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Safari(?) in Hula Valley, Israel


hannahcat
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You'll know how batty I've become about safaris when I say that, as my husband and I were planning a visit to Israel for January 2017, I wondered if we could somehow sneak a safari into the otherwise mainly urban 10-day trip.

 

I did a little googling. Israel is not known for its safaris, of course, but it does share a surprising number of species in common with southern Africa, though they are not as easily seen: honeybadgers, carmine bee eaters, and even leopards can all be found there (though the leopards are very, very rare). Birders apparently "flock" to Israel as it is a major migration route between Africa and Europe, and twice a year dozens of species of birds can be spotted migrating through. Some of the birds, having made it as far as Israel, decide to just stop and stay the winter -- that's the case with the Hula Valley, I learned, which is known for being the winter home to an enormous population of common cranes.

 

As it turned out, Hula Valley was an absolutely glorious place to visit for a safari of sorts -- not only for the birds (which were incredible), but also for wild boar and, if you'll believe me, a species of wild cat too, called the jungle cat. Yes, I saw cats (well, a cat) in Israel. I'll explain a bit more about the details of getting there, etc., below, but here are a few pictures to start.

 

 

 

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Ooh nice, you might also want to post your cat on mammalwatching.com as there is also a wild cat species in Israel. In fact someone posted about one just the other day. http://www.mammalwatching.com/2017/03/17/israeli-rodent-and-cat/

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wildlife in Israel?! oh wow.

 

is that a demoiselle crane?

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@@hannahcat Not batty to want to go on safari everywhere you go. Any advice on accommodation? I've only stayed in Jerusalem and made a bus trip from there.

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@@kittykat23uk - Thanks so much for reminding me to return the favor at MammalWatching! I did use them for some older trip reports, which were very helpful. I hadn't seen that new trip report yet with the Palestine Wild Cat (Felis silvestris tristrami) -- how fascinating. Going back to the website and taking a look around makes me kick myself that I didn't get to the small park next to the Knesset & Supreme Court that apparently has porcupines that come out at sunset, plus a hide, which is something I really meant to do. But, of course, we had an endless list of things we wanted to see in Jerusalem. Hopefully, there will be a next time. For others who want to look at the older trip reports, here's the link:

 

http://www.mammalwatching.com/places/israel/

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@@xelas - Lots of birding! One factoid I learned while doing the research for the trip is that Israel has so many birds flying through during migration times especially that the government employs a full-time ornithologist to fly around the country and direct the planes around the birds. Apparently, he's the only person who can fly wherever he wants to go, including over military installations, government buildings, etc. Seems like a pretty good job to me.

 

Here is a bit more about Israel's Ornithological Center. The gist is that there are two big birding centers in Israel: one in the south, in Eilat, and one in the north, in the Hula Valley. Both now have annual bird festivals (in fact, I think Eilat's just started). To get a better sense of the way a professional photographer might capture the cranes of the Hula Valley, you might be interested in these pictures from Natures Images (which has hosted two photographic trips to the area recently). I absolutely loved these pictures and tried to do something similar, with one crane in focus and the rest a blur, but none of them turned out very well. I think maybe it's something I would need to learn in a class.

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@@Kitsafari - I have read that there can be demoiselle cranes mixed in, but I think the ones I saw were almost exclusively (or exclusively?) common cranes. I don't know what's so common about them though -- they look gorgeous to me. :)

 

@@JohnR - We stayed at a nearby B&B called Nofesh Baharim in the town of Ramot Naftali (we made our reservation on bedandbreakfast.eu). Apparently, it is quite common now for older kibbutzes (which is what this was) to be divided up, and for people to use the once-farmland to put up a few "cottages" for B&Bs. It was very charming, but I do have to mention that this was the only time that we did feel a little hindered by my non-existant and Michael's only slightly better Hebrew. Our host was very kind, but her English was as bad as our Hebrew, and we were quite a way from the town. It's a bit of a long story, but our host very sweetly ended up calling her son so that we could talk to him and he could order pizza for our dinner.

