Hula Lake in the Spring: Meet the Vacationing Birds

Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive
Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive

Spring brings enchanted days to KKL-JNF’s Hula Lake. Bird migration is in full swing and the air is filled with the scent of distant shores.

  • How to get there

    From the Rosh Pina to Kiryat Shmona road (Route no. 90) turn eastwards about 1.5 kilometers before Koah Junction (between kilometer markers 457 and 458), following the signs. About a kilometer further on you will come to the Hula Lake parking lot. Close by is the visitors’ center that serves as the departure point for tours of the lake.

    Print map of Hula Lake Park (Hebrew)

    Hula Lake Park (Agamon HaHula) on Google Maps
  • Geographic location-

    Galilee
  • Area-

    north
  • Water-

    Drinking fountain
  • Special Sites in the Forest-

    Sculptures, the Ali Abu Yahya Well, Radar Hill.
  • Facilities-

    Marked path, Water.
  • Other sites in the area-

    The Israel Air Force Museum at Hatzerim, Beersheba and its sites, the Besor Trail, Eshkol Park, Ofakim Park, Gerar River Park, Sayeret Shaked Park.
  • Access-

    Special (adapted for the disabled)
  • סוג חניון-

    Accessible parks,Picnic parks
  • Interest-

    Bicycle track,Lookouts

Before setting out we recommend that you call KKL-JNF’s Forest Hotline (Kav LaYaar) at 1-800-350-550 or email moked1@kkl.org.il for any updates, such as closures due to extreme weather and any information that may be relevant to your route.

Why Hula Lake and why spring?

Spring brings enchanted days to KKL-JNF’s Hula Lake. Bird migration is in full swing and the air is filled with the scent of distant shores. The migratory flocks are in a hurry to return to their nesting sites in the northern hemisphere and bring a new generation of birds into the world.

Spring is the time to observe the new life emerging amid the beauty of Hula Lake and the splendid colors that clothe the site at this time of year. A trip to the lake in springtime appeals to all the senses and fills the heart with the joy of being alive.

Incidentally, a battle against the construction of an overhead power line in the Hula Valley is currently underway.

A little background

The extremely changeable weather of springtime invokes unforgettable sights. The sun’s rays filter through the ragged clouds to fill the valley with magnificent rainbows. Now is the time when flocks of birds pass through here on their way from Africa to Europe, and the lingering puddles and ponds of winter quickly fill with teeming life: ducks and shorebirds use them as a hunting ground for food, songbirds bathe and preen their feathers in the shallow water and male frogs croak as loudly as they can in hopes of attracting a mate.

They return in the springtime

Hula Lake, which lies at the very heart of the Great Rift Valley, is situated on one of the world’s most important migration routes, and over half a billion birds pass through it with each migratory season. The lake’s strategic location between Africa, Asia and Europe and the wide variety of habitats and abundance of water and food that it has to offer have combined to make this site the birds’ waystation on their long journey north. After a prolonged and exhausting flight across the deserts of Africa the birds swoop down into the Hula Valley to refresh themselves and replenish their energies in preparation for the next leg of their marathon. Over 300 species of migratory birds stop off at Lake Hula to rest and “refuel.”

Saying farewell to the cranes

The cranes are the first of the large birds to set out. Huge flocks that sometimes comprise thousands of birds take off with a great deal of noise and fanfare as if declaring their thanks for the generous hospitality they have enjoyed. This is the emotional moment when parents say farewell to the chicks they have reared faithfully for so long. The parents are in a hurry to get back to their nesting grounds to add another generation to the dynasty, while the youngsters stay behind and congregate in the “chummeries”; as they have no particular reason to rush, they will be slower to leave the lake. Nevertheless, all of them, sooner or later, will make their way to the far north.

The stork knows her appointed time

Together with the cranes, the storks, too, begin to arrive from faraway Africa. Every year, guided infallibly by their internal navigation system, they make their way back to the same nest they left behind before their migration. These storks are the harbingers of spring in the chilly countries of Europe, and as such they have become a symbol of renewal and fresh life: this would appear to be the source of the myth that they are responsible for bringing newborn babies into the world. Over 500,000 storks pass through the skies of the Hula Valley, astonishing observers with their wonderfully silent flight and their ability to take best advantage of thermals.

