Israel's Good Name

Eilat

In Eilat, Israel, Negev on July 27, 2020 at 8:50 AM

Just a few weeks ago, in the beginning of July, my wife Bracha and I went on a two-day trip down to Eilat, Israel’s resort town. The trip was organised and heavily-subsidised by Minhal HaStudentim, which offers trips and activities – in addition to tuition help – throughout the year to immigrant students. Being that we are both immigrants and students, we were able to snag this fun little trip for quite the bargain.

Is it a honeymoon or just a group trip to Eilat?

Early Sunday morning we sleepily lugged our bags over to Rishon LeZion, where our dedicated tour bus was waiting. Somehow we ended up being attached to the bus with students from the areas of Rishon LeZion and Rehovot, and not with our friends from Bar Ilan University, but we made the best of our predicament and made new friends. When we had successfully found our permanent seats – factoring in the safety guidelines during this strenuous time period with the coronavirus – our bus driver turned his vehicle in the direction of Eilat.

Our guide, Liran Gabay

However, we had a quick stop along the way, and that was Ein Gedi off the coast of the Dead Sea. Our route took us through Jerusalem, and our tour guide, Liran Gabay, filled our ears with wordy explanations to the various sites that we passed. Upon arriving at Ein Gedi we were greeted by dozens of fan-tailed ravens and Tristram’s starlings, as well as a splendid number of blue-spotted Arab butterflies – truly astounding to see such concentrations of flappy, yellow wings.

Ten blue-spotted Arab butterflies at Ein Gedi

Due to time constraints, we just did the short walk to the lower waterfall, where we whet our appetite in the hot, dry desert heat. After sandwiches, which served as a pre-lunch, we got back into the tour bus and began the long, straight drive down Road 90 to Eilat. But no, there was still another adventurous stop to make, and that was an extreme park by the name of Top 94. There, we did a variety of activities including a shooting range, paintball and eating lunch.

Bracha firing the .22 sporting rifle

I was quite excited for the shooting range as we were going to be shooting .22-calibre bullets – a calibre-first for me, and Bracha’s very first time shooting any weapon. We stationed ourselves side-by-side and unleashed a succession of hot metal at paper targets pinned up downrange. To my delight, both of us had rather tight groupings, although both sporting rifles’ iron sights were quite inaccurate which led us to wildly miss our targets.

Targets: Bracha’s to the left, mine to the right

Paintball was also delightful, yet the splatters of orange caused a bit of pain and bruising here and there. Bracha and I were on opposing teams in a game format that meant playing just to shoot each other willy-nilly, all in a brown, garage-themed setting. Lunch was nice as well, a generous portion of schnitzel and rice alongside french fries. There was a small museum on-site, the Negev Warriors Museum dedicated to soldiering between the years 1917-1949, but unfortunately it was closed.

Getting ready for some paintball

At last, we boarded our bus and began the final leg to Eilat proper, arriving directly at our sleeping accommodations, the HI Eilat Hostel. The sun set over the mountains of Egypt and we got settled into our own room, a fortunate upgrade that we were able to secure. Continuing the theme of feasting, we headed down to the dining room for dinner – a mess of meatballs, schnitzel, rice, pasta and more. It was an interesting affair balancing a hotel experience with the necessary restrictions regarding serving, which had limited portions with minimised human contact and longer lines, but we made the best of our situation.

Looking out from our hostel balcony

With the culmination of dinner we had a little bit of free time so we headed out to explore the boardwalk area with its plethora of shops, restaurants, bars and more. The gently lapping surf and the full moon’s reflection on the calm water beckoned us near, so we shed shoes and drank bottled cocktails in the coarse sand. It was a profoundly relaxing moment, even with the hubbub of nightlife behind us, and made the perfect ending to an action-packed day.

