I just guided a group in the north of Israel and can report that Agamon Lake received rave reviews. Matt, steering the 7-cycle that we rented, said “This is the greatest day in my life”. Aunt Ruth who had just come from the birding festival in Eilat helped us identify the many birds that we saw. Some of the younger at heart rode bicycles, the older people drove in an electric golf cart (all available for rental at the site).
Agamon Lake is in the Hula Valley (עמק החולה, Emek HaHula) an agricultural area in northern Israel in the Syrian-African Rift Valley with abundant fresh water. The Hula is bordered on the east by the Golan Heights and to the west by the Naftali mountains rising 400 to 900 meters above sea level. Basalt hills about 200 meters above sea level formed during late Pleistocene volcanic activity along the southern side of the valley impede the Jordan River flowing into the Sea of Galilee, referred to as the basalt “plug” formed the historic Hula Lake about 20,000 years ago and the surrounding wetlands. It is an important route for birds migrating between Africa, Europe, and Asia.
The Hula Lake existed until the 1950s, a shallow, pear-shaped basin 5.3 kilometers long and 4.4 kilometers wide, extending over 12-14 km². It probably contained the richest diversity of aquatic life in the Middle East (south of Lake Amiq, Turkey which was drained at about the same time as the Hula). Based on research 260 species of insects, 95 crustaceans, 30 snails and clams, 21 fishes, 7 amphibians and reptiles, 131 birds and 3 mammals were noted.
Between 1951 and 1958 draining operations were carried out by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The declared objectives of the Hula draining project were two-fold: the addition of arable land and the eradication of malaria; additional perceived benefits were more water (by reducing evaporation losses) and peat as fertilizer. Hula Lake was drained by deepening and widening of the Jordan River downstream and digging two peripheral canals diverting the Jordan at the north of the valley (to bypass the plug).
In response to environmental concerns a small (3.50 km²) area of recreated papyrus swampland in the southwest of the valley was set aside and in 1963 became Israel’s first nature reserve.
Unfortunately, what originally seemed like a good idea over time created severe agricultural and ecological problems due to peat sediment degradation: uncontrollable underground fires, formation of dangerous caverns within the peat, proliferation of field mice, release of nitrates and sulfates into the Kinneret, 119 animal species were lost to the region, 37 totally lost from Israel, many freshwater plant species became extinct. So from 1980 to 1994 under the auspices of the JNF a program for the Hula’s rehabilitation was inaugurated.
In 1994 a small area in the southern part of the Hula Valley, in the area that once served as the transition between the original Lake Hula and the surrounding swamps was reflooded to create Agamon HaHula (אגמון החולה, literally: “Little Hula Lake”). It has an irregular shape, covering an area of 1 km², several smaller islands were created in the middle of the lake to provide protected nesting sites for birds. At least 120 species of birds have been recorded in or around the lake including large flocks of migratory pelicans, storks, cormorants, cranes, and other birds en route between Europe and Africa that spend days to weeks in the vicinity of Agamon HaHula. Also, new nesting colonies of various species such as herons and plovers have been established. As well, water buffalo and donkeys have been introduced and a small furry rodent called a nutria (also called a coypu), which was brought to Israel from South America for its fur, has made its home here.
You can check out the Agamon website at http://www.agamon-hula.co.il/