Israel's Good Name

Beit Zayit Reservoir

In Israel, Jerusalem on June 3, 2020 at 6:21 PM

Back in the beginning of March, just as the winter was coming to an end, there was one particular place that piqued my interest. I had seen photos of it shared on various Facebook groups, and the picturesque appearance beckoned me closer. At last, someone posted that they found fairy shrimp and that sealed the deal. I contacted Adam Ota, the ultimate travel companion, and plans were made to go visit this wonderful place which is known as the Beit Zayit Reservoir.

Beit Zayit Reservoir (photo Eyal Asaf)

Located a few kilometres outside Jerusalem, this crescent-shaped reservoir was built in the 1950s following the construction of the Ein Kerem dam, which stopped the Nachal Soreq stream. This created a flooded area which has a fluctuating waterline. With this particularly rainy winter season, the reservoir swelled proudly with the rainwater run-off and even the usually dry northern end became marshy wetlands.

Marshy flooded northern end of the reservoir

Adam and I boarded our Jerusalem-destined bus in the morning and got off on Highway 1, where we transferred to another bus to take us closer. Alighting just metres from the trail, we first scanned the nearby groves, the crisp morning air abuzz with the singing calls of songbirds. Sure enough, there were handfuls of chaffinches and blackbirds, and then a nice little surprise: a few hawfinches perched on a large, bare-branched tree.

Posing blackbird

We were elated to have such an excellent start, and hurried along the trail, hoping to reach the reservoir as quickly as possible. Expectedly, there were distractions along the way, namely more birds and a fully-blossomed almond tree – a true sign of early spring in Israel. Urging ourselves on, we reached the reservoir from the north, and laid eyes on its flooded banks.

Scanning for interesting waterfowl

It was perfect. There were birds everywhere, including mallards, sandpipers, coots, moorhens and grebes, and the location was gorgeous. We made our way to the water’s edge, hoping to catch sight of these fascinating fairy shrimp. It was mere seconds before we spotted one, swimming upside-down in the shallow water. Then we saw another, and another, and then we realised that the water was absolutely filled with them.

Fairy shrimp (photo Adam Ota)

There were other invertebrates as well, tiny swimming creatures which added to the richness of the underwater ecosystem. The fairy shrimp dwarfed them all, themselves being only a wee couple centimetres long. It was exciting watching them, but we knew that we had to keep going to see more – and perhaps more fairy shrimp.

Macro shot of a copepod (photo Adam Ota)

We walked the nice trail that hugged the reservoir, stopping now and again due to pleasing distractions. A common buzzard landed on a tree across the water, and it was a challenge to get a decent picture. We walked and walked, thoroughly enjoying the weather and the charming location. However, with much walking comes great hunger and we knew that it would soon be time to feast.

Panoramic shot of the reservoir

There’s nothing better than good, fire-roasted food and we came prepared with the necessary ingredients for a fine feast. Checking our location via GPS we understood that we were approaching the end of the reservoir and sought out a prime location for a fire. We needed to ensure that the spot that we chose both gave us shade from the sun to the east, but open skies to the west to watch for migrating raptors. It wasn’t long before we found the perfect spot, where a convenient broken concrete tube was waiting for us to repurpose it into a makeshift oven.

A prime barbecue location

We gathered some dead wood, and plenty of kindling, and got a fire going. Adam had thoughtfully packed some delicious spicy hotdogs, which we impaled on skewers to cook over the scorching heat. As we were eating we casted our eyes skyward from time to time, and then, our efforts paid off and we saw them.

A common buzzard far away

Migrating raptors began to dot the skies, making us dash for our camera and/or binoculars. It started with a few steppe buzzards seen over the faraway pine trees, and then some short-toed eagles were added to the mix. A few Eurasian sparrowhawks joined the fun, and then more steppe buzzards. They’d climb the thermals, reaching a favourable stream of hot air, and then disappear off to the north, to be replaced by others making the same moves.

Hooded crow mobbing a migrating steppe buzzard

Watching migrating birds of prey is a real treat, as you never know what you’ll end up seeing – and even if you see just the regular, expected species, it’s still an exciting time. We ate roasted hotdogs and drank cold water, taking in the experience. When the hotdogs were gone we got out the marshmallows that I had brought, and began a’skewerin’.

Happy adventurers

Sated from the delicious meal, we extinguished the burning coals and gathered up our bags. It was about 11am and large groups of people were starting to show up. We relinquished our prime, waterfront location to some picnic prospectors and struck out for the end of the reservoir. It was surprisingly close, and the big dam beckoned us to explore further. We ventured on, dipping down behind the dam and found a release pipe where excess water gushed out in a huge spray.

Behind the dam

It was tranquil behind the dam, with no crowds and the tiny Nachal Soreq just gurgling along underfoot. It was then that we went off-trail and Adam found something exciting. He shouted cries of jubilation as he raised his arm in victory, a single stem clutched tightly in his fist. It was wild asparagus and he had just harvested a single shoot. Adam had had a relatively bountiful some weeks prior when trotting about in Ben Shemen Forest, and now was time to harvest some more.

Wild aspargus with garlic

We scoured the undergrowth, searching for the precious little shoots. Unfortunately, there were only a handful of plants throughout the area we scanned, and the harvest was quite meagre. However, I was able to secure enough asparagus (approximately 8-10 shoots) to bring home as a treat to my asparagus-loving wife.

Making our way back to the marsh

With that we turned back, and walked the water-hugging trail that was now full of excited visitors. There was just one last raptor in the air, a sparrowhawk, and Adam needed to grab a few fairy shrimp specimens to take home. We reached the flooded marshy area quickly and set out to harvest some invertebrates. Adam used his nifty little net and scored a good number from the millions that were swimming before us. These treasures tucked away safely, we began the walk back to the bus stop.

In search of fairy shrimp

There was just one last surprise for us, a rock-hewn reservoir with a circular mouth at the side of the trail, which had gone unnoticed the first time we passed it. We got our bus after a short wait at the stop and made our journey home, bringing an excellent adventure to a close.

Adam has also written about this trip to the Beit Zayit Reservoir, long before me, in his new blog The Ota Files. Read his hilarious take on our adventure in his post HERE.

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