Israel's Good Name

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.

Southern Arava

In Eilat, Israel, Negev on June 12, 2019 at 10:02 AM

Continuing on with the saga of the trip to Eilat, my friend Adam Ota and I spent the night in a small house in Kibbutz Ketura after a day of birding adventure. The sun came up over the Arava and we felt the need to sleep in a bit. We had breakfast in the kibbutz dining room, and then packed up our belongs into our rental Audi for another adventurous day.

Morning in Kibbutz Ketura

We drove around Ketura for a bit, taking in all the sights and seeing where Adam used to work after his army service. As fun as it was in Ketura, time was ticking and we had many places to visit that day. Leaving Ketura, our first stop was the adjacent Kibbutz Grofit, built upon a lone hill in the homogenous desert landscape. We drove over to the northern end of the kibbutz and enjoyed the view of Ketura down below.

Looking down at Ketura from Grofit

When we had soaked up all of the glory of the view we got back into the car and drove south on Road 90. We turned into Kibbutz Samar, where we had received insider information from the International Birding and Research Center Eilat (IBRCE) that there were black bush robins to be found.

Our Audi A1 rental car

Locating the overgrown tree patch known locally as “The Jungle”, we set out to find the elusive black birds. It took some searching and some playing of the bird calls from the Collins bird watching app, and eventually we heard a reply.

Searching for the black bush robin

A black bush robin was calling to us from the groves outside the Jungle, and we set off to get a sighting. Unfortunately we didn’t end up getting any closer to it, and even lost the audio connection, but we did end up seeing some other nice birds. A few wheatears and blackstarts, as well as some warblers and a Tristram’s starling. There was no reason to linger, as the list of place to still be visited remained long. With that we departed, and drove side access roads in the direction of the Elifaz Sewage Ponds.

Searching for birds at the Elifaz Sewage Ponds

Most people would raise eyebrows at the idea of visiting a sewage pond, but birders know that oftentimes sewage ponds provide excellent birding. While sewage treatment primarily happens indoors and out-of-sight, there are also what is known as stabilisation pools where a more natural form of water purification occurs. These pools are outdoors and host a healthy plants and insect life, which bring the birds into the picture. Thus, some of the hottest birding sites in Israel year-round are often in and around sewage treatment centres.

Just another boring kestrel

The Elifaz Sewage Ponds proved to be relatively empty, with just a few common kestrels keeping us company. Dejected by not discouraged, we got back into our car and drove on to the next destination: Timna Park. I had visited Timna once back in 2017 with my university, but we hadn’t explored the park in its entirety. This time I was returning with wheels and an adventurous friend.

Timna Park map

We began with the short film about the site, which was very entertaining, and then we headed into the park along the main access road. Marvelling at Timna’s fascinating colour palette, we passed the first landmark, the Spiral Hill, and then turned right to a spot called The Mushroom, a natural sculpture created by wind erosion.

Timna: The Copper Road

Timna Park is a horseshoe-shaped valley located in a beautiful, craggy desert landscape, complete with a unique geological makeup that gives it its iconic look. The pink sand, and the cliffs of green- and yellow-hued fuchsia rock, complete the truly bizarre appearance. In ancient times Timna was the site of an aggressive multi-national mining operation, mostly extracting raw copper from the sandstone. Although King Solomon’s name has been tacked onto the site more than once, it was more than just the Israelites that thirsted for the valuable metal. The ancient Egyptians, with the use of Canaanite labourers, hewed giant mines out of the soft rock and even left their mark on the faces of the colourful cliffs.

Unedited photo of the “sand”

These copper mines began hundreds of years before the Jews returned from Egyptian bondage, and were actively mined on and off until the 600s CE when the copper ore started running out. Curiously enough, the modern Israeli government attempted to respark the copper mining industry starting in 1958, but that ended in 1985 due to economic reasons. The Timna Copper Mines company website is still running, due to their ventures elsewhere, but the old pictures of the mining are worth a look (see HERE).

