Israel's Good Name

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.

Matash Ayalon

In Central Israel, Israel on December 6, 2020 at 9:50 AM

November is an exciting month, especially for those interested in locally rare and unique birds, as it is the end of the migration season and the cusp of winter. With the country’s birders running about finding all sorts of goodies, I was just happy to have some good free days to explore areas I’ve never been to. As per usual, I turned to my bird-friend Adam Ota and we went on a spree of exciting trips to places that were new to us. The first took place on Nov 10th, when we visited Matash Ayalon, a water treatment centre located just beside Road 6, roughly between Ramla and the Ben Shemen Forest.

Matash Ayalon’s reservoirs

Now, most people wouldn’t think of a water treatment centre to be a choice place for a trip, let alone a birding excursion. However, the large reservoir of water attached to the centre is an ecosystem of its own, hosting a wide range of wildlife in and outside the murky waters. In the colder months of the year, it serves as a hotel for numerous duck species, as well as a nice handful of birds of prey to balance it all out.

A posing chiffchaff

Our trip started with a bus that took us to the area of Kfar Chabad, where we bumped into an old friend of mine from when I worked at the school. Another bus took us to the area of Azaria, practically on the banks of Nachal Gezer. Consulting Google Maps, we mapped out a nice and relatively direct walk to Matash Ayalon. In hindsight, it was amazing to have this added walk, as we saw so many interesting things along the way.

Adam photographing the Mediterranean mantis

First and foremost, just as we left the road and entered the grassland via a small trail, Adam spotted our very first Mediterranean mantis (Iris oratoria). With such a strong start, our anticipation was mounting and we were shortly rewarded with another fantastic sighting. A sparrowhawk was spotted coming near, and we stood stock still as it suddenly dipped low and did a low pass over the barren field before us. I wish I had the photographic equipment to capture something this incredible, but to even watch it with binoculars as it glided less than a foot over the ground, was breathtaking.

A pair of black-shouldered kites

It perched near us, allowing for a few mediocre pictures, and then flew off, leaving us to find another bird of prey. A marsh harrier made a low pass as well, disappearing before we got very good visuals but then reappearing with subtle grandeur. Kestrels and countless greenfinches, as well as some white wagtails and crested larks, entertained us as we made our way to the underpass that allowed us to safely cross Road 431. On the other side, the reservoir was almost close enough to touch.

Adam scanning the main reservoir

As we approached from the southeast, we were confronted with large, empty fields which promised to be hiding something interesting. Adam scanned with his powerful 12×40 Soviet military binoculars and found us a steppe buzzard perched on some piled-up branches. Then, another kestrel which breezed right by, and a common buzzard up in the air. It’s glorious seeing so many birds of prey, but I was also itching to check out the ducks in the water below. On the way, though, we took a pause to pick some Syrian mesquite (Prosopis farcta) seed pods, which are edible and used as a mild seasoning in some areas of the world. Adam has since used some of the pods in some chicken soup, but reported that the taste wasn’t as pronounced as he had hoped.

Ducks on the banks of the reservoir

The first ducks to be seen were some mallards and northern shovelers, with their big shovel-like bills, as well as some little grebes and coots. As we progressed down the road, more and more of the reservoir became visible until suddenly the whole southern bank revealed a ridiculous amount of ducks (and more). I was nearly speechless as I looked upon hundreds upon hundreds of ducks, which appeared to be primarily shovelers and teals, with a scattering of mallard, coots and several species of waders.

So many ducks!

While the numbers were breathtaking, it was what happened next that truly amazed us. As we were looking around, noticing a few raptors here and there, a chunky falcon was flushed out from somewhere up ahead. It was mere moments before we locked on, with both binoculars and camera, and confirmed that it was a gorgeous peregrine falcon.

Peregrine falcon (ssp. peregrinus) flying by

We were elated, as this was our second peregrine within weeks – the previous one, our first, was found in fields outside of Givat HaShlosha. What made these sightings even more exciting was that they were of different subspecies, this new one the nominate peregrinus, while the former was of the calidus suspecies, hailing from the faraway Russian tundra.

