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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.

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.

Eilat: Spring Birding

In Eilat, Israel on May 13, 2019 at 8:55 AM

Back in the end of February, during semester break, I took a two day trip to the south with my friend Adam Ota. This post covers the first day, which was spent nearly entirely in the resort city of Eilat. Our primary objective was to engage in birding, all over Eilat and the southern end of the Arava. February isn’t the best time to go birding in that region, but it was the only window we had factoring in classes and work, so we made the most of it.

Azrieli Towers of Tel Aviv

Our journey began several hours after Shabbat ended, Saturday night, and we made our way to the train station in Tel Aviv. We had some food, did some shopping for food supplies and waited for our train to Beer Sheva. Several hours later we were in Beer Sheva’s central bus station, settling in for the long wait for our bus to Eilat. Again, several hours later, we were en route to Eilat, driving through the moonlit desert on a long, lonely road.

On the road with Eilat behind me

We arrived at our bus stop outside Kibbutz Eilot at 4:30am and immediately began mapping our way to the nearby International Birdwatching and Research Center of Eilat, also known as IBRCE. Our plan was to spend the first hours of the early morning there, so it made sense to get there as soon as possible. We crossed Road 90 and made our way through the dark desert landscape until we reached a drainage canal, which we followed all the way to the IBRCE.

Daybreak over the mountains of Jordan

Strangers in a strange land, we sat in the dark on a bench within the park’s confines and enjoyed cookies and a can of stuffed grape leaves. The sounds of the marsh and the calls of the muezzin in neighbouring Aqaba, Jordan were the only things that broke the silence until shortly before daybreak. Cars approached and staff members and volunteers of the IBRCE arrived to get the day started.

Redshank perched on a handrail

Sunlight painted the skies over the Jordanian mountain to the east and the birds started stirring. Adam and I moved from blind to blind, trying to see what early risers we could find. Various waders started moving about in the salt pools just south of the IBRCE, including redshanks, black-winged stilts and great flamingos. Before long there were birds all over, including our very first Indian house crow and a juvenile marsh harrier trying to eat some carrion. Over at Lake Anita, the centre of the IBRCE, there were handful of great cormorants, sedge warblers and a single gull-billed tern all getting into action.

Grey heron in Lake Anita

It’d take hours to write about all the birds we saw, so to put it short we spent the next couple hours of the morning basking in the joys of oasis birding. We moved all around the park’s nucleus, spending time at the different blinds and taking it all in. Some of the highlights were: our first penduline tits in the reeds, scores of house martins circling over the lake and of course the flamingos.

Flamingos and a redshank

We had received excellent instructions where and when to bird locally from IBRCE’s director Noam Weiss, and some expert field guidance by local staffer Rei Segali, when we encountered a pair of Swiss birders on the canal banks outside. We made birding chit chat with Michael and Martin and then settled in for a joint mission, to spot a crested honey buzzard. There were a few of these locally rare birds spending the winter in and around Eilat, and we wanted to see one too. It took a while, but at least we spotted one of them flying over the date palm trees at the Israel-Jordan border. Not the best sighting, but at least we saw one!

IBRCE from afar

Feeling a bit antsy to explore Eilat a bit more, we gathered up our belongs and walked on over to Holland Park, located at the northern end of Eilat. Unfortunately, it was already getting pretty hot out and we had a bit of a walk ahead of us. Looping around the northern end of the IBRCE, we spotted a little green bee-eater and a few Egyptian mastigures sunbathing on the rocky ground.

Relaxing Egyptian mastigure

We arrived at Holland Park and began walking the western trail, somewhat seeking shade and somewhat seeking birds. At last we found both: blackstarts, warblers and a passing long-legged buzzard as we sat in the partial shade of an African thorn tree.

Within Holland Park

Even with the handful of birds, we felt like better birding could be found elsewhere and made our way back to the IBRCE. Coming from the southwest corner of the park, we approached the salt pools slowly, spotting more and more waders – mostly redshanks, but including a ringed plover and more flamingos.

Hard-to-see brine shrimp in the shallows

At the first blind along the way we examined the salt water closer to find that there are millions, if not billions, of tiny brine shrimp swimming around. This explained the large numbers of waders feeding in the seemingly hostile-to-life pools. Adam scooped up a bit of the sand, which contains brine shrimp eggs, and to this day he has a small colony of shrimp in a glass jar. Sample stowed safely away, we tucked ourselves into the wooden booth-blind and rested a bit on the benches inside.

