Israel's Good Name

Holon Dunes at Night

In Central Israel, Israel on September 16, 2018 at 6:11 AM

The other week I had an urge to go out and explore some of the local sand dunes before the summer ends. With the onset of the colder weather, and the accompanying rain, on the horizon, opportunity beckoned to comb the great dunes in search of insects, arachnids and reptiles. The dunes just south of Holon were recommended to me, and I reached out to my travel buddy Adam Ota to see if he wanted to come along. We equipped ourselves with cameras and flashlights (and a stick wielded by Adam) and set out for the bus as the sun began to set.

Sunset over the city

We arrived at the edge of Holon and made our way through a park and past a stadium, gearing up before we stepped out into the sandy dunes. Overgrown with small bushes and other sand-loving plants, we found many trails crisscrossing the dunes and chose those that took us further and further south away from civilisation. I had just been gifted a new camera from my parents – a Nikon P900 with an astounding 83x optical zoom – and, as such, was rather excited to test out its night-time capabilities.

Geared up

As we crested the first dune we startled a stone curlew, which flew off with calls of alarms, leaving us in silence. There was no moon to be seen, yet Mars and a few stars twinkled in the sky above us. Planes from the nearby Ben Gurion Airport passed overhead from time to time and our flashlight beamed danced illuminatingly in the relative darkness.

Elegant gecko

The first interesting find of the evening was a small elegant gecko, which ran swiftly to cover once being exposed. A brief stop at a bush some minutes later revealed a praying mantis egg case glued to a stick. Moments later we made an even more exciting discovery: a baby chameleon was asleep nearby, clutching on to a twig as he snoozed. We snuck up to it, eager to take pictures, and then noticed that there were even more baby chameleons nearby.

Adam holding a baby chameleon

We enjoyed the company of the baby chameleons, and then pushed on further to find more interesting wildlife. Personally, I had my eyes out for a snake, any snake but preferably either a viper or a sand boa, both of which dwell in the dunes. Instead we found more chameleons, giant beetles, ants, antlions, dragonflies and grasshoppers, all going through their nightly routines as we passed through their simple lives.

Tracking a snake in the sand

Another elegant gecko was spotted by Adam, hiding underneath a sheet of wood that we lifted up in search for critters. Next, we found the tracks of a medium-sized snake that had made its way up/down the sandy slope of a dune. Searching for the ends of the tracks produced no results, but it was shortly thereafter that we found another cool find. Noticing a slot-like hole in a sandy slope, we peered inside to see an African fattail scorpion waiting in ambush.

Our first African fattail scorpion

Actually a pretty dangerous scorpion, we had quite the time finding more of them in the sands, and taking their pictures proved to be most exciting. Taking note of the time, we decided to head back to Holon to catch a bus back to Givat Shmuel before it was too late. On the way, we crossed the old “Security Road”, which was paved in 1948, and visited the old water tower built in 1936 to service the local Jewish population.

Old water tower in a cloud of dust

We made it back to Givat Shmuel happy with what we succeeded in seeing, yet I still had a nagging feeling to go back to find a snake – any snake at this point. A few nights later I reached out to Adam and we set out once again in search of exciting dune lifeforms. We decided to comb a different area, starting just west of where we ended the time before, and began to search.

Holon Dunes as seen from above (Google Maps)

This time we found dozens of fattail scorpions, the tracks of many wedge-snouted skinks and those of a gerbil as well. A few more of the same sightings as last time, minus the baby chameleons, and we had seen all that there was to see. No matter how hard we tried we were unable to locate a snake, but there is still a whole lot more of the dunes to explore so hopefully next time we’ll be met with success.

African fattail scorpion ready for action

Until then we have many ripe days of birding before university starts up again, the fall migration kicking off to a lively start with thousands of shrikes, wheatears, eagles, honey buzzards, warblers and more just waiting to be seen and documented.