Peregrine falcon (ssp. calidus) from Givat HaShlosha

Properly stoked about this falcon, even though it flew away quite rapidly and disappeared without a trace, we continued our way down towards the main reservoir. As we neared, we started seeing more interesting waterfowl – species that we had never seen before. First up was the common pochard, an elegant tricoloured diving duck, and then there were some ferruginous ducks with their dark, mahogany-burgundy plumage and bright white eyes. If that wasn’t enough, a black-necked grebe paddled by, its bright red eye almost startling to see.

Black-necked grebe

I was particularly excited when we found a few bobbing birds in the centre of the reservoir, as they turned out to be white-headed ducks, a much sought-after species for me. Interestingly enough, I had suspected that I may have seen a few of them in a pond on my wedding day, but was never able to confirm as the sighting happened as I was driving. In retrospect, perhaps I was mistaken back in February, but this time it was for real. The distinct brown bodies with the large white and black heads, combined with the long tail spike and big silver-grey bill make for quite a striking image.

White-headed ducks bobbing in the water

Our spirits were high as we began canvassing the northern side of the reservoir, seeing some northern lapwings flap on by – another new species for us. There was truly a whirlwind of activity around us, and it was hard focusing on one thing at a time, because there was always something to see. In the distance, we spotted flocks of storks/cranes and starlings, while ever-present around us were marsh harriers, black-shouldered kites, kestrels and other birds of prey. It was chaos, but of the very best type.

Two common pochards and a ferruginous duck

As we began to grow accustomed to the excitement, we focused more on the small songbirds that were popping in and out of sight in the nearby vegetation. There were some tits, stonechats, a bluethroat and a whole lot of chiffchaffs, small warblers which had just arrived from Eurasia. We did not find the little bunting, a local rarity that master birder Yoav Perlman had reported a few days prior.

A post-feast long-legged buzzard flying past the Gezer power station

Having reached the gate to the Gezer power station, a gas-fueled behemoth of industry, we decided to turn back and explore the fields we had passed along the way. There, we saw more buzzards – including a fierce-looking long-legged buzzard – and some more kestrels. Only realising afterwards when I was looking through the 400 pictures I had taken that day, we had also seen a handful of skylarks, a field-loving species which comes to winter in the Holy Land.

Observation platform overlooking the quarry

Our wandering took us to an oddly out-of-place observation platform overlooking a semi-defunct quarry which is also home to the Ayalon Cave nature reserve. This cave was discovered accidentally by quarry workers in 2006, and, upon exploration, was found to be Israel’s second-largest limestone cave. This immense cave, with branches extending over 2.5 kilometres below ground, contains an underground lake, sealed off from the rest of the world for eons. When the researchers explored the cave they discovered eight new species which had never yet been seen in the world, although these were all invertebrate creatures, such as crustaceans and even a newly-extinct species of blind scorpions. Unfortunately for us, this cave isn’t open to the public.

Fire-roasted frankfurters

We enjoyed the view for a few more minutes, watching the buzzards move from perch to perch down below, and then started to head back. We crossed back over Nachal Ayalon, a seasonal muddy stream at this point, and made our way back towards the underpass. Adam had brought some choice beef frankfurters and we made a quick fire for a nice and easy lunch. It amuses me that this sausage burning is becoming an adventure staple of ours, but it truly does add something magical to an already exciting day. There was the quick walk back through the fields, and a bus came to snatch us up for our return journey, bringing an end to our six-kilometre long meander.

A particularly handsome long-legged buzzard

This trip, to such a bonafide birding site, was so successful that it prompted us to hit the road two days later, when we visited another exceptional site – the fields and reservoirs of Tzora, located just outside of Bet Shemesh. The report of that exciting excursion will have to wait until the next, upcoming blog entry.

