A Middle East peace story you haven’t heard

There’s a small piece of land, roughly the size of New Jersey, in the center of the Middle East, just a sliver along the Mediterranean Sea…a land that has seen and, continues to see, more than its fair share of conflict and strife…a land rife with many well known old stories of power struggles, attacks, defenses, mistrust, and blame that are still debated with vigor to this day.

And yet, there is another story of this land that you probably haven’t heard. The land, of course, is Israel and the story is about man vs. nature.

Like most stories from this land, this one begins with a struggle.  In this case, a high stakes struggle for resources. On one side, there are migrants on a long annual voyage to escape barren winters, to travel to warmer climates where they can find food and respite.  These migrants travel thousands of miles to find a safe place to eat and rest before they continue their journey.  If they don’t make the journey, they will starve and die.  These migrants are Common Cranes (aka Eurasian Cranes, or, in Latin, Grus Grus).cranes up closecranes in low flight

On the other side are farmers who work the land and whose entire livelihood depends on growing and harvesting crops every season. Farmers who, over many years, have learned how to grow thriving crops in a difficult environment. Farmers who live and work in the midst of a dizzying sociopolitical situation.  Farmers who have to worry daily about the threat of aerial attacks – not from cranes – but from their human neighbors to the north.

And, like many situations in this region, this one, too, seemed impossible to solve.  The farmers need to grow food on their land.  Every square inch (centimeter if we’re being true to the region) counts.  And the cranes need to eat food, especially food that doesn’t require a lot of energy to obtain.  And yet, in this case, hope, compromise, and collaboration won the day.

In the 1950s, as Israel was starting out as a country, a tract of land in the north, called the Hula Valley, was a swampy wasteland festering with malarial mosquitos.

Map of Hula Valley and surroundings (source)

Israel began a major public works project to drain the swamps with the hopes that the land could become farmable.  The results of the drainage, however, were abysmal.  Water in the region (that flowed down to major water sources for the whole country) was no longer filtered by the marshland and became polluted with chemicals.  Top soil, no longer anchored by foliage, blew away, making agriculture incredibly difficult.

In the early 1990s, part of the valley was flooded again in a major rehabilitation project.  The restored lake, Lake Hula (in Hebrew, “Agamon Hula”) and wetlands became, once again, a major stopping point for birds migrating from Europe and Asia down to Africa. 

It is then that the battle began.  Just as farmers were able to work the land again, migrating cranes came by the thousands each year and decimated their crops.  Historically, in general, land owners have handled problems like this by shooting or poisoning the avian intruders.

But that wasn’t the case here. Instead, a consortium of groups (Israel Nature & Parks Authority, the JNF, Agamon Hula, the farmers of the Hula Valley, the Upper Galilee Regional Council and government ministries), found an innovative way to work together.  It was aptly named “The Crane Project.”

Each year,  the project moves through 3 stages.  From the Agamon Hula website:

  • Stage I is implemented during the first half of the fall season (the end of September through mid-November) – the cranes are permitted a limited stay in those fields where the summer harvest has been completed.
  • Stage II is implemented during the second half of the season (mid-November through December) – the cranes are then denied foraging throughout the valley’s fields.
  • Stage III is implemented during the winter months- a feeding station is opened where food is spread out across the field according to need, simultaneously protecting the newly seeded crops. Steps are taken to keep away any undesirable birds from the feeding station and an effort is made to reduce the quantity of food at the station to its absolute necessary minimum.”

We visited Agamon Hula during Stage 3.  According to our guide, 8 tons of feed are given to the cranes each day.  Because they have a dependable food source, they don’t spend nearly as much time grazing on the agricultural fields in the valley, thus relieving the farmers’ woes.

Thanks to this ingenious solution, Agamon Hula has become one of the top birding destinations in the world and eco-tourism has taken off, benefiting many people living in the area.

Regardless of how you feel about the human conflicts in Israel and throughout the Middle East, we hope to leave you with the beauty, rapture, and awe that one experiences when witnessing 40,000 cranes together in one place.

The cranes arrive in early afternoon for feeding

cranes in flight

three cranes in flight
Three cranes flying together are usually two parents with one child.
cranes in crowd 2
About 40,000 cranes (give or take 1,000)

Click to expand the photos below

At dusk, they arrive at the lake to roost

cranes over empty lake
The calm before the roost.

cranes in the water

cranes in water 2

cranes in water 3
The water provides a safe, predator-free zone where the cranes can rest.

cranes in water 5

P.S. If you love cranes as much as we do, you’ll enjoy our posts about Whooping Cranes: Us Saving Them Saving Us and Operation Migration: Behind the Scenes.


There is a STAR in Starling.

We heard an odd sound in the park the other day…it sounded like fast morse code clicking. Turned out, it was none other than a gorgeous European Starling. Who knew they make over 10 different calls and can mimic other birds’ songs/calls…including the Red-tailed Hawk Keer?

In-flight Crane Training

Operation Migration trains young Whooping Cranes to follow ultralight aircraft (equipped with an electronic brood call). Then they all migrate South together one time…and the Whooping Cranes know the route both ways for the rest of their lives.  Check out a recent practice session below:

 Want more? See what we learned behind the scenes with OM.

Happy 2 month birthday!

It’s hard to believe it’s only been 2 months since Dora and Christo’s first hatchling of this year emerged. We nostalgically look back at how quickly they’ve blossomed.

Here’s the middle child (we believe) eating a feather a month ago:

And now, just a month later, they are flying pretty well and starting to explore their surroundings…

…like a roof turbine vent (learned something new today!) in the wind…

…and a rooftop food drop (actually leftovers from the evening before). Watch how carefully the fledgling, which we believe to be the youngest/last, approaches. But it will get that food one way or another…

Red-Tailed Hawks are AWESOME!!!

In case you missed it: what happened when a class of 4th graders in New Hampshire proposed changing the state bird to the Red-Tailed Hawk this past March? You have to see it to believe it, but we’re sure you’ll agree that John Oliver rocks.