Israel's Good Name

University Trip: Bet Shean Valley & Agamon Hefer

In Coastal Plain, Galilee, Israel on June 17, 2018 at 5:23 AM

Continuing on from the previous post, about the Golan and Bet Shean Valley, we woke up early in the morning in Kfar Rupin. Our adventures began after breakfast when we headed over to the fields to check the rodents traps. Our guide, Dr Moshe Natan, had checked them at dawn, and had released one of the two trapped animals – a hedgehog. The other trapped animal was none other than a common mouse, which leaped to his freedom as soon as the trap was opened.

Learning about nests

Packing up, we boarded our tour bus to be driven over to the next site of the day: Tel Saharon. Located just a few minutes outside of Kfar Rupin, the area we were headed to was right beside the old bird ringing station. Looking around, we were able to make out several common species, as well as three black kites swirling over the nearby fields. We sat down beside a nesting box and learned about the pigeon chicks hidden inside.

A baby pigeon

The sight of a booted eagle overhead excited us, especially due to the fact that it might be the same one we saw at the very beginning of the previous day. Flying alongside it was a steppe buzzard, a rather common bird of prey in the dry season. Closer to us, I noticed a small bird dancing around a nest, singing loudly. With the aid of my binoculars and camera I was able to identify it at a male Dead Sea sparrow – my very first time seeing this species.

Dead Sea sparrow preparing its nest

As fascinating as we found the energetic little sparrow, we had more to explore, and set off to do just that. Climbing the gentle elevation, we found a herd of donkeys, a single golden jackal that slinked off as we approached.

Donkeys on Tel Saharon

There wasn’t much to see on the tel, but we did venture down to the spring which provided a small amount of water that gathered in a nearby pool. A quick look at the old ringing station, which looks like it could be revitalised as a cool bar, and we were off to the next site.

The old bird ringing station

Traveling only few kilometres away, our guide stopped the bus at a particular spot beside large alfalfa fields. There, at the edge of the field, was a pair of spur-winged lapwings and a hidden nest. Laying a small clutch of eggs in a scraped out depression on the bare ground, lapwing nests are incredibly hard to locate. Even the eggs themselves are spotted in a way that provides excellent camouflage. But, all this was no match for the experienced eyes of our guide; we stood around and studied the nest, the parents watching from a safe distance.

Spur-winged lapwing eggs

Before we left the nest with its three mottled eggs we spotted a mountain gazelle quite a distance away in the alfalfa field. The tour bus then took us to our next destination, located quite a ways away: Nachal Alexander. We were heading over to see the famous African softshell turtles which have made the polluted stream famous as well. Disembarking at the stream, we walked over and gazed at the large turtles with their funny faces.

African softshell turtle

Some time later we paid a short visit to the nearby sandy breeding grounds of these turtles, fenced off to ensure the safety of the next generations. Another short drive and we were examining a tiny cave across the road from Bitan Aharon, a tiny moshav in the Hefer Valley. A colony of Egyptian fruit bats had made this cave their home; one of the bats looking particularly cute with its baby clinging to its stomach fur.

Egyptian fruit bats in a cave

Taking a break from wildlife, we had a group lunch at one of the Hummus Eliyahu branches that have opened up all over Israel in the past couple years. I enjoyed a delicious bowl of creamy hummus and tehina, eaten with warm pita and a garlic-lemon sauce. When we were satisfied we continued, heading over to the lush wetlands of Agamon Hefer. At the site, we crossed over Nachal Alexander and gathered at a blind looking out at the lake.

Nachal Alexander

We were joined by a group of elderly folks, including a rather spritely 93-year-old woman who began to give us life lessons. She told us about how she was one of the Children of Tehran, fleeing war-ravaged Europe after the Holocaust, and how we should live our lives to the fullest. While she was talking I couldn’t help but notice a marsh harrier and short-toed eagle fly by.

Looking for wildlife

Continuing on the circular trail around the lake, we stopped at the next blind and spied on some pied kingfishers diving for fish. A squacco heron fished silently from a small marsh area right beside us, and the sounds of European bee-eaters filled the air above us as we moved on. Walking a hundred feet or so behind the group, I noticed a purple heron stalking its way through the tall grass, and a black-shouldered kite perched on a power line.