Sculpture commemorating raising the Ink Flag

The following morning greeted us with the hot Eilat sun streaming rays of warmth to heat up another day of adventure. Breakfast was served and then we headed out to our first stop of the day, the Umm Rash-Rash historical site just across the road from our hotel. It was the beginning of March 1949 and the Israeli government was bent on securing access to the Red Sea before agreeing to a ceasefire with the surrounding Arab nations. Two infantry brigades pushed south through the desert and reached the coastal area of Umm Rash-Rash which was being held by Jordanian forces. On March 10, 1949 the conquering Israeli soldiers raised an impromptu flag, known as the “Ink Flag”, a symbol of sovereignty over this tiny patch of coastal land linking Israel with the Red Sea.

Taba bording crossing

Getting into our tour bus, we were then driven down to the Taba border crossing which links Israel with Egypt. There, we got out to enjoy the expansive view of the Gulf of Aqaba and our neighbours, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. I kept a sharp eye out for terns, gulls and other interesting sea-going birds, and my efforts paid off. I was rewarded with my first ever white-eyed gull, as well as some white-cheeked terns.

The Gulf of Aqaba from the Israel-Egypt border

Our next stop was the Coral Beach Nature Reserve, where we slotted for some fun snorkeling in the reefs. Neither of us had ever been snorkeling, so we were both righteously excited to strap on some gear and plunge into the water, clear waters of the Red Sea. Terns flitted about over the low waves, we burnt our feet in the scorching sand, and the sun slowly ate through our protective layer of sunscreen. Eilat in the summer is truly a sauna, and we so badly wanted to just get into the cooling waters.

White-cheeked tern resting on a floater

At last our time to snorkel came and we walked our way out to the launch point of the snorkel route. For most people it took barely a minute or so to get the mask and snorkel tube affixed and ready to go, but I floundered in the shallows struggling to breathe normally as I peered into the underwater world with blurred vision. Unfortunately, the bespectacled among us couldn’t wear our glasses and with my prescription, I’d be happy if I saw any of the many fish species that live in and around the coral reef. Interestingly enough, this is the northernmost coral reef in the world, but alas, I have no pictures to show for it. When the snorkel activity was over, and I had seen a few colourful fish-blurs which shall remain unidentified, we got back into our bus and headed back to the hostel for lunch. When our bellies were full we were escorted back out to the waterfront, for even more watery activities. This time they were of the boating sense, as well as lounging about on the beach with the other beach-goers.

Coming back aboard after banana boating (photo Liran Gabay)

Our first option was the banana boat ride, where we and eight others were shipped out to sea and then marooned on a floating banana-like raft roped to the back of the boat. We hung on for dear life as the boat captain sped away, dragging us along in his wake, cool saltwater splashing our faces liberally. We clung as we laughed, the buoyant raft being swept along effortlessly as the captain throttled his engines.

The more extreme version of banana boating

There were some close calls but alas, nobody was fully capsized and we made our way back to the marina smiling and dripping under the hot midday sun. The next option was an even more extreme raft where the riders lay clinging to a rectangular float only to be flung about wildly. There’s a mutual understanding that those riding the rafts desire to be slightly drowned, and that the sea captain desires to do the drowning. Bracha and I decided that we’d rather watch the proceedings unfold, and I rushed to get my trusty camera.

Green sea turtle at Eilat

The eight riders flopped about in the foamy water, the spray dousing them with every turn. Bracha laughed heartily as the riders clung desperately to the raft, only to be thrown off every other minute. Indeed, everyone was laughing and a good time was had by all. One of my favourite moments, however, was when one of the fellow students spotted a green sea turtle coming up for air in the marina.

Eilat’s North Beach

After the boats we spent a bit of time in the water and then headed back to the hostel to change. I had been angling to pay a quick visit to North Beach, a famous birding haunt, where I was hoping I’d see some new and interesting terns, gulls, sea birds and the like. Bracha joined me and we walked along the beachfront boardwalk, replete with excessive tourist attractions. It was a longer walk than either of us had anticipated but at last we made it and we stood at the seashore as the sun began its daily descent.

Juvenile white-eyed gull flying over the sea

I scanned the seas with my binoculars, seeking flapping or soaring wings, but also made sure to check the far-out floating buoys. At first there were just more white-eyed gulls, but then a large tern appeared overhead – my very first Caspian tern, a true behemoth of his genus. That certainly was exciting, but I wanted more. I checked the drainage canal for birds, but there was nothing identifiable, so I scanned the seas again and again.

