Israel's Good Name

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.

Yavne Dunes

In Central Israel, Israel on November 15, 2020 at 5:10 PM

Now that the first rains have fallen it is time to play catch-up and retell the tales of this summer’s outings and excursions. First and foremost would be a series of visits to the dunes just outside of Yavne, a new location that Adam and I found when looking for good, local sand dunes for summer night trips. As such, our first visit to the Yavne dunes was at the end of June and it proved to be very successful.

Cheery adventurers!

Hoping to first get a lay of the land while it was still daylight, we arrived shortly before 5pm, about three hours before sunset. Firstly, we were rather impressed by the size of these dune-land, as it is far larger than even the veritable Holon dunes which hosted many a night trips. Entering the open land from the southeast, we wandered around hither and thither examining all that there was to see. Our walking took us from the tree-dotted scrubland to the dunes themselves, where the thick sand made the hiking a bit more difficult.

Yavne’s infiltration pans

Consulting Google Maps’ satellite imagery, we made our way towards a grouping of rectangular pools, which I later learned to be “infiltration pans” for the preservation of fresh water that seeps into the aquifer. Even though I looked this up, I remain slightly confused as to how and why they exist – but for our purposes, they serve as excellent bird habitats. As we climbed the sandy slopes up towards the pools, birds of all sorts were flying above us, including European bee-eaters, turtledoves, swifts, swallows and martins.

Waders wading and feeding

Cresting the hill made our presence known to all the birds in the pans, and chaos filled the air. Hundreds of ducks and waders took to the skies in confused pandemonium; it was an awesome sight for us unexpecting birders. A gazelle dashed away from behind the shelter of a tree nearby, and as we too sought shelter, the waterbirds slowly started coming back. We relaxed there in our somewhat hidden location on the east side of the pans, the slowly setting sun making it harder and harder to see the birds.

Black-winged stilts standing in liquid gold

Adapting, we looped around the southern end of the pool compound, seeing loads of snake tracks in the loose sand, until we made it to a natural bowl-like depression in the land. We took a break there, relaxing and watching the numerous warblers, turtledoves and chukar partridges below us. With the sun ever-setting, we got back up and kept hiking northward, aiming for the large sandy dune area that we had seen in the satellite images.

A ‘bowl’ in which to rest in

A large animal crashed in the undergrowth somewhere near us (later to be presumed as a wild boar as we have found droppings in the area), and we found an active porcupine den (with shed quills and all). But, the best sighting of that late afternoon was a surprise visit by a little owl, which landed not far away from us as Adam was photographing a beetle. Despite being relatively common, I find it very difficult to spot them on the regular and consider every sighting a great cause for celebration.

Rubbish photo of a little owl hiding behind some branches

At last we reached the dunes proper, and waited as the sun sank over the horizon, painting the skies beautiful pastel shades of glory. Our subsequent exploring of the dunes led us to some fun sightings, the first was a nice elegant gecko just marching his way across the endless stretches of sand. Next, we heard the distinct croaking of frogs and then we began a long walk along a sandy dirt path back towards the starting point of our visit. Scanning from side-to-side, we danced our flashlights over the scrub-covered ground hoping to see what we really came for, a snake.

Sunset over the dunes and sea

Then, as we were walking, I looked up and saw an enormous spider web spanning the width of the trail. It was illuminated accidentally by Adam’s flashlight and to make it even more fun, a rather large spider was occupying this immense web. I was already mid-step and it was too late to avoid, so I made a snap decision to just rush through, hoping that I’d avoid a spider landing on me.

Viper on the sandy path

I burst into a brief sprint and then stopped abruptly as another obstacle presented itself in my path. This time it was a viper, and I was elated to have discovered it. Adam rushed over and we spent a few minutes getting some choice photographs, but knowing that our bus was going to be coming and we really must be getting going. But no, we were in for some more surprises…

Clifford’s diadem snake striking a defensive pose

As we were making our way suddenly Adam shouted out that he found another snake – and this time it was something new. Excitement filled the air once more as we closed in on the joy-bringing serpent, taking myriads of photographs from all angles possible. This was a Clifford’s diadem snake, a slender, harmless-yet-feisty, reddish-brown creature with big friendly eyes.

Adam caught off guard

Time surely was not on our side as we reluctantly left the snake alone and hurried off to go catch our bus. We felt confident that we could find more snakes, and other interesting wildlife, and already decided to schedule another trip. However, it took nearly a month for us to get back out there, but when we did, success greeted us once again.

