Israel's Good Name

Hulda Reservoir

In Central Israel, Israel on May 5, 2021 at 11:22 AM

Returning to the trio of birding hotspots that the frequently-featured Adam and I visited over the wet season, this post focuses on our trip to the Hulda Reservoir this past December. With such astounding success at both Matash Ayalon and Tzora, it didn’t take much to inspire us to plan an adventure – but the frequent tantalising reports we had seen on eBird sure helped. Our visit to the Hulda reservoir began on a Thursday morning, with public transportation taking us there in the tedious way that it does, and depositing us at the proper bus stop just after 8am.

Hulda reservoir

Hulda reservoir

Disembarking across the road from Kibbutz Hulda, founded 1930, we checked our position with Google Maps and started walking down a long dirt road bearing southwest to our targeted reservoir. Presently, we were aware of the birds that both graced the power lines and pylons, as well as those in the fields, often being more heard than seen. Binocular-scanning repeatedly, we confirmed the usual species – and a trio of military helicopters – and kept walking, heading for the reservoir that was dead set ahead.

Green fields outside Hulda

Green fields outside Hulda

As we neared the sun-kissed waters, a flock of northern lapwings took flight – our first “interesting” species of the day. An even greater flock of great cormorants joined the aerial presentations and we found ourselves close enough to examine the reservoir. Whereas many, or even most, reservoirs have distinct man made appearances, this looked like a bonafide small lake, filled with all sorts of obstructing vegetation.

A siege of herons guarding the centre of the reservoir

A siege of herons guarding the centre of the reservoir

A large siege of great white herons seized our attention first, but then the scatterings of ducks caused us to shift focus. After our smashing success with new-to-us duck (and grebe) species, we were hoping to nab some more new ones at this promising hotspot. Sure enough, within minutes we found a few great crested grebes paddling near some more familiar shovelers and mallards.

Record shot of our first great crested grebe

Record shot of our first great crested grebe

This was the cause for some hushed excitement, only to be trumped by the discovery of some very elegant looking tufted ducks – another new species. While the sightings were exciting, unfortunately due the size of the reservoir, coupled with the unfortunate solar alignment of our lookout, it was quite difficult to take pictures. The vast majority of the duck and waterfowl photos served as our best option at identifying the paddling pond-loving birds.

Flock of northern lapwings flying by once again

Flock of northern lapwings flying by once again

A few marsh harriers cruised the reedy waters, looking for a weak and defenceless waterfowl to feed on, but nothing more exciting than that. We took leave of our impromptu lookout and attempted to circumnavigate the reservoir by means of the agricultural trails that crisscrossed the fields. The northern lapwings from before took flight once again as we startled them in one of the fields, and we passed some kestrels and a single black-shouldered kite who largely ignored us. There were reports of a merlin having been spotted on several occasions the days leading up to our visit, so our eyes were as peeled as could be, hoping that we too would spot the tiny falcon.

Sun-kissed cauliflower plants

Sun-kissed cauliflower plants

Our route took us along a great cauliflower field, which bordered the reservoir from the south, and a jackal made a surprise appearance beside the thick undergrowth beside the cruciferous field. Realising that there was no better vantage point thus far, we resigned to attempting a full loop but another surprise was in store. As we worked our way up the western side of the complex, we suddenly spotted a dark bird of prey on the grassy banks of the reservoir. A quick photo or two and there it was, a greater spotted eagle in all of its glory. Mere minutes later this subadult eagle thought it wise to take its glory elsewhere and flapped off posthaste, leaving us in the company of the everpresent marsh harriers.

Greater spotted eagle making a quick getaway

Greater spotted eagle making a quick getaway

While the merlin continued to elude us, more exciting finds were on the horizon. We scanned the waterfowl once again, this time from a greater distance but with better lighting due to our altered orientation. There were no new ducks, but the water looked a truly special shade of blue as it reflected the heavens. We tore ourselves away from the scenic view and continued the full loop that we had almost needlessly done. The trail proved to be quite popular with field-loving birds, with white wagtails, water pipits and crested larks walking up and down the dirt road, much to our enjoyment.

