Until the beginning of this century, there were basically only two seasons in which Israelis could view the glossy ibis: spring, when the ibis migrated north, and autumn when they flew south. They could be spotted in the heavens, large, dark, distinctive birds flying in formation, stretching out their long necks and letting their unusual beaks lead the way. But you couldn’t get near enough to see anything more.
After the Jewish National Fund developed the Huleh Agamon in 1995 and re-flooded 1,000 dunams of former swampland with water, ibis began stopping there to rest and “refuel” before continuing on their way. And lately, to the delight of bird lovers, many a glossy ibis has found the Agamon such a comfortable site that it has made the Agamon its permanent home!
Today you can visit the Agamon any day of the year and watch the glossy ibis utilize its scythe-shaped bill to probe the marshy wetlands in search of its favorite delicacies — crayfish, crabs, insects, and snakes. An excellent way to enjoy just about everything the Agamon has to offer is from a paved circular trail that follows canals and lakes, and passes through beautiful groves. Whether you bike the trail, rent a golf cart, or follow it on foot, you will have plenty of face-to-face encounters with wildlife. The trail has an added attraction as well: located well off the main, wider byway running through the Agamon, it is unusually quiet and peaceful.
Completely wheelchair accessible and one of the country’s most exciting recreational sites, the Agamon is situated off Highway 90 a few kilometers north of the Huleh Nature Reserve. The sign in English reads Huleh Lake but the translation is incorrect: the Agamon was not named for its new lake (agam in Hebrew). Rather, the name refers to a plant called agmon yami in Hebrew; that’s seaside bulrush or sea club-rush in English.
A hardy plant about a meter tall, agmon yami grows in shallow water, swamps, ditches, and ponds. Weirdly shaped, spiky, light brown flowers appear on the plant’s long skinny stalk in late summer and early fall.
The trail passes through unusual woodlands featuring both a mulberry grove and Japanese raisin trees. The Japanese raisin boasts fruit that resembles Japanese letters — and tastes like raisins! Benches are hidden within a grove of Paulinas, where you can see but not be seen. An Australian tree that grows very fast and features beautiful purple flowers, the Paulina provides a nesting area for song birds that require broad leaves.
In the silence, it is possible to hear a variety of our feathered friends communicating with one another. The spur-winged plover – our personal favorite — has a particularly raucous cry whose distinctive call gave the bird its Hebrew name of sik sak. Plover parents can communicate with their young, and even to embryos still in their shells. After building their nests on hot sand or dirt, plovers shade their standard four eggs with their bodies. Because they can’t deal with offspring and cool off the nest at the same time, they send messages to the eggs and all four hatch promptly within hours of one another.
Newborn plovers can leave the nest immediately and hunt for food in the company of one of their parents. If an enemy approaches, the parent signals its arrival and the young plovers immediately lie down on the ground to avoid detection.
Plovers are very territorial — and aggressively protective. If another creature gets near their territory they will call — loudly — with their scary cry. If that doesn’t work, they will attack with the quills on their wings. They are said to have attacked birds four times their size — and I have heard that this is the only bird that can scare off a cow!
There is a story, probably true, about someone who raised an abandoned baby plover in his yard. Recognizing the yard as its territory, it turned into a guard dog and went for a stranger who dared to enter!
Predators like eagles are found both on the tree tops and in the sky. They can be identified by their large size, powerful build and heavy head and bill. Like all birds of prey, eagles have big, strong, hooked beaks with which they tear the flesh from their prey. Unusually good eyesight makes it possible for them to spy possible victims from a long distance away.
One fascinating bird to watch for in the canals is the spooner, with a long white neck and long legs. Their beaks flatten out at the end, taking on a spoon-like look. In Hebrew, they are called kapanim (from the word for spoon – kaf.) Curlew sandpipers, small birds with long thin beaks, will also be searching for food in the waters.
Impressive glossy ibises are found in the tall grass on the banks. In Egypt, where they eat snake eggs and protect the fields by gobbling up locusts, the ibis is considered holy. Indeed, the god Tut had the head of an ibis! Sounds made by this rather quiet ibis include a variety of croaks and grunts, including a hoarse “grrrr” made when breeding. Its Hebrew name (maglan) refers to its unusual bill: magal means “scythe.”
It is virtually impossible to explore the Agamon without sighting at least a few coypus (nutria in Hebrew). Furry dark brown little mommies, sometimes accompanied by their young, swim in the canals – or come out of the water to rest on the banks. They may scratch themselves, shake their fur, or simply bask in the sun.
Also sunning themselves, but on rocks in the water, are turtles. The ones at the Agamon are swamp turtles, typical of this area. Not so long ago they were nearly extinct: today they are eagerly reproducing at the Agamon! In the water, near the papyrus, agmon yami are thriving: the Huleh Agamon is the northernmost point in the world where seaside bulrush can be found.
Canals and pools line both sides of the route, providing a close-up look at herons and cranes. They stand on the other side of the water, unafraid, going about their daily lives. When resting, herons tuck in their necks so that you get the feeling they are smaller than they really are. They feed on fish, frogs, and similar fauna, and can be seen perching on branches, gliding gracefully above the water, or slowly wading through it. Sometimes a heron will spread out its wings, but often, it stands frozen while hoping dinner will appear. Should a heron sight a possible prey, it quickly thrusts its head forward, grasps the victim in its long, straight beak, and swallows it whole.
Cranes, the crowning glory of the Agamon, were the third largest birds to inhabit Israel in biblical times (first and second were the ostrich and the pelican). In migration such immense flocks passed over Israel as to darken the sky, and when they crossed the Red Sea they appeared to sweep from shore to shore. Large flocks lived in the desert south of Jerusalem, and a few of them made their homes up north.
The species that we see in Israel today are called Eurasian Cranes; they boast a wing sweep of two meters from tip to tip, weigh more than five kilograms, and stand 1.5 meters tall. For a small fee you can ride a camouflaged tractor right into their swamps and observe a multitude of cranes going about its business. Enjoy watching them run, dance, jump and flap their wings – or fly into the sky right next to your peephole!
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides customized private tours for individuals, families and small groups.