Nachal Na’aman

In Galilee, Israel on September 2, 2018 at 5:47 AM

Just few weeks ago I took a short morning trip to Nachal Na’aman, a short stream in the Western Galilee. I had received word that there was good birding to be had at the fish ponds of Ein HaMifratz, which are to be found on the banks of the stream. In addition, the mouth of Nachal Na’aman, which opens into the Mediterranean Sea, is a good bet for shorebirds and other feathered friends. With this in mind I set out alone from Ma’alot in the early morning and drove for half an hour or so until I reached the kibbutz of Ein HaMifratz.

Nachal Na’aman in the early morning

I drove through the kibbutz, passing some odorous cowsheds, until I reached the fish ponds. I parked and got out to explore, the morning light still not strong enough for my camera to operate properly but enough to start looking for interesting wildlife. From the very start I could see and hear a handful of species, mostly those that were expected to be there and therefore aren’t that exciting to spot. These are, of course, the several heron and egret species that can be found throughout the country.

Armenian gull watching me from above

It was nice, however, to see all three species of kingfishers (common, white-breasted and pied) as well as a juvenile goldfinch flying amongst the thorny thistle that grows beside the ponds. Schematically speaking, the fish ponds are rectangular bodies of murky water that contain an unknown number of fish that are fed by mechanical arms protruding over the water. Due to the high fish-to-water ratio, many species of fish-eating animals come to hunt at the ponds, and, as a result of that, birders and nature photographers come to watch.

Sunlight over the fish pond

I began with a short walk alongside the northern bank of Nachal Na’aman, hoping to see something interesting but it was actually in the fish ponds where I found the first interesting sighting of the day. I had noticed something moving at the water’s edge, and realised that it was an African softshell turtle, the famous inhabitants of Nachal Alexander. While it’s true that they aren’t exclusive to Nachal Alexander, it’s not too common to see them in other bodies of water.

River crab

I crossed over the concrete bridge that spans Nachal Na’aman, taking note of the small blue plaque that informs visitors on the role the bridge played in the military push to conquer the Western Galilee in the War for Independence. From the bridge I began to circle one of the fish ponds parallel to the stream, taking photographs of the common terns that shrieked by in flight.

The first fish pond

A handful of gulls, mostly Armenian and yellow-legged, made appearances but it was mainly the terns that captivated my attention. The gorgeous sunrise, with the beams of light piercing through the thick, dark clouds made a glorious scene, especially with the birds everywhere. As I walked I would incidentally flush out night herons that were standing at the water’s edge waiting for prey to appear.

Common sandpiper

On the other side of the pond I noticed a common sandpiper feeding as well as a few river crabs that scuttled into the water as soon as I got too close. However, it was a slight movement on the opposite bank that excited me most. A small group of Egyptian mongooses (two adults and two juveniles) were patrolling the pond’s perimetre, likely looking for some tasty breakfast to feed on.

Egyptian mongooses

In this manner I explored several more of the fish ponds, taking note of some more fun birds such as hoopoes, mallards and others. I even watched an interesting scene play out: an adult common tern came flying over from another pond and made a noisy entrance to a group of terns sitting on a line. With the aid of my zoom lens I was able to see that the adult had a small fish in its mouth and landed beside a juvenile who begged for the tasty morsel. I got distracted shortly thereafter and missed the conclusion of the scene, but there’s a good chance that the juvenile received a delicious meal.

Common tern adult with fish (left) and juvenile (right)

When I had walked quite a ways I noticed a bird of prey soaring high up above – a black-shouldered kite. Then, a gunshot rang out and I felt a feeling of confusion. Minutes later I realised that the fish pond people drive around and fire shotguns into the air to scare off fish-eating birds. I’m sure they were shooting blanks, but the scene was reminiscent of a western film with the clouds of smoke rising into the air following the warning shots.

More fish ponds

At last I had had my fill of the fish ponds and decided to go visit the mouth of Nachal Na’aman next. It was a short drive and I found a place to park my car not far from the stream. I waved to a fisherman as I began to walk a streamside path, noticing another common sandpiper feeding at the water’s edge. I reached a small bridge and saw the Mediterranean Sea before me, and my anticipation rose.