Squacco heron

Examining a particularly marshy area, our guide swiftly pointed out an adult little bittern sneaking its way around, seeking out tasty fish. I had only seen my first bittern two weeks prior, at the Hula Valley, and it had been a juvenile, so this was a cool sighting. Another purple heron was hiding nearly flawlessly in the tall grasses on the banks, making quite a challenge to spot. Twenty minutes or so later, with the help of Dr Natan and my Collins birding app, I was able to audibly and visibly identify my very first reed warbler – the fourth and final new bird species for the trip. On an open stretch of wooden boardwalk we watched common swifts dipping down in their fast and erratic flight for quick drinks from the refreshing lake water.

Parasitic wasp laying eggs

Then, as I was taking pictures of some tiny Middle East tree frogs that someone in our group had found, I discovered a parasitic wasp laying eggs in the body of an unsuspecting host. The trip came to an end when we boarded our tour bus for the final time, taking the long drive back to Givat Shmuel. In summary, a great two-day trip comprised of many different habitats and, best of all, four new bird species to add to my list.

University Trip: Golan & Bet Shean Valley

In Galilee, Golan, Israel on June 10, 2018 at 8:50 AM

A month ago, shortly after my trip to Mount Arbel, I went on yet another two-day trip to the north of the country. Offered by my department at Bar Ilan University, this trip was led by Dr Moshe Natan and specialised in wildlife habitats. We departed from Givat Shmuel in the morning, headed north in our tour bus, eager to begin the exciting day. Indeed, excitement was forthcoming; at a rest stop near Bet Shean we saw a booted eagle being mobbed by two crows.

Nesting colony outside Kibbutz Degania

Our first real stop of the day was the expansive nesting grounds on the banks of the Kinneret (or, Sea of Galilee) just outside of Kibbutz Degania. There, species such as night herons, cattle egrets, little egrets, glossy ibises and pygmy cormorants share the thickly-foliaged trees in a joint effort to hatch and raise the next generation. We found a nice spot in the grass that overlooked a handful of the colony’s nests and began to watch. Each species has a different approach in rearing their young, and it was interesting to compare the relatively calm feeding habits of the glossy ibis with those of the violent cattle egret.

Night heron nest

While we watched, a juvenile marsh harrier ventured into the scene, scaring some of the colony’s inhabitants as it soared by. On the banks of the Kinneret down below I was able to make out, with the aid of 7×50 binoculars, a pair of purple herons – my very first time seeing them. An hour or so later we bid farewell to the hundreds of breeding birds and got back into our bus.

View from the Beit Saida Lookout

We were headed for the Golan, with a few stops planned out, the first being the Beit Saida Lookout. In addition to the sweeping view of the Kinneret area, two species of animals brought us to the piles of basalt stones at the lookout: the Levante fan-fingered gecko and the rock hyrax.

Levante fan-fingered gecko

Venturing onwards after some bonding with the lizards, we found ourselves disembarking in a small parking lot at the edge of Daliyot Woods. There, we followed a trail towards the peaks and valleys that neighbour the iconic Gamla ridge, where I had visited just one month prior. Enjoying the lovely weather with its sprinkling of raindrops, we crossed a tiny stream and rounded a mountain ridge, treated to a great view. A short-toed eagle passed by us, giving us a few moments of excitement. It was nearly noon when we reached a certain point on the trail that made our guide stop and scan the cliffside with the spotting scope.

Walking in the Nachal Daliyot nature reserve

When Dr Natan found what he was looking for he shared it with the rest of us: an Egyptian vulture nest with one of the parents roosting. Nearly impossible to detect to the non-discerning eye, the nest and bird were nearly perfectly camouflaged. We watched the nest while we learned more about Egyptian vultures, the sharp barks of the rock hyraxes interrupting from time to time. When we were finished with the vulture we headed back, via the same slope trail that we had taken earlier.

Spying on the Egyptian vulture nest

Back in the bus, we then drove over to Nov, a moshav in southern Golan, to look at the nests of white storks. We pulled up alongside one, where one of the parents was sitting, and gazed upon the huge stack of sticks in wonder. Although white storks are plentiful during a fair part of the year, only a handful of them breed in Israel, and the nests are therefore well-known amongst naturalists. Before long the roosting stork’s partner came by to take over the shift, and we watched the first stork fly off to the nearby field to hunt. While we were obsessing over the stork I noticed a black kite and a short-toed eagle in the thermals, mere specks in the blue skies. Before we left we took a quick look at another nearby stork nest, and then headed our way to the Bet Shean Valley.

