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Beit Zayit Reservoir

In Israel, Jerusalem on June 3, 2020 at 6:21 PM

Back in the beginning of March, just as the winter was coming to an end, there was one particular place that piqued my interest. I had seen photos of it shared on various Facebook groups, and the picturesque appearance beckoned me closer. At last, someone posted that they found fairy shrimp and that sealed the deal. I contacted Adam Ota, the ultimate travel companion, and plans were made to go visit this wonderful place which is known as the Beit Zayit Reservoir.

Beit Zayit Reservoir (photo Eyal Asaf)

Located a few kilometres outside Jerusalem, this crescent-shaped reservoir was built in the 1950s following the construction of the Ein Kerem dam, which stopped the Nachal Soreq stream. This created a flooded area which has a fluctuating waterline. With this particularly rainy winter season, the reservoir swelled proudly with the rainwater run-off and even the usually dry northern end became marshy wetlands.

Marshy flooded northern end of the reservoir

Adam and I boarded our Jerusalem-destined bus in the morning and got off on Highway 1, where we transferred to another bus to take us closer. Alighting just metres from the trail, we first scanned the nearby groves, the crisp morning air abuzz with the singing calls of songbirds. Sure enough, there were handfuls of chaffinches and blackbirds, and then a nice little surprise: a few hawfinches perched on a large, bare-branched tree.

Posing blackbird

We were elated to have such an excellent start, and hurried along the trail, hoping to reach the reservoir as quickly as possible. Expectedly, there were distractions along the way, namely more birds and a fully-blossomed almond tree – a true sign of early spring in Israel. Urging ourselves on, we reached the reservoir from the north, and laid eyes on its flooded banks.

Scanning for interesting waterfowl

It was perfect. There were birds everywhere, including mallards, sandpipers, coots, moorhens and grebes, and the location was gorgeous. We made our way to the water’s edge, hoping to catch sight of these fascinating fairy shrimp. It was mere seconds before we spotted one, swimming upside-down in the shallow water. Then we saw another, and another, and then we realised that the water was absolutely filled with them.

Fairy shrimp (photo Adam Ota)

There were other invertebrates as well, tiny swimming creatures which added to the richness of the underwater ecosystem. The fairy shrimp dwarfed them all, themselves being only a wee couple centimetres long. It was exciting watching them, but we knew that we had to keep going to see more – and perhaps more fairy shrimp.

Macro shot of a copepod (photo Adam Ota)

We walked the nice trail that hugged the reservoir, stopping now and again due to pleasing distractions. A common buzzard landed on a tree across the water, and it was a challenge to get a decent picture. We walked and walked, thoroughly enjoying the weather and the charming location. However, with much walking comes great hunger and we knew that it would soon be time to feast.

Panoramic shot of the reservoir

There’s nothing better than good, fire-roasted food and we came prepared with the necessary ingredients for a fine feast. Checking our location via GPS we understood that we were approaching the end of the reservoir and sought out a prime location for a fire. We needed to ensure that the spot that we chose both gave us shade from the sun to the east, but open skies to the west to watch for migrating raptors. It wasn’t long before we found the perfect spot, where a convenient broken concrete tube was waiting for us to repurpose it into a makeshift oven.

A prime barbecue location

We gathered some dead wood, and plenty of kindling, and got a fire going. Adam had thoughtfully packed some delicious spicy hotdogs, which we impaled on skewers to cook over the scorching heat. As we were eating we casted our eyes skyward from time to time, and then, our efforts paid off and we saw them.

A common buzzard far away

Migrating raptors began to dot the skies, making us dash for our camera and/or binoculars. It started with a few steppe buzzards seen over the faraway pine trees, and then some short-toed eagles were added to the mix. A few Eurasian sparrowhawks joined the fun, and then more steppe buzzards. They’d climb the thermals, reaching a favourable stream of hot air, and then disappear off to the north, to be replaced by others making the same moves.

Hooded crow mobbing a migrating steppe buzzard

Watching migrating birds of prey is a real treat, as you never know what you’ll end up seeing – and even if you see just the regular, expected species, it’s still an exciting time. We ate roasted hotdogs and drank cold water, taking in the experience. When the hotdogs were gone we got out the marshmallows that I had brought, and began a’skewerin’.

Happy adventurers

Sated from the delicious meal, we extinguished the burning coals and gathered up our bags. It was about 11am and large groups of people were starting to show up. We relinquished our prime, waterfront location to some picnic prospectors and struck out for the end of the reservoir. It was surprisingly close, and the big dam beckoned us to explore further. We ventured on, dipping down behind the dam and found a release pipe where excess water gushed out in a huge spray.

