Israel's Good Name

Gamla II

In Golan, Israel on May 6, 2018 at 9:03 AM

Leaving Nachal Metzar and Ein Pik, my friend Adam and I drove along Roads 98 and 808 until we reached the access road to the next stop on our list: Gamla. As we approached we noticed several large birds of prey in the skies above us, and tried our best to identify them with maintaining the necessary safety to survive the experience mid-drive. At last, after identifying at least one short-toed eagle we pulled into Gamla National Park and parked the car. To my surprise, just in front of the car, perched on a rock, was my very first ortolan bunting just waiting for us to take its picture.

Ortolan bunting (photo Adam Ota)

Already filled with excitement, we headed straight for the Vulture Lookout where we knew there’d be interesting sightings. Perched at the eastern side of the deep ravine accentuated by Nachal Gamla, the cliff sides have been the nesting sites for many species for years. When I had visited last, on a trip with my father to both Gilgal Refa’im and Gamla, we had spent a few minutes at the lookout and then headed towards the dolmen and the Gamla Waterfall.

View from the Vulture Lookout

This time Adam and I were dedicated to the birding potential and so we decided to dedicate as much time as possible to spot as many interesting species as possible. With that mindset we planted ourselves at the lookout’s edge and began to watch. Nearly immediately, a few of the park’s iconic Griffon vultures soared out from the sanctuary of the cliff edges, provided us with satisfaction.

Griffon vulture patrolling the slopes (photo Adam Ota)

But there wasn’t just the immense Griffon vultures to be seen, more short-toed eagles and a lesser spotted eagle soared over from the west. We stood there patiently, watching as the large birds of prey passed by, entranced by the richness of the region. Next up, a Bonelli’s eagle emerged from the cliffs, its rounded wings and pale abdomen giving away its identity. I was excited to see my first-ever Bonelli’s eagle, but there was no time to waste because more birds were emerging.

Bonelli’s eagle (photo Adam Ota)

Overhead, we managed to spot a large number of specks in the sky and, with the aid of our zoom lenses, we identified them as a flock of white storks. Mixed in with the storks, but at a slightly different altitude, we spotted a dozen or so black kites. Returning to the cliffs, an Egyptian vulture made an appearance, followed by another Griffon vulture. Together they soared, patrolling the cliff-sides as we watched and took pictures.

Mount Hermon in the distance (photo Adam Ota)

We couldn’t tire of watching these large birds of prey from such a short distance, but there were other birds also capturing our attention. Tons of little swifts zipped by overhead, eating airborne insects, and male blue rock thrushes in their brilliant summer plumage called noisily from the rocks, trying to attract mates.

Blue rock thrush (photo Adam Ota)

We enjoyed lunch while we birdwatched, and exchanged words with the other visitors to the lookout, but eventually it was time to move on. We headed over to the Gamla Lookout, passing by some of the basalt ruins of Deir Qeruh, and took a moment to enjoy the view of the ruined city below.

Ruins of Deir Qeruh

Ancient Gamla was built on a triangular rock wedge that juts out between two streams far below, and is thereby a greatly strategic location for an ancient walled city. First occupied in the Early Bronze Age, the site became most famous for its time as a Jewish city under Roman siege. As described by Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius, the city was attacked by Roman forces first under Agrippa II and then under Vespasian, the latter succeeding in conquering the city despite heavy losses.

Gamla (photo Adam Ota)

We made our way down the winding path towards the entrance of the city, walking gingerly over the stone steps as we continued our search for new and interesting birds. Towards the bottom we spotted a sparrowhawk passing quickly overhead, always a nice addition to a day’s birding.

Ancient city of Gamla

Outside the entrance of the city we found a reconstructed Roman weapons of siege, and then we passed through the breach in the wall where we found the ruins of residential structures and a synagogue. Because Gamla was never rebuilt after the destruction, the remains have largely been left as is, other than disturbances by natural causes.

Gamla’s ancient synagogue

We decided to take the long trail, even though the sun was relentlessly beating down on us, and continued along the slope towards the peak, reaching the oil press and flour mill at the end of the trail. Along the way we spotted a couple of interesting birds, including chukars and a common nightingale. In addition, Adam spotted and caught a bright yellow jewel beetle of the Julodis rothi species.

Julodis rothi jewel beetle

We climbed up from the western quarter, as it is called, and made our way to the peak. Just below the massive rock piling, we sat in the shade of a small tree and surveyed our surroundings. Adam scanned the neighbouring slope with his monocular and I became distracted by the calls of a male common cuckoo, so very distinct that even a clock was designed and named after it.

Atop the peak

I made my way over to the northern slope, pulled up a video of cuckoo calls on YouTube and tried to lure it into my point of view. However, this cuckoo was a wily one; every time I’d appear anywhere near where he’d be, he’d hush up and I would have to slink away to try again. No matter how sneaky I tried to be, he’d always see me coming and I was left disappointed, failing in catching a glimpse of this amazing bird.

Within the Round Tower

After a good while on the peak, we at last picked ourselves up and made our way back through the ancient ruined city, this time from the ridge trail. At the end, we found the Round Tower and stood in it looking out over the surrounding land as one of the defending soldiers would have done some two thousand years ago.

Egyptian vulture passing by

As we were in the tower we were following one of the Egyptian vultures who, curiously enough, landed on the access road where we crossed into the city ruins. When it took flight, Adam snapped a few pictures of it and we saw that it had food in its mouth, which it seemed to have taken back to its nest.

Only the head visible…

That filled us with curiosity so we made our way out of the city and watched as it returned, landing in the same place just out of sight. Seeing us, the vulture took off and we were able to see that there was a dead chicken carcass on the road. Hoping to see some feeding, we settled under a nearby tree, where we’d have an okay vantage point, and waited.

Swarm of white storks in the thermals (photo Adam Ota)

The vulture circled again and again, yet refused to land. Blue rock thrushes, chukars and rock hyraxes provided entertainment in the interim, each engaged in their own pursuit of happiness. Birds of prey overhead also brought us joy, especially a lesser spotted eagle and a juvenile short-toed eagle. But the vulture refused to land.

Short-toed eagle

As always with nature, unexpected surprises are just waiting to happen. We were lounging under the tree when suddenly the vulture landed on a boulder some 15-20 metres from us, and began to drink from a hidden puddle. We watched, nearly slack-jawed, as it drank calmly, allowing Adam to film it.

With that we surmised that it was time that we head on, as the park was closing shortly and we were the last visitors in the area. We climbed back up to the lookout and made our way to the park exit, bringing an end to a truly amazing day trip.

Woodchat shrike (photo Adam Ota)

By the time we returned to my house we were already scheming of more trips to take, because one can never take enough trips in this beautiful land of topographical variety. As to be expected, I took two interesting trips to the Judean Lowlands and Negev the very next week.

  1. Shem, you are very gifted in storytelling! I look forward to these posts and feel like I’ve been bird watching and hiking in Israel myself. Especially delightful today was the vulture drinking in the video! Thanks for sharing your love of the land and wildlife. Also, I appreciate the small history lessons you include as background for the places you visit. Cheers! -Angela

  2. A wonderful outing, thanks for sharing!

  3. Gamla is a beautiful reserve, really enjoyed my time there. Northern Israel is something else.

  4. […] Daliyot Woods. There, we followed a trail towards the peaks and valleys that neighbour the iconic Gamla ridge, where I had visited just one month prior. Enjoying the lovely weather with its sprinkling of […]

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