 

I have heard that this Pastoral Hotel is more of a typical hotel & is very nice and also close to Hula Valley.

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When I was planning the trip, I was struck in a fit of madness and thought, why don't I reach out to Amir Ben Dov? Well, for one, he's recently won the Natural History Museum's bird wildlife photographer of the year award, that's why. Nonetheless, he was kindness itself in an email back to me, and recommended that I try getting in touch with Lior Kislav, who might be able to take me on a birding and photography day trip. As it turned out, we couldn't quite make the logistics work, but I wanted to pass along the recommendation in case anyone else was looking for a guide in the area.

 

What I did end up doing is hiring a park guide for two hours directly from Agamon park, and then sign up for the sunset tour as well. I'll write a bit more about that in the next post.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hula Valley can be a bit confusing, as there are two places that call themselves a nature reserve or park in Hula Valley, and they're right next to each other. First, there's the national park, which is managed by the Israeli government and is, from everything I've read, a very nice place to visit.

 

Second, there is the Agamon Hula Tourism Park,, which is where we visited and which seems to be a public/private partnership. It offers guides and tours, it has a research program that involves banding the birds, etc.

 

Honestly, the Hula Valley has a very odd -- and not very environmentally friendly -- history. In the 1950s, the current state of Israel had recently been established, and the early Jewish settlers were looking for farming land for their kibbutzes. Hula Valley was a swamp at the time, and the early settlers decided to drain the land for farming. While this worked for a little while, over just a few years, it became clear that there was a problem: the cranes. The cranes had always migrated to the Valley for the winter; now that it was filled in, they were still migrating there, and finding the swamp drained, they just ate all of the farmers' crops instead. Eventually, it was decided to try to find a compromise: to remove many of the farmers and fill in a good part of the swamp again, but also to feed the birds the minimum amount so that they wouldn't eat the remaining surrounding crops, but not so much that the birds wouldn't migrate any more. It's definitely a balancing act, and not ideal for anyone, but Agamon does seem to be hitting the sweet spot: they are feeding the birds, they are (with a vigilant crops-watchers program) keeping the birds away from the nearby crops, and the birds are migrating.

 

I've been reading a little concerning the debate on "what is wildness" and "is there any wildness left, or is it all really managed by us?" I can't speak with any authority on the subject, but I do think that this could be an interesting example in that ongoing discussion.

 

At any rate, all of this is preface to explain why we first took a two-hour tour of part of the park with one of the Agamon guides (that's when we saw the boar and wildcat, as well as many other birds), and then we went on what they call a "sunset tour." They only offer these sunset tours in the winter, when the cranes are living there, and they're an opportunity to go out in a vaguely camouflaged truck that the cranes all recognize as their main food source and be besieged by cranes. It's quite something. It's not wild exactly, but it's not not-wild either. I mean, they're not tame cranes, so it's not like you're going out to feed the cattle. And yet, the cranes are obviously responding to food, just as every animal responds to food. It's something in between.

 

A few pictures.

 

The Hula Valley is the farthest north the papyrus plant comes; you can see Mount Hermon, with snow on top, in the background.

 

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Our tour with the Agamon guide was mainly a drive around the main lake in a golf cart, with frequent stops to look at interesting things. (Though I think that, since Hula Valley is not a traditional safari stop, the guide was a little surprised by quite how much I wanted to stop and look at things.) Here is a nutria -- unfortunately, an invasive species that you now see all over the place:

 

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The wild boar were pretty far away, and thus I didn't get the greatest pictures, but still, it was really neat to see them. First we saw the juvenile wild boar who, the guide said, was picking over the remains of a crane who had died.

 

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Then his mother came to make sure he was having a good meal.

 

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I had originally asked about jungle cats and had, essentially, been chuckled at (in a very nice way). There was practically no chance of seeing jungle cats, I was told -- they were basically only seen if they had kittens, or maybe at sunrise, and it was neither the season nor the time of day for either condition. Still, I was hoping against hope when our guide who was taking us around Israel in general (Eitan Julius, who was wonderful) said, "hey, isn't that a cat in those grasses over there?" And it was!