Photographing flamingos in the salt pools

I spent much of the time leisurely trying to get the best photographs and video footage I could, and felt relatively pleased with the fruits of my efforts. However, we still had more to do and we needed to rouse ourselves out of our comfortable booth.

Depth of field at the IBRCE

Our next destination was Eilat’s North Beach, and we intended to walk along the drainage canal as per Noam Weiss’ recommendation. We said goodbye to the IBRCE and began the walk on the eastern side of the canal.

Eilat’s salt production

Keeping an eye out for crested honey buzzards, Dead Sea sparrows and other fun birds, we walked and walked, seeing a variety of birds but none of the above mentioned species. Interestingly enough, the two most interesting things we saw on the walk were not birds at all. The first was a squished and dried Schokari sand racer on the path, only identified with the help of experts. The second was the constant flow of pure, white salt pouring out of the machinery at the salt factory nestled among the salt pools.

Adam scanning for seabirds at North Beach

We reached the North Beach and sat down at the water’s edge, the gentle waves lapping at the sand in front of us. We kept an eye out for interesting seabirds, and ended up seeing just black-headed and slender-billed gulls. The sun settled over the mountains of Egypt as we gazed out over the Red Sea, enjoying the international view that I loved when I last visited in 2014. When the sun was hidden behind the mountains we got up and made our way through the touristy hotel area and towards the airport.

Fiery sunset over the mountains of Egypt

Having planned our trip carefully, we were scheduled to pick up a rental car at 6:00pm and made our way there with alacrity. When we arrived we were greeted with a smile and the keys to a free upgrade – a sporty Audi A1. After the necessary paperwork and photographs we zipped out and headed over to a grocery store to pick up supplies for the evening. Eilat doesn’t have the national VAT tax that the rest of the country does, so the prices are lower and shopping gets weirdly tempting. We stocked up on supplies and drove out of Eilat and into the Arava, heading for the fields of Yotvata where Pharaoh eagle owls are known to live. Driving along the dark roads made for great fun, but when we scoured the field area – going as far as we deemed logical – we found no trace of the owls.

Looking for owls in the Yotvata fields

Abandoning the mission, we got back into the car and drove on to Kibbutz Ketura where we spent the night. Adam used to work on the kibbutz, after his army service, and so he had the necessary connections to arrange a room for us. In the end we received a small house, which more than suited our minimalist needs, and we enjoyed a lovely barbecue outdoors for dinner. Thus ended the first extremely long day of our trip to Eilat, and we slept knowing that we’d be waking up early the next day for round two – this time seeing sites all over the southern Arava with the help of the zippy little Audi.

University Trip: Herodium Survey & Tour

In Israel, Judea on April 18, 2019 at 9:35 AM

This post harkens back to the late fall and winter months, when I participated in a series of archaeological explorations with Prof Boaz Zissu and other students. These explorations were part of my “Survey Basics” class with the Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department at Bar Ilan University, taught by Prof Zissu (see also HERE). The first and third tours, having taken place back in October and December, were to Khirbet ‘Arak Hala. Located just north of Beit Guvrin, this site is largely comprised of a flattened enclosure, bathhouse and ancient settlement – all dated to the Roman period.

SUV of happiness at Khirbet ‘Arak Hala

The second survey, back in November, was to Khirbet Amudim, located in an active military firing zone, in the Judean foothills. Our duty that day was primarily to locate and map out caves and underground expanses, and it was very rewarding with fascinating caves and many interesting species of wildlife, including horseshoe bats and hungry cave ticks.

Ben, Nohar and myself surveying at Khirbet Amudim

However, this post is about the fourth survey day, to Herodium – or more precisely, to the hilltop adjacent to the mountain-top fortress. It was Dec 27th, and there was rain in the forecast for most of the country, but being that Herodium is located in the Judean Desert where rainfall is less common, it was decided that the survey day will continue as planned. Thus, our tour bus transported us first thing in the morning to Herodium where the rest of the team was waiting patiently.

Herodium

The very first thing that we noticed was the biting cold wind which penetrated our clothing and chilled us to the bone. We found shelter within the visitors centre, and were briefed on the history and archaeology of Herodium by both Prof Zissu and the site’s resident archaeologist, Roi Porat.

