Visitors to the Hula Lake Park at this time of year used to be able to sit in a bird blind on a field surrounded by thousands of cackling gray cranes. Just before sunset, the birds would lift off as if directed by some ethereal conductor and fly onto the water, where they feel safer at night.
When this reporter visited a week ago, the field was empty. Flocks of cranes came flying in, exhausted after their long journey over the Sahara Desert, and landed directly on the lake.
For many years, some 40,000 cranes a year have stayed in Israel through the winter because the Israel Nature and Parks Authority was feeding them corn.
This year, feeding was stopped and the number has dropped to 18,000-25,000.
Many of Israel’s valleys were once marshland that provided rich pickings for the half a billion or so birds that migrate through Israel twice yearly between Europe and Africa.
Most have been drained to provide land for development and agriculture, but part of the Hula Valley was re-flooded in the 1990s to help restore damage to the local ecosystem. The Hula Lake Park, managed by the KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund, has since become a massive tourist attraction.
Farmers began planting corn and peanuts in the newly re-moistened soil — exactly the crops cranes like to eat. And that led to confrontation. So the Israel Nature and Parks Authority started to feed the birds to keep them away from the agricultural land and in the park instead.
Because there was readily available food, many of the cranes coming in the fall decided to stay for the winter. The result was overcrowding, which left the birds vulnerable to disease.
That came in the form of last year’s bird flu outbreak, which killed an estimated 8,000 cranes, although the number could be much higher.
Last year, fearing another outbreak, the INPA sat down with the farmers and other involved bodies to decide what to do.
They agreed on a five-year plan to phase out the park feeding. But the previous government fell before the farmers could get a financial commitment that they would be compensated for the expected damage to their crops, as the birds returned to graze on their fields.
Nevertheless, the parties agreed that for the first year, the INPA would start feeding later in the season — at the end of December rather than at the beginning of the month — and stop earlier, at the end of February rather than in March. It also cut the quantity of food by 10 percent.
Various factors had to be carefully balanced, explained Ohad Hazofe, the INPA’s Avian Ecologist, citing tourism, farmers’ needs, and the obligation to do what’s best for the birds.
Ecologist Yifat Artzi added that the drop in numbers applied only to cranes that overwinter in Israel. It’s hard to count cranes that rest and then continue on their journey, she said, because so many of them fly at night.