There's a twinkle in his eyes

There’s a twinkle in his eyes

It was then that a small bird flitted into view and perched on a dead thistle at the upcoming fork. Its body was well shaded against the bright background – not a particularly helpful thing – yet I managed to squeeze off five distant record shots which then allowed me to announce something special. We had been looking for ages, and had plenty of close calls with lookalikes, but at last we had actually found a European serin. We were overjoyed, and the excitement of the new waterfowl became eclipsed in our minds. It’s one thing to “chance upon” a new species, but it’s exponentially more rewarding to have looked and looked before finding a target species after so long a wait.

Record shot of the blessed European serin

Record shot of the blessed European serin

With our loop complete and our stomachs rumbling we bid farewell to the wild, overgrown reservoir and began our walk back towards the main road. Having brought some choice sausages from Jerusalem in preparation for this moment, we found a good, safe spot to make a small campfire and gathered up some dead branches. While branch-gathering, Adam found some wild asparagus growing, and we realised that our trip was going to continue a little longer than anticipated.

A final parting look at Hulda's wild reservoir

A final parting look at Hulda’s wild reservoir

Our sausages cooked beautifully over the gentle wood fire and when we had properly doused the coals, we packed up and began the search for asparagus shoots. There was a sizable tract of wooded land dividing the road and the fields and we canvassed it expertly, checking under every tree for asparagus plants. We plucked fresh shoots right and left, gleaning our joyous harvest from this bountiful copse. Needless to say, it was a pleasant surprise to bring home after a day’s outing, and cooked up deliciously with diced garlic and butter.

Vernal Pools of the Mercaz

In Central Israel, Israel, Tel Aviv on April 29, 2021 at 10:41 AM

Now that summer’s heating up the horizon, it’s time to cover this past winter’s visits to the numerous vernal pools we have in our general area of the Mercaz, the centre of the country. Generally speaking, blog posts capture the events of a single-day adventure, but sometimes there’s simply not enough to write about per adventure, and thus one post covers a number of mini adventures. This post will be dedicated to covering five vernal pool visits which spanned the few months between the middle of November and the beginning of February, and generally featured just Adam Ota and I – although some trips included others, namely Bracha and our friends Nick and Talia.

Levinsky College's vernal pool

Levinsky College’s vernal pool

Vernal pools are seasonal pools of water which occur in the wet season and serve as a temporary habitat for mostly amphibians and insects of sorts. However, come summer and the pools dry up completely, leaving no trace of the lush wetlands that existed during the winter months prior. Being nature fiends, Adam and I have a list of interesting creatures to find – namely triops and newts, and these can be found almost exclusively in and around vernal pools. So, this winter we redoubled our efforts and visited vernal pools around the Mercaz to maximise the chances of finding such elusive creatures.

All about vernal pools

All about vernal pools

Our first vernal pool was visited in a two-prong trip to the North Tel Aviv coast, an area that we have explored countless times. I had seen many exciting eBird reports in the previous week or so and convinced Adam to come along for a little adventure, in hopes that we’d find some appealing birdlife. Our walk along the edge of the wild duneland led us to the Levinsky College vernal pool, which was vibrant with life. Quite extraordinarily, all of our birding expectations were met – with sightings of two choice birds. First was the penduline tit, which we had first and only ever seen at the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat (IBRCE), and then was a moustached warbler – our very first.

Penduline tit in the reeds

Penduline tit in the reeds

A greater short-toed lark flying over the dunes gave us great joy, and the discovery of a dead robin at the vernal pool’s edge gave us great sadness. We sat beside the pool, in the shade of some bamboo-like reeds, and watched as a stranger prowled the water’s edge in tall rubber boots, armed with a net and a Canon 5Ds camera. This helped inspire us to renew our attempts at finding aquatic treasures in the many other vernal pools around us. We packed up our bags and set out for what we had hoped to be another vernal pool, located just north of the neighbourhood of Afeka, in North Tel Aviv.

Muddy path along Nachal Achiya

Muddy path along Nachal Achiya

Our journey took us across Road 2, also known as the Coastal Road, and down a long dusty road which ended with giant car parks. We activated GPS location and targeted a bumpy dirt path which appeared to be taking us in the right direction. It was a delightful little meandering which gave us a lookout over a large field – where we found some buzzards – and then a muddy, shady trail which took us to Nachal Achiya, a stream that could not be easily forded. Eventually, we crossed on a shifting bridge of garbage that clogged a large metal gate erected to presumably filter trash. It was an odd moment, but on the other side of the stream we found a nice area that was marked as a vernal pool – but it was bone dry.

