Category Archives: Birding

Cranes at the Hula

The months of November-December are when thousands of Common Cranes stop over at the Hula Lake in northern Israel on their migratory path from Europe and Asia (the heart of the breeding population for the species is in Russia) to its wintering sites in northern Africa, the river valleys of Sudan, Ethiopia, Tunisia and Eritrea. The best place to see and photograph them in Israel is the Agamon HaHula reserve and I can take you there. If you are interested in getting photographs you will need a fast SLR camera with a large lens (I’d recommend a zoom that goes up to 500mm).

Cranes lift off

Check the Agamon Hula page on Facebook for the most recent figures – they counted more than 35,000 cranes at the park on a typical day. The cranes spend the night in the lake (for protection) and at sunrise when they awaken fly off to forage for food. It is an incredible sight to see thousands of cranes take to the sky.

Cranes taking off

Lone craneThe Common Crane (Grus grus, also known as the Eurasian Crane) is mainly slate-gray, with black on the forehead and lores with a red cap on the top of the head and white stretching from behind the eyes to the upper back.

Cranes at Hula

Cranes in flight

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Photo of the Week – Heron at Kinneret

I’ve been guiding in the north, around the Sea of Galilee and caught this heron on the lake in the morning.

Morning HeronThe technical details – the photo was taken with a Nikon DSLR camera (ISO 1000, 200mm, F13 at 1/1000 sec).

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Photographs on this website are © Shmuel Browns (unless marked otherwise) – if you are interested in purchasing one of my photos or using one of my photos for your own project please contact me.

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Photo of the Week – Flamingo

The Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) is the most widespread species of the flamingo family. At the salt marsh you can find a colony of more than 100 flamingos that vacation just north of Eilat most of the year. According to expert Keith Marsh from Bird Forum besides the flamingos you will be able to spot white storks, herons, waders and a wide variety and number of raptors, especially in the autumn and spring during migration. There are few better birding areas in the Western Palaearctic than Eilat on the Red Sea coast of Israel where more than 420 species of birds have been recorded.

DSC_0458You can click on the image for a larger view (which may take some time to load depending on your Internet connection). Please share this post with your friends by clicking on the icons at the end of this message.

The technical details – the photo was taken with a Nikon D90 digital camera and a 50-500mm Sigma lens in November (ISO 800, 500mm, F6.3 at 1/400 sec).

FlamingosEven to get a group portrait (shot at 270mm) my regular 18-200mm lens would not have been enough.

Photographs on this website are © Shmuel Browns (unless marked otherwise) – if you are interested in purchasing one of my photos or using one of my photos for your own project please contact me.

Photo of the Week – Cranes at Agamon HaHula

Today’s Agamon HaHula (covering an area of one square kilometer — the same size as the walled Old City of Jerusalem) was established as part of a JNF rehabilitation project in the 1990s in the southern part of the Hula Valley, north of the Hula nature reserve. The site has become a winter home or stopover for an estimated 500 million migrating birds (cranes, storks, pelicans, cormorants, …) flying from Europe to Africa and back, and hence a great birdwatching site.

Cranes at Agam HaHula

You can click on the image for a larger view (which may take some time to load depending on your Internet connection). Please share this post with your friends by clicking on the icons at the end of this message.

The photo was taken at Agamon HaHula (snow-capped mountain is the Hermon). The technical details – the photo was taken with a Lumix (DMC-ZS5) point and shoot digital camera on February 28 (ISO 25, 18.2mm, F5 at 1/500 sec).

For more of the history of the Hula read my post at https://israeltours.wordpress.com/2010/05/03/agamon-hula-lake/

Cranes

Some of the birds soaring over Hula valley

You can also visit the Hula nature reserve (part of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority), the first nature reserve that was created in Israel in 1963. At the Visitor’s center there is an exhibition about the Hula and a theater (with moving seats) showing a video about the marvel of migration. From there you can walk a 1.5 km circular trail through the reserve.

Photographs on this website are © Shmuel Browns (unless marked otherwise) – if you are interested in purchasing one of my photos or using one of my photos for your own project please contact me.

Almond Blossoms on Tu Bishvat

The 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat is the holiday of Tu Bishvat which according to the sage Hillel is the New Year of Trees, the date from which the age of a tree is calculated for the purpose of biblical tithes.

Almond Blossom Jerusalem

Associated with the holiday is a festive meal of at least 10 different fruit including the 7 species (grape, fig, pomegranate, olive, date and 2 grains, wheat and barley) that are mentioned in the Bible as growing natively in the land of Israel. We drink 4 cups of wine in varying hue (white, pink and red), corresponding to the 4 seasons and the 4 aspects of creation according to the Kabbalah. This formula corresponds to the tradition inaugurated in the 16th century in Tzfat by the Ari, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria and his disciples of a Tu Bishvat seder in which the appropriate blessings on the fruit and wine would bring the world closer to spiritual perfection.

Another tree that is strongly connected to Tu Bishvat is the almond (Prunus dulcis) native to the Middle East and South Asia. The almond tree is the first tree to blossom after the winter rains in Israel and so is the precursor of spring. There is even a song for the holiday about the almond tree.

