Israel travels

Fall for nature in the raw at the Huleh nature reserve

North of Tiberias is an ever-changing home to teal, cattle egrets, night herons, mallards, cormorants, glossy scarlet ibises, and thousands of strange-looking ducks

Turtles at the Huleh Nature Reserve (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Turtles at the Huleh Nature Reserve (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Ever wonder what it would be like to soar through the sky like a bird? (Isn’t that how the Wright Brothers ended up inventing airplanes?) No problem. Just head for the Huleh Valley Nature Reserve, north of Tiberias, and ask to see the fantastic production called “Euphoria.” Then feel the wind in your wings as you fly.

Fall is a wonderful time to visit the Huleh, for it is chock full of cranes, cormorants, ducks, kites, moorhens, harriers, and even a few spotted eagles. Nature lovers who come in the afternoon and walk as it begins to get dark can enjoy the entrancing spectacle of birds settling down for the night.

Although people have been known to complain that there is nothing to see in the Huleh Reserve, what you view along the Swamp Trail is nature in the raw. True, some of the native water buffalo that inhabit the reserve will be hiding in the marsh. But there is still much to see, an ambiance to absorb, and the opportunity to commune with nature. Late fall and early spring bring thousands upon thousands of birds, while winter is the season for ducks. Spring brings flowers. And in summer, when the entire country is brown and dry, the Reserve’s green foliage is at the height of its beauty.

The single path is such easy walk that you can keep your eyes on both the sky and the water. From the first observation point, there is a lovely view of the reserve’s three natural habitats: swamps, a lake, and the meadows. This is also a great spot from which to view the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon to the east; the Galilee to the west.

Carp jump in the water below the bridges on your trail. Also on view are a number of coypus (nutrias), furry creatures imported by Kibbutz Neot Mordecai when members decided to open a fur factory. Smart enough to flee to the Huleh, coypus have become permanent residents at the Reserve. A bit larger, with thick, shiny coats, the European otter (lutra) is more difficult – but not impossible – to sight it as it crawls through the reeds.

Some of the foliage along the nature trail is rare. In late winter and early spring, for example, the reserve boasts stunning, extraordinary fields of papyrus. Indeed, this is the northernmost point at which papyrus is found. If that’s when you visit, you will begin to see the enchanting papyrus plant with its delicate broom‑shaped top as you stroll along a wooden walkway. The ancients prepared paper from this plant by peeling the stalk and processing the soft tissue within.

Nutria, Huleh Nature Reserve (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Nutria, Huleh Nature Reserve (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Teal, cattle egrets, night herons, mallard ducks, and several species of migrating birds will be flying near, or swimming in, the water. You may notice a glistening on their bodies: water fowl of all kinds possess oily glands on their feathers that keep them from absorbing water that would make them too heavy to fly.

The special bird population in winter includes thousands of brown and white ducks with green heads and unusually wide beaks, called shovelers. Others are called strainers because they take huge mouthfuls of water, strain out the water with the comb-like bristles on their beaks, and eat what is left.

Large black cormorants also reside at the Reserve. Cormorants have a very distinctive and ultra-relaxed way of flapping their wings. Almost wholly black except for whitish throats and necks, they fly in procession with beaks thrust forward. Throughout the reserve you will see trees covered with black dots. These are cormorants, perched quietly on the branches.

White pelicans at Huleh Nature Reserve (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
White pelicans at Huleh Nature Reserve (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Patient bird watchers may spot flocks of glossy scarlet ibises, known for their scythe‑shaped beaks. You should also see plenty of black kites, raptors that take advantage of rising air currents to help them glide gracefully in the sky. Called thermals, the currents begin as a stream of air from the west diverted upwards by the chimney effect of the cliff walls.

The wings of marsh harriers tilt above their bodies when they fly. Common to swamps, you can also identify them by the dark brown color of their wings, their long, thin tails, striped brown and white heads, and pale foreheads.

Although there are two kinds of turtles in the Reserve, the most visible are swamp turtles who love to sun themselves on the rocks. Large swamp turtles are endemic to the Huleh, but a soft-shelled species was imported here from the coast. Zoology professor Heinrich Mendelssohn, one of the original nature lovers whose determination created the reserve, predicted that Israel’s coastal rivers were destined to become polluted and he worried about the future of the Nile soft-shelled turtles that lived in their waters. His prediction came true within a few decades; fortunately he had already brought a handful of turtles to the reserve from the Ada and Taninim Streams. Today, there are so many that they are being returned to the coast, to swim in newly rehabilitated coastal rivers.

Turtles are not the only creatures standing as still as statues on branches in the water and among the reeds. White egrets and grey herons do the same in the jungle of foliage, as they wait patiently for breakfast to swim by before swooping into the water. Look for reed warblers — small songbirds that also inhabit the marsh.

Catfish-watching from the bridge at Huleh Nature Reserve (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Catfish-watching from the bridge at Huleh Nature Reserve (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A special walkway and tower along the path were contributed to the reserve by the family of Gail Rubin. Gail was an American‑Israeli nature photographer who was murdered by terrorists near Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael on March 11, 1978, while working on a story about the fishponds.

The landscape below the walkway is especially swampy. Early settlers and Bedouin would come to the swamps in small boats, pushing them through the mud and up to 40‑50 centimeters of water, to catch fish or gather reeds.

In late fall and early winter, the sky is full of cranes: whole families flying in large flocks. They talk incessantly. One group wants to land, another vetoes the idea – politics, among the birds. You can’t help but wonder what they are saying. Probably, something like “Follow me.”


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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