Afeka's vernal pool still waiting for the rains

Afeka’s vernal pool still waiting for the rains

Discouraged but not despondent, we carried on until we found a map of sorts which promised other exciting things to see in the area. Most exciting was a series of ancient Samaritan burial caves, hewn out of the kurkar bedrock just half a kilometre away. These eight caves were initially discovered in 1951, when road work was being done nearby, and date to the 4th-5th centuries CE. Excavations of these hewn caves revealed a trove of archaeological finds, including oil lamps, glass vessels, rings and more. Today, however, the finds are in a museum and the site is sadly somewhat neglected.

Adam photographing the prized jewel beetle

Adam photographing the prized jewel beetle

Our hike there took us to a small hillock where Adam quite unexpectedly found a jewel beetle, which excited him to no end. Then, what felt like ages later, we made our way to the burial caves and examined them one at a time. I’ve always had a thing for caves, and although these relatively shallow, man made caves aren’t quite as grand, there’s something charming about the sudden drop of temperature and the darkness within. Perhaps most interesting, some of the caves featured the iconic “rolling rock” doors, a construction style which can be found at other ancient tombs such as Horvat Midras and Tel Abu Shusha.

Within the Samaritan burial caves

Within the Samaritan burial caves

The day had grown late after such an elaborate adventure and so we resolved to make our way back via bus, which could be taken from the nearby neighbourhood. Much to our surprise, on the path leaving the nature area, we bumped into a young man who we had once excavated with for a short period of time. Ah, the joys of seeing familiar faces.

'Rolling rock' grave door

‘Rolling rock’ grave door

The next adventure was to the vernal pool of Kfar Yarok, also just north of Tel Aviv, of which I had heard good things about in the days prior to our trip. It was not an aquatic creature which had caught my attention, but rather the presence of a large flock of rooks – fascinating crows of which a small portion of the population winters in Israel. I had seen a rook once or twice up north, but now was an opportunity to see a lot of them, and quite close by. The vernal pool sealed the deal for Adam, and the two of us embarked on a short twofold mission one afternoon in the end of November.

Peering into the murky depths of Kfar HaYarok's vernal pool

Peering into the murky depths of Kfar HaYarok’s vernal pool

After a short bus ride we made our way through the Kfar Yarok youth village and promptly to the green fields which were said to contain this flock of rooks. We scoured the fields with our binoculars yet couldn’t see anything of the sort, so we decided to walk towards the vernal pool henceforth. As nature always does, we were surprised to spot a peregrine falcon resting on a large electric pylon not too far away. Every sighting of the magnificent peregrine is elating, and our spirits were boosted as we continued walking. Soon enough, we spotted a handful of rooks that had snuck over to one of the green fields while we were distracted with the falcon. Before long there were dozens of them, perhaps even a hundred, sharing the insect-rich field with hundreds of swooping swallows and other crow species.

Rook receiving the sunset

Rook receiving the sunset

As the sun was slowly sinking, ushering in the early evening, we found the vernal pool and its resident mallards and Egyptian geese. Adam deftly checked the murky waters for interesting creatures with his handy little net, but didn’t find anything that interested me. We dabbled here and there, and then resigned to heading back to our respective homes, still feeling achieved with our bird sightings earlier.

Four Lepidurus apus and one rarer Triops cancriformis

Four Lepidurus apus and one rarer Triops cancriformis

It was at the very end of December that Adam made a significant breakthrough. He was incidentally in the nearby city of Rosh HaAyin when he chanced upon a tiny, neglected vernal pool located between some residential houses and a road. What he found there shocked him, because after years of searching for triops, he found not one species, but two – and the second one is quite rare! He sent me pictures, almost in disbelief of his good fortune, and we agreed to make a trip of it to properly examine the finds.

Neglected vernal pool in Rosh HaAyin

Neglected vernal pool in Rosh HaAyin

It was just a few days later that Adam and I, joined with friends Nick and Talia, set out to go explore this new vernal pool. We had a side mission, and that was to tidy up the place – as it was embarrassingly littered and in dire need of some intervention. A single bus ride later we walked up to the site and Adam exclaimed that the pool had partially dried up since his previous visit. But, no matter, the triops were even easier to find now as they squirmed around in the marshy grass. True to his initial assumption, there were in fact two species of triops, or tadpole shrimp: Lepidurus apus and the even rarer Triops cancriformis.

