By Leiba Chaya David/JNS.org
While Valentine’s Day falls right in the middle of America’s winter, February in northern Israel marks the gradual transition from winter to spring. Upon Mount Hermon, Israel’s highest point at 7,290 feet, a recent snowfall glares cold and white. Down in the low-lying Hula Valley, however, the fields are emerald green and teeming with life. In the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (JNF-KKL) Hula Lake Park, spring is clearly on its way—and love is in the air.
On this warm sunny morning, the Eurasian blackbird (Turdus merula) already offers the first tentative melodies of courtship. Other songbirds have begun to change into their spring costumes, shedding their dull winter feathers for colorful plumage more appropriate for attracting a mate. Even a handful of human visitors are caught up in the buzz; a group of teens on a science field trip joke and flirt on the grass near the lake.
One of the most romantically inclined residents of the JNF-KKL Hula Lake Park is the common grey crane (Grus grus), also known as the Eurasian crane. Unlike many of their avian counterparts, however, most of these stately birds are not focused on developing new relationships during this time of year. Of the 400 species migrating through the park each year, the cranes are the only birds that are completely monogamous.
The lifelong fidelity of the cranes is legendary. At the age of 3 or 4, they identify a partner and commence an elaborate courtship dance that includes bows, pirouettes, and jumps, as well as a harmonized set of mating calls. With very few exceptions, the pair will remain together until one mate dies, which—barring illness or injury—can be up to 30 years. They will nest together, raise their young together, and migrate together.
Inbar Rozin, educational director of the JNF-KKL Hula Lake Park, explains the twofold secret of the cranes’ lasting bond.
“First of all, they are expert communicators, talking to each other about everything—especially the females,” she says.
Their second secret, notes Rozin, is the consistent repetition of courtship rituals.
“Even after many years of partnership, the pair will ‘renew their vows’ each season with a variation of their courtship dance. This ongoing effort to impress each other, combined with great communication, appears to be a successful recipe for preserving the relationship,” Rozin says.
Maya and David Stern, a middle-aged couple visiting from Jerusalem, seem to have taken the crane’s tips to heart. As part of a two-day getaway, they spent the morning riding a rented two-person bicycle around the five-and-a-half-mile path bordering the Hula Lake.
“We have five children, and we both work. When we manage to get away, we look for activities that are interesting, informative, and that allow us the opportunity to talk to each other,” Maya Stern says.
Though the din of the cranes was especially loud that day, they found the park an ideal setting in which to relax and reconnect.
Among the approximately 100,000 cranes that migrate annually through the valley on their way from northern Europe to Africa, some 30,000 stay for the winter each year. This is in large part due to the Crane Project, a partnership between JNF-KKL, local farmers, and environmental organizations, which creates an inviting crane habitat while maintaining the region’s ecological balance. Park staffers scatter grain in a designated feeding area twice daily, which both guarantees the crane’s food security and keeps them away from nearby legume and alfalfa crops.
While the cacophony of cranes draws the most attention this time of year, the half-square-mile park has more to offer visitors. More than 400,000 people visit the park annually to experience some of Israel’s most diverse wildlife in this breathtaking setting. Situated in the center of the African Rift Valley and bordered by the Golan and Naphtali mountain ranges, the JNF-KKL Hula Lake Park lies along one of the most significant migration routes in the world.
Until recently, the migrants typically flew right over the Hula Valley, as it was drained of its swampland by early Israeli pioneers in the 1950s to prevent malaria and reclaim farmland. But since the swampland was restored by JNF-KKL and its partners in the 1990s, the area has become a seasonal migration stop, with more than 500 million birds passing through the valley during the spring and fall. It is also a year-round refuge for a wide range of species, including the water buffalo, swamp cat, and Israel’s diverse population of water fowl.
The park gained international recognition in 2010 when BBC Wildlife Magazine declared it as the 9th-best place in the world for wildlife viewing. Local and international bird watchers enjoy a range of park services, including walking paths, observation points, telescopes, and guided tours. The future Stephen J. Harper Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Center—named for the former prime minister of Canada—will cover 43,000 square feet with a state-of-the-art facility that weaves together principles of green building with sensitivity to the unique valley ecosystem.
Michael Even-Esh, a veteran tour guide, reflects on why the Hula Valley is one of Israel’s top tourist draws.
“I’ve never given a tour of the Hula that people didn’t love. Take the huge numbers of birds, the beauty of the place, the biblical connection (the crane is mentioned in Jeremiah as a migrating bird), the story of the swamp draining and re-flooding, the local biodiversity of flora and fauna, which includes flamingos, pelicans, and wild boars, and you have paradise,” he says.
A more philosophical outlook comes from Sharona Califa, 25, and a student in the Department of Social Work at Tel Hai College in the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona. Califa works part-time as an educational guide in the park’s Crane Observation Center. She sees her work as integral to her training as a social worker.
“Nature has an important role to play in helping people,” she says. “Here in the Hula Valley, we get a chance to put things in perspective, to see just how big the world is. Watching the birds, understanding the odds they’ve overcome to get this far, can make a person feel both humbled and empowered.”
For her fellow college students, adds Califa, the park is by far the most popular “date site” in the area.
“Couples come here to talk, bike, and enter another world together for a few hours,” she says. “It truly is a mystical and romantic place.”
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