The Vickar Birdwatching Observation Deck at Mishmar HaSharon Reservoir

Difficulty: Basic| Distance: One kilometer | Length of time required: 1-2 hours| Area: Central Sharon region | Recommended Season: Spring, winter autumn
Photograph: Yakov Shkolnik
Photograph: Yakov Shkolnik
The Vickar Observation Deck, built by KKL-JNF with the support of Friends of JNF Canada Tova and Larry Vickar at Mishmar HaSharon Reservoir as part of its ornithological program, is a wonderful place to watch waterfowl. Readers of Eyarok are invited to observe the aquatic birds and enjoy a picnic in nearby Kedem Park.

From Highway 4’s Ruppin Junction turn eastwards on to the road that leads to Moshav Beit HaLevi (Route no. 5711). At Moshav Beit HaLevi Junction (i.e., about 900 meters after the entrance to Kfar Monash) the road turns to the right towards the northern edge of Moshav Haniel, which is the starting point for our tour. (Haniel can also be reached from the direction of Kfar Yona, but that means driving all the way through the moshav to get to its northern gate.) The route is negotiable by vehicles of all types, but it has to be taken slowly.

There is another, better route that does not involve driving round puddles. At Moshav Beit HaLevi Junction turn right towards Haniel, continue for 1.2 kilometers and then turn left on to a trail bordered by a row of cypresses. Drive along the trail for about 750 meters and then turn right before the yellow gate and continue for 1.7 kilometers until you come to the Vickar Observation Deck.

Caution: Please drive carefully when crossing the small unfenced low-water bridge over the Alexander River, and do not attempt to cross the river when it is in spate. 
En route to the lookout
From the northern gate of Moshav Haniel we drive eastwards along a surfaced dirt road, and after about 800 meters we reach the corner of the large embankment of the southern Hefer Valley Reservoir. In wintertime a small pool of water can be observed to the right of the trail. This is the Burgata Winter Pond, a surviving representative of the thousands of similar ponds that were once so characteristic of wintertime in Israel.

Beside the pond is a sign placed there by the Good Place to Live initiative, in which Hefer Valley communities and the regional council are partners. This eco-communal initiative launched by Zoologist Dr. Moshe Natan creates winter ponds, builds nesting boxes for birds and engages in other activities designed to conserve nature in the area. Winter ponds provide habitats that sustain thriving populations of both plants and wildlife that can tolerate wetness in winter and total aridity in summer.

To the west of the pond is the mound of Tel Ashkaf, which was settled from the Ancient Israelite Period until the Middle Ages. The long-ago occupants of this site would have benefited from the copious waters of the Alexander River and the fertile land that surrounds it. Excavations at the site revealed pottery from the Chalcolithic Period (the fifth century BCE), and also a large number of artifacts from the Ancient Roman Period, including some imports from Italy and a winepress from the Byzantine Period.

Tel Ashkaf is a small mound situated in an area of hamra hills at the edge of the Alexander River’s silt valley (fig. 1). The excavations at the site were designed to uncover the ancient ruins along the route of Highway 571, which makes its way for 390 meters around the northern and western margins of the tel.

In recent years, the northern extremity and a section of the western extremity of the tel have been used as a regional refuse dump, and this has seriously damaged many of the archeological remains and limited the excavation area to the northeastern edge of the tel. The archeologists have opened five squares at the site, three of which have proved to contain remains from the Byzantine and Ancient Roman periods. The numerous storage vessels found show that trade and the cultivation of grapes for wine production were among important sources of livelihood locally at the time.
The Alexander River and Kedem Park 
About half a kilometer after the winter pond, the trail turns left and leads us between the reservoir and the Alexander River. On the far side of the river, we can see Kedem Park and its attractive recreation area created by KKL-JNF in the mid-1990s. Straight ahead of us, in the distance, the Vickar Observation Deck, our destination, is already visible.

The route now brings us to two bridges across the Alexander River. One, which is made of iron, is designed for pedestrians, but it cannot be used for safety reasons. The other is an Irish bridge, i.e., a low-water crossing originally intended for farm vehicles that is also used by visitors on their way to the observation deck. After crossing it cautiously – there are no guardrails – we can leave our vehicle in the observation deck’s car park.

If we choose, we can pause briefly for a picnic in Kedem Park, where tables, playground equipment for children and the shade of the fruit trees planted there are all waiting to be enjoyed. Thanks to donations from its Friends in Italy, KKL-JNF created this park as part of the Alexander River rehabilitation project that began in 1995. Slightly further downstream is the spot where the Nablus Stream flows into the Alexander River. 
The Vickar Observation Deck 
The Vickar Observation Deck is a large, well-shaded platform overlooking the Mishmar HaSharon Reservoir, which is one of the water storage facilities built by KKL-JNF in the Hefer Valley. With a capacity of around one million cubic meters, it mops up overflow from the Alexander River in time of floods, stores water and supplies other reservoirs. It is surrounded by a handsome garden of ornamental plants, a lawn and flowers that attract butterflies and insects. A disabled-accessible path leads through the garden and climbs up to the observation deck that bears the name of Larry and Tova Vickar, the KKL-JNF Friends from Canada whose donation made its construction possible.