The almond tree is blossoming,

 A golden sun is glowing

Birds sing out in joyous glee 

From every roof and every tree.

השקדיה פורחת 

ושמש פז זורחת

צפורים מראש כל גג

.מבשרות את בוא החג

Near Jerusalem, there are almond trees in Emeq HaMatzleva, the Sherover promenade, Sataf, Ein Kerem, Nahal Katlav, Bab el Wad. So today I went out to appreciate the almond trees, newly awakened and covered with delicate white and pink flowers in the Valley of the Cross.

If you have tasted the fruit of the wild almond it is very bitter. This is because it contains the glycoside amygdalin which becomes transformed into a deadly poison, prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) after crushing, chewing, or any other injury to the seed.

Besides the almonds there were cyclamen and red anemones (kalaniot כלניות); there were also 3 researchers banding and recording birds (the Jerusalem Bird Observatory is nearby).

Gamla – Nature, Archaeology and History

Gamla is both a nature reserve and archaeological site making it a great place to visit. We started with an easy hike, through a field of dolmens, prehistoric megalith tombs erected in the early Middle Bronze period about 2200BCE. A dolmen is made up of three large basalt stones, one lying on two other stones standing vertically. The hike takes us across a wooden bridge to the other side of Nahal Gamla for a view of the waterfall, at 51m the highest in Israel.

Gamla Waterfall

Take the trail past a Byzantine town to the Raptor lookout – the nahal is home to a large nesting population of Griffon vultures (that Israel has successfully resettled there) who did a fly past for us over the valley, it’s an incredible sight to see them gliding on the thermals.

The ancient city is situated on a steep hill (a horst like Masada) shaped like a camel’s hump, from which it derives its name (gamal means ‘camel’ in Hebrew). Jews inhabited it from the last quarter of the 2nd century BCE, and it was annexed to the Hasmonean state under Alexander Jannaeus in about 81BCE. Josephus Flavius, commander of the Galilee during the Jewish Revolt against Rome fortified Gamla as the main stronghold on the Golan. It’s fascinating to compare Gamla, a city and one of the first to stand against Vespasian’s legions with Masada, a fortress and the last to fall to the Romans.

Josephus provides a detailed description of the Roman siege and destruction of Gamla (like at Masada). Vespasian and his son Titus led the X Fretensis, XV Apollinaris and V Macedonica legions against Gamla, built a siege ramp in an attempt to take the city but were repulsed by the defenders. Only on the second attempt did the Romans succeed in breaching the wall at three different locations and invading the city. There they engaged the Jewish defenders in hand-to-hand combat up the steep hill. Fighting in the cramped streets from an inferior position, the Roman soldiers climbed onto the roofs that subsequently collapsed under the heavy weight, killing many soldiers and forcing a Roman retreat. The legionnaires re-entered the town a few days later, eventually beating Jewish resistance and completing the capture of Gamla.

According to Josephus, some 4,000 inhabitants were slaughtered, while 5,000, trying to escape down the steep northern slope, were either trampled to death or fell or threw themselves into the ravine (perhaps exaggerated by Josephus, the number of inhabitants has been estimated at less than 4,000 – at Masada 960 lost their lives).

Abandoned after its destruction, Gamla lay in ruins for almost 2000 years and was only identified in 1968 by Itzhaki Gal who was doing an archaeological survey of sites in the Golan after the Six Day War. It was excavated by Shemaryahu Gutmann (who did the original survey at Masada and who excavated there with Yigal Yadin) and Danny Syon for 14 seasons from 1976. The excavations uncovered 7.5 dunam, about 5% of the site, revealing a typical Jewish city.

The Gamla excavations revealed widespread evidence of the battle, about 100 catapult bolts, 1600 arrowheads and 2000 ballista stones, made from local basalt, 200 artifacts of Roman army equipment, quantities unsurpassed anywhere in the Roman Empire. Most were collected near the wall, placing the heavy fighting in the vicinity of the wall and the Roman siege engines to the northeast of the town.

Only one human jawbone was found during the exploration of Gamla, raising a question about what happened to the bodies of the Jewish defenders (like Masada). A tentative answer is suggested by archaeologist Danny Syon – he suggests that the dead would have been buried at nearby mass graves that have yet to be found (as at Yodfat).

One of the most interesting finds is the remains of a typical “Galilean” style synagogue inside the city walls, with rows of columns, tiers of side benches, heart-shaped corner pillars and an alcove for Torah scrolls in the northwest corner. A mikveh (ritual bath) was found nearby. Interesting to compare this to the synagogue found at Masada. The synagogue is thought to date from the late 1st century BCE making it one of the oldest synagogues in the world.

Also found were six coins minted at Gamla during the Revolt, with the inscription “For the redemption of Holy Jerusalem” in a mixture of paleo-Hebrew and Aramaic that shows that the defenders of Gamla saw their fight against the Romans as no less than a struggle for national independence.

The Golan Archaeological Museum in nearby Katzrin displays artifacts from Gamla and other sites on the Golan and a moving film about Gamla – definitely worth a visit.

Agamon Hula Lake

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).

Matt steering the 7-cycle, photo Steven Browns

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/

7-cycle, photo Steven Browns