Israel's Good Name

Rishon LeZion Dunes

In Central Israel, Coastal Plain, Israel on August 18, 2019 at 8:09 AM

The long hot months of summer are usually relatively uneventful in terms of bloggable content, yet exceedingly busy in other aspects of life. Thankfully, birding is particularly dry in Israel during the summer, and there is then less distractions to get in the way of the necessities. However, when the sun sets there is a whole new kind of distraction, found just a bus or two away, and that is the lure of the dune.

Sunset over the Rishon LeZion Dunes

Last year was the first time I had explored coastal sand dunes at night, and a series of adventures were enjoyed by myself and my trip companion Adam. We had explored the majority of the Holon Dunes, and had seen a great number of fascinating wildlife species, but there is always more. This summer, just as the bird sightings tapered off, we decided to give a new dune area a try. This was none other than the Rishon LeZion dunes, located between the Superland amusement park and a large military base, which we visited for the very first time on June 10, 2019.

Old dune map

We set out from Givat Shmuel in the afternoon, hoping to scope out the area before darkness fell. Our goal was to map out an area that would be prime for finding interesting creatures of the night, with our ultimate goal being serpents. Despite finding plenty of tracks, we hadn’t seen any snakes in the Holon Dunes, and this failure was scratching at us from deep inside. We needed snakes like we needed water, and armed with our new powerful LED flashlights, we were confident that this summer we’d have results.

Scoping out the dunes before dark

Our bus dropped us off at an area that we had believed to be dunes, but is now a vast construction site. Even so, there was some excitement because we nearly immediately found a dead shrew on the pavement near the bus stop. We realised that now we had a bit of a walk to reach any dunes, so we set off and made our way away from the construction. Turning south onto a side road we soon found an area that seemed suitable to our needs. A quick venture into the bush, and we found plenty of signs of wildlife.

Gerbil tracks

Since it was still day there was a good number of birds to be seen, mostly swifts, swallows, stone curlews, bee-eaters and the ever-present mynah. But there were plenty of tracks in the loose sand, including those of tortoises and gerbils which we are always glad to see. As we advanced into the dunes we caught sight of another happy sight – three mountain gazelles prancing about. Just as the gazelles caught sight of us and began to run away, a large flock of chukar partridges also escaped our presence. It was loud and chaotic, the happy sounds of nature protecting itself.

Backlit dune flowers

We realised that this is where we wanted to explore that night, and calculating the time until nightfall, made a decision to go check out the nearby Lake Nakik. It wasn’t too far away, even on foot, and we enjoyed the walk as it afforded photographic opportunities of bee-eaters, juvenile chukars and other birds. Before long we reached the small lake, and found that it was nearly empty. Just one little egret was wading near the shore, darting his spear-like bill into the shallow waters in attempts to catch minnows.

Little egret fishing at golden hour

Sometimes less is more, and having just this one bird to focus on let me take full photographic advantage. With the golden reflection from the setting sun and the dying leaves above, there was a special beauty that just begged to be noticed. We watched the egret catch a few fish and fly away in search for a better spot. With little else to see we turned back and made our way to the dunes once again, passing the attractions of Superland.

Nothing to see here at the lake

I’m very partial to the cascading shades of colour that sunsets paint the skies with, and to couple it with some wind-swept sand dunes just brings me so much joy. We entered the sandy region, walking along some well-worn footpaths and met the gazelles once again. The sun slowly sank over the horizon and we took out our nighttime gear, eager for the real fun to begin.

Mountain gazelle against a backdrop of Rishon LeZion

The first wildlife sighting of the night was a Rivetina sp. praying mantis, which dashed about on the rippled sand as fast as he could. Just as I was finished photographing it, Adam shouted out that there was an owl passing overhead. I looked up as quick as I could and confirmed that an owl – probably either barn or long-eared – was indeed flying over us. It was a shame that I missed the photo opportunity and I looked down at the shameful mantis with a look of sadness.