Nachal Na’aman’s mouth

Trudging through the overgrown dune-like terrain, I quickly made my way to the sandy area between the stream and sea where I saw terns congregating. Suddenly a tiny movement caught my eye – my very first greater sand plover, and then another – a ruddy turnstone in gorgeous summer plumage. I was excited and for good reason: the weather was beautiful, the sea beckoned and there were new species to find.

Backwaters of Nachal Na’aman and the sea

The terns were more of the common terns that I had seen at the fish ponds, but a small flock of sanderlings landed nearby and began strutting about looking for food. I reached the end of a long pool of backwater, where the waters of the stream and sea combine, and began to circle around along the seashore.

Small flock of sanderlings

With a view of the Old City of Akko in front of me in the distance I walked, alternating between taking pictures of the view and taking pictures of birds. I had seen this view before, in a video taken by wildlife expert Amir Balaban (as can be seen HERE), and I felt inspired. In quick succession, I had sightings of Kentish and common ringed plovers, also new species for me. It was rather exciting walking down the beach and seeing shorebirds everywhere, rummaging around like common pigeons or seagulls.

The beach with the Old City of Akko

At last I reached the end of the dry sand, where the stream’s waters officially meet the sea, and made a decision. Rolling my pants up and taking my shoes in my hands, I forded the shallow water, spying a yellow crab racing across the sandy floor in a similar manner. But as I lollygagged, enjoying the cool water on my legs, I was caught by some minor waves and decided it’d be better to not get completely soaked. My final act was to walk a bit further along the beach and then cut across the so-called dunes back to the parked car. Fortunately, a few ruddy turnstones were foraging and seemed unthreatened by my presence. When one got relatively close I decided that I wanted a better shot of this handsome fellow and laid down on my stomach to get a better angle.

Ruddy turnstone foraging

The turnstone only let me get one good photo before running past me and with that I decided to call it a day. It was a lovely little trip with four all-time new species for me, making me think about more upcoming birding adventures.

Tel es-Safi Archaeological Dig 2018

In Israel, Judea on August 26, 2018 at 9:27 AM

Following my last season at the Tel es-Safi/Gath archaeological dig (as can be read in parts I and II) a year later, I returned this summer for another four weeks of fun in the sun. Having garnered some experience, I was promoted to assistant area supervisor, which, in my case, made me a supervisor of five squares, a step up from last year’s single square. Excited to tackle the job, I reunited with Dr Jill Katz of Yeshiva University (my immediate superior), Prof Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University (the dig director) and other staff members to prepare the field for the dig.

Area Y before the dig began

This year brought change to the long-running Tel es-Safi dig as the efforts were concentrated only on the lower city area. Last year had us in both the upper and lower city of the tel, with our Area J being on the slope – the upper city wall from the Early Bronze era. Dr Katz and I had been designated a new area, Area Y, at the northern side of the tel and close to Nachal Elah, the outer regions of the lower city. Using some nifty magnetometry technology to detect physical anomalies under the surface, we picked out some squares to excavate out of Israel’s national land grid.

Lodgings at Kibbutz Kfar Menachem

This year our expedition was to be based out of a school in nearby Kibbutz Kfar Menachem, just a fifteen minute drive from the tel itself. Staff and volunteers met and exchanged pleasantries as we set ourselves up for the four-week program. Dr Katz had brought some Yeshiva University students and other volunteers, which made the bulk of our core group, and it was a pleasure to get acquainted before setting out the following morning to the tel.

Sunrise and Area D

Our first week began with clearing Area Y from rocks, dead grass and other vegetation, as well as setting up the shade tent that would serve us the rest of the season. Our neighbours were also preparing their areas: the Bar Ilan team at Area M just across the dirt road on the side closer to the tel was also opening up fresh squares on virgin land. Over to the west, Area D and D2 were setting up as well, cleaning their aging baulks from the ravages of time and winter’s rains.