Some invasive house crows

One of the delightful aspects of birding is the unpredictability involved; sometimes, where you expect to see something you do not, and other times, sightings come as a wonderful surprise. Knowing that one day I’ll eventually tick off other, yet-unseen terns, gulls and other seabirds, we headed back to the hostel for a “barbecue dinner”.

Lantern tour at Timna Park

The government had convened once more to discuss the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and it was decided the restrictions be put in place once again. Therefore, our trip was being brought to a premature end, and some of the much-anticipated events cancelled. Hoping to give us one last hurrah, it was decided that we’d have a quick early night trip to Timna Park for a special “lantern tour”. I had been to Timna twice before, see HERE and HERE, so I was okay with the idea of going at night – despite the fact that the ground colour is one of the park’s finest features.

Egyptian influence at Timna

Our lantern tour was surprisingly picturesque, and certainly everyone made the most of it as we knew that we were to be heading back up north on the morrow. It was late when we returned, but that didn’t keep us all from enjoying one more night in Israel’s resort town. On the drive back the following morning we saw a few nice species of wildlife from our bus window – including one dorcas gazelle spotted by Bracha.

Mitzpe Ramon’s desert sculpture garden

We also made a quick stop at Mitzpe Ramon where I took the opportunity to walk out into the Desert Sculpture Park along the Israel National Trail. We arrived back home safe and sound, thankful for our special little outing but also ready to get back into our daily routines.

Lovely bit of vacation

More trips were to be had shortly, as my friends were angling to get out and explore as well.

Le Destroit

In Coastal Plain, Israel on July 19, 2020 at 4:05 PM

Just last month, as the Ministry of Health sanctions and guidelines regarding the coronavirus outbreak were loosening up, I went on a nice little trip with a nice friend. Similar to our trip back in December 2019, when we visited Khirbet Luza and other Crusader ruins, this time Avner Touitou and I had similar intentions. Still struggling with thesis ideas for our MAs in Crusader Archaeology, we figured that going about and actually visiting some lesser-known ruins might help spark an idea that would lead towards something useful.

Chateau Perelin jutting out into the sea

Whereas last trip we focused on the Jerusalem area, this time our attention was turned a little north, to the Atlit region, where the Kingdom of Jerusalem came to an end. The focal point of our planned trip was the ruined fortress of Le Destroit, which neither of us had ever been to. Interestingly enough, I had passed it hundreds of times during my army service, and had actually attempted to even visit it, however unsuccessfully. At last, thanks to Avner’s gung-ho spirit and vehicular capabilities, the visit to Le Destroit was to become a reality.

Approaching the old stables

Avner picked me up outside our apartment in the morning and we made our way posthaste up Roads 4 and 2 towards our destination. We had some more Crusader sites picked out, as well as a spot for lunch, but Le Destroit was first and foremost. Some forty minutes later we pulled up outside the small nature preserve, officially called the Karta Ruins Nature Reserve, just outside of Atlit. Accordingly, the ruins goes by several names including Karta/Qarta, Districtum and Khirbet Dustray, as explained in various archaeological sources that I examined whilst writing this blog post.

Le Destroit layout as drawn by J Dikijian

Le Destroit was built sometime in the 1100s, following an incident where King Baldwin I was attacked and wounded by highway robbers along the coastal road. The exact location of the Crusader fortress is between two deep passes cut east-west in the sandstone ridge, just along the coastal road, which provided a perfect hideout for robbers to leap out from, catching their victims unawares. Thus, in efforts to safeguard the roads for the benefit of all travellers, the Crusaders erected this small fortress as a watchtower.

Looking at at Chateau Perelin from within the stables

Interestingly enough, the Crusaders themselves were the ones to destroy it, for when they built the grand Chateau Perelin at Atlit as a regional base, they were concerned that someday the Muslims would use the smaller fortress as a defensive position against them. Surely enough, the Muslims did arrive within that decade, and their leader the Ayyubid sultan Al-Mu’azzam Isa razed the rest of Le Destroit to the ground, not leaving very much for us happy visitors to see.