Rivetina sp. praying mantis

The next exciting find was a dung beetle, but not an ordinary dung beetle. This particular one was stuck somehow, flailing his arms and legs as he tried to keep moving. When I moved him I saw something absolutely fascinating. A large antlion nymph had captured the dung beetle in its iconic conical pits, and was in the process of feeding on the injured beetle. Already exposed, I took this opportunity to take some nice photographs of the antlion nymph, just as a fly came by to investigate.

Antlion nymph getting a massage

Next, Adam exclaimed that a snake had surprised him, and had disappeared into a wide bush. I dashed over to help find the snake, but alas it was gone and we have no way of definitively identifying it. So, we carried on with a fresh energy, hoping to find another snake. Our next find was an African fattail scorpion, venomous and on the prowl for food. We see dozens of these every time we explore the Holon dunes, so we took a few pictures and continued along.

African fattail scorpion

We crested sandy dunes and rummaged in the vegetation filled valleys between then, searching for something interesting. It was the quick sounds in the bush that alerted us, and then the glimpse of something small and brown dashing for cover. We had stumbled upon a huge bunch of Tristram’s jird lairs, underground dens with numerous tunnels. To our satisfaction, several of them felt rather comfortable around us and getting semi-decent photographs wasn’t an insurmountable task.

Perfect focus on a Tristram’s jird

That basically summed up our trip, as we had to get some buses back to Givat Shmuel. But, we had determination to come back and try again, which we did exactly one month later, on July 10th. This time we knew where to go in advance, and headed straight for the prime dune area, skipping over the empty Nakik Lake.

The beauty of the dunes at dusk

We arrived at the dunes at golden hour, about an hour before nightfall. We were greeted by frisky crested larks, a white-breasted kingfisher and a male mountain gazelle – likely the same one as last time.

Elegant gecko

Our explorations once nightfall began led us directly to a bunch of Tristram’s jirds, as well as an elegant gecko. From there is continued to be relatively normal, with just a lot of jirds and a female lobed agriope spider. We had become to give up hope, wondering why we couldn’t find any snakes no matter how hard we looked. I mumbled a prayer, hoping that it’d help in finding just one serpent. At this point any snake would be a blessing.

White-spotted silky field spider

We were on our way out of the dune area, walking the long way through some trees. There was a constant rodent presence, mostly jirds but a rat or mouse here and there as well. We took as many pictures as we could, hoping to get a cool shot of these fun rodents. Then we both saw a blur of movement and a jird vaulting itself into the air, leaping up in a most ridiculous way. It was a quick blur of greyish-brown fur, but then we saw it – the reason why it leapt.

The hunting viper

Just below the low branches of a bush was a medium-sized viper, who had just struck out at the jird. We didn’t know if its deadly fangs made contact with the gymnastic rodent, but we were spellbound. Adam hurriedly told me to take pictures, and I snapped away as fast as I could. The viper was a bit far from us, a good 5-6 metres or so and I had to make sure the flash lit it up properly with the branches in the way.

Tristram’s jird hiding in the foliage

We crept closer, hoping to get a good look at the viper. The air was alive with the rush of danger and excitement, and we knew that we needed to play it smart. Unfortunately it was a little skittish and slithered off under the bush’s foliage when we got close. Still, we were spellbound and couldn’t help but exclaim over and over how exciting that was. It was still in our thoughts when we crested yet another dune, not far from the access road.

Juvenile viper

As I was scanning for snake tracks, Adam shouted out that he found another viper! I dashed over, my hiking boots sinking into the soft sand as I ran, and was elated to see a smaller viper just laying beneath a bit of vegetation. This was perfect, we were able to get close – safely! – and get all the pictures we ever wanted. Both vipers had the same colour pattern, which is the most common morph in Israel, but the size difference was quite noticeable in the field. This second viper was a juvenile and was relatively calm as we crowded it with our lights and cameras.