Adam opting for a really close photo of triops

Adam opting for a really close photo of triops

Alongside these wiggling living fossils, which bear resemblance to the much larger horseshoe crab, we found other signs of aquatic life. Fairy shrimp as well as what appeared to be river frog tadpoles squirmed around in the shallow, vegetation-filled water. We spent a good long time there taking pictures and enjoying the incredible richness of life in this seemingly indifferent puddle. When we were done we opened up the large garbage bags that we had brought and did our best to clean the place up, for ourselves, others and of course, nature itself.

Close-up shot of a Lepidurus apus (photo Adam Ota)

Close-up shot of a Lepidurus apus (photo Adam Ota)

The final vernal pool that we visited was that of Neve Gan, another neighbourhood of Northern Tel Aviv, and took place in the beginning of February. Geographically quite close to both the vernal pools of Kfar HaYarok (approx. 1 kilometre away) and Afeka (approx. 900 metres away), we had somehow missed visiting it earlier on in the wet season. It was largely due to some Facebook posts about adult southern banded newts (Ommatotriton vittatus) and Middle East tree frogs (Hyla savignyi) that inspired us to go find these exciting species on our own (see HERE, for example). This time it was at night with Bracha joining us; we drove over to the site armed with flashlights and cameras, hoping to document some choice amphibians.

Neve Gan's vernal pool at night (photo Oren Auster)

Neve Gan’s vernal pool at night (photo Oren Auster)

It had rained a bit just before we arrived, and as such, the long grass was wet with a myriad of droplets. It wasn’t long into our little trek around the nature patch behind the new residential buildings that our shoes and legs were soaked through and through. We found the vernal pool – a small placid pond lined with grasses – and tried our best to find frogs and newts, but to no avail. The most ironic part was that the noise was deafening, with the throaty calls of a thousand frogs filling the night air. Alas, no matter how hard we looked, we failed to find even one cacophonous culprit. Sure we were happy to visit, but we had really hoped to find at least one elusive newt, especially with the ongoing building projects that threaten the very existence of this urban treasure, despite the noble efforts of some eco-friendly residents (see their Facebook group HERE).

Map of the North Tel Aviv vernal pools

Map of the North Tel Aviv vernal pools: (1) Levinsky College, (2) Afeka, (3) Kfar HaYarok and (4) Neve Gan

Before long the wet season was coming to an end and the vernal pools were drying up one after the next, finishing yet another successful round in that delicate circle of life. We had achieved a nice handful of visits – Adam even more so with independent excursions to the vernal pools of Petach Tikva and Holon – and we revelled in finding not one, but two species of triops which had evaded us for so long. Perhaps this upcoming winter will result in us finding both newts and salamanders, the latter only found in the northern third of the country. Until then, we have two migration periods and the long hot summer when the dunes come to life.

Tzora’s Fields and Reservoir

In Central Israel, Israel on April 10, 2021 at 8:40 PM

With each passing month, keeping up with this precious blog becomes increasingly more difficult. Recently, I have begun a temporary full-time job driving a self loading crane truck for a company called Eshed, as well as making progress on my MA thesis – a challenge in and of itself. But, there are backlogged adventures that are waiting to be documented, so here we go. Continuing with a spree of bonafide birding trips, a few days after our highly successful visit to Matash Ayalon last November, we hit up the next hotspot, the fields and reservoirs outside of Tzora, a kibbutz adjacent to Beit Shemesh. As per the Matash Ayalon trip, I had seen numerous reports of great birding at Tzora on eBird, an excellent website where birders all around the world upload their sighting checklists.

The lush green fields of Tzora

The lush green fields of Tzora

As usual, public transportation brought us to a bus stop just alongside Nachal Soreq, along which we’d be walking to our destination. What seemed to be a relatively direct route when gauging from Google Map’s satellite imagery turned into quite a meandering, circuitous route passing construction and more.

Common kestrel hunting nearby

Common kestrel hunting nearby

However, this turned out to have its rewards as well – we enjoyed rather exciting birding moments, with sightings of marsh harriers, black-shouldered kites, sparrowhawks, a greater spotted eagle, and even an osprey which Adam spotted far off in the distance. Plus, there were droves of chiffchaff literally on every tree and shrub.

