Israel's Good Name

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.

Tel Abu Shusha & Nearby Sites

In Coastal Plain, Israel on November 22, 2020 at 10:58 AM

My next wild adventure took place in the end of August, when I visited the Tel Abu Shusha excavations with my friend Avner Touitou. With the annual Tel es-Safi excavations canceled due to coronavirus, our department ended up opening a brand new dig under the direction of Dr Avner Ecker. This dig, Tel Abu Shusha, is located at the western end of the Jezreel Valley, in the Ramat Menashe park on the southeastern slopes of the Carmel range. This site has been identified as Geva/Gaba, mentioned by both Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III and Roman-Jewish historian Josephus.

Tel Abu Shusha excavations (photo from drone footage filmed by the expedition)

Eager to have the chance to make a promotional video for my department, I put in all the right calls and we were expected to arrive at the site Thursday morning, towards the end of the first week of digging. I met up with Avner and we drove up to the tel, not knowing exactly where to find the crew. We wandered around a wee bit, under the watchful eyes of a kestrel and alpine swifts, until at last we found the first of the three tented dig spaces. It was joyous reuniting with old friends, as it is the members of our shared department that were the sole excavators this season – due to the exhausting coronavirus regulations.

Avner and Yaniv, an area supervisor

It was an unusual feeling visiting an archaeological excavation without feeling that I need to be physically working. I’ve been to so many digs, as academic fieldwork, volunteering and even for pay, yet this was the first time I was just a visitor, a spectator with a touristy camera. Immediately I began filming and taking pictures, already anticipating the finished video, as Avner caught up with the area supervisor. I soon found out that if one was to view all three excavation sites from above, this was the one facing north (the others facing east and southeast). The students were eager to show us that they were excavating above an exposed wall of crooked ashlars, of which they are trying to reach from above.

View of the Jezreel Valley to the east

We gradually moved on to the second dig site, a tented area overlooking the expansive Jezreel Valley, a patchwork of brown, green and blue. More friends awaited us and we joyously chatted as we examined the team’s progress in their excavated squares. It was while I was taking in the majestic view that my birder eyes spotted something fantastic. In the distance, nearly eye-level over the fields below, I could make out a handful of soaring raptors searching for prey. I took some photos to confirm that these were, in fact, short-toed eagles – about ten of them – ever so faintly visible to the naked eye. I then noticed that there were some nature photographers in cars in the valley, likely waiting for an eagle to swoop down for a kill.

The crew working hard to clear away the topsoil

Minutes and minutes of digital film were recorded as we then moved over to the central staging area tent, where communal activities such as eating and congregating are done. There we met Dr Ecker, who was delighted to see us, as well as an archaeology-loving patron named Dotan who helped fund this first season. While Dr Ecker ran off to attend to some director duties, we continued on to the third of the dig areas, the one facing southeast. This is the largest of the three and comprises two tented areas, under the supervision of yet another friendly face.

Vaulted structure atop the hill

We passed a small vaulted structure which forms a little hill between the communal tent and this area, and to the best of my knowledge, the exact history behind it is yet to be known. We explored this final area, learning more about the work being done as I poked around here and there making sure I was getting good footage. Although we were visiting just the first week, the team was making excellent headway and I look forward to seeing a report on the season whenever it shall be released. As far as excavations go, this one struck all the right chords: location, weather (breezy), interest and the most important, friendship.

Noam is another of the area supervisors

In fact, when we were finished with our visit we almost felt bad leaving as we were having such a nice time. We were greatly impressed with what we had seen, and we hoped to ourselves that the team finds something truly exciting to help push that happy feeling over the edge. Alas, we had a few more places in the area that we wanted to check out, so we bid farewell and made our way back to Avner’s car. Now would be the perfect time in the retelling of this tale to share the video I edited:

Next on our list was a nearby cave, known as the Palmach Cave as it served as a training site for some of the Palmach’s secret paramilitary units, but unfortunately it appeared to be closed without a prior reservation. We were also hoping to visit a nearby spring, to dip in cool waters, but that too seemed less available in our immediate vicinity. Determined to salvage our plans, we decided to first get lunch (schnitzel baguettes) in nearby Yokneam and then to formulate a new plan of action.