Avner examining the hewn sockets

Avner and I explored the sandstone ridge, examining the small cave-like stables that was hewn not far from the fortress itself. From within the windows we had quite the lovely view of Chateau Perelin’s ruins, jutting out into the blue Mediterranean Sea. Continuing along the forged trail, we arrived at the northern side of the fort, and took stake of our surroundings.

The eastern side of the tower with its hewn moat

A small hewn moat was clearly visible on the east side, so we climbed up atop the rock podium from the northwest corner. Not really knowing what to expect, we were slightly surprised that there wasn’t much more than the literal base of the original construction. In the southeast corner we found a small cistern, fenced off and containing just a little bit of water. With not much to see below our feet, we focused on enjoying the sprawling seaside view and picturing what it was like to be here in Medieval times.

Looking back from whence we came

Consulting the Wikipedia entry for the fortress, we learned that an interesting ancient inscription was found nearby. We descended and gave the southern and eastern walls a good lookover, admiring the construction of the manger on the eastern side.

Looking out to sea

Dropping down from the elevated sandstone ridge, we scanned the rock walls from the east, looking for the cryptic letters. Much of the rocky area around the fortress was used to quarry sandstone ashlars for construction, so we knew to look for the more natural patches.

Ancient inscription in the rock wall

At last, lo and behold! Clearly cut letters carved out of the rock face! We stood below it, admiring and wondering how someone found it, until we were ready to move on.

A closer look at the carven letters

Taking one of the passes, hewn east-west out of the sandstone ridge, we made a loop back to the marked trail, returning to the fortress. Along the way we encountered what is believed to be a guard booth, also hewn from sandstone.

Avner inspecting the guard booth

Making our way back to the car, I had a quick gander at the closest fishpond (or whatever the body of water serves as) and then we decided that it was time to go to the beach. We entered HaBonim Beach into the Waze navigation system and set a course which ended up taking us on dirt roads through fields and alongside banana greenhouses, providing loads of befuddled entertainment as we wondered if we’d ever get there. At last, after too long in the open fields, we arrived at a small parking area and disembarked.

Sea of white Queen Anne’s lace

Heading straight for the sea, passing a small tributary which would empty into the sea had there been more water, we made two interesting discoveries. The first was that we had landed exactly where the “famous” shipwreck is, the subject of innumerable sunset photographs, which turned out to actually be quite small. Where I had always envisioned a small ship, of impressive proportions, there lay a small boat which was a bit underwhelming. A little research revealed that this boat is believed to be a Turkish cement-carrying ship that somehow sunk, but in fact it seems that it was an Israeli fishing boat named “Netz” that sank during a storm in 1970. The boat was left in situ, and has slowly decomposed, but more pictures can be seen HERE, on an interesting Hebrew blog. Also, a very neat aerial shot can be seen HERE.

Sunken fishing boat at HaBonim

The second discovery was the presence of countless jellyfish washed up on the shore, belonging exclusively to the species nomad jellyfish (Rhopilema nomadica). This species has infiltrated the Mediterranean Sea, having migrated via the Suez Canal. Large and usually a semi-translucent white, these jellyfish have become quite an issue every summer and whilst we were not pleased to see their presence, we weren’t completely deterred. Slathered with sunscreen we braved the potential of stinging jellyfish and entered the surf bravely. Sure enough, we each began to feel the stings and while we could usually see them drifting about, the repeating waves concealed them and it was inevitable that we should feel their jellied tentacles. True, the sensation is unpleasant, but in all fairness it’s not that bad, so we stayed in the water and just tried to avoid the jelly beasts as they drifted aimlessly around us, their trailing stingers ever-dangling in search for prey.

Nomad jellyfish washed ashore

When we were done enjoying the beach we packed up and headed back to the car, noting paragliders and common terns sharing the crisp blue skies above us. There was another Crusader site that we wanted to take a quick look at, so we drove back out into the dirt roads which eventually led us to our destination, Tel Dor. In 2018, I had excavated for a day at Tel Dor (see HERE), and I remembered the developing discoveries concerning the small Crusader fort atop the precipice overlooking the ancient harbour.

