First cranes of fall season arrive at Hula Lake nature reserve

Some 90,000 cranes expected to pass through or winter at northern lake, joining flamingos, cormorants, pelicans, raptors and other bird species at popular tourist site

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Cranes arrive at the Hula Lake Park in northern Israel, October 4, 2023. (Inbar Shlomit Rubin)
Cranes arrive at the Hula Lake Park in northern Israel, October 4, 2023. (Inbar Shlomit Rubin)

The first 22 cranes of the fall migration season arrived Tuesday at the Hula Lake Park in northern Israel, marking the start of a season that should see 80,000 to 90,000 of these birds landing.

Of those, around 30,000 to 40,000 are expected to winter in Israel, and will not leave until early to mid-March. The remainder stop for a rest before flying onto Africa.

Due to their large numbers, the cranes at the Hula Lake park are a particular hit with visitors.

“There is great excitement,” said Inbar Shlomit Rubin, who manages the site for the KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund.

“It’s a source of joy to see them here with a new generation. The Hula Valley is beautiful this season, and the cranes are joining the thousands of birds that have already arrived, among them flamingos, cormorants, pelicans, raptors and more.”

Staff at the site will start feeding the cranes from January after those on route to Africa have left.

This is to keep them away from farmers’ fields once spring crops start to emerge. Until then, the farmers are happy for the birds to help clean up the remains of summer crops because that causes no damage.

In 2021, cranes were the main victims of an avian flu outbreak, which spread from poultry sheds to wild birds.

An estimated one in five cranes died from the disease, mainly in and around the Hula Lake, where the birds were gathered in dense concentrations because they were being fed. This density apparently made it easier for the fatal illness to pass from one bird to another.

Flanked by vast deserts to its east and the Mediterranean Sea to its west, Israel forms a key flyway and bottleneck for hundreds of millions of birds that travel between Europe, Asia and Africa every spring and fall, including perching birds (passerines), waders and birds of prey.

More than a million raptors pass through every year, including most of the world’s Levant sparrowhawks and endangered steppe eagles, and hundreds of thousands of honey buzzards and steppe buzzards.

Some 50,000 lesser spotted eagles — half the world’s population — were due to fly over Israel Wednesday and Thursday, according to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

The organization’s bird experts said that a recent spell of cool weather created a traffic jam along the bird migration highway just north of Israel, which is now easing.

Dr. Yoav Perelman, director of the SPNI’s Ornithology Center, explained that birds of prey like the lesser spotted eagle pause their journeys during cloudy and unstable weather.

“As the skies clear, the migration resumes. Convoys of thousands of eagles are entering Israel from Lebanon and crossing our skies in a southwesterly direction,” Perelman said.

The flight paths are concentrated over the Tel Aviv metropolitan area in central Israel, Perelman added, before the birds continue southward over the coastal plain to the Negev Desert and onto the Sinai Desert in Egypt.

The lesser spotted eagle has a wingspan of just under two meters (6.5 feet). It feeds on small mammals that it spots in open areas. It lives in old forests in eastern and central Europe, spending the winters in the forests of Africa south of the Sahara and down to South Africa.

It is intensively and illegally hunted in the countries neighboring Israel, especially in Lebanon, with many birds entering Israel with gunshot wounds.

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