Behind the dam

It was tranquil behind the dam, with no crowds and the tiny Nachal Soreq just gurgling along underfoot. It was then that we went off-trail and Adam found something exciting. He shouted cries of jubilation as he raised his arm in victory, a single stem clutched tightly in his fist. It was wild asparagus and he had just harvested a single shoot. Adam had had a relatively bountiful some weeks prior when trotting about in Ben Shemen Forest, and now was time to harvest some more.

Wild aspargus with garlic

We scoured the undergrowth, searching for the precious little shoots. Unfortunately, there were only a handful of plants throughout the area we scanned, and the harvest was quite meagre. However, I was able to secure enough asparagus (approximately 8-10 shoots) to bring home as a treat to my asparagus-loving wife.

Making our way back to the marsh

With that we turned back, and walked the water-hugging trail that was now full of excited visitors. There was just one last raptor in the air, a sparrowhawk, and Adam needed to grab a few fairy shrimp specimens to take home. We reached the flooded marshy area quickly and set out to harvest some invertebrates. Adam used his nifty little net and scored a good number from the millions that were swimming before us. These treasures tucked away safely, we began the walk back to the bus stop.

In search of fairy shrimp

There was just one last surprise for us, a rock-hewn reservoir with a circular mouth at the side of the trail, which had gone unnoticed the first time we passed it. We got our bus after a short wait at the stop and made our journey home, bringing an excellent adventure to a close.

Adam has also written about this trip to the Beit Zayit Reservoir, long before me, in his new blog The Ota Files. Read his hilarious take on our adventure in his post HERE.

University Trip: Tel Arad & Tel Be’er Sheva

In Israel, Negev on May 10, 2020 at 8:47 AM

Last semester, in the beginning of January, I went on yet another department-run field trip with Prof Aren Maeir. Since I’ve been a trip-going student for several years now, there is an increasingly small list of unique and new field trips being offered to me. However, when I heard of a trip to Tel Arad and Tel Be’er Sheva – of which I’ve been to neither – I jumped to the opportunity.

Welcome to Tel Arad!

Our tour bus departed from Bar Ilan University in the morning, and we made our way south toward our first destination: Tel Arad. We arrived just after 9:30 and disembarked, gathering up informational brochures from the front desk, before heading up to the fortress at the top of the tel. I scoured the area for birds, hoping to add a few nice desert-living species to my freshly-started 2020 list. Sure enough, I spotted a mourning wheatear bouncing around the rocky terrain of the national park, joined by a male black redstart.

Approaching Tel Arad’s fortress

Atop the tel, Prof Maeir began to educate us about the site that we were about to enter, however, I was much too busy filming and looking for birds to know what was said. As part of my job as media director of my department, I film, edit and release videos of our field trips. You can see the video of this trip HERE, on the department’s YouTube channel (feel free to subscribe HERE!).

Finsch’s wheatear on barbed wire

Before elaborating on the site, I should add that I tried visiting Tel Arad back when I was a truck driver in the IDF, but didn’t end up having time to explore. So, this trip’s score was to be settled at last. About Tel Arad, the site first saw human occupation in prehistory, with a scattered settlement, and then became a walled city during the Bronze Age. The tel-top fortress was first built in the Iron Age, built and rebuilt numerous times as a result of enemy destruction. In the Hellenistic period the fortress saw an addition of a tower, and the city was only finally abandoned in the Early Arab period (8th century CE). Following surveys conducted by the British in 1874, the site was ultimately excavated in the 1960-80s and established as a national park.

Within the fortress

We entered the fortress from the east, and entered the not-so-tall tower, enjoying the lookout over the ancient city. Looking down at the layout of the fortress below us, we saw the warehouses and the temple, with its shrine and altar. There was a bitterly cold wind that whipped at us, driving us down from the lovely lookout and into the partially restored fort interior.

The Cana’anite city down below

After a quick gander at the subterranean water system and reservoir, where some feral pigeons waited in ambush to burst out at us with a flurry of powerful wingbeats. Not the least bit alarmed, we continued down to what is called the “Canaanite city”, and examined the exposed ruins scattered here and there. I must add that this layout, with the fortress up above and the walled city down below, was greatly pleasing to the eye and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit there.

Outside the Aradian house

We followed the park’s recommended trail, bumping into a group from Tel Aviv University, led by Dr Ido Koch, whom our Prof Maeir seemed to know quite well. While outside the typical Aradian house, a broad-room style house, I noticed an interesting turn of events over the western border fence. A hooded crow had spotted two brown-necked ravens coming in, and went over to greet them in the best way possible. A short and anti-climactic aerial battle ensued, and I watched the corvids swoop and dive at one another until at last they all dispersed free of visible injury, but perhaps injured pride.

