3:46am

Sun February 24, 2013
Middle East

Israel Restores Wetlands; Birds Make It Their Winter Home

Originally published on Sun March 3, 2013 6:45 am

Like many countries, Israel tried to drain many of its swamplands, then realized it was destroying wildlife habitats. So the country reversed course, and has been restoring the wetlands of the Hula Valley in the north.

The effort has had a huge and rather noisy payoff. Unlike many birding sites, where the creatures take off when you approach them, you can practically touch the cranes that inhabit the Hula Valley.

The thousands upon thousands of the common cranes are about as tall as a toddler and have a 6-foot wingspan. They seem unperturbed by the sudden arrival of hundreds of gawking tourists, riding in what amounts to a grandstand on wheels.

The grandstand is pulled by a noisy tractor. The driver is a young tour guide. She's explaining that these birds fly thousands of miles from Europe and Asia, stopping here in the Hula Valley for rest and fuel before they head to Africa.

Each time the tractor stops, the din of the birds takes over. They coo and gurgle, while the tourists make their own appreciative noises. Why aren't these normally timid birds taking to the air? Well, they associate these big wagons, and the tractors, with food.

Restoring The Wetlands

In the 1990s, as Israel started to restore this marsh, more cranes began to stop here; many decided to spend the winter. They started to eat local crops — especially peanuts.

Biologist Omri Bonneh, with the Jewish National Fund, says the farmers didn't like that.

"In very short time, 30,000 cranes decided to stay here all winter long. We needed to find some solution in order to avoid conflict between farmers and cranes that cause damage to crop fields," he said.

The solution was to set out a buffet of corn and other feed, using tractors and wagons just like the ones the tourists ride in.

Now, biologists don't usually like to mess with the feeding habits of wildlife. But the strategy has attracted lots of paying tourists, who help pay for all that bird food, and for maintenance of this refuge — creating a home for hundreds of other species.

If you're a serious birder, it's a good place to hunt for elusive species that appear just for a second. Or, you can wade through a sea of cranes and just listen.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Israel, there's an ambitious project to restore the wetlands of Hula Valley. Much of the area was drained decades ago for cultivation, but the process destroyed wildlife habitats and caused ecological problems. So, Israel changed course and the effort has had a huge and rather noisy payoff. NPR's Larry Abramson has this audio postcard.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SQUAWKING)

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: One of the frustrating things about birding is that it's so hard to get near the birds. Approach closer than your binoculars or scope permit, and the creatures take off. But here in Israel's Hula Valley, you can practically touch some spectacular birds.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SQUAWKING)

ABRAMSON: These are Common Cranes, thousands upon thousands of them. They're about as tall as a toddler, with a six-foot wing span. They seem totally unperturbed by the sudden arrival of hundreds of gawking tourists, riding in what amounts to a grandstand on wheels.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

ABRAMSON: The grandstand is pulled by a noisy tractor. The driver is a young tour guide. She's explaining that these birds fly thousands of miles from Europe and Asia, stopping here in the Hula Valley for rest and fuel before they head to Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

ABRAMSON: Each time the tractor stops, the din of the birds takes over. They coo and gurgle, while the tourists make their own appreciative noises. Why aren't these normally timid birds taking to the air? Well, they associate these big wagons, and the tractors, with food. In the 1990s, as Israel started to restore this marsh, more cranes began to stop here - many decided to spend the winter. They started to eat local crops, especially peanuts. Biologist Omri Bonneh with the Jewish National Fund says the farmers didn't like that.

OMRI BONNEH: In very short time, 30,000 cranes decided that they stay here all winter long. We needed to find some solution in order to avoid the conflict between farmers and the cranes that cause damage to crop fields.

ABRAMSON: The solution: set out a buffet of corn and other feed using tractors and wagons just like the ones the tourists ride in. Now, biologists don't usually like to mess with the feeding habits of wildlife, but the strategy has attracted lots of paying tourists, who help pay for all that bird food, and for maintenance of this refuge. That creates a home for hundreds of other species.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SQUAWKING)

ABRAMSON: If you're a serious birder, it's a good place to hunt for elusive species that appear just for a second. Or you can wade through a sea of cranes and just listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SQUAWKING)

ABRAMSON: Larry Abramson, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SQUAWKING)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.