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Fine feathers

First cranes of the fall migration season arrive at Hula Lake

Up to 90,000 of these birds are expected to pass through Israel this season, of which 30,000 to 40,000 will stay until March

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The first cranes of the fall migration season arrive at the Hula Lake Park is northern Israel, October 11, 2022. (Inbar Shlomit Rubin, KKL)
The first cranes of the fall migration season arrive at the Hula Lake Park is northern Israel, October 11, 2022. (Inbar Shlomit Rubin, KKL)

The first cranes of the fall migration season arrived Tuesday at the Hula Lake nature reserve in northern Israel, kicking off a season that should see 80,000 to 90,000 of these birds arriving.

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.

Last December, however, they were the main victims of an avian flu outbreak, which, in a first, spread from poultry sheds to wild birds.

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

A spokesperson for the KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund, which runs the site, said a decision about feeding the cranes this year would be made by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority by mid-December.

Crane carcasses litter the lake at the Hula Lake reserve in northern Israel on December 26, 2021, following an outbreak of bird flu. (Guy Eilon/ Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

The purpose of feeding them is to keep them away from farmers’ fields once spring crops are starting 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.

Last year’s bird flu outbreak also killed around 500 pelicans that had arrived toward the end of the pelican migration season and had stopped in the Beit She’an area south of the Sea of Galilee.

This year, the INPA has stopped feeding pelicans in the Hula Valley because most commercial fish ponds have closed there, vastly reducing the chances of friction with fish farmers. Pelicans that do visit the valley will still be able to look for fish, but it won’t be provided by a human hand.

The organization is, however, continuing to provide fish in several water bodies in the Sharon area of central Israel. The fish breeding industry is still substantial in the region. Furthermore, the birds will only fly onwards with full stomachs. This is their last food station before they enter the Negev Desert.

An expected 50,000 pelicans will pass through Israel from mid-August to November to reach wintering grounds in Africa. Unlike cranes, they do not stay long before flying off to the Sinai Desert and continuing down the Nile to reach their winter ponds.

Great white pelicans eat fish at a water reservoir in the Hefer Valley in central Israel, November 15, 2019 (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

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.

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