Winter skies over Judea

Properly briefed, we then headed outside and made our way to the hilltop northeast of Herodium. It was chilly, with rain clouds in the distance, but a full rainbow appeared before us and life was looking great. We were divided into two teams, each tasked with scanning a particular area for potsherds and other archaeological evidences.

Itamar Berko gathering surface finds

Within a half hour, as the teams were gathering the many scattered potsherds, a cold biting rain began. Blown by powerful gusts of mountain wind, the freezing rain made surveying quite difficult. We continued the best we could, but then, as we were finishing up, the rain intensified. We beat a hasty retreat to the visitors centre, but the downpour was quicker than we were and we returned soaking and cold.

Rainbow preceding the rain

After laying out some of our clothes to dry in a heated room, we gathered around to take stock of the potsherds we had found. The bags were spilled out and divided up, the indicative pieces (such as rims and handles) analysed and identified. We made an estimation of the typologies, factoring in the age of the sherds, and developed a rough picture of the site’s age. When we were finished, we had a debrief, and then ventured out into the park to explore Herodium’s ruins.

Examining the ceramics

Herodium, the iconic mountaintop fortress, was constructed by Herod the Great before the turn of the millenium during the Roman period. The site is divided into three main areas: the fortress, the slopes and the lower region. The fortress was designed to have four towers, the eastern one being most prominent, and the interior of the palace complete with a courtyard nestled within. Towards the end of the construction, dirt was added to the outer walls of the round fortress, giving the appearance of a luxuriously-filled volcano. When Herod died, in the year 4 BCE, he was buried on the slopes of Herodium, in a monumental structure built in his honour.

Looking down on Lower Herodium

Later, during the Jewish revolts against the Romans, Herodium was occupied by the rebels and refuge tunnels were dug beneath the fortress. After the final tunnels were burned out in battle, Herodium laid waste until Christian monasteries was built during the Byzantine times. From the Arab conquest onward, dating back some 1,400 years, Herodium laid in ruins with just a few local Bedouins keeping the site company. Following surveys starting in 1873, archaeological work began in 1962 and have been continuing on-and-off since then.

Entering the fortress

We climbed the hill via the footpath, and entered the fortress complex from the western side, passing various archaeological features and the view of Lower Herodium along the way. The palace remains came into sight as we crested the slope’s top, entering into the ancient courtyard. Raindrops had begun to fall, and we were ushered into the belly of the palace-fortress, entering chambers generally off-limits to the public until the restorative work in complete. Roi Porat led us down a perilous staircase, and into a quaint vaulted room where we set down our bags and got comfortable.

Inside the vaulted room

Some of the team joined the department’s patron, Yehuda Mizrahi, in preparing a hearty lunch while the rest of us gathered around to hear more about the ongoing excavations. After an overview, we set out to see the emptied storage rooms that once housed the Jewish rebels during the Roman era. Fallen stones, blackened ceilings and bone-dry logs illustrated the scene frozen in time, as the tunnels were set aflame to burn out the trapped Roman soldiers.

Exploring the scorched chambers

We spent a good half hour in the tunnel-like chambers, discussing archaeological technique and theories with Prof Zissu and Roi Porat. When we had had our fill, a concept that was hard to imagine, we headed back outside, via the vaulted room, for another gander now that the sun had come back out.

Herodium’s ancient synagogue

With so much to see, from the curved internal walls to the many columns and other architectural features, it’s hard to fully relate the true wonder of the site. I passed from the southern portico to the reception hall and ancient synagogue, and then from the weapons foundry and the Byzantine chapel to the bathhouse and northern exedra.

Bathhouse ceiling

Throughout the fortress’ interior, signs delineated both the Herodian-era ruins and the later ruins, often times occupying the same space. I spent time in each spot, taking pictures and admiring the construction before moving on.

Northern portico

Minutes later, when I entered the underground tunnel system, I was truly blown away. The white tunnels, carved from the soft rock, seemed endless and I descended deeper and deeper into the mountain.

Entering the tunnel system

I passed water shafts and retaining walls, keeping to the main path as I pressed onward. Several of the side passages were fenced off, accessible only to the site excavators, but I was happy enough with the prepared tunnels. Deeper and deeper the tunnel went, until at last it leveled out and I found myself headed towards one of the exits not far from the elegant theatre and Herod’s tomb.

