Researchers find that during times of the day when the birds are normally eating or sleeping, their routines are disrupted by the presence of humans.
By Zafrir Rinat

Lake Agmon, which was created in the 1990s in the Hula Valley in the north, has become one of Israel’s favorite nature spots, but its popularity has come at a price.

The large numbers of visitors have chased birds away from the area and have disrupted their feeding and sleeping routines, a new University of Haifa study has found.
Migrating birds

Migrating birds during a stopover at Lake Agmon in northern Israel in 2008.
Photo by: Jalaa Marey / Jini

The Hula Valley historically boasted a large lake and surrounding swamp, but it was drained shortly after Israel’s independence. However, in 1994, Lake Agmon was created by the Jewish National Fund in the former location of the larger Lake Hula. The new body of water and the fields around it have since become a magnet for huge flocks of migrating birds on their way between Europe and Africa.

At the same time, the spot now also attracts 400,000 people a year, including birdwatchers and nature photographers from around the world, who come to see various avian visitors; these include pelicans, cranes and a wide range of water fowl and birds of prey.

The university researchers have found that a vicious cycle has been created, in which larger numbers of birds have also attracted larger numbers of visitors.

Migrating birds are highly sensitive to human activity, according to Noga Collins-Kreiner, who teaches geography and environmental studies and conducted the JNF-funded study. Her research, conducted with University of Haifa colleague Dan Malkinson, as well as the Israel Ornithological Center of the Society for the Protection of Nature, focused on how the presence of visitors affected water fowl around Lake Agmon.

The researchers found that during peak visiting hours – between 6 A.M. and 9 A.M. and in the afternoon as well – such species begin to steer clear of pedestrian paths and observation points. During times of the day when the birds are normally eating or sleeping, their routines are disrupted by the presence of humans.

When more than 20 visitors are present in any one area, the birds keep a distance of 40 to 80 meters from them, Collins-Kreiner found. And for every 100 additional people visiting a given area during the course of a day, the researchers measured an average decrease of 65 birds there – although the feathered guests seem somewhat bolder in places where they can take cover behind plant growth.

Collins-Kreiner and her colleagues concluded that efforts must be made to reduce the impact of human presence around the lake, such as by instructing visitors not to get too close to the birds or by providing closed observation points.