Face to face with a viper

We wanted to stay with it all night, but we knew that we all needed to part ways. We humans had a bus to catch and the viper was probably hoping for some peace and quiet. So we took one last picture and headed off, leaving the precious viper all alone on the dune.

One last photo of the dunes at dusk

Grabbing a bus to Tel Aviv, we made it back to Givat Shmuel in relatively good time. As I approached my place I caught notice of a microbat making passes under a strong floodlight, nabbing insects that were drawn to the light. It took a few tries but at last I got a semi-decent picture, decent enough to confirm that it was indeed a Kuhl’s pipistrelle – a common bat in Israel. This sealed quite an excellent nighttime adventure, but our next dunes trip was to be back at Holon, this time with Adam’s youngest brother in tow.

University Trip: Nizzana Dunes

In Israel, Judea, Negev on July 11, 2019 at 10:00 AM

Mere days after my interestingly scheduled ecological fieldwork trip to Yatir Forest with my friend Levi Burrows, I took part in another departmental field trip. This semester hasn’t worked out so well for me in regards to field trips; life can just be so busy even without gallivanting around in the wilderness. However, when a night trip to the famed Nizzana Dunes presented itself, I signed up with great anticipation.

Beautiful sandscape of the famed Nizzana Dunes

Guided by Dr Moshe Natan, who led many of the university trips featured in this blog last year, the trip was one dedicated to wildlife – perfect for me. Our tour mini-bus departed from Bar Ilan University, shortly after I finished work, and off we went in the direction of the Negev desert. The first site of interest that we passed was the Ashalim solar thermal power station – a fantastic creation of mirrors that light up a tall central tower. The visual effect is quite reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, and can be seen from many tens of miles away. Marvel at this photo taken from the media room of Ashalim’s buildings:

Ashalim solar thermal power station (credit Brightsource)

Well within the Negev desert, on Road 211, we drove west towards the Israel-Egypt border until with a particular destination in mind. Moshe wanted to show us desert monitors, the largest lizards in Israel, and he had leads on a particular dunes area between Beer Milka and the border. We went a bit off-road as we traversed agricultural access roads until we reached an open area with low hills. Disembarking, we began our slow sweep of the land before us, keeping a sharp eye out for desert monitors.

Making friends with a Rivetina sp. mantis

No monitors were seen, only tracks and droppings, but we weren’t discouraged. The dunes were beautiful, the strong winds creating that rippled look on the monochromatic surface. In addition, I was excited by the large amount of praying mantises (all of the genus Rivetina) which were running helter-skelter underfoot. Finished with our pursuit of monitors, we got back into our tour bus and made our way to our purposed camping site. However, surprise surprise, there were hundreds of teenagers pouring out of buses – this group also intending on staying the night.

Our campsite

So, we made some quick changes to the grand plan and headed back to the dunes where the monitors were meant to be seen. Moshe showed us where we should set up our base camp and we commenced to pitch our tents and other necessary tasks that campers do. Getting back to wildlife, Moshe took out a collection of traps to harmlessly secure us some dune-living rodents for inspection. We spent quite a while setting up traps in the vicinity of burrow openings, baiting them with tasty and nutritious bamba.

Setting out the rodent traps

Sunset came and went, leaving us in the darkness of the Negev sky, the air quickly cooling around us. It was time to embark on an exploratory tour of the dunes around us, and we were more than ready. I had recently purchased a powerful new flashlight, with intents on making all nighttime exploring easier. We set out, keeping an eye out for distinguishing tracks to help us locate our quarry. My target was anything I could find in the suborder Serpentes – snakes!

Sunset over Egypt

Believe it or not, just walking along the sandy trail, flicking my flashlight’s powerful beam hither and thither, I found my first snake of the night. I almost couldn’t comprehend what my eyes were showing me, and I was nervous that it’d slither off into the unknown before proper attention was given. I called out loudly, telling the group to come over quick. It was a crowned leafnose snake, less than a foot long and completely harmless.

