are an endangered species; only 65,000 of them still exist. They are the largest migrating birds in the world, with a wing span of up to 3 meters, and all of them migrate through Israel to the Blue Nile, the White Nile, and Lake Victoria.
The bird festival attracted 200 birders this fall and included tours, evening lectures, and early-morning outings for photographers. Among the participants was Thomas Krumenacker, 47, a Berlin-based journalist who is writing a book about birds in Israel and regional cooperation.
Krumenacker is fascinated by the thought of meeting a bird from Germany in Israel. “I came on a plane,” he said. “He came with his wings.”
Tristan Reid, 37, who was in Israel for the first time said, “Seeing 30,000 cranes leaving the roost in the morning.… it’s emotional.”
An ecologist from Wigton in Cumbria, England, Reid is a walking advertisement for birding and bird preservation. Although he had never had a tattoo, after a visit to Turkey where he learned about its endangered bird species, he decided to have pictures of 24 species tattooed on his arms.
And while the birders continued their idyll in the north, the journalists turned away from the beautiful, jabbering cranes and returned to the center of the country to file reports about lethal objects flying through the skies.
Text and photos copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.