Deep inside the tunnels

Breaking down the underground system, the cisterns date to the Herodian period, where as the tunnels date both to the Jewish War and the Bar Kochba Revolt several dozen years later. I emerged from the tunnel via a large room, and made my way around the slope ruins. Not wanting to miss lunch, I headed back into the bowels of the mountain and back up into the fortress courtyard to rejoin my group in the quaint vaulted room.

Final chamber

Everyone had reconvened from their exploration ventures and lunch was being served from the makeshift kitchen. We sat down to hot soup, freshly made pitas, breads, salads and preserved meat. It was a kingly feast, and we felt downright special eating it in the quaint stone room. As lunch winded down, we sat around about swapping amusing stories until it was time to clean up and head back out into the cold wind.

Freshly made soup and pita

We exited via the tunnels and began to explore the slope ruins, but first, a Finsch’s wheatear popped into view and I snapped a handful of sub-par pictures before it flew off. Walking the slope path, we came upon the theatre which once hosted great entertainment during the Herodian period. Next, the two sets of ancient steps that head up the slope towards the peak, each built in a different time period.

Underground retaining walls

From there we continued on to the area of the royal tomb, where Herod was buried. During the Jewish War, some of the Jewish population didn’t take too kindly to his burial place and proceeded to tear it down. Today, foundations, architectural elements and many of the ashlars have been found – signs of a monumental structure – but that’s about it. Citing physical and historical evidence, a miniature version of the ornate tomb was reconstructed, and provided us an idea of what the original structure looked like.

Rain-splattered staircase

As we enjoyed the views from the slope, the rain and bitterly cold winds picked up again. The walk back to the visitors centre wasn’t necessarily far, but with the rain and cold it was quite the trek. I particularly enjoyed seeing the falling raindrops flying upwards at my face as the wind changed the standards of gravity. Eventually we made it back to the visitor centre and prepared ourselves to head back to Bar Ilan University.

Model of Herod’s tomb

This was the final survey day of the survey class, but due to the relative success of the adjacent hilltop’s surface find collection, another survey day was immediately scheduled. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the second day, but I heard that it was absolutely delightful. Having finished my survey requirements for my BA, I hope that maybe next year I’ll be able to take part in a survey as part of my MA – time will tell.

Tel Tzuba (Belmont)

In Israel, Jerusalem on March 13, 2019 at 7:56 AM

One month ago, in the heart of February, I went on a short hike with my girlfriend, Bracha. We had decided to explore in the vicinity of Jerusalem, and one particular site stuck out to me: the Crusader fortress of Belmont. Doing a wee bit of research, we found a way to make a delightful little hike of it and, after meeting up in Jerusalem in the morning, set out to the trail by bus.

The start of the hike

Our bus took us directly to the trailhead, marked by green and white paint, and we began at once. The hill of Tel Tzuba was visible from where we began, large painted letters shouting “agriculture will prevail” slightly marring the otherwise picturesque view. As we walked gradually uphill we paused now and again to admire the early spring wildflowers and the noisy birds all around us.

Tel Tzuba

Within a half hour we reached the first site of interest: Ein Tzuba, a rather complicated underground spring flow system beside a small vineyard. We paused at the first pool, where mostly stagnant water overgrown with algae and a dead tadpole greeted us wearily. But it was the rest that proved more interesting, with a series of walls, gated passages, reservoirs and more modern structures that tantalised with their mysterious purposes. Consulting the on-site cross-sections as well as a book on underground aqueducts, I learned that this extensive spring system was first constructed in the Iron Age, some 2,500 or so years ago.

Ein Tzuba

When we had seen all that there was to see, we continued along on the trail, seeing more songbirds, wildflowers and a wild mushroom of unknown identity. Up ahead we made out a structure partially hidden by the low trees and undergrowth. It was a double-domed sheikh’s tomb, and we entered it briefly to look around. After a short break at one of the nearby picnic tables we continued on, walking the dirt road up the tel.

Sheikh’s tomb

As we neared the top of the hill we found the first of many crusader structures that make up Belmont. The site was first constructed by an unknown Crusader source sometime in the mid-1100s, approximately fifty years after the start of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Some years after, the military order of the Hospitallers acquired the structure and built a medium-sized castle. Despite its proximity to Jerusalem, the Kingdom’s capital, the castle was constructed more for agricultural production and mission work than for critical defence, which is evident in its construction.