Raven vs crow

When we were finished at Tel Arad we got back into our bus and had a nice desert drive over to the second site of the day: Tel Be’er Sheva, located just outside of the city Be’er Sheva. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the tel is an important site that saw civilisation for a span of thousands of years. There are remnants of settlement from prehistoric times, as well as a pretty continuous occupation in the Iron Age. During the Persian period, in the 5th-4th centuries BCE, a small fortress was built.

Welcome to ancient Be’er Sheva!

Subsequently, in the Hellenstic period, a temple was constructed – the stone base of the altar still visible on-site. The fortress was enlarged in the Herodian period, and then a diamond-shaped fortress was built in the subsequent Roman period, to be restored in the Early Arab period. During the Roman and Byzantine periods, Be’er Sheva’s epicentre moved from the tel to the outlying areas – today, the sprawling modern city. Used by the Ottomans as a staging ground during WWI, the city was conquered by ANZAC troops in 1917.

A mess of rooms and pathways

We entered the site and approached the tel from the east, climbing up into the walled city from the southern gate. Within, the city’s remains – most of them reconstructed – portray a chaotic assemblage of human-built structures, crisscrossed by ancient streets and modern footpaths. Prof Maeir went into great detail as we walked from area to area, while I attempted to capture it all on film.

Strangers watching us from the tower

Several black kites soared overhead at low altitudes, attracted to the rubbish heaps perhaps accredited to the nearby Bedouin encampment, or perhaps the local village Tel as-Sabi. Likewise, a medium-sized mammal (perhaps Indian crested porcupine) had been burrowing under some ancient walls, which amused me to see. The path took us along the inside of the casemate wall until the northwest corner, where it turned in to lead us to the observation tower.

Superimposed model over reconstruction

It was atop the tower that I felt a greater understanding of the circular city below me, as I was able to see the layout from a bird’s-eye view – oh, how I envy them! Casting my view out even farther, I spotted an interesting sight from the Bedouin encampment – dozens of dromedary camels alongside scores of fuzzy-looking sheep.

Descending into Tel Be’er Sheva’s water system

We descended from on high, and made our way into the bowels of the globe – well, not that far, just seventeen metres down into ancient Be’er Sheva’s underground water system. It was nice and cool down below, and like all ancient water systems, quite an engineering feat considering the tools and knowledge the builders possessed.

Video that I filmed of the trip

Finishing our circuit of the ancient city, we stopped at the famous altar’s replica (the original is on display at the Israel Museum) for a quick selfie with the whole group, sans myself who needed to document the documentation. We had a short break and then loaded ourselves back into our bus to be shuttled to our next location: Tel Lachish.

Low-res selfie documentation

However, being as though I already visited, blogged about and filmed a previous Maeir-led excursion to Tel Lachish (see HERE), I thought I’d sit this one out and instead did some near-sunset birding, and fox-watching, which turned out to be quite enjoyable. I secured a ride back to Jerusalem with the professor and from there to a bus to have dinner with my then-fiancé, Bracha. The day ended as it had begun, with smiles and a resparked thirst for fun, adventurous outings.

Khirbet Luza

In Israel, Jerusalem on March 29, 2020 at 8:45 AM

Continuing on with backlogged adventures, this post brings us to the mountains outside Jerusalem in the beginning of December. As part of our MA thesis project, friend and classmate Avner Touitou and I have been exploring our options. Being that we are both specialising in Crusader archaeology, we figured we’d best go out on a little adventure to hit up some lesser-known Crusader sites in the Jerusalem area.

Khirbet Luza

Avner picked me up in the morning and we drove over to our first destination, Khirbet Luza (or, al-Lawza), located not far from Moza. With a quick stop for coffee we made it to the nearest parking lot, at Arazim Valley Park, and continued on foot, all bundled up from the cold.

Join Avner on this adventure

Trying to keep pace, I scanned the nearby trees and vineyards in search of interesting birds and found a decent selection, including chaffinches, black redstarts and a whole lot of blackbirds.

Black redstart

As we walked, Avner pointed out a few gazelle on the slopes in front of us, and sure enough the trailside slopes had what to offer. It happened so quickly, and so very unexpectedly. I saw a head peering out from behind the rocky vegetation, and immediately, instinctively knew that it belonged to a striped hyena.

Striped hyena head popping up

I nearly shouted with excitement, and hurriedly took photographs as I explained to Avner where it was hiding. Sure enough, it decided to move on, giving us a few seconds of a really great wildlife encounter. I had seen only one definite hyena, at night when I was driving in the army, and then another possible sighting near Tel es-Safi, which I wrote about HERE.