Jerusalem’s Gazelle Valley

In Israel, Jerusalem on November 29, 2020 at 11:00 AM

Practically every Monday I make the journey to Jerusalem for work at the Schocken Institute where I manage their social media accounts. Sometimes I have a hankering for some birding beforehand and so I’ll swing by the Jerusalem Bird Observatory before work. Usually it’s a pleasant time and during the course of a few visits I had seen a handful of nice new-to-me species, including the wryneck and orphean warblers. However, in early September, I began to see fantastic eBird birding reports coming from another Jerusalem location, the Gazelle Valley, and I knew my time to pay another visit had come.

Map of Gazelle Valley

I had been to the Gazelle Valley just once before, with friends Adam and Itamar in the beginning of 2018, and I hadn’t been all that impressed (see HERE). I decided that it was time to give it a fair chance, and to properly plan my visit at the earliest hour possible. A good rule of thumb for birding is to start early, because birds start early (as we all know from the popular phrase) and then disappear once the sun gets too high in the sky. Thus, armed with a good plan, I made my way to the Gazelle Valley for a nice morning visit.

A faraway whinchat

Thankfully, my experience this time was significantly more successful, starting off with a whinchat or two just perched on some thistles waiting for me to see them. The weather was cool in the park, and the sounds of songbirds filled the air, so I figured I’d start exploring the park’s perimetres straight away. A fellow birder had given me a good tip, and that was to check the fig trees in the northern end of the park for some generally elusive golden orioles. I headed that way, passing through the sweet twittering of songbirds which darted in and out of the trees around me.

A gazelle coming at me from the undergrowth

I reached the fig trees, but there were no golden orioles to be found. I hid myself out of view, hoping that maybe one would pop out, but still nothing. There were mostly yellow-vented bulbuls, and a few warblers such as blackcaps, lesser whitethroats and Sardinian warblers. Abandoning the oriole haunt, I headed back down the trail until I heard some crunching in the thick undergrowth next to me. Lo and behold, a male gazelle appeared – quite close by and somewhat tame – and then another, and another. Afterall, I was in Gazelle Valley, I should be seeing gazelles.

A spotted flycatcher blending in with the tree

My walk continued until I noticed something fast and barred flying quickly right overhead. It disappeared into a grouping of pine trees, but I was pretty sure it was a sparrowhawk. Just when I thought I had lost it in the greenery, out of the corner of my eye comes another flash of movement. It was so brief, but it was clear, the sparrowhawk had just tried to snatch a songbird out of a small tree to my right. It’s one thing seeing birds of prey, which is amazing in and of itself, but it’s a whole lot better when you see them in action.

Photographers in the blind

I continued along the reconstructed Nachal Rekafot, along the aptly-named Bird Trail, until I reached the main pondside blind. Along the way I had seen more songbirds, including a spotted flycatcher, a reed warbler and a whole bunch of blackbirds. Within the blind were a few nature photographers, waiting like lions in the tall savannah grass for prey to come their way.

Portrait of the moorhen

For the meantime, just a few moorhens dared make their presence known to us hidden in our special bunker, but then a common kingfisher came and all the photographers jumped into action, clawing at their expensive cameras as the clicking sound of the shutters filled the air.

A common kingfisher

When I looked at my own pictures later, I realised that when I had first entered the hide and started taking pictures of a moorhen that was making its way away from us, I had incidentally photographed it trying to eat a small river frog. Had the kingfisher been as successful it would have been delightful, but no, he gave up after a few minutes and flew away. I followed suit.

The moorhen escaping with the frog

My last stop along this tour of the park was at the big pond, where I could see numerous ducks and other waterbirds idling about. I pulled up a chair a safe distance away and began scanning the visible areas for one of the birds I was most hoping to see: ferruginous ducks. These medium-sized diving ducks are simplistically beautiful with their rich maroon-mahogany plumage and their bright yellow eyes. Alas, not a single ferruginous duck showed its face and I was left to photograph grebes and herons – and the occasional kingfisher.

The tranquil pond-life

The hour was getting late and I had to get to work, so I began my walk back out of the park and to the nearest bus stop. As I walked I saw a few black-winged stilts flying by – an odd sight if not for Gazelle Valley’s bountiful sources of water for them to wade in. I packed away my camera and binoculars and headed over to work where, sadly, the birds are a lot less plentiful.