Israel's Good Name

Ein Hemed (Aqua Bella)

In Israel, Jerusalem on April 24, 2018 at 8:27 AM

Taking the most of our Pesach (Passover) break, my friend Adam and I went on yet another adventure, this time to a national park a few kilometres outside Jerusalem: Ein Hemed. Many years have past since I first set my eyes on the Crusader ruins of Aqua Bella, and I’ve been waiting patiently to get the chance to visit. Adam and I set out via bus from Givat Shmuel heading for Jerusalem, getting off along the way at Hemed Interchange. The park’s entrance was just a short walk away, and after shelling out the entrance fee, we entered the park.

Nachal Kesalon

We were a little perturbed by the fact that there were hundreds of schoolchildren running around, making noise as children are wont to do. But, thankfully, there was more to see than just wildlife and we began straight away on the short trail along the Nachal Kesalon. The spring in the park, that feeds into the stream, was called Aqua Bella (or, “beautiful water”) in Latin, and, in translation, Ein Hemed in Hebrew.

Jerusalem sage flowering

The waters were sluggish, and overrun with algae, which provided a good opportunity to find interesting water-living creatures. We peered into the green mess and found hundreds of tadpoles, which are always cool to see. In addition, several species of waterbugs such as water boatmen and water scavenger beetle larvae made appearances. Continuing along, parallel with the trickling waters, we enjoyed the spring flowers including hyacinth squill, arum and the carob trees’ pink blossoms.

Approaching from the north

As we separated from the stream we came upon the impressive Crusader ruins, but kept onward to see what was beyond it. What we found was an old Arab cemetery, still in use by the inhabitants of the nearby village Ein Nakuba. There apparently is an old sheikh’s tomb, known as Maqam al-Ajami, but we were unable to locate it. Instead we birdwatched, seeing some greenfinches in the trees and a blackbird perching on tombstones.

Blackbird on a tombstone

From there we turned back and made our way into the ruins of the Crusader building. Built sometime between 1140 and 1160, this building was a fortified farmhouse which served to protect over both the neighbouring lands and the old Roman road that passed by, connecting Emmaus and Latrun (the Toron des Chevaliers castle) with the capital of Jerusalem.

Fortress ruins (photo Adam Ota)

We descended from the northern half of the building, walking on the floor of the upper floor which is now covered in grasses and wildflowers. Admiring the strong architecture, with its arched windows and doors and large vaulted rooms, we made our way to the southern half of the building, skirting the courtyard down below.

Within the fortified farmhouse

Better preserved than the northern half, the upper level featured a line of arched windows, and one small room. I love the influence of Gothic architecture in Crusader ruins, and it was truly enjoyable just to admire the handiwork. Whilst looking at one of the arched windows I noticed a mason’s mark etched into one of the large ashlars. Mason’s marks were very common in the Crusader period; they were a way of keeping track of a mason’s work when it was time to get paid.

Mason’s mark

This discovery set us off on a quest for mason’s marks, and we found plenty. Adam was particularly sharp-eyed at finding the obscure, yet unique, carven markings on the stones. This quest took us down to the ground floor of the farmhouse, via the main staircase.

Yours truly (photo Adam Ota)

Standing in the courtyard we found that there were two rooms to enter, as well as the farmhouse’s main entrance, with recreated wooden doors to match the arched opening. We decided to explore the northern side first, and found a large barrel-vaulted room with flour mill tools in the corner. We took some pictures and then made our way to the room at the northern side, which is said to be the dining hall of the farmhouse.

Weevil going on a stroll (photo Adam Ota)

Outside, via the reconstructed wooden doors, we decided to sit down to eat the lunch we brought. As to be expected, we were distracted by some birds, including a beautiful grey wagtail dashing about the stream’s gentle currents and a pair of nesting great tits, busy with preparing their nest in the trunk of a nearby tree. When lunch was over we got back up and continued along the stream, when suddenly we spotted a few small, yellow birds. Only a few record shots of them drinking enabled us to identify them as siskins, and this was the first time either of us was seeing them. When they disappeared we moved on and enjoyed the sights of the Jerusalem sage and pink garlic flowers.

Songbird paradise (photo Adam Ota)

But then, when sitting at a picnic table near the stream, just waiting for the birds to return now that all the schoolchildren were gone, it began to get interesting. First, Adam filmed a white-breasted kingfisher eating a lizard in its entirety. Next, a small flock of siskins showed up and began to eat from the fruit tree that was in front of us (see the video below). Other songbirds joined in, including chaffinches and warblers, and then the kingfisher came back. This time he had a small snake in his bill, which to me looked like a Dahl’s whip snake, and we scrambled to take pictures. Unfortunately for us (and the snake), the kingfisher decided to take his meal in the cover of a thick bush and our photographic wishes were thus rejected.

While we were enjoying the siskins, we joked that there were probably eagles soaring overhead. With true comical timing, we saw two lesser spotted eagles migrating north, flying high up in the thermals. If that wasn’t enough, two short-toed eagles made an appearance shortly thereafter, soaring in circles above us.

Outside Ein Hemed

With that we decided that it was time to leave our pleasant little birding spot and continue on, with hopes of more birds of prey sightings. As we left the park we indeed saw another bird of prey, a steppe buzzard soaring far, far away to the east. We found a trail to take us eastward, as we were hoping to reach the nearby Castel, even though it was getting late in the day. The trail was nice and we saw plenty of birds and a handful of knapweed fritillary butterflies flying about.

Knapweed fritillary

There was, however, a surprise up ahead: a female goat had just given birth to her second kid beneath the shade of a tree and the somewhat gruesome scene was just there for us to see. It was an interesting moment, being kind of turned away by the bloody sight yet fascinated by the tender gift of life. We took some pictures and continued on. Nothing of much interest happened until we found ourselves fenced in on some guy’s property. We tried leaving through the front gate but it was locked, and there wasn’t any simple way of getting out. Laughing at our absurd situation, we even tried the house door, hoping there’d be someone to let us out. In the end, left to our own devices, we decided to hop the gate and continued merrily along our way.

Specks in the sky (photo Adam Ota)

Castel was closed for the day and so we wandered on in search for food, keeping a constant eye out for birds of prey in the skies. Adam spotted a few tiny black dots in the sea of blue, and with his 40x optical zoom we were able to identify them as another steppe buzzard and a booted eagle.

Here comes the moon…

We found a decent restaurant to get schwarma at (my first time in a long while) and ate with our eyes to the sky. I’d be lying if I said that we didn’t have a moment of panic when an eagle passed by overhead, as we put down our food in favour of our cameras. But the food was delicious and we felt reinvigorated to continue our birding pursuit. We succeeded in spotting some greater spotted eagles migrating northward as the sun slowly set, the day coming to an end for both us and the eagles.

  1. I guess many people (erroneously) started referring to the blackbirds as mynas.

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