White stork landing on the nest

We were to be spending the night at Kibbutz Kfar Rupin, at the “Stork’s Bill” Bird Watching Centre’s country dwelling accommodations. Disembarking, we received keys to our rooms and were updated with the evening plans, of which there were many. First, after some rest, I joined Dr Natan and a few others in setting out traps for rodents in a nearby field. Then, joining the rest of our group, we heard a short talk about the centre and birds in the region.

Our country dwelling in Kfar Rupin

Following that, Dr Natan gave us a class on bats and echolocation, promising to show us Kuhl’s pipistrelles on our forthcoming night tour. Armed with all sorts of gadgetry, including devices that read, record and amplify bat calls, we set out for the tour. Almost immediately we could hear the distinct calls of the scops owl, the smallest owl in Israel. Choosing to remain focused on the bats, we were then treated to a fascinating display from the pipistrelles, illuminated in flight by the powerful flashlights and headlamps we were using.

Night touring

Leaving the residential area of the kibbutz, we moved on over to the cowsheds, constantly scanning the ground and skies for interesting nocturnal wildlife. Our walk took us out of the kibbutz and into the collection of fish ponds, where the insects are more than plentiful. Shining the powerful flashlight cemented in the fact that we were most definitely surrounded by millions if not billions of flying insects, mostly mosquitoes I presume.

Beam of light illuminating the horror of insects

We saw a hedgehog at the water’s edge, fish leaping out of the water sporadically, and the occasional Kuhl’s pipistrelle flying by and activating the electronic sensors. We continued through the insect swarm, avoiding opening our mouths for fear for ingesting winged creatures. The lights of neighbouring Jordan provided a sense of direction for us as we walked the gravel paths between the ponds, constantly seeking out interesting lifeforms. Even looking directly down at the insect and spider-covered ground was a hearty adventure.

Walking along the fish ponds

Our attention soon turned towards the frogs and toads that we could hear calling from the water’s edge. Before long we had captured several fine specimens of both the green toad and the Middle East tree frog. When I was taking the photo of this male tree frog, I hadn’t noticed the mosquito sitting on its head enjoying some sips of amphibian blood.

Middle East tree frog with a mosquito on his head

Making a full loop of the ponds, we eventually reached the cowsheds that we had initially passed on our way out. Taking a slightly different route, we followed the kibbutz’s fence towards our dwelling complex. On the way I played scops owl calls from my Collins Bird Guide phone application, hoping to attract a scops owl. Then, when I was standing in front of a tree, my headlamp illuminating a fair portion of the foliage, I saw a small fluttering shape land on a branch.

Scops owl hiding in the tree

It took my mind a moment to register that it was a scops owl, and I frantically called for my peers to come see the owl once I had established its identity. With the aid of others, I was able to take its picture (mostly, at least) hiding in tree’s foliage. Being that I’ve been wanting to see a scops owl for years, this moment was most rewarding, and I was able to retire to bed feeling quite satisfied. Little did I know that the very next day I’d be seeing another long-awaited bird species just a few kilometres away…

Mount Arbel II

In Galilee, Israel on June 6, 2018 at 7:45 AM

A week and a half after my visit to the Tel Aviv Zoological Research Institute I took another trip, this one to the north of the country with the middle/high school where I work. It was a two-day trip, but the focus of this post shall be on the first day, the more interesting of the two. In fact, I had just gotten back the previous week from another two-day trip to the north with friends, provided by the Student Authority for Immigrants which arranges fancy trips and events for us throughout the academic school year.

Panoramic of the view from Mount Arbel

The morning of this trip began at the school where we boarded tour buses and began the drive up north via Road 6. Along the way I got acquainted with our tour guide, Eric Grosser, and spotted small flocks of white storks here and there alongside us. Our destination that day was the peak of Mount Arbel, with its gorgeous vista over the Kinneret (or, Sea of Galilee). We pulled into the parking lot of the national park and awaited the arrival of the final bus.

Crested lark looking tired

Exploring around a bit, I noticed the presence of some small birds such as crested larks in the field, great tits in the trees and a goldfinch or two on the fence. In addition, I examined the ancient sarcophagi on display, and a replica of a large basket used by King Herod to attack Jewish rebels hiding in the inaccessible cliffside caves. When the final bus arrived, and we were organised in smaller groups with each our own tour guide, we set off on the trail.