The pelicans

Nor are the pelicans far behind. Their orderly and wonderfully well-regulated flight carries them to roosting spots on the waters of Hula Lake. They spend the winters in East Africa on the White Nile and the Blue Nile, and nest in summer mainly in the Danube Delta of Romania. Pelicans, which are the largest of the migrating species to stop over here – their wingspan can reach up to three meters – are extremely sociable birds, and their nesting pairs are always observed as part of a group, never alone.

With this ring…

The spring migration brings with it opportunities to study and monitor these winged visitors, and Lake Hula fills up with sharp eyes on the lookout for ringed birds. Here we can find cranes that were ringed in Finland and Russia, storks from the Balkans and Eastern Europe and a variety of birds from Namibia, Ethiopia and elsewhere. All are welcome, and each one of them provides precious information about its migration route and preferred overwintering sites. A particularly large quantity of data is provided by pelicans and cranes that have been fitted with GPS tracking devices. This year (2015) three cranes at the lake were equipped in this way, and two of the adults are currently observed to be in Turkey, while the youngster is still hanging out at Lake Hula.

Lake of surprises

Each springtime brings its own rare and unexpected guests. One fine spring day a demoiselle crane (Grus virgo) turned up on its way to the steppes of Mongolia, and another day we discovered a hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) flying silently close to the ground at dusk. A pink flamingo also made its way here – and who knows what this spring will bring us?

The birds who turn up here on a regular basis are no less fascinating. In springtime you will see purple herons (Ardea purpurea) on the lake and snake eagles (Circaetus) overhead hunting with their sharp eyes for snakes and other reptiles. The sky is also full of swallows that snatch innumerable mosquitoes with every flap of their wings. A single swallow is said to be capable of consuming about a thousand mosquitoes a day.

Vividly varicolored bee eaters (Merops apiaster) sound their cheerful whistle, ducks flaunt their bright colors, shore birds and songbirds enchant with their music. All fly frenetically in an attempt to reach their destination on time. To our great delight, however, some of these birds choose to stay on at Lake Hula and nest there throughout the summer until they join up with other members of their species to fly south in the autumn.

Nesting time

At Hula Lake springtime is also the start of the courtship and nesting season for our resident flocks of birds. Many species are already parading their mating plumage, raising their voices in song and laying claim to nesting sites. The lake wakes into new life: nesting boxes for barn owls and falcons fill up with new occupants; beside the paths spur-winged lapwings (Vanellus spinosus) guard their nests jealously; on the banks of the ditches kingfishers and bee eaters dig the holes where they will raise their young; and in the tangled thickets of vegetation songbirds are busy weaving their elaborate nests. The abundance of food and water at the lake ensures that they will have a successful and fertile nesting season.

Spring colors

Spring is boomtime for all nature, not just for the birds. Aquatic plants burgeon again after the rigors of winter and paint the lake with fresh colors. Yellow waterlilies, European white waterlilies and purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) all invite the lake’s inhabitants to come and enjoy their bounty. The air fills with dragonflies and damselflies, bees hum, frogs croak, there are beetles everywhere – it’s a celebration.

But it’s not just the birds who travel long distances in spring to reach Lake Hula: some butterflies do the same. The plain tiger (Danaus chrysippus; also known as the African monarch) is a large nomadic orange butterfly that can live to the great age of eleven months, and it uses the climbing-vine swallowwort (cynanchum acutum) as a host for its eggs. The flowers of the purple loosestrife and sawtooth fogfruit (Phyla nodiflora; also known as the turkey tangle) provide an abundance of food, and the botanical garden acquires a carpet of butterflies that includes painted ladies (Vanessa cardui) and various garden whites.

And what’s that in the ditches?

Along the edges of the ditches strange dark mounds appear that from a distance have the appearance of oddly-shaped rocks. When approached, however, these peculiar heaps turn out to be composed of groups of Caspian turtles (Mauremys caspica), which, like other reptiles, are sometimes referred to as “cold blooded” because their level of activity is dependent on the ambient temperature. To operate effectively, these turtles must raise their body temperature and this is why they emerge from the cold water to sunbathe for long hours. In springtime tiny baby turtles can be seen practicing their swimming skills.

Not far away catfish are making waves. In springtime, when they suddenly remember that they, too, need to be fruitful and multiply, they perform courtship dances in the shallow water beside the banks. Their companions, the tilapia, make do with digging holes for the eggs they will lay.

Acknowledgements

Text: Inbar Rubin
Photography: Ancho Gosh, KKL-JNF Photo Archive; Tomas Krumenacker, Hula Lake Archive
Map: KKL-JNF, Lake Hula
Published: March 17th, 2015