Branched asphodel

Archaeological excavations led by RP Harper and D Pringle in the 1980s helped establish the size and shape of the castle. The external walls, forming a polygon that accommodated the hilltop topography, enclosed a more traditional rectangular structure with a courtyard. The castle was destroyed only tens of years after it was constructed, by the Muslim leader Saladin in either 1187 or 1191, and has been only partially in use since then. In 1834 the Egyptian leader Ibrahim Pasha thoughtfully destroyed the more of the standing remnants of the Crusader castle and left the ruins for us to explore on this lovely spring day.

Entering Belmont

We entered the outer confines of the castle, typical Crusader masonry showing itself everywhere, from standing walls to fallen ashlars. The path took us from the southwest around to the northwest, where we saw fit to enter the more inner area of the ruins. Flowering Egyptian campion added a splash of colour to the green grass and the off-white stones as we surveyed our surroundings.

Belmont castle

Some of the structures were in better shape than others, and as we climbed higher, the complex’s layout became more clear. The central courtyard had a grated-over water cistern, and was surrounded by walls and fallen rocks. Windows still remained here and there, and the degrees of fanciness in the arched doorways told us more about the rooms inside.

A bed of yellow among the trees

It took us a good half hour to explore the ruined castle, and there was always the impressive view to admire from the more lofty fortress rooftops. As we were making our final loop of the castle, climbing up the overgrown ruins and returning to the western side from whence we came, we found a dead pigeon with rings on its legs – apparently a domesticated pigeon that escaped from its human master and found death on the hilltop.

Jerusalem hills

We circled the lower perimetre of Belmont and found a place to picnic with a great lookout to the east, and essentially where we had hiked on the way to the castle. Bracha had made food the night before, and so we feasted and enjoyed the relative tranquility of a springtime afternoon picnic.

Common buzzard

As we were getting ready to head back, a nice common buzzard made an appearance overhead and it flew westward in search for prey. The short hike back was similar yet quicker than the way up, and as we approached the road where it all began, we found what appears to be an ancient coin washed up by the winter’s rain. Hopefully I will have an update sometime in the nearish future.

Ancient coin

Our trip ended with a short melon break near the bus stop as we had a good while to wait. We enjoyed the fresh fruit as we gazed out at the magnificent view and the chaffinches in the nearby flowering almond trees. At last our bus came and we rode it back into Jerusalem, bringing the end to our lovely little hike.

Nachal Alexander

In Coastal Plain, Israel on March 6, 2019 at 10:45 AM

In the beginning of February I had the opportunity of visiting Nachal Alexander with the school where I work. I had been to a select area of Nachal Alexander twice before, and have even written about it (linked above), but this time I was to be exploring the length the stream and thus a blog post is most warranted.

Nachal Alexander spilling into the sea

Being that it was a school trip, and that the school is a relatively large one with approximately 1,000 lads, the experience was going to be a bit different than ordinary, and I naturally anticipated seeing less wildlife. However, when the buses dropped us off near the mouth of the stream I could immediately see a handful of gulls as well as songbirds and knew it’d be interesting nonetheless.

Pied kingfisher

The educational staff and the lads lined the streambanks near where it reached the sea, and I took this opportunity to wander off a wee bit to see if I could find any waders. I did quite well, and found a greenshank, a common sandpiper, a little stint and a beautiful slender-billed gull standing on a ridge of washed-up seashells.

Slender-billed gull

A few more birds and then it was off to the trail with a handful of straggling lads and other staff members. We walked alongside the stream and as soon as I had the opportunity to break free from the noises of the group I did, and was rewarded for my efforts by an interesting sighting. Two cattle egrets were prowling the trail ahead of me, and within minutes of each other, each of the caught poisonous centipedes and wolfed them down with great gusto.

Nachal Alexander

Dozens of greater cormorants came to view, some flying overhead and some in the stream’s languid waters, as well as a few moorhen. A brief break in a wooded area provided me sightings of a chiffchaff, black redstart and a reclusive-yet-noisy European robin.

Khirbet Samara

Before long I had reached the ruins of Khirbet Samara, a house built in the end of the 19th century by the Samara family of Tulkarem in order to oversee their watermelon fields in the nearby land. Climbing up the kurkar ridge to the ruins provided a closer look at the cut-stone house and its arched buttresses. Up top I was able to enjoy the view of the surrounding area, and of Nachal Alexander down below.