Crowned leafnose snake

We spent a long time with the crowned leafnose snake, taking photos and talking about its distinct tracks. Excited as we were to see this snake, we knew that there was more to be seen, and continued our exploring.

Holding the crowned leafnose snake

We climbed a large, vegetation-free dune and caught sight of the even more distinct tracks of a horned desert viper. Long hooked lines carved out of the sand, showing the direction the snake was traveling. We followed suit, and tracked it a hundred or so metres until suddenly we saw it.

Following the tracks

Bigger than the previous snake, this viper is venomous and couldn’t be approached the same way. With caution, we edged closer and Moshe unloaded a great amount of pertinent information.

Horned desert viper coming my way

Eventually the serpent decided to move on, and so we followed it back up the dune from whence it came. Atop the dune it decided to settle down, and burrow itself in the sand.

Up close to the horned desert viper

As we watched its rippling body shimmy itself into the sand, we heard a loud clicking noise and I spotted something running towards us from out of the darkness.

Reaction shot to the camel spider attack

Quite literally like a scene out of a horror movie, a large camel spider was running at us at top speed, flailing its long pedipalps and clicking its fearsome teeth at us. It was quite alarming, even if the creature is “only” the size of a large adult human hand. We scattered, avoiding the devilish arachnid as it raced around underfoot threatening to slash us with its powerful jaws (see close-up HERE).

Camel spider

We relocated, leaving the horned desert viper and eventually losing the restless camel spider as well. The next item of interest was a large female lobed agriope spider, quite impressive both in size and appearance. I had already seen one of these on a trip to the fields near the fortress of Mirabel (see blog post HERE and photo HERE), so I felt the need to continue exploring.

Lobed agriope spider

Not far away, I spotted something small moving – a dune gecko. I called the group over, let them take over, and then continued exploring. Over the next little while all we saw were repeats: camel spiders and dune geckos. Incidentally, those two are predator and prey, respectively. Then something exciting happened: The few individuals taking the lead caught sight of a small rodent dashing about in the sparse vegetation. We circled the area and closed in, eventually finding the cute lil’ fella hiding out in an abandoned burrow.

Gerbil hiding in a burrow

What we had found was a gerbil of sorts, unidentifiable without getting a closer look at the footbeds which would require capture. Leaving the gerbil to his business, we carried on with our roving search. A pair of eyes watched us from a nearby dune – a curious Arabian red fox – yet refused to be approached. With all these impressive finds under our figurative belts, we had yet to see a scorpion, so the UV flashlight was taken out. No matter how purple-blue the ground below us looked under the illumination, there was no scorpion to be found, just more camel spiders.

Ultraviolet camel spider blur

However, we did find another four crowned leafnose snakes, as well as some more dune geckos. Walking and walking, we eventually decided to bring an end of our exploration and navigated ourselves back to our campsite aided by the twinkling lights on the horizon as well as the time-honoured stellar constellations.

Dune gecko

Back at the campsite we took out our food and had dinner while watching a nature video brought by Moshe. I feasted on schnitzel with rice and tehina, and had the pleasure of hearing and identifying an eagle owl – which I have yet to lay eyes on. When we had all eaten our fill, people began to get ready for bed. It was about midnight and we were to wake up before dawn for another excursion.

Examining a dune gecko

I had a conundrum: I had brought a sleeping bag, but with those devilish camel spiders racing about willy-nilly, I felt a little apprehensive of sleeping on the ground. I resigned to relaxing on a chair, and letting sleep’s warm embrace envelop me whenever it shall. Dressed in a fleece jacket, I was cosy and relatively comfortable perched on the chair. To make life a bit more exciting, and to perhaps ease myself to sleep, I cracked open a can of Murphy’s Irish Stout which I had brought with me.