…and on the move

On a high, I reluctantly carried on as we continued walking our way along the trail in the direction of Khirbet Luza. We passed hundreds of trees with beautiful autumn foliage, unmarked ruins and a sign announcing the location as being Enot Telem National Park – a collection of natural springs, which were most recently used by the British. At last, after passing Ein Luz spring, we found it, the unassuming multi-leveled ruins on the left slope of the wadi-trail.

British pumping station

Leaving the trail, we climbed up on the damp rocky soil terraces, noticing the abundance of Steven’s meadow saffron, the delicate pinkish-purple flowers popping out of the soil. We explored the lowest level of the ruins, a large square chambre with thick walls, believed to have served as a pool of sorts.

Foggy Jerusalem hills and Khirbet Luza’s pool of sorts

We climbed up to the next level, where the ruins were either partially filled in or collapsed. The atmosphere was rather foggy, as was our understanding of the site. A northern raven flew overhead, patrolling the opposing slope, and we found some decorated Crusader pottery and typically-masoned ashlars. Some other flowers, including winter saffron, added a bit of flora here and there.

Decorated Medieval pottery

The second level of the ruins consist of a rectangular open room with added residential chambres closer to the natural slope. There are also several barrel-vaulted rooms, which are for the most part partially buried. We explored the toppled ruins the best we could, being wary of potential pits among the rubble.

Examining the high wall

Khirbet Luza was a rural estate built during the Crusader-era Kingdom of Jerusalem, situated on a rural road which connected other estates and monasteries. The terraces surrounding the building would have likely supported grapevines or olive trees during the Crusader period; today, these same terraces host olive trees, perhaps descendants of the Medieval ones.

Winter saffron

We continued on over to the nearby spring, where we found a huge blackberry bush just weeks from being ripe. We nibbled on a tart berry, just for entertainment’s sake, and then turned our attention to the spring’s pool where something sparkled at us from within the clear water. It was worth probing at it, in hopes of fishing out something amazing – but alas, ‘twas nothing exciting at all.

Exploring the spring

When we had finished our exploration of Khirbet Luza we walked back to the car, passing a whole bunch of common kestrels. From there we drove over to the next destination: Khirbet el-Burj, located in Ramot, a neighbourhood of Jerusalem.

Dead grass-covered tel

Parking the car in a totally residential area, we found the hill associated with the site and climbed accordingly, seeing a few stonechats flying about. There was an overall cover of dried grass which made seeing any possible ruins difficult, yet we persevered. Yet, we did see a bit of architectural remains which seem to have dated back to the Crusader period.

Nabi Samuel nearby

Skirting the small hill from the south-side, we climbed up to the top from the east and saw a familiar landmark to the north. Nabi Samuel, a fantastic archaeological and religious site which holds some importance to me. My wife and I had gone there for our very first date, and thus already cherished, it was then the location of my marriage proposal – up on the rooftop with its view of Jerusalem.

Not much to see here at Khirbet el-Burj

But, up on the top of Khirbet el-Burj, there wasn’t much to see. We found some exposed walls, and the meagre remains of a largish building with a tower, destroyed in 1967 according to the IAA report. With not much to see, factoring in the passage of time and neglection, as well as the dominant grassy obstruction, we decided to bring our trip to an end. But first, two meadow pipits popped into view, giving me a nice sighting. We walked back down to Avner’s car and drove out to the main road, where we parted ways. Avner headed home and I waited for Bracha so that we could journey over to Ma’ale Adumim for Shabbat.

Montfort Castle Archaeological Dig

In Galilee, Israel on March 17, 2020 at 12:07 PM

There’s been a bit of a writing lull, what with my wedding in the beginning of February and the overload of work and school-related exams, papers and activities. Now in this unreal coronavirus pandemic lockdown, I think it’s time to cover the last of this past summer’s adventures. This post took place in late August, a few days before I proposed to my then-girlfriend Bracha. Some family was visiting from Washington State and I had seen an advert about renewed excavations at Montfort Castle, quite near my hometown of Ma’alot.

Sunrise over the Galilean mountains

Setting the gears into motion, I had contacted one of the dig’s organisers, Dr Rabei Khamisy of Haifa University, and arranged our volunteering for a day. That morning arrived and we left the house at the crack of dawn, meeting up with the rest of the team at a parking lot overlooking Nachal Kziv a few minutes before 6am. To get to the fortress we took one of the winding mountain trails, which is beautiful in its own right. However, being able to bring my relatives to a grand Crusader castle (albeit in ruins) such as Montfort was quite a thrill.