Fording the brown stream with sticks and stones

Fording the brown stream with sticks and stones

At last, having continued along our path, we found ourselves where we needed to be – yet, Nachal Soreq was most decidedly blocking our way. We had anticipated a natural crossing of sorts, but with none available, we were forced to ford the stream using just our wits and whatever resources we could find.

Freshwater leech on a rock

Freshwater leech on a rock

It was an exciting if not laborious venture, and while gathering up some large rocks, we found some freshwater leeches – my first time seeing such notorious creatures. Large tree branches were added to the mix and within twenty minutes we were rock hopping our way across the sluggish, brown and somewhat polluted water.

Adam searching for elusive bitterns

Adam searching for elusive bitterns

After a quick circumnavigation of the main reservoir’s tall, reed-lined banks, we arrived at our first vantage spot to spy on the bobbing ducks. We saw mostly mallards, shovelers and teals – all relatively common ducks in Israel – but we kept looking about here and there, hoping to find something cool.

A record shot of a hen harrier flushing a frightened pipit

A record shot of a hen harrier flushing a frightened pipit

As we reached the lone carob tree on the western bank, we saw a series of exciting things one after the next. First, a hen harrier was spotted taking long, low sweeps over a nearby field, searching for panicked songbirds for its next meal. Then, a marsh harrier began patrolling the reservoir’s edge, getting fairly close to us. Next, a few greater spotted eagles appeared overhead in the thermals, and then a bold common kestrel began hunting really close by. Raptors are exciting, sure, but what really amused me was watching a coot scoot about in the water, paddling willynilly with a prized carob pod in its bill, evading potential thieves. I still wonder if it ever made any use of that tough pod, but we’ll never know.

Beneath the carob tree on the banks of the large reservoir

Beneath the carob tree on the banks of the large reservoir

We ate some food in the comforting shade and, when we were done resting, got back up to walk the fields – a slow but eventual route back to whence we came. A few starlings were spied hiding among the spur-winged lapwings in a nearby fallow field, as well as one or two northern lapwings. Next, some water pipits were spotted bouncing around the edge of the field where it meets the path, accompanied by some ever-present crested larks. We searched for the locally rare little bunting that was seen recently, but found no bunting of any size.

My very first water pipit

My very first water pipit

Our walk took us further along the lush green fields, where undoubtedly hundreds of fine feathered friends were hiding, until we reached a smaller, nearly empty reservoir where we had some poor sightings of some sandpipers and a ruff or two. From the fields and reservoir we transitioned into a pomegranate orchard, the tree branches drooping under the weight of these large, red globules. I delighted in the scene, and noted that further up the tree rows we could see workers picking the ripe fruit, and then tractors carrying off the bountiful crop.

Laden pomegranate trees

Laden pomegranate trees

We passed through and entered a shady pecan orchard, the grassy ground littered with ripe pecans that had fallen from the trees. We took shelter under the shade of the proud trees and lounged in the lush grass, finding comfort among the nuts. As we rested we heard a familiar sound – the distinct calls of common cranes – and wondered if there were some hidden somewhere in the orchard, or perhaps flying overhead. We looked and looked but found no trace of any cranes, even as we exited the pecan trees.

Taking a break in the shade of the pecan trees (photo Adam Ota)

Taking a break in the shade of the pecan trees (photo Adam Ota)

To our left was the Teperberg Winery, Israel’s oldest winery as well as one of the largest in the country. The building complex that we saw was a recent construction, when the company relocated to Tzora. It would have been exciting to visit the winery, but alas, we were on a schedule and it’s unlikely that the winery would have been open to visitors due to the coronavirus social limitations set in place.

Nachal Soreq flowing along peacefully

Nachal Soreq flowing along peacefully

Our path took us along Nachal Soreq once again, this time forging a new route towards a different bus stop along the main road. This proved to be a good decision as almost immediately we saw a nice male sparrowhawk take flight mere metres from us, and then a grey wagtail was spotted dipping around along the flowing stream. If that wasn’t exciting enough, Adam then pointed out a straited heron that we can accidentally startled and was now perched on a nearby tree.

Straited heron in the low tree

Straited heron in the low tree

We continued along, accompanied now and again by yet another sparrowhawk, and made our way to the bus stop. It was already after 2pm and we were leaving feeling quite satisfied with our nice hike to this new place which ultimately provided some exciting nature sightings.