Bathed in the soft golden light of morning

I dozed on and off throughout the night, safe from the roving camel spiders (in fact, I didn’t see or hear any the whole time at the campsite). The birds began to call before first light, mostly crested larks from what I was able to identify audibly. When the sun’s light lit up the sky to the east of us I rose and explored a little, hoping to maybe see something of interest. True to my hopes, I found a male mountain gazelle grazing far off on a distant dune, oblivious to my presence.

Exploring the dunes in the early morning

The rest of our merry band of explorers joined in, and we explored the dunes under the early morning’s golden light. We found plenty of tracks, but nothing that we hadn’t seen during the night. It was rather scenic though, and the sweeping sands of the dune coupled with the partially overcast skies created a stunning pastel vista. The traps, which had been set the evening before, provided us with nothing – although one of the traps’ bamba-bait was looted by a sneaky rodent. We returned to our campsite, packed up everything and made our way to the bus that came for us. The adventure wasn’t over yet, we had a bit of a drive to the final trip destination.

Within the old quarry basin

Driving north, and nearing Tel es-Safi, we took a slight detour in the vicinity of Moshav Nahala. Our destination was an old quarry, always a good place to find cool stuff, where we were deposited. Entering the quarry I immediately discerned a bird of prey sitting atop a short tree – a long-legged buzzard. I was excited, no doubt, but there was more to see and the open field in front of us (the basin of the quarry) was alive with the twittering of crested larks.

Little owl

Overhead I could see jackdaws and bee-eaters, but there was something far more exciting watching us from the other side of the quarry. Moshe set up his spotting scope and showed us what he had brought us there for: a little owl was sitting at the mouth of a hewn tunnel, watching us with large yellow eyes. I adore owls, and felt bent on getting a decent picture of this particular specimen.

Juvenile short-toed eagle

We walked the dirt path until we reached the perched long-legged buzzard and inevitably scared him off. To our excitement, a juvenile short-toed eagle had just perched on a nearby tree, and the rousted buzzard made it return to the air. We watched as the two birds of prey climbed the hot air thermals, all while the owl watched us. Then, if the scenario wasn’t thrilling enough as is, suddenly a male lesser kestrel came out of nowhere and started harassing the buzzard, dive-bombing it with aerial superiority.

Lesser kestrel harassing a long-legged buzzard

It was during the intensity of all these sightings, and the desperation to capture it all in photographic form, that my camera’s battery exhausted itself. I tried to revive the little black cuboid, but to no avail. It was just my misfortune that directly thereafter we had two day-time fox sightings, as well as a handful of other great photographic opportunities. Alas, there was nothing I could do, so I took a photograph of myself in the fly-filled heat and just enjoyed the outing for what it was.

Quarry selfie

It wasn’t long before we climbed back into the bus and made our way back to Bar Ilan University, bringing to an end one of the most enjoyable departmental field trips I’ve ever been on. Hopefully I’ll be able to attend next year’s dune trip as well, but in the meantime I have the more centrally-located dunes of Holon and Rishon LeZion to explore.

Yatir Forest: Ecological Fieldwork

In Israel, Judea on June 18, 2019 at 7:26 AM

The other week I had the privilege of taking part in something slightly out of the ordinary. My friend Levi Burrows had invited me to participate in some fieldwork for his MA at Hebrew University. Specialising in ecology at the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, Levi is contributing to an ongoing research project spearheaded by two professors – Dr José Grünzweig at Hebrew University and Dr Yagil Osem at the Agricultural Research Organisation – Volcani Center. Plans were set into motion and I found myself heading his way for a day of ecological fieldwork.

Welcome to Yatir Forest!

Levi picked me up that evening outside the Volcani Center and together we entered the compound, located the storage room and loaded his rental car – a Peugeot 301 – with the necessary gear. Pretty much set for the next day, we drove over to his apartment in Rehovot and had a nice relaxed evening. We made sure to go to sleep extra early, because fieldwork days start just after 2am. My alarm clock rang shortly after 2am and together we made the last necessary preparations before heading out. Our destination was Yatir Forest, located near Mount Amasa, south of Hevron, where the KKL-JNF had planted Aleppo pine trees starting back in 1964. Levi’s research sites are marked off plots of land, each plot containing an interior plot fenced off by razor-wire.