Ancient copper producing workshop

As we drove through the valley we spotted a few birds, notably a little green bee-eater and a few brown-necked ravens. Pulling over here and there to photographically capture everything of note, we eventually made it to The Mushroom – a fungus-shaped rock. Parking, we got out and walked towards two archaeological sites beside The Mushroom: a shrine and a smelting camp, dating back to the Egyptian period thousands of years ago. Despite that the ground is mostly a dark shade of pink, every so often there’s a glint of soft green. These are bits of oxidised copper, most often still affixed to broken pieces of pink sandstone. Leaving the smelting valley, we drove on to a place called The Chariots – rock engravings left behind by the ancient Egyptians.

Raindrops in Timna Park

Much to our surprise, it began to rain as we approached the site, and rain is always surprising in the desert. Ten-fifteen minutes later the light drizzle ended and we got out of the car to examine the ancient engravings. The first was a collection of ibexes and ostriches being hunted by boomerang-wielding men. The second set of engravings were the aforementioned chariots, featuring warriors and their battle axes.

Adam searching for the wall engravings

Driving back towards the park’s centre, skipping some of the sites that I had already seen last trip, we made our way to Lake Timna. Man-made and nestled between the craggy cliffs, the tiny lake was designed to be a permanent watering-hole for animals and a fun place for humans. To my dismay, this potential paradise seemed to amount to neither of these. There was, however, a station for filling touristy bottles with coloured sand – always an interesting gift to loved ones.

Desert lark eating discarded Doritos

From there we went to Solomon’s Pillars and Hathor’s Temple, basking in the glory of the truly awe-inspiring landscape. In the parking lot, of all places, we watched a few desert birds hop about, including a few desert larks. With that, and the time ticking away, we left Timna Park and headed for the next site on our list, an old water-filled quarry hidden from plain sight.

Cerulean quarry

It took a bit of driving about till we reached the correct access road, but when we pulled up at the quarry and got our first glimpse, we were amazed. The cerulean water contrasting with the red earth/rock made for quite the visual treat. Strong winds buffeted us, threatening to send us and our belongs into the picturesque abyss below. With nothing more to do than appreciate the view, we took some photos and got back into the little white car.

KM 20

Time truly was ticking, and we had only a few hours before we had to take the car back. Our next stop was also off the beaten path, the birding hotspot of KM 20 – literally the 20th kilometre from the end of Road 90 in Eilat. If time wasn’t the only adversary on that day, an unexpected muddy puddle kept us from reaching KM 20 by means of vehicular transportation. We were forced to walk the last bit, hopelessly muddying our shoes, but knowing that it was all worth it.

Flamingo at KM 20

Arriving at the large salt pools of KM 20, we were rather pleased to see at least a hundreds birds in front of us. The majority were greater flamingos, with some black-winged stilts and other waders hugging the edges of the pools. Even a mixed flock of northern shoveler and pintail ducks was spotted hunkering down on the far bank. While I engaged in photographic pursuits, Adam scanned for the famous black flamingo and successfully located the melanistic creature on the farther end of the closest pool.

The melanistic flamingo far, far away

Hurrying back to our car, we made our way to another birding hotspot a kilometre further south – KM 19. More of the bird-friendly sewage ponds, KM 19 didn’t deliver as much as we were hoping for. A flushed marsh harrier, a handful of waders and a bunch of flocks of waterfowl filled the few reed-lined ponds. It was fun scanning the water’s edge to try and find a small wader here and there, adding up the species as we found more and more. Next time, we’d need to revisit this site at a better hour of the day, and during a better time of year.

Climbing the banks of KM 19’s ponds

Alas, this was our last fun stop with the car and we drove back to Eilat feeling pleased with our efforts. We filled up the tank, went shopping and drove to the lodgings that we had booked in advance. With budgeting a priority we went with a relatively inexpensive hotel located in the residential part of Eilat. Our expectations were low, but we were pleasantly surprised with our lot at Rich Luxury Suites.

Getting the barbecue started

Zipping over to the car rental we gave back the beloved Audi with a few minutes to spare, and walked back to the hotel to settle in and have dinner. The evening continued into night, we filled our bellies with delicious foods cooked on a disposable grill and got a good night’s sleep.

Heading back home…

Early the following morning we gathered up all our belongings and made our way to Eilat’s central bus station for the long ride back to Givat Shmuel. Thus ended our exciting excursion to the southern tip of Israel this past February.