Autumn. In many respects, this is Israel’s most wonderful season. People may say – or scream with rage – that Israel has no autumn, but that’s a fallacy. Well, it’s no New England, but it’s still beautiful, and like a child, it requires a bit more patience and careful attention.
Israeli autumn takes its sweet time. Early November is sometimes too soon to look for it, but now is simply perfect. It boasts its own pretty displays, and it's great if you're into bird migrations and gorgeous unique and courageous flowers.
Bonanza at the Botanical Gardens
The Jerusalem Botanical Gardens at the Hebrew University campus in Givat Ram deserves far more attention than it gets. It has 3,500 trees of 550 varieties, the largest collection of plants in the Middle East.
It's a well-tended, pleasant space noted for its sections devoted to North America and Europe. Here the trees have funny names like the silver maple, the London plane, the smoketree and the sweetgum.
They all display a golden-red fall, and the pride of the pack is the sweetgum, which sheds its dazzling pink and red leaves. A small black plaque tells us that this beauty, a member of the Altingiaceae family, comes from the eastern United States.
Ori Fragman-Sapir, the scientific director at the Givat Ram gardens, says his team tries to simulate the conditions of the trees' countries of origin. He says that Jerusalem – 700 meters (2,300 feet) above sea level – is high enough for trees from colder climates and low enough for trees from warmer climates, allowing the gardeners to work wonders.
It's a matter of trial and error, Fragman-Sapir adds. Not all the imported trees thrive, but a stunning peak fall hits at the end of November.
When I ask him where else in Israel visitors can watch the season change, he says head for the hills, until you get as high as Mount Hermon in the far northeast. The farther north you go, the better the autumnal color.
He mentions the lovely botanical garden at Kibbutz Yiron in the Upper Galilee, which features a large tree nursery. Another place is Kibbutz Merom Golan, but Mount Hermon sports the most colors; a few trees are “insane,” Fragman-Sapir says.
When I visited, a few thousand white pelicans arrayed themselves in a broad ring around the reservoir in the Hefer Valley, which is halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. From the Viker bird-watching observatory there north of Moshav Haniel, the view is spectacular.
The pelicans, optimistic creatures that they are, patiently waited for fish. A few dozen of these birds wafted the middle of a large pool, looking as if they were drifting in the wind. This of course was a deception. They didn’t want their friends to see as they caught another fat fish.
Their autumnal journey stretches thousands of kilometers to the south as they fly in orderly flocks, taking off from the Czech Republic and Poland on their way to Africa. Their Israeli pit stop lasts two days to a week – they rest and mostly eat.
Yoav Perlman, head of ornithology at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, compares the migration to a crowded major highway, with Israel one of the exits.
- This Israeli Bird Sanctuary-turned-cemetery Could Launch the Next Pandemic
- Behind Israel’s Bird Flu Outbreak: Greed
- The Sad State of Israel's Nature Is Our Fault
Hundreds of millions of birds pass through here from July to December. For several species, like the crane and the pelican, now is the peak.
Perlman says the current season has been a good one with no major drama. After last year's avian flu, a “boring” season of watching the birds glide in the sky is a great pleasure.
A joint project that includes the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Agriculture Ministry concentrates feeding at the Viker Observatory and other reservoirs in the Hefer Valley. The goal, Perlman says, is to divert the birds from other locations.
Perlman says the sites at the pond at Lake Hula, managed by the Jewish National Fund, are the prettiest. Other good bird-watching spots are the fishponds along the coastal plane – and the migration of songbirds, another fan favorite, is also peaking.
Alas, the avian flu is expected to return to Israel this winter. In this respect, large bird concentrations are a danger, so this must be taken into account when crafting feeding policy.
“If enough alternatives to feeding aren't found, it may cause a bloody all-out war between the farmers and the birds,” Perlman says. “The government ministries haven’t budgeted for the suggested alternatives yet, and we don’t know what exactly will happen this year.”
Until a few years ago, the flamingo was considered a rare guest in Israel.Inbar Rubin of the JNF
Inbar Rubin, a JNF official at the pond near Lake Hula, calls this year's migration “amazing” – flamingos aplenty. “One of the most special things this year are the flamingos that have come to us. This is uncommon. Until a few years ago, the flamingo was considered a rare guest in Israel,” she says, but this year has set a record.
“At one point there were 200 flamingos here that stayed for a month. Even now we have over a hundred flamingos. They’re beautiful.”
What's the forecast for the near future?
“We received a report this week that there are cranes that haven’t left Russia yet. This means a very late migration. The weather hasn’t turned yet. ... Now there are fewer hours to search for food; still, they haven’t left yet.
“Changes in the cranes’ migration is linked to climate change. The migration range is shortening. They stay in Turkey, Spain or Israel. Many don’t continue on to Africa as they did before. In the past three years they've begun to winter in Germany and Poland too. This means they have food in the winter there.”
How many cranes are there at the pond now?
“Today we counted 25,000, not a particularly high number for the season. The numbers change rapidly, and this year we have relatively few cranes.”
How's the pelican season?
“Excellent, but they're different from the cranes. They don’t want to be here. At least a third of them have to eat here because they arrive with an empty tank, and if they don’t eat they won’t have the energy to continue on to Africa.
“So that’s when the mess at the fishponds begins. The solution of feeding at the reservoirs is important so they can continue migrating. Here at Hula we don’t feed pelicans.”
Have you recovered from last year?
“Because of the avian flu, last year was traumatic for anybody around the world who loves birds. This flu comes every year, but last year a lethal strain appeared.
“Last spring it killed tens if not hundreds of thousands of birds. Entire colonies died off. It was a trauma for everybody. We can’t know if there will be another outbreak this year. We do know that the population that contracted the disease is immune.”
Are cranes being fed now?
Daffodil leaves appear post-bloom, allowing the blossoming to provide an especially potent shock.
“There's no feeding now. If we feed it’s only in the winter, starting in December or January. ... The decision to feed isn't ours but the nature authority’s and the farmers'. The only goal is to keep the cranes away from the fields. We at the pond only serve as a hostel.”
When should people visit the pond?
“Every day. It’s so healthy for the soul. It puts everything in perspective. The scenes change every day during the migration season. We have a giant white-tailed eagle here who puts on crazy displays hunting fish right in front of us.
“A lot of talk is about the large species, but there are over 150 species of birds here. Plovers, ducks, kingfishers, storks, ibises. An amazing wealth and variety. We're also approaching the end of the monarch butterfly, which lives for only 11 months. Tell people to come breathe here.”
Daffodils in Yeruham
The daffodil is a tiny yellow wonder that surprises us every year, so much so that daffodil sites have become a pilgrimage destination. This year they came early; some people say by mid-October.
This flower is fragrant and oozes nectar, pollinated by butterflies and large bees. The leaves appear post-bloom, allowing the blossoming to provide an especially potent shock.
According to the website Tzemah Hasadeh, the daffodil has nine varieties prevalent from the eastern Mediterranean to the Caucasus Mountains. One more variety, the dwarf or minnow daffodil, grows in Israel.
The greatest concentrations of daffodils are in the Bashanit Ridge in the Golan – where the first bloom appears – and along the Summit Trail at Mount Meron in the north. Later the daffodils bloom in the south at Lehavim and in the Yatir Forest.
In November and December they bloom in places in the north including the Rosh Pina Stream, the Biriya Forest and the Summit Trail at Mount Tabor. In the south, they bloom at Yeruham.
This last destination is particularly impressive – yellow flowers in a desert wadi. A wonderful hiking trail 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) long stretches from a parking lot southwest of Yeruham to the local lake.