What happens when a pair of empty nesters visit Israel’s Hula valley at the peak of bird season?
The answer is magic.
Twice a year, some 500 million birds migrate over the Hula as they travel from Africa to Europe and back — close to 400 different species of song birds, water fowl, and birds of prey. Seeking time together and an escape from the tension of current life in Israel, we set out for this avian wonderland one day in late November, temporarily replacing the clitter-clatter of keyboards and ringing of cell phones with tweets, and warbles, and squawks.
The Hula carries with it a powerful message about the possibility of redemption and repair. In the 1950s, its marshland was drained in order to eradicate malaria and generate land for agriculture — a well-intentioned endeavor that disrupted the ecosystem and led to the extinction of some of the region’s unique flora and fauna. Over the years, the peat earth of the drained swamp dried up and sank, leading to uncontrollable underground fires, and pollutants began to flow into Lake Kinneret. In the 1990s, the Jewish National Fund rose to the challenge of restoring the necessary balance and re-flooded parts of the Hula, creating a haven for migratory birds and two-footed tourists alike.
As we walk down the trails of the Hula Nature Reserve, a small remnant of marshland that had never been drained, the cotton candy clouds dotting the bright blue sky are reflected in the waters below, framing each scene with surprising symmetry. A turtle suns itself on a rock, snapping at the occasional fly, as sharptooth catfish with thick whisker barbels glide through the murky waters below. Above the surface, Bee-Eaters dart from branch to branch in flashes of rust and teal, and green tufts of papyrus reach for the sky.
Peeking through the windows of a covered wooden bridge, we see a gulp of black cormorants glistening in the sun as a Great White Pelican rhythmically slaps the water behind them. We watch from a distance as other couples, some in their twilight years, pose for pictures.
As we walk, the air is pierced by the occasional twill or twitter, coo or caw, chirp or cheep. But suddenly the stillness is broken by a far off boom. And then another, and another. Reality threatens our Hula magic, as puffs of white smoke rise up from the top of the Golan Heights, heading up toward the clouds above them. Is it Israeli artillery practice? Sounds of the civil war in Syria? Either way, it’s disconcerting.
Standing at the top of the observation tower, we spot a flurry of flapping. A small bird seems to be making no headway against the wind. Just as we realize he is hovering deliberately, he plunges down into the water and emerges triumphant with lunch. Nice to meet you, Pied Kingfisher.
As we head toward the exit, a sign alerts us to look for the Hula painted frog, with its dark belly and white spots, which was thought to be extinct for many years, but re-emerged in 2011, and is now being protected. A single Great Egret, with a long graceful neck, stands in the rushes and bids us farewell, as a nutria river rat chomps contentedly on a tasty stalk.
As the afternoon wanes, we drive to Agamon Hula, the re-flooded Hula Lake, and rent bicycles to be able to cover more ground. The air is abuzz with the trumpeting calls of some 25,000 Common Cranes who are wintering here. They soar above us, in twos, in threes, in lines, in V’s.
We watch as the cranes take turns in the lead, allowing each other to conserve energy, calling to each other with their strident cries. Like the birds up above we whiz down the road, sometimes one of us in front, other times the other, slowing when something catches our fancy, calling to each other when something shouldn’t be missed.
As I pedal, I’m twelve again, biking with a friend and enjoying new-found freedom on a lazy Sunday. But the flatlands of Long Island have been replaced by the Syrian-African Rift and the estates of Old Lawrence and Woodsburgh have given way to the mountains of Naftali and the Golan.
Suddenly, a piercing siren from the nearby highway disrupts the tranquility. And another, and another. Our hearts freeze. The recent wave of violence has primed us to expect terror. Has there been a stabbing? A bomb? We resist the temptation to check the news on our phones and continue on our way, racing back to the entrance to catch our sunset tour.
As the sun begins to dip beneath the mountains, we set out in a covered wagon into a staging site where thousands of cranes have gathered to rest. Our guide urges us to remain seated and keep our hands inside. The birds have become habituated to the wagon and the tractor that pulls it, she warns, but if we move, we will startle them and “the magic will be broken.” A tractor feeds the birds copious amounts of corn, to discourage them from damaging nearby crops.
In the marshland before us, the slate gray birds with their bluish black trim dance and preen with their wings uplifted. The krou-krous of their cacophonous clamor fills the valley as night descends. They are awfully excited about their dinner.
Our last stop is a look-out spot alongside the lake, where two silent pelicans sit side by side. Injured, they rest until they can heal and continue their journey.
When the sun has disappeared behind the mountains and the valley has turned inky black, I whip out my mobile and reconnect with the world. Nothing of significance seems to have happened in northern Israel, but in the blissful hours that we have spent in the Hula, two men were murdered while praying in a Tel Aviv synagogue and a shooting in Gush Etzion claimed the life of a Jewish school teacher, an Arab bystander, and an American gap-year student. The magic is broken, and my heart with it.
There is no escaping the reality of life in Israel, but the message of the Hula is one of resilience. And so next year, like the birds on high, I will return to this enchanted valley, to be one with nature, two with my husband, and embrace the promise of wrongs that can be righted and balances that can be struck.
And if you have the chance, you should go too.
With thanks to Eliezer (Leonard) Be’eri for a wonderful day and beautiful pictures.