Setting off on the trail

We passed by the stony field, made beautiful with patches of flowering splendid bindweed and wild carrot (upon which the crested lark likes to perch and sing). To the left of us was the cliff edge, with its fantastic views, and to the right, a small water reservoir void of any interesting birds. I casted my eyes to the heavens from time to time, hoping to catch a glimpse of some birds of prey.

Hollyhock blossoms

We stopped at the Carob Lookout, where an ancient carob tree is working on restoring itself after a storm in 2017 that snapped it in half. Near the lookout we saw the faded cut marks of an ancient quarry; I just wonder what the stones were used for. From the lookout we gazed down on the ruins of Wadi Hamam, and the modern Arab village beside it, at the base of neighbouring Mount Nitai. A short-toed eagle and a common kestrel passed by overhead, and little swifts zipped by at eye level.

Levantine marbled white butterfly

After passing some blooming hollyhocks and a large amount of Levantine marbled white butterflies feasting on sweet thistle nectar, we reached the trail’s descent from the peak. Here progress was slow, and I scoured the cliffsides for interesting wildlife to no avail as I awaited my turn to make my way down the stepped path. The trail curved back in the way we came, and we headed westward along the slope.

Descending down the cliffside

After a few minutes we reached a tall, shallow cave, occupied by cows seeking respite from the sun and heat. Without intruding to disturb them, we continued on the path, making our way across the rock- and vegetation-strewn mountainside. I looked up from time to time to see if I could make out any caves or other curiosities. At last we reached a small stone structure built up against the cliff wall. I crept my way inside, avoiding fresh cowpats, and found two guilty-looking cows huddled up against one of the walls within the house.

Cows hiding within

More cows were gathered outside, but since we hadn’t come for bovine viewing, we continued onwards. Up ahead we found a sign that read “fortress and caves” straight ahead, but our guide was taking us downhill along the Israel National Trail to “Ein Arbel” and “Wadi Hamam”. I took advantage of the junction rest period to go off and explore on my own.

Sign of temptation

I found the fortress directly ahead, perched in the crags of the cliff wall, the old mason work blending in nicely with the pale, streaked rock. According to the informative sign, the four-story fortress was built in the 1600s by the Ottomans, under the local rule of Emir Fakhr al-Din – a Druze vassal who was eventually executed by the sultan.

Looking up at the fortress

Access to the fortress, known as Qalat abu-Ma’an, is provided by wide, basalt steps, which I climbed enthusiastically. At the top, I entered the stone structure, partially under restoration with external and internal scaffolding. Wooden stairs inside to me from one part of the fortress to the other, and I gazed out towards Mount Nitai and the sprawling view below.

Within the fortress

Inside the fortress ruins I found the ancient Roman-era mikva, which was used by the rebelling Jews hiding from Vespasian, Titus and their soldiers. Narrow passages took me from one side to the next, leading me further into the uncharacteristic labyrinth. At the end I found a room with a vaulted ceiling and arched windows, architectural features that I find particularly pleasing to the eye.

Slope trail

While I was admiring the view I saw my group begin the descent down the slope, so I ended my side adventure and caught up with them within minutes, joining them on the way down. At the bottom we found the flowing water of Nachal Arbel, and sat beneath large jujube trees to take a short break as we waited for all the classes to arrive. The sweet smell of the fallen jujube fruits provided an interesting setting as I scans the nearby slope of Mount Nitai and the blue skies above.

View of Mount Arbel from below

Quite unexpected, I saw a docile cow flush a male mountain gazelle from the tall grass on the slope near me, and then a white stork or two soaring past. Adequately rested, we boarded our tour buses and took a short drive over to Ein Nun, a small spring and pool which was built in the 1920s. There I searched for frogs, and was not disappointed, finding a good amount of them for my photographical wants.

Small river frog

The day ended after a visit to the waterless attractions of Kfar Blum Kayaks, and then camping at the Maayan Baruch campsite, where we slept near the banks of Nachal Snir (or Hatsbani). The following day took us to the national park of Banias, where we enjoyed the ruins and the trails. It’d be a shame not to mention the birds sighted that day, with highlights including steppe buzzards, short-toed eagles, greater spotted eagles, honey buzzards and countless flocks of white storks.

Maayan Baruch campsite

But the highlight was later in the day, at the Disaster of the Helicopters memorial (of all places), where I spotted two golden orioles in flight – a bright yellow bird that I’ve been waiting years to see. Thus, the two day trip with the school lads ended on quite the high.