How 30,000 Common Cranes can turn an ordinary great day into an extraordinary great day
Published: February 24, 2012
|Aboard the bus was a subdued group of birders. Maybe it was the predawn hour. Maybe it was the alcohol consumed the evening before. My guess was that it was the realization that our week as guests at the Hula Valley Bird Festival was drawing to a close.|
Just one magical encounter remained, a repeat of our first morning in Hula Lake Park (the Hula Agamon): an encounter with the 30,000 Common Cranes that winter here, between the Golan Heights and the Naftali Mountains, in Israel.
It’s a birdwatcher’s dreamscape, a nature photographer’s Holy Grail, but could the spectacle approach the wonder of that first morning?
Once again we were herded onto the hide on wheels — a combination bleachers and circus wagon towed by a big John Deere tractor and driven by...
Well, I don’t really know. I suspect it was one of the farmers who manage the agricultural fields that surround the restored Hula Lake. But it might have been a park employee — or maybe there is no distinction, just as little differentiates the park and farmland. Both enterprises work in concert. Neither would support the volume of wintering cranes alone.
In this regard, the Common (or Eurasian) Cranes of the Hula and the closely related Sandhill Cranes that stage along the Platte River in Nebraska have much in common. On the Platte, too, it is agriculture that supports the birds. The difference is that on the Hula, the management of birds is more hands-on.
Here, the birds are “herded” from field to field to prevent overgrazing. As a result, the cranes become habituated to people. On the Platte, viewers are herded into stationary blinds before the birds arrive in the evening. At the Hula you drive up to, even through, the birds. It’s a 3-D birding encounter. It’s about the most intimate a person can be with cranes and not don feathers.
Our blind on wheels halted beside the lake. The driver killed the engine. Once again, and for the last time, we were enveloped by the sound of cranes whose voices were rising with the dawn.
One of the great but largely unheralded benefits of being a birdwatcher is the number of sunrises you get to witness. It’s a rare day when the drama of dawn does not engage me. But some dawns are more memorable than others.
I remember my first morning in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in Texas: How the calls of Common Pauraque surrendered to the chants of Great Kiskadee and the cacophony of Plain Chachalacas.
I remember my first morning in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona: How I marveled to the morning songs of birds that were un-indexed in memory. It wasn’t until I heard the cardinal-like song of Pyrrhuloxia that I gained a tympanic toehold in that alien audio landscape.
And I recall my first morning, 20 years ago, in Israel’s Negev desert, on an escarpment overlooking this same valley but farther south: How the gray light gave shape, then texture, and finally life to the desert — when the stones I was staring at moved and became my life Chukars.
You want to make life seem really precious? Set it against the starkness of the Negev. You want to turn an ordinary great day into an extraordinary great day? Greet it in a place where you have never stood before — or even dreamed of standing. For many birders, this probably includes Israel.
The sunlight that was giving definition to the Golan Heights was slowly finding its way into the valley, giving definition and expression to the faces around me. To a man, woman, and birder, we were fixated by the spectacle of cranes.
Most of the people in the wagon were festival participants and European. Over the course of the weeklong festival, I don’t recall meeting a single American birder (outside of our group).
Sadly, many Americans are nervous about traveling to the Middle East. The place has become synonymous with conflict, and every day the evening news treats us to a fresh dose of anxiety.
It’s baseless. Here’s a country that sits at the strategic intersection of three continents. If you’re a bird and you want to migrate from Eurasia to Africa, Israel is on your itinerary. What Panama is to New World migration, Israel is to Old.
About 550 species have been recorded there — 250 occur annually in the Hula — and the sheer volume eclipses the diversity. On a typical morning, you’ll see tens of thousands of cranes, thousands of waterbirds, and many raptors, including multiple species of eagles and harriers.
We really get slighted in North America. Scores of Marsh, Pallid, and Hen (Northern) Harriers entertained our group as they flew to roost one evening. Several Merlins joined them. Like the harriers, they also spend their nights in the reed grass beside the lakeshore.
But as for personal safety...
Israel is one of the safest, most stable countries on the planet, and the welcome mat is out to tourists. For years, European birders have been visiting the seaside resort of Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, where every spring you can find one of the planet’s greatest concentrations of migrating raptors. Every March, the Israeli Ornithological Center hosts a successful festival to celebrate the spectacle (Eilat Birds Festival). The new Hula Valley Bird Festival is modeled after it.
I know what you are thinking: Plenty of places are bird-rich. Budgets (and life) are finite, and few of us have the means (or span of years) to take them all in. Given a choice between Israel and, say, East Africa, Antarctica, or Guatemala, many birders would probably place Israel last. It’s that anxiety thing again.
Well... one night, in Kenya, in the lodge where I was staying, armed men killed a guard and took two women tourists hostage.
Several years ago, in Guatemala, armed guards drove in front of and behind the bus carrying my tour group. “Why the automatic weapons?” I asked.
“For your protection, señor.”
“We are here, so you don’t need one.”
“Like hell!” I replied. “If you need a gun, I need a gun.”
As for travel to Antarctica, the Explorer, a cruise ship Linda and I sailed on twice, sank after ice punctured its hull. Happily, we weren’t aboard at the time. We were at home, watching the evening news, when Linda observed, “Hey, isn’t that the Little Red Ship lying on its side?”
Many years ago, a young Israeli was part of the raptor-banding crew in Cape May. He tried repeatedly to get his mother to fly to the United States to visit him, but she refused.
She’d have to fly into Kennedy, the closest airport served by El Al. She’d heard how dangerous New York City was and didn’t want any part of it.
Yep, risk. It comes with life’s package and strops an edge on all we do, and it even serves to make first mornings memorable. For as long as memories last.
At 6:38 the sun topped the escarpment. Shortly thereafter, our driver started the engine and got the party on the road — or rather, fields. For the next hour, we were treated to drive-up views of cranes, Greater and Lesser Spotted Eagles, and a near glut of Stonechats, White Wagtails, and the many species of lark that infest the area.
Members of our birding group were fully awake now, ebullient even. Maybe you can’t relive first mornings at world-class birding destinations. But you can repeat them (which is almost as good) and you can anticipate them (which may be even better).
First mornings. They are the dowry of a birder. They are the priceless steppingstones of a life well traveled.
Pete Dunne is vice president for natural history information for the New Jersey Audubon Society, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and the author of
Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season (2009);
Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds (2006);
Feather Quest: A North American Birder's Year (1999); and other books about birds and birdwatching.
Read more by Pete Dunne.