Prof Boaz Zissu lending a hand

Back at Area Y, we struck into the dry soil with a hunger for finds, each of the first four squares occupied by three or four volunteers. I was given boxes of supplies, a table, and a chair where I was to spend the majority of my time in the field. I was charged with making sure that everything was properly registered and accounted for, and that everything that was taken back to the field lab was tagged and labeled correctly. It was an interesting yet mostly cushy job and I was almost always shaded from the fierce sun by the large jujube tree that adorned the eastern side of our area.

Jill giving a briefing

Each day the routine was the same: we’d arrive, set up the shade tent, gather all the necessary tools, have a quick briefing on what the objectives of the day were, dig, dig, dig, write, write, write, and then pack it all up at the end of the day, which was at one o’clock in the afternoon.

Rebecca Zami preparing the daily top plan

Back at the kibbutz we processed all the finds, which included washing, reading, and writing on pottery, as well as attending lectures and filling out paperwork (each to their own in accordance to their job). Of course, we also enjoyed meals and had leisure time to fraternise with the many interesting folks from around the world who had come for the summer.

Annie Brown with a tiny lizard jawbone

Clearing away the topsoil is both laborious and frustrating, yet sometimes really interesting finds from more recent periods can be found. In our case, we found several pieces of Ottoman pipes and a few broken glass bracelet pieces from the Mamluk/Ottoman period. While these finds have very little significance to an excavation dedicated to Bronze and Iron Age settlements, they do brighten up the day.

Mouthpiece of an Ottoman pipe

Being a lover of nature and wildlife, I was always excited to see interesting species both in and above ground. During the first week we found a few ocellated skinks and some green toads, while seeing a recurring presence of a pair of short-toed eagles who reside at the tel each summer. It’s always satisfying to hear an aquiline cry in the distance and to then looking out at where it was expected to be; I had begun to learn their habits and that provided me much joy as a birder.

Avraham Penso running a wheelbarrow

The first week went by quickly, the topsoil being stripped away and decanted on nearby dirt ramps that were constructed under the guidance of Prof David Kotter of Colorado Christian University, a man educated in the art of engineering. With the start of the second week our core team was bolstered by some experienced members from last year’s Area J, including Itamar Berko, Shani Guterman, Avraham Penso and Rebecca Zami. We needed more diggers with experience to manage all the progression made below topsoil–when things start getting interesting.

Henry Kronenberg in Square 93A

In fact, in one of our squares (93A), a curious clumping of fired mudbricks was being exposed from under the earth, prompting much discussion amongst the staff. Each square had its charm, a combination of the physical contents and the personalities of those working in it. While one square’s team was hard at work pickaxing a mysterious layer of chalk in relative silence, another would be clamouring about some painted pottery they had found. Though not properly digging in any of the squares for the bulk of my day, I had the pleasure of appreciating it all, even if from afar.

Fine specimen of a Philistine mudbrick

With the onset of the second week I had also brought some of my home-brewed beer to the kibbutz, the vulture-decorated bottles of our successful batch of Arx Meles IPA II proving to be quite a hit with both the local and foreign students. Unfortunately, my co-brewer, Ben Yablon, was unable to attend this year’s dig and thereby missed out on the accolades that he well-deserved.

Drone view of Area Y (photo Aren Maeir)

Back at the digsite, the expedition’s drone began to made sporadic visits to the three areas, providing us with a much-appreciated bird’s-eye view of the work we were doing. There wasn’t much in terms of isolated special finds during the second week, but the squares were coming along nicely, and some of them caused much intrigue. For one, the clumping of mudbricks in square 93A was beginning to appear like a structure, albeit somewhat collapsed, and the square with the chalk refused to move on – the chalk layer getting deeper and deeper with every passing day.