The lovely colours of summer on Tel Dor

Merle, or Merla Templi in Latin, was a small castle of which, unfortunately, very little is known. It is believed to have been built sometime before 1187, the year that marked the fall of the first Kingdom of Jerusalem, and likely served as a lookout of sorts. Of the ruins, there was a small tower that survived until 1895, and today there’s some ghastly modern concrete marring the ancient construction.

Merle under excavation (photo from August 2018)

We parked outside the beach area and made our way to the small fort ruins, passing loads of beach-goers and some more washed up jellyfish. The tel was very unlike how I last remember it, the coastal vegetation covering the previously-exposed ruins from a myriad of time periods. Standing atop the ruins of Merle, I struggled to make sense with what I remembered from the active excavation, but, alas, the ruins are altogether quite underwhelming.

Archaeologists chipping away at Merle’s history (photo from August 2018)

We left without a sense of satisfaction, having not really understood any more about the old castle than we could have from glancing at the archaeology books. The hour was late and we had grown hungry in the full midday sun. Avner had researched a lovely place to eat at in nearby Zichron Ya’akov, so we drove over and parked the car somewhere in the chic town centre.

Common kestrel searching for prey

The lack of tourists, due to the coronavirus sanctions, definitely gave the touristy town a bit of a deserted feeling, and to top that off, the restaurant Avner had found was decidedly closed. So, ravenous in a small town, we scoured the cobbled streets in search for good eats. At last we decided on a simple sandwich shop called HaNadiv, where I ordered a schnitzel baguette and a cold bottle of American Budweiser (a recent import to Israel which Avner had not yet tried).

Schnitzel baguette and a Budweiser

When we finished our meal, which was downright delectable, we got back into the car and headed back down south. Avner dropped me off and rerouted to his own house, parting with solemn promises to take another Crusader-themed trip in the near future – which we did!

Nachal Rabah

In Central Israel, Israel on July 12, 2020 at 9:25 AM

In March, just as this ongoing coronavirus pandemic was first taking a foothold in Israel, my friend Adam Ota and I went on two back-to-back trips to the same location. With spring migration ongoing, we noticed that there was a particular site garnering interest, with numerous sightings of interesting bird species – as well as the occasional mammal. Some birders are less forthcoming with location information, as they claim that keeping fauna-rich sites a secret will better preserve the nature therein. Thus, after consulting maps and picking out keywords from several pertinent Facebook posts, we somewhat solved the mystery and made plans to visit this site for ourselves.

Starting off the morning just outside Rosh HaAyin

Our destination was Nachal Rabah, a four kilometre stretch extending from northern Rosh HaAyin to the security fence to the east, paralleled by Road 5. We did not know where the choicest locations were, so we figured we’d traverse the entire length of the streambed, hoping to see whatever we could. The bus dropped us off at the closest interchange and we began our walk into nature via a small trail that took us into the woods.

Unnamed brook of Nachal Rabah surging along

The Persian cyclamens were a’bloom everywhere, underneath the conifer trees and beside the rough, grey boulders. Having hiked similar wooded areas such as Cola Forest, with its Crusader ruins, and Ben Shemen Forest, where we had gone birding several times, we knew in advance that our best bets were in the open stretches of garrigue scrubland, also known as batha habitat. Equipped with this knowledge, we made our way swiftly through the sunbeam-struck woods until we reached an open area.

Nachal Rabah’s open scrubland

Interestingly enough, the transition from woods to open scrubland is exactly where the Green Line was drawn, way back in 1949. Today, a huge bridge follows that same line, part of a new traffic rerouting project. Once in open territory, we scanned the surrounding rocks for interesting birds but found mostly Eurasian jays and chukar partridges. At last, as we progressed through the dew-soaked grass, we spotted a long-legged buzzard perched on a treetop further up ahead.