Up on the deck we met KKL-JNF Chief Ornithologist Yaron Charka and zoologist Uzi Dagan, who has researched the reptile populations of the Ramat Menashe Biosphere. On this particular December day, when the author visited this site, they had identified over four hundred pelicans at the reservoir and about a thousand great cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) that were resting on the northern bank. Other birds, such as grey herons (Ardea cinerea), black-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), Armenian gulls (Larus armenicus), shovelers (Anas Clypeata) and great egrets (Ardea alba), were also in evidence. The raised observation platform with its shady roof provides a wonderful opportunity to view these birds.

The pelicans are coming 
It is not just by chance that such large numbers of pelicans come to spend time at the reservoir. Over thirty thousand great white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) nest in Europe. This population is largely migratory, and, as it overwinters in Africa, all its members pass through Israel during migration, mainly between September and November and then again between March and May. In recent years, however, several hundreds of pelicans have stayed on to winter in Israel.

An adult pelican eats a kilogram of fish every day, and they hunt in flocks. A large flock of pelicans can cause serious damage to a fish farm, but chasing the birds away from one pond to the next without providing them with an alternative is liable to exhaust them to the point of death. With no strength left to continue southwards, they are obliged to remain in Israel. The dilemma is resolved by providing the pelicans with enough food to allow them to continue their migration, and two “refueling stations” have been placed at their disposal: one is in the Hula Valley and the other is here, at the Mishmar HaSharon Reservoir. The Nature and Parks Authority, working in conjunction with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Fisheries Department, stocks the reservoir with fish that are not intended for sale – just for the beaks of the pelicans
KKL-JNF and the birds
KKL-JNF’s Chief Ornithologist Yaron Charka is the initiator and founder of the Yehoraz Kasher National Database of Israeli birds, which today functions as KKL-JNF’s birdwatching portal and has become the main source of information for Israeli ornithologists. Today some 3,000 registered users employ the free mobile-phone-downloadable Buzz application to send real-time bird-observation updates. The database enables users to receive detailed and up-to-the-minute information about every type of bird, including photographs, videoclips, distribution maps and bird calls.

“Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund has taken a strategic decision to become one of the main factors in ornithology in Israel,” explained the organization’s chief scientist Dr. Omri Boneh. “The establishment of Lake Hula was the turning point. Prior to that, KKL-JNF had developed a great many ecotourism infrastructures all over the country, but Lake Hula was the first site at which the organization implemented its vision by planning and creating a lake together with all the necessary tourism facilities, and since then it has managed it in a remarkable manner that has become a model worthy of imitation.”

KKL-JNF’s Lake Hula has become the number one birdwatching park in Israel, and an important site on an international scale, too. Around it the organization has developed a network of worldwide connections with birdwatching sites and research bodies abroad.

“KKL-JNF has developed a special model for open-area leisure activities. With the help of its network of recreation areas, cycle paths and scenic routes, it invites the public to experience open areas free of charge. Promoting ornithology has added a new dimension to leisure culture and time spent in these open areas. Birdwatching also provides an additional opportunity for raising awareness of the need for nature conservation. People have a soft spot for birds, and this can make them more receptive to explanations as to the importance of conserving nature and habitats, an issue that lies at the very heart of KKL-JNF activity.”

Meanwhile KKL-JNF continues to broaden its ornithological pursuits. Apart from its activities at Lake Hula and the Vickar Observation Deck, the organization, working in conjunction with Tel Aviv Municipality and with the support of Friends of JNF Australia, has established an urban birdwatching park at the appropriately named Rosh Tzippor (Bird’s Head) site at the confluence of the Yarkon and Ayalon rivers. It is likewise involved in operating the birdwatching park in Eilat, and is planning to set up ornithological centers on Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava, at the fishponds of Kibbutz Ein HaHoresh and in Spring Park (Park HaMa‘yanot) in the Beit Shean Valley – and this is only a partial list. KKL-JNF is also cooperating with the Hoopoe Birdwatching Center in Yeruham.

Apart from all the above, KKL-JNF is initiating ornithological research. For example, as part of his doctoral studies, Uzi Dagan will begin to investigate the various bird species found in KKL-JNF forests in northern Israel. His thesis, supervised by Professor Ido Izhaki of Haifa University, will answer a great many ecological questions and propose woodland management strategies that will enrich the range of bird species in KKL-JNF forests.

But this is only the beginning. KKL-JNF is planning to expand the database of Israeli birds developed by Yaron Charka to include information on special trees, wild vegetation, cycle trails and recreation areas. Thus, by making use of their mobile phones, members of the public will be able to connect to an inexhaustible fund of information and make the fullest use of all the options for spending enjoyable leisure time in forests and open spaces.

Together with the Sharon Drainage and River Authority, Hefer Valley Regional Council, the Afikei Emek Hefer Communal Water Company and Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority, KKL-JNF is currently busy in the lower reaches of the Alexander River, where it is establishing a birdwatching park that will make use of Kibbutz Ein HaHoresh’s fishponds.

Text and photographs: Yaakov Skolnik
Maps: Yaakov Skolnik; Alex Primaslov, KKL-JNF Menashe and HaSharon area assistant engineer.
Published: January 6, 2014

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