Arboreal spectres

We drove on main roads for over an hour, then made the rest of our way on a side road passing scattered Bedouin villages. We arrived shortly after 4am and immediately began to work. Our first task was to take sprig clippings from particular, numbered trees, bagging them for later use. As we dashed about in the chilly darkness, our headlamps illuminating big patches in front of us, I heard the first of many scops owl calls. I was tempted to try and lure the scops owls with calls from my Collins birding app, but there was work to be done and we had to finish this stage before the sun’s rays peek over the mountainous horizon.

Sunrise

Our only real distraction was a large praying mantis found on a tree trunk, and aside from that we worked with alacrity gathering sprigs from four separate plots. When we were done, the first rays appeared and we began setting ourselves up for the next stage. Levi’s research involves comparing the water potential of trees both in and out of grazing areas.

Scientifically examining the sprigs

The way we were to find out was to measure the trees’ thirst by checking the pressure it takes to force stored water out of the sprig’s freshly snipped twig. To do this we employed the use of a PMS Instrument Model 1505D “Pressure Bomb” which applies nitrogen to pressurise the leaves in a little pressure tank. Levi hooked up the machine to a nitrogen tank and we began to take measurements of the greatly aromatic sprigs.

Hammering out soil samples

The sun climbed up and began warming us with its friendly rays. We finished up with the final sprigs of the pre-dawn harvest and then set out to do our second task: taking core samples of soil from the two sections of each plot. This was performed with two sledgehammers, a pipe-stake and a bucket. We went from plot to plot taking samples, and only getting a little bit distracted by the many praying mantises – these ones belonging to the species Rivetina baetica.

Rivetina baetica mantis

This was hot and tiring work, especially with the exposed bedrock in many places, so we were happy when we finally bagged our final sample. The happiness increased when, as we were making our way out of one fenced off area, we spotted a jackal do an about-face and run off downhill. Apparently the jackal was curious as to what we were doing and came up check us out.

Snake-eyed lizard

With the jackal gone there were still some more cool stuff to see. A pair (or more) of common kestrels kept appearing now and again, and a pale-morph snake-eyed lizard was spotted near the car. We drove back to our temporary base camp and began to figure lunch out.

Basecamp

Levi had packed a bunch of cooked foods and snacks for us, but we also wanted to do some fresh cooking of our own. We decided that building a fire to roast kabanos sausages would be a great experience, and set out to do it posthaste. When the small fire was up and burning, the fuel being the dead bark, sticks and pinecones from the fragrant Aleppo pines, we hunkered down and got comfortable. Skewering the sausages on sharpened sticks, we set about making a delicious snack to accompany the food we brought.

Relaxing beside the fire

When the feasting finished we kicked back to rest a bit, with the intention to do another round of sprig-picking at noon. A few kestrels screeched from the nearby treetops, and some ticks ran unchecked over the pine-needle forest floor, but aside from that silence reigned. When noon finally came around we urged ourselves back to work, and began the sprig-picking one plot at a time.

Snipping sprigs

When the 96 fragrant sprigs were all successfully bagged, we drove back to our base camp and began the nitrogen-pressurising process again under the shade of an Aleppo pine. We worked quickly and diligently, and cracked open a bottle of Leffe Bruin when we were finishing.

Driving back

When our work was finished we loaded up all the gear into the Peugeot and bid the pine forest farewell as we made our way to the main road. It was a bit of a drive back, but eventually we made it to Rishon Lezion where Levi dropped me off. He continued on to the Volcani Center whereas I bused to my girlfriend’s place near Jerusalem to enjoy a home-cooked dinner.