Long-legged buzzard

We got acquainted, until he felt uncomfortable and flew off, putting quite the scare into some nearby rock hyraxes as he swooped past. Looking around, we decided to explore a nice vernal pool nearby where a pair of mallards had just landed. Inside the clear waters, we found scores of tadpoles and thousands of frog eggs strung along beside the underwater vegetation.

Strings of frog eggs

Still, we weren’t seeing any of the promising species we’d heard so much about, so we pressed on. We reached an access road which led to a quarry, and followed that for a bit until we decided that we had gone far enough for one day. Fortunately, a nice woodchat shrike decided to pass us a little visit, and we then spotted some mountain gazelles on the nearby ridge.

Woodchat shrike

We decided to turn back for the day, and found a nice little cave along the way. Upon consulting the Amud Anan map, I learned that this was called the Shakeef a-Sheikh Cave. An even more important cave, Qesem Cave, is just across Road 5, visible during some of our trip’s duration. Qesem Cave famously hosts some of the earliest human remains, and is unfortunately locked and not open to visitors.

Seeking shelter in the Shakeef a-Sheikh Cave

A lone short-toed eagle passed overhead, and we decided to move on, heading for the large bridge that we had encountered earlier. Under the bridge, Adam decided that it was time for some hot chocolate and whipped out his handy coffee pot. He got a quick little fire started and within minutes had water boiling, a quick and easy refreshment forthcoming. While he was doing that, I was scanning the skies, and found a small flock of white storks which disappeared as quick as they appeared. Also, a common kestrel returned to his nest in an upper bridge cavity, and brought tasty treats. One was just a grasshopper or locust, but the other was a small, slim snake which I couldn’t identify – my guess is a Dahl’s whip snake.

Hot chocolate in the making

Heading back through the woods, we decided to take a different route, and climbed the nearby hill. This decision paid off, as we were awarded with more sightings of migrating raptors – short-toed eagles and steppe buzzards. Even a sparrowhawk made an appearance, dashing between the tall conifers. Atop the hill we found the old Byzantine ruins of Horvat Dayyar (or Khirbet a-Daweer), the remains of an ancient olive oil press and other unidentified structures.

Horvat Dayyar ruins

Beside the ruins was the lookout, affording spectacular views of the woods and slopes below us. We basked in the glory and rehydrated, getting ourselves prepared for another hike back down the hill – the wildflower trail. Being spring, there were loads of flowers to see, from wild tulips to anemones to the several simple yellow blossoms whose names are so hard to remember.

Mountaintop lookout

We continued along Nachal Rabah, seeing different flora in the more damp environments, including some mushrooms (Crepidotus mollis and Psathyrella candolleana) which turned out to be edible – yet not particularly tasty according to the identification guides.

Psathyrella candolleana mushroom

Our legs carried us out of the touristy forest and into a small wooded area which had no trail to speak of. We hiked along the calm stream and watched another flock of white storks fly by over our heads. Before long we reached a small, man-made pond with even a small observation blind – but, alas, there was nary a waterfowl but for a few mallards.

Rosh HaAyin’s little pond

Pushing on, we looped around a small residential neighbourhood until we reached the road leading to our final destination – Izbet Sartah. Here is where it got exciting, as raptors started filling the skies, just as some curious resident was showing off his bird knowledge. We struggled to be affable as our eyes were cast to the heavens, confirming his statements as we muttered directions to one another. The raptors turned out to be mostly the same: short-toed eagles, steppe buzzards and common kestrels.

Jackdaw mobbing a short-toed eagle overhead

Checking bus times, we decided to make our final push a quick one, and heading up the small, wooded hill that hosts the ruins of Izbet Sartah. Songbirds were a’plenty and it was hard not lingering in hopes of getting a good ID or photograph of a cool species. Then it happened, a great spotted cuckoo flew into a nearby tree. Every year I see but one of these birds, and I was determined to get a better sighting. Excited, and also rather tired, we circled the aforementioned tree and flushed the parasitic bird, adding another bird to my annual checklist (which stands at 107 species, to-date).