Holy hawksbeard growing on a buttress

Taking a set of stairs down the opposite side of the ridge brought me to a field of wildflowers, harbingers of spring. I was most excited to see clumps of coastal iris, a particularly dark flower that attracts photographers more than bees. I wanted to spend more time with the irises, as I find it particularly challenging to photograph wildflowers, but I knew that I was the very last one in our group and I had to catch up with the others.

Coastal iris

I continued along the stream, following the Israel National Trail as I encountered small flocks of cormorants perched high up on eucalyptus trees. I walked and walked, not letting myself get too distracted, until I reached train tracks. Continuing on with the trail, I then saw a peculiar sight: a Boeing-Stearman biplane painted blue and yellow passed overhead. I attempted to look up the plane’s N-number, the international registration number, but my search attempts on the FAA’s website turned up empty.

Boeing-Stearman biplane

Eventually, after seeing some corn buntings – also harbingers of spring – I arrived at the famous bridge where the African softshell turtles congregate. Since I’ve already written about this experience before, I shall resume with the continuation of the trail alongside the sluggish stream.

Early spring colours

We walked and walked, passing countless eucalyptus trees, plentiful cormorants and a few handfuls of black-headed gulls flying high up in the sky. Every so often there would be a sign informing us of our progress, and of the stream’s rehabilitation efforts over the years. An hour or so after we left the bridge we arrived at another bridge, and then to the grand feast put out by the school kitchen staff.

The final stretch

The next hour or two was dedicated to feasting on chicken skewers, fries, mini baguettes, salad and more as the entire school trickled into the feasting field slowly. Just as the last people were receiving their portions the skies opened up and rain began to pitter-patter on heads and shoulders. Thankfully the buses had arrived and, after cleaning up our trash, we piled in to be taking to Kfar HaRoeh for the rest of the day’s activities.

University Trip: Wadi Dalia & Sartaba

In Israel, Jordan River Valley on February 26, 2019 at 9:01 AM

Following our trip to Nachal Rash’ash, the members of Dr Dvir Raviv’s field class on the geography, geology and archaeology of the Shomron reconvened for a second day in the field. This time we had two destinations: Wadi Dalia and the fortress-peaked mountain of Sartaba. Departing in the morning from Bar Ilan University, and picking up members along the way, our trip officially began at the western side of Kibbutz Gilgal in the Jordan River Valley.

Outside Kibbutz Gilgal

Immediately upon leaving the tour bus my eyes settled upon a curious pair of birds perched on a wire a dozen or so metres away: green bee-eaters. With the birding aspect of the trip starting off on such a high, birding-friend Adam and I were quite eager to see what we could find. Just a quick scan around the perimetre, while the first of the hikers started off, we managed to see a handful of birds, including a black kite, some Tristram’s starlings and a small flock of Spanish sparrows.

Little green bee-eater

We set off heading southwest, towards the low mountains and in the direction of Wadi Dalia, enjoying the warm air of the valley. Within fifteen minutes we reached the dry streambed of Wadi Dalia and settled down for the first of many field-lectures delivered that day by our guide, Dr Dvir Raviv. Given the necessary background information on the geographical geology, including the changes in bedrock formations from the valley to the mountains as the elevation climbs.

Wadi Dalia

From the wadi we climbed up, reaching a small plateau where we could see diagonal stripes of flint in the otherwise plain sand-coloured limestone. One of the party members found a deathstalker scorpion, the most venomous variety in Israel, and rushed over to show me. Lately I’ve been seeing more and more deathstalkers, even more than the more common species.

Lecturing on lush greenery

We climbed higher, following the trail marked in red and white paint, and saw where the recent rains washed new life into the sand-coloured slopes. With the gentle sprinkling of green came the wildflowers and, throughout the day, we saw several different species, including yellow star-of-Bethlehem and dark grape hyacinth. Although unrelated, we saw more and more black kites until the estimated count reached into the hundreds.

A swirling of black kites

The view around us became increasingly glorious as we climbed, the jagged cliff edges and the green-dusted slopes combining to make a contrastingly beautiful scene. Before long we reached a small Bedouin enclosure, with a series of caves, and sat down to hear more about one particular cave with dozens of goats milling about around us. It was then, seated in the mostly-dry streambed, that we saw a very impressive sight.