National nature reserve boundaries

It was the end of July and we decided to get there an hour or so before nightfall and to have a small barbecue of spicy hotdogs and marshmallows – an Adam speciality. We arrived at the dunes and were immediately wowed by a large short-toed eagle taking to the air quite close by. We found some old bottles and cans, nearly collectibles, and then had a quick gander at the infiltration pans, where we saw ibises, mallards, sandpipers and other shorebirds.

Golden hour unedited

We made a little fire with some dried branches and took in the dusk, noticing several microbats flying above us in search of juicy insects. As our dinner was coming to an end we saw something truly fantastic, a meteoroid burning up upon entering Earth’s atmosphere – an awesome firefall flying over our heads. That prompted us to start searching for creatures of the night, which we found surprisingly quickly.

Green toad

First there was a large camel spider, a fascinating creature which I first met in the Nizzana dunes, and then a green toad. More camel spiders joined the fray, and then Adam spotted what appears to have been a dice snake (which I had already seen in the Ga’aton reservoir). Next up was another viper, this one a pregnant female, and then some African fattail scorpions scurrying here and there. But the fun didn’t end there, as shortly thereafter we saw yet another viper and then some mantises, to be followed by more camel spiders.

One of the numerous African fattail scorpions

We left the dunes that night feeling downright satisfied with our new location for nighttime excursions, with each trip resulting in not one, but two snakes each. However, I had an urge to learn more about the birds frequenting the infiltration pans and desired to journey there in the morning to get a proper rundown of what there was to see. So, a few days later I took a bus down to the dunes and made a beeline for the infiltration pans.

Stints and plovers foraging in the mud

Sure enough, there was what to see and it was an honest struggle trying to photograph everything to make sure I could properly identify all that there was. Of the pans, there are the ones that were filled with water, and hosted mainly ducks, and then there were the ones filled with mud and puddles, positively overflowing with waders. I spotted sandpipers: green, wood, marsh, common; greenshanks and redshanks; stints and Temminck’s stints; ruffs; plovers: little ringed and common ringed. All that on top of the more “boring” glossy ibises, black-winged stilts and even a lone black-headed gull. In short, it was splendid.

Greenshank and redshank

While I was watching this cacophony of birds just over the fence, something small and flappy in my peripheral caught my eye. I was standing so still, so blended in with the setting, that a great spotted cuckoo didn’t even notice me as it plummeted into the sand just a few metres away. I watched breathless as it did a weird, awkward dance, bathing in the warm sand and watching the flummoxed ants that were passing by. Eventually it hopped on, no doubt looking for juicy caterpillars to feast on, and I was able to watch it on-and-off as it foraged. A few Schreiber’s fringe-fingered lizards, some snake tracks and I was on my way back home after a successful under-two-hour outing.

Great spotted cuckoo

It wasn’t enough though, and I needed to go back. One of the local birding experts, Yoav Perlman, had visited and reported seeing a rare red knot (which I tried to see with Adam last year at Ma’agan Michael). I decided I’d go for another quick morning of birding, and made my way once again – thankfully we have a direct bus. It was the end of August, about a month after my first morning visit, and after three additional night visits – these with friends (and even Bracha, my wife).

Flyer for our local community

It was a perfect opportunity for us to invite other members of the community along on an adventure of a lifetime. We had seen a lot of interesting creatures, including wild boars and more vipers but with each subsequent outing we were seeing less and less snakes. The final trip was snakeless, and I have a substantiated suspicion that the local snake-eating short-toed eagles were to blame.

Short-toed eagle looking for more snakes to eat

At any rate, I was excited to do another morning trip and arrived nice and ready for pan-scanning. There were even more waders than ever before, and my mind was truly boggled by the numbers and variety of species set out before me. Even a lone white stork was on the banks, watching the mess of small to medium sized birds scramble around in the nutrient-rich mud below.

Pair of common snipes photographed through a fence

What made this time exciting was the new species I was seeing at this site, including: common snipes, garganeys and a single yellow wagtail. Unfortunately, I did not see the red knot as I later learned that it was spotted in a different set of infiltration pans, ones that I never even thought about checking out.

We’ll miss you, Yavne dunes

The dunes, and the pans as well, served us well for the numerous trips we took over the summer. But, as autumn was ushered in, and the migration kicked into high gear, we found ourselves either homebound in lockdown, or exploring other areas which also served us well. I can only wonder what dunes we will explore come next summer when the night trips in search of snakes begin again…