Tiny Kotschy’s gecko on my table

It’d be uncharacteristic for me to leave out the wildlife, so on the second week I was treated to a special guest at my table. A tiny Kotschy’s gecko, that I assume lives in the jujube tree, came running all over my paperwork and top-plan. I had never seen one of these amazingly camouflaged lizards so it was quite an experience. Another curious find shortly thereafter was the remains of a little owl, found flat as a pancake in the grass beside the dirt road. I just hope it wasn’t the same little owl from last summer (see photograph HERE).

Yeshiva University students with Dr Jill Katz

The second week went by quickly, and a handful of Bar Ilan students left our area. Our crew was cut down a bit, but on the third week we had a lot of volunteer groups who came to help for a day. A large contingency of Yeshiva University students doing a summer program in Bar Ilan’s laboratories came to help out one morning, bringing with them a YU flag for us to hang from our shade tent.

Area M supervisor Maria Enukhina taking photographs from a cherry-picker

Good progress was made on the third week, and the squares were looking more and more impressive. In order to handle the influx of volunteers with no field experience, we opened up another square (93C) which provided a fresh working space for fun topsoil finds. Sure enough, a piece of a glass bracelet from the Mamluk/Ottoman period was uncovered, as well as a few obscure metal pieces probably dating back to the early to mid-1900s.

Progression at Area Y

Despite the fact that we had five squares open, and that we were digging in Iron I territory (land of the Philistines), we had a remarkable lack of small finds. Even pottery, which is so common everywhere on and around the tel, was scarce and our daily pottery buckets were always scant. It became a bit of a joke during the expedition, especially as Area M’s findings were so incredibly rich. They had uncovered the destruction level from the Aramean King Hazael’s attack, and were knee-deep in both broken and complete vessels.

Rebecca Zami examining some potsherds

We had to finish the bulk of our digging by the end of the third week, as the fourth week focuses on cleaning up the area and photographically documenting the season’s work. Most of Area D’s workers, including the valued CCU team who helped us out a lot in Area Y, had left the expedition by the end of the third week. Our team shrunk as well, and it was mostly the core members who were left to hold the torch to the very end. We came back from the weekend, some of us having spent Shabbat together in Jerusalem, refreshed and ready to finish off the season with a bang.

Taking elevation readings with the Total Station

However, I had a different calling. That Sunday I was to report to my old army base just outside of Haifa for reserve duty. Being that I was still tied down with my responsibilities at Tel es-Safi, I was released upon talking to my captain, but it was fun revisiting my old base after so many years. Taking public transportation back to the kibbutz, I rejoined my dig friends and got right back into the swing of things.

Dr Jill Katz at Tel Miqne

The following day we took a field trip to Tel Miqne/Ekron, guided by our very own Prof Jeff Chadwick, who was a supervisor there during the excavations in the 1990s. We toured the agricultural installations, which had since become impressively overgrown, and learned about the ancient city’s gates. It was a short trip, with the intense afternoon sun beating mercilessly down upon us, and we took what we could from it.

Area Y completed for the season

The next few days were dedicated to cleaning and photographing, yet while cleaning, the base of a vessel became visible on the floor of Square 92B. We were filled with excitement, thinking that we had at last come across a possible whole vessel. So, after taking the final photographs of the season, we gathered around as a few team members excavated it. Not quite what we expected, we discovered that this base was just a base, and a broken one at that. Later, we learned that it was a homemade vessel – a cool find for that reason alone.

Area Y group photo (photo Aren Maeir)

Thus ended the 2018 season of the Tel es-Safi Archaeological Dig for the Area Y team. We shared a grand time together, most having a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will be forever cherished. For the archaeology students among us, there’s next summer to look forward to – be it at Tel es-Safi again, or perhaps one of the many other archaeological digs throughout the country.

End-of-the-season photograph (photo Aren Maeir)

To read more about Tel es-Safi’s official (and unofficial) updates, as well as old posts from this summer’s season, please check out Prof Maeir’s blog HERE.