Blissful clouds

As we were listening to Dvir a large shape appeared overhead, crossing over us from the cover of the nearby cliff. Everyone looked up, and multiple voices called out at me, including Adam who was watching it approach through his binoculars. I looked up as well, and saw a large bird of prey. A mere second or two passed before I turned my camera back on, removed the lens cap and began zooming in for a photograph. I knew that I’d only get one shot, and that it would be preferable to get clarity over closeness, so I shot at a mere 260mm (instead of the potential 2000mm) and got what I got. Behold, a majestic golden eagle:

Golden eagle flyby

Amazed with what we saw, Adam and I were on birding-high and decided that we’d be more alert as we walked this arid mountain terrain. Sure enough, a few common ravens passed by overhead, as well as some more ever-present black kites. An hour later, continuing along the trail, we found a small-spotted lizard hiding among the rocks.

Small-spotted lizard peeking out

Thus we continued, hiking and hiking some more as we traversed Wadi Dalia, making our way back downhill and towards the waiting bus. It was on that home stretch that we saw hundreds of black kites, swarming in large groups over the many slopes around us. Back in the bus, we were driven to a rest stop area for lunch, where Adam and I feasted on rolls, hummus and more, and then off to the final destination of the day: Sartaba, also known as Alexandrium.

The steep climb to Sartaba

I had once attempted to visit Sartaba, a Hasmonean fortress atop a conical peak, but got confused with the access roads and abandoned the notion. So, approaching the distinct mountain gave me a feeling of long-awaited excitement, as might be expected. But, we were not to just drive to Sartaba, there was a steep mountain path to climb, and the bus was going to drop us off at the foot of it, near an empty army outpost.

Looking back mid-climb

We disembarked at the base of the trail and were immediately shocked by how cold and windy it was. Dvir gave us a few words of encouragement, including something about not getting stuck atop the mountain after dark, and then we set off. It was a steep climb, of that we were roughly prepared, but it was the incessant howling cold wind that really threw us for a loop.

An ancient coin

About halfway up we reached a small cave near an ancient water reservoir which provided rudimentary shelter from the wind as the stragglers rejoined the group. From there we looped around the northern side of the slope near the peak and then climbed the last bit from the western side.

Standing atop the fortress ruins

Impressive ruins of a large fortress greeted us, the finely-cut ashlars stacked majestically. We spread about as we all explored the ruined fortress, looking around and taking photos. Just to summarise the fortress’ identity, Sartaba was originally built by the Hasmoneans and then restored by Herod approximately two hundred years later. The fortress was then destroyed during the Great Revolt by the Romans, and has been largely abandoned since.

Exploring Sartaba

With the sun setting over the nearby mountains we gathered around Dvir to hear a short explanation on the site. We examined the work of the different archaeological excavations that had taken place over the years, and then over to the “Hearts Palace”, named such due to the number of heart-shaped columns.

Heart-shaped column

Hoping to get back to the bus before nightfall, we made our way back down the slope, which proved quite difficult at first. The strong winds, coupled with the incline’s loose gravel, made the first few paces quite challenging. Eventually we reached the regular trail and made our way down the slope at a brisk pace.

Slip-sliding our way back down

Before long we were back in our tour bus and driving back to Bar Ilan University, bringing an end to a very interesting field trip.

University Trip: Nachal Rash’ash

In Israel, Samaria on January 27, 2019 at 9:16 AM

One month ago, in mid-December of last year, I participated in an adventurous field trip with fellows from Bar Ilan University. This particular trip was the first part of a field class on a range of fields including Geology, Geography and Archaeology, led by Dr Dvir Raviv. Knowing that his trips are always a great success, I signed up eagerly and I was not disappointed. The day began at Kida, where we enjoyed a lookout over the Arab village of Duma and the eastern Shomron, learning about the geography and topography in our view. One curiosity, which only became apparent once our guide pointed it out, was a soccer field delineated by field stones, nearly indistinguishable from the nearby agricultural terraces.

View from the Kida lookout

Returning to our tour bus, we were driven to our next destination, Khirbet Jib’it and its extensive ruins. Starting from the east, we climbed the gentle hill to the top and took in both the characteristic Shomron landscape, and the sprawling ruins of crude ashlars. Crested larks frolicked in the nearby patch of ploughed land, and a lone black redstart hopped from rock to rock as we learned about the site and the archaeological advancements made over the years.