Be’er Tivon (or Tivon Well)

Satiated and ready to move on, we decided to visit a tiny watering hole that I first encountered in the army, Be’er Tivon (or Tivon Well). It was a bit of an adventure trying to reach the pit, with a small anti-cow electric fence and then the moody cows themselves, but at last we made it. However, when we gained entrance to the tiny structure – quite literally the size of a prison cell – we saw that the water was rather dirty with mud, and quite possibly contaminated by the friendly cows’ waste. Regardless, we decided to skip the dip and instead headed back to the car, past the cows and the electric fence.

“The House of the People” in Bethlehem of Galilee

Since we were so close, Avner decided to show me two places that he’s known for years (he also works as a tour guide). While I had heard of them, I had never actually been, thus this was the perfect opportunity for him to give me a quick tour of some key sites in Alonei Abba and Bethlehem of Galilee, two moshav villages established side-by-side in 1948. We started in Bethlehem of Galilee, originally a Roman and Byzantine village, which saw a revival in the 1890s when German Templers purchased the land and built stately stone houses for their colony. Alonei Abba was another Templer colony, founded in 1907 and named Waldheim. Both these colonies were cleared during WWII, the German residents expelled by the ruling British Mandate government due to their partial support of the Nazis.

Lovely architecture inside

Avner took me directly to a grand stone Templer building which is known as “The House of the People”, which was fortunately open. We entered and had a look around, seeing old moshav-life pictures hanging from the wall of this public building. Adjacent to this building is another Templer structure, an ordinary stone building with a large, round, crenellated stone tower. We did not check to see if we could enter, but rather admired it from a distance and returned to the car to continue our tour.

The Waldheim church in Alonei Abba

We drove through the moshav, impressed by the stone architecture and the large trees which formed a dense canopy over the main street. Our next destination was Alonei Abba, and Avner knew just where to go. Within minutes we were parked beside a large stone church building, of an architecture style that smacks of simplified neo-Gothic, that was originally built in 1916. I got out, took some pictures and, with that, we headed out – not failing to admire the stone houses of Waldheim as we went. I’m sure that next time I visit these two quaint locations I’ll have more to expand upon.

Pomegranates growing in Alonei Abba

Our next destination wasn’t planned, but rather decided upon in the course of discussion. I had mentioned that I had visited the magnificent necropolis of Bet She’arim back when I was a soldier, yet never visited the famous Alexander Zaid monument which is visible from the main road passing by. Avner insisted that we take a quick look, yet, we too were stymied and realised that we had made some wrong turns. Instead, we paused to look at the ancient synagogue ruins which I had missed in my trip back in February 2014.

Bet She’arim’s ancient synagogue

Getting back on the road, we decided to make one last stop before heading back, to take a quick look at Tel Zariq. It was getting quite late and time was truly running out on this day trip, but who can say no to the inviting sound of an abandoned Medieval village. What made this even more fascinating was the fact that the village was inhabited by soldiers who originated from Turkmenistan of old, and were experts in raising horses specifically for military cavalry purposes. In 1948, the village was abandoned due to the nearby battles during the War for Independence and, if what I read is correct, the villagers moved to Jenin.

Nothing to see on Tel Zariq

As exciting as this all sounds, our brief visit was a lot less riveting. Trusting the GPS to lead us to the marked site of the old village took us into thick, streamside woods of fig trees and strong vines. Strangely enough, there were quite a lot of people in this woods, in various stages of relaxation. Adults, youths and even children were scattered on empty patches of land, and on the various fallen logs and stumps, for reasons we couldn’t quite understand. Nobody seemed to acknowledge our presence, and nobody was in any danger, so we just slithered our way out of the thick undergrowth and looked around some more.

Sunrise at Tel Abu Shusha (photo from timelapse footage filmed by Esther Mellet)

Save for some broken concrete and some sun-bleached animal bones, there really wasn’t much for us to see at face value. Disheartened, yet overall satisfied with the day’s adventures, we began the long drive back to our respective homes, already hoping to plan another exciting outing.