Izbet Sartah ruins

With time truly running out we made a mad dash for the ruins, and examined them most briefly. Izbet Sartah, also known as Even Ezer, is a small Iron Age settlement, discovered in 1972 by Tel Aviv University during an archaeological survey. I had learned about Izbet Sartah back in one of my intro classes several years ago, and had always wanted to visit. At last, I was there, standing among the excavated ruins with no time to appreciate them.

Grain silos everywhere

Believed to be the site of a great battle between the Israelites and the Philistines, the ancient settlement was largely abandoned until the Byzantine period. Even then, the site seemed to have hardly been used, and was practically forgotten until modern times. Excavations in the 1970s revealed a large courtyard with casemate walls which was later upgraded into a house surrounded by grain silos. Additionally, a small ceramic ostracon was discovered, inscribed with proto-Canaanite letters – one of the earliest Hebrew texts ever found.

Pink garlic with bokeh

We took our last photos and hustled back down the hill to the bus stop. Our bus came promptly and we rode all the way back to Givat Shmuel, bringing our first foray into Nachal Rabah to a conclusion. However, we were not quite satisfied with our experience, and thus planned another excursion for the very next day. This time we headed straight for where we had ended the day before, to explore the continuation as far eastward as we could.

Dirt road beside the batha habitat

It was before 7:00am when we arrived on site, and began seeing a whole new collection of birds, starting with corn buntings and long-billed pipits. It got better, with three species of warblers dancing about on the low bushes: Sardinian, as well as both common and lesser whitethroats. Before long, a nature photographer drove up to us in an SUV and asked us if we knew where the common rock thrush was. Unfortunately, we did not but we were eager to see it as well, so we told him to let us know if he finds it.

Common whitethroat relaxing on a bush

We continued on foot, amazed at how much richer this area was than the areas we had visited the day before. A bunch of long-billed pipits revealed themselves, as well as a small flock of swifts. Another man in an SUV approached us, turning out to be someone we knew by name, a birder who lives nearby. Since the whole corona debacle was starting, we kept our distance as he gave us pointers as to what to see where.

Swifts mating mid-air

With his help, moved on over to an area where there were dozens of large bushes and small trees – a warbler sanctuary. He scanned the area here and there, telling us to be on the lookout for some of the more interesting warbler species. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to ascertain if we had seen a lucrative Rüppell’s warbler, nor the larger Western Orphean warbler, but the rest was nice. What topped it all was a sudden viewing of a common cuckoo – we had been hearing calls throughout the morning, but it was only with this birder’s help that we found it flying along the slope.

Corn bunting

After he had driven off, we resorted to walking our way back to the flatter garrigue scrubland, taking it slow to make sure we didn’t miss anything. Sure enough, we noticed a pair of long-billed pipits nesting quite literally a few metres from us.

Long-billed pipit gathering up nesting materials

It was amazing to watch them go about their daily business, keeping an eye on us as we stood on the dirt road a safe distance away. Soon enough our focus was shifted to the heavens, where the drifting clouds provided a textured backdrop to the developing raptor migration.

Twenty-three black kites

We craned our necks as we alternated between camera and binoculars, trying to make sure that no interesting species slipped by unnoticed. Among the soaring birds were the following, relatively expected species: short-toed eagles, steppe buzzards, lesser spotted eagles and loads of black kites. Even a booted eagle made an appearance, diving around behind one of the nearby hills.

Huge flock of white pelicans

Thousands of pelicans also graced our lenses, swirling together is somewhat unison. As the raptor trickle began to slow, we pickened up our pace to head back home. Although there was still so much to see, and so much more of Nachal Rabah to be explored, government-issued lockdowns were on the verge of taking effect, and we had to head back to our respective homes.

Ending off with some unidentified stone pilings

True, the coronavirus lockdown did take its toll on us – especially with not being able to go out to enjoy the sights and sounds of spring migration, as much as we would have liked to, but occassionally the action came to us. Two days of heavy duststorms brought thousands upon thousands of storks and raptors of a variety of species directly over Givat Shmuel, dotting the yellow sky with ever-moving dark dots of lethal energy. The spring may have been snatched from us, but we resumed our nature adventures recently with renewed evening trips to the nearby dunes.