Khirbet Jib’it ruins

We continued on to the more ruins slightly to the north and gazed down at the Roman era hiding complex that we couldn’t enter due to safety and insurance reasons. Scattered around the area were many potsherds, some of them painted and dated to more recent Muslim periods (Mamluk and Ottoman). One fine sherd was nicely glazed and believed to belong to the Crusader period – which interested me greatly. And then there’s this large piece that’s either dated to the Crusader or Mamluk period:

Crusader/Mamluk pottery

Our last stop at Khirbet Jib’it was to the Byzantine church on the northwest corner of the site’s main hill. There, among the local Bedouin sheep, we found some of the church ruins as well as a bit of a newly exposed mosaic. A short walk downhill on the ancient road took us to our waiting bus and then onto the next site.

Exposed mosaic

Pulling over at the side of the road some twenty minutes later, our bus dropped us off near an obscure archaeological site called Khirbet el-Marajim. After a five minute walk, and we were at the outskirts of the site, one of the sharp-eyed members of the class picked something off the ground: a rock with a trigonia fossil.

Trigonia fossil

Within minutes we were gathered around the main attraction of el-Marajim: a large excavated pool with a partially collapsed tower from an earlier period in one corner. Nearly hidden, yet plainly in sight, are the entrances to an underground hiding complex from the Roman era. A quick look at those, and some explanation on the site and we were off to the next part of the trip.

Pool at the waterfall

We hiked down from Khirbet el-Marajim towards the nearby wadi, through the characteristic Shomron terrain and towards the stream that bears the name of this post. It only took fifteen or so minutes before we entered a very different area – from the terraced green slopes to the boulders of the streambed.

Deep gorge of Nachal Rash’ash

We stood at the dry waterfall, where just a large pool of cold water remained from the seasonal rains, and surveyed the land before us. A deep canyon opened up, revealing what would be Nachal Rash’ash, and the two sides reached up higher than before. Several black kites soared overhead relatively low, perhaps hoping that one of us would fall into the ravine and become their next meal.

Black kites circling overhead

But, alas (for the carrion-eaters), none of us slipped and we set out on the trail, progressing along the somewhat muddy southern slope. While the hike felt slightly treacherous, the views were breathtaking and our quick pace kept us rightfully occupied. A half hour later we took a break, sitting down beside the freshwater spring of Ein Rash’ash. We broke for lunch and ate in peace, celebrating the glorious mountain view that sprawled out before us.

View from Ein Rash’ash

There were a handful of birds around us, including the ever-patrolling black kites, a few noisy Tristram’s starlings, a blue rock thrush or two and a lone Syrian woodpecker that perched relatively close-by. Suddenly Adam, who was periodically scanning the horizon with his 10×42 binoculars, cried out and pointed to one of the slopes in the direction of the Jordan River Valley. What followed next was a series of photographs taken at a great distance of a large bird of prey perched on the rocky slope hundreds of metres away.

Golden eagle far, far away

We had found a very first golden eagle, a relatively rare bird in Israel, and there was much rejoicing. It was nearly the end of 2018 and definitely a most welcome sighting to finish off the year. In 2017, I had spotted a white-tailed eagle in the Hula Valley mid-December, so now I just wonder what next big eagle I’ll see in December on 2019. After our lunch break we got back up and continued hiking along the southern slope, learning about the geology and geomorphology of the region as we got closer and closer to the Jordan River Valley. Eventually reaching a ridge, we hiked like kings, the vast land stretched out around us nearly devoid of human presence.

Einot Pazael aqueduct

After the ridge came the slope and we found ourselves entering the valley at Einot Pazael, where springs and a slow, gurgling brook can be enjoyed. When we gathered around the brook, tea was prepared and snacks passed around, for the sun was setting over the mountainous region we’d just hiked and we were all a tad cold and in need of nourishment. A great grey shrike came by to watch us, calling noisily from a nearby jujube tree, as we wolfed down pretzels, crackers and cookies.

Dr Dvir Raviv and a potsherd

When we were done there it was just a short walk to the bus and then the long drive back to Bar Ilan University, bringing the first day of the field class to an end. The second day, scheduled for mid-January, took place in Wadi Dalia and Sartaba and shall be written about posthaste (or something like that).