 

It was so unusual, in fact, that at first our guide from Agamon was a little worried that the cat might be injured or incapacitated in some way, and thus unable to get away from us, but after sitting for a while, it seemed clear that the cat was just chill where he was, taking a nap in the sunshine and keeping one eye trained on us. There was only one other group out touring Agamon, and our Agamon guide clearly knew them and called them over to see the jungle cat. From the little bits of conversation I grasped between our guide and this other group, I gathered that the guy with the big, big camera was probably Amir Ben Dov, the person I had contacted about visiting! I was too shy to introduce myself though. Anyway, some more pictures of the jungle cat -- they're mostly alike though because we didn't want to disturb the cat and keep moving the golf cart around. I would say that, contrary to the cranes and to many of the cats in more-visited safari areas, cats here are very wild and un-habituated to humans.

 

 

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Birding in Agamon was exceptional, even for a total neophyte like me. Here's my attempt to ID my pictures, months after the fact -- please feel free to correct any errors I made:

 

Hen Harrier:

 

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Pallid Harrier:

 

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White-Throated Kingfisher:

 

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And then of course there were the cranes (all common cranes that I can tell, though I've read that there can be demoiselle cranes mixed in).

 

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As a final note, on our way out of the Golan Heights the next morning, we stopped by the Gamla Nature Reserve, which has a vulture conservation project as well as spectacular scenery and archaeological ruins. I wish we had had more time there -- I could have photographed, and just watched, those vultures gracefully swooping through the valleys for hours and hours. Here are a few pictures of that. I think the vultures we saw were all goliath vultures, though they do have other species there.

 

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@@hannahcat Very interesting report I have been to Israel albeit many years ago but I never visited the Hula Valley, I did see a bit of wildlife at Ein Gedi Nature Reserve on the Dead Sea no Sinai leopards but plenty of rock hyrax and Nubian ibex around the car park I recall, I don't remember what if any other mammal species I saw I'd have find my notes and look it up.

 

You have I'm afraid got some of your birds wrong as you suspected might be the case, the first bird in post 11 is I would say a common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) and the next one is black-shouldered kite (Elanus axillaris) and the vultures are Eurasian griffons (gyps fulvus).

 

You're report certainly shows that the Hula Valley is somewhere well worth visiting.

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Thank you so much, @@inyathi! I was sitting down with the Book of Middle Eastern birds this morning and definitely feeling a little lost. How is it that the birds never look quite like even the most detailed drawings? I think it must take a certain level of expertise to be able to really get bird books. At any rate, I really appreciate your help.

 

I would love to see the Nubian ibex! I'll have to put the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve on my list for next time. I'm also a sucker for rock hyrax -- they're just irresistible to me. One thing I liked was that the nature reserves seemed relatively undiscovered, at least as tourist destinations, which is kind of nice.

 

Thanks again!

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@@hannahcat, nice report, I'd never have considered Israel as a wildlife destination either. The Griffons are great, we spent many hours, days, watching them in Spain, very impressive birds. What luck with the Junglecat.

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@@elefromoz I do feel incredibly lucky about the jungle cat spotting. He was so well camouflaged, it was 99 to one that we would just drive right past him.

 

Spending hours and days watching Eurasian griffons in Spain sounds wonderful. They may not be the most gorgeous birds feather-wise, but they are absolutely majestic in flight.

 

Also, I meant to emphasize this more in my post -- there seemed to be lots of interesting things going on at the Gamla reserve that we weren't able to spend time with. I think I saw several species of sun birds, for instance, though as you can tell I'm not a very trustworthy ID-er of birds. Anyway, my point is that this stop was added on at the last minute when Eitan saw how much I loved the animals at Hula Valley, and so we didn't have much time, but if I were to do it again, I could easily see wanting to spend a day there. If one were to spend a day there, the locals might think you're nuts -- it's not a tourist spot at all, it seems mainly used by folks hiking to the nearby waterfalls -- but it might be worth it anyway, particularly if you hit it in nice flying weather for the birds.

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