Mission briefing

We explored a wee bit of the 800-year old fortress before approaching Rabei for instructions, wondering what interesting work we’d be tasked with. Thankfully, he had the perfect job for us which had us working at the foot of the Montfort’s keep (the innermost fortified section of the castle). Our mission for that day was to expose a long-lost drainage channel which was recently rediscovered in old expedition photos of the castle. The team’s lead researchers had only come across it a few days prior and desired to see it exposed once again, to be examined and photographed. We accepted our mission joyfully and set forth exposing the channel, which was predominately hewn into the bedrock floor.

Exposing a mysterious little pit

The labour was fun and we were a great crew of six: Uncle EJ, Aunt Karise, cousins Walker and Judy Rae, brother Nissim and myself. The laughs were plenty and the dirt and rocks slowly moved from the channel to dumping piles elsewhere around us. We moved part of a broken trough that was placed against the keep’s walls, adjacent to a reservoir, and cleared our way around a short tree whose roots penetrated deep into a mysterious pit, finding all sorts of small items including a spent bullet casing.

Looking towards the sea

Eventually we broke for breakfast and dined with the rest of the crew who were working elsewhere in the castle. Their group was formed mostly of volunteers from Europe and Australia, as well as some Haifa University staff members including Prof Adrian Boas, one of Israel’s lead Crusader archaeologists.

The more interesting part of the exposed channel

When we were done eating we got back to work, with Rabei checking in on us now and again, just to make sure everything was going as planned. Our timing was great and we finished our mini-excavation just as the sun was coming up over the keep. We cleaned up the exposed channel, making sure it looked presentable for any possible official photography attempts, and put our borrowed tools back.

Early migrating honey buzzard

I hadn’t taken many photographs as we were all busy working or bonding, but when I saw a few birds of prey over the opposing ridge I whipped out my camera. Lo and behold, an early-migrating honey buzzard was circling overhead, in the company of two noisy short-toed eagles.

Group selfie (photo EJ Swainson)

Finished at the dig, having spent a really productive and interesting day at this once spectacular castle, we made our way back to the cars parked up above. It was a great experience for us all, and Uncle EJ even wrote a lovely Facebook post about it when they returned home to America, which you can see HERE. To many more adventures with friends and family!

Ma’agan Michael

In Coastal Plain, Israel on January 6, 2020 at 10:54 AM

Still catching up on adventures from this past summer, this post will focus on a nice morning birding trip to the seaside kibbutz of Ma’agan Michael. I was accompanied by Adam Ota, veteran adventurer and friend, to engage in as much interesting birding as possible. There had been reports of a rare migrating red knot, a shorebird that ordinarily lives thousands of kilometres away, and my intrigue was piqued. I had never been to Ma’agan Michael, and this sounded like the perfect opportunity to scope it out.

Welcome to paradise: Ma’agan Michael

Adam and I departed from Givat Shmuel early in the morning, and bussed our way to the train in Tel Aviv. We were then taken to Binyamina, where we had a bit of a wait till the kibbutz-destined minibus would show up. Not wanting to waste valuable time, we relented to birding the nearby fields but didn’t see anything of interest save a whole bunch of Eurasian jays.

Black-crowned night heron watching us walk by

At last we arrived at the kibbutz and made our way seaward, noting that we’d be reaching the fishponds first. Ma’agan Michael boasts some 1,600 dunams of fishponds, used to raise carp, mullet and other fish for the commercial market. We passed dozens of kibbutz members, visitors, joggers and more as we neared the ponds. Knowing that there would be birds to see, we had to fight the urge to linger and pressed on towards the beach.

Common terns at surf’s edge

Along the way we saw dozens of terns, gulls, herons and egrets – the usual fishpond inhabitants. At last we reached the beach, the glorious stretch of sun-kissed sand dotted with racing shorebirds, terns, tufted ghost crabs and more. There was a small flock of common terns near the surf, so after walking southward a bit, we settled down for a bit to watch them and to take pictures.

HaYonim Island

We scanned the neighbouring HaYonim Island, where many pigeons, gulls, terns and more were congregated. There were hopes to see a curlew or a whimbrel, both of which were sighted close to our visit, but we found neither. However, we did see a nice amount of waders, such as sandpipers and plovers. Also, a slinking Egyptian mongoose passed by at the edge of the bushy vegetation that borders the sandy beach.

Sneaky Egyptian mongoose

Before long we reached a calm drainage tributary where even more waders were gathered. Hundreds of photographs were taken, and a good handful of species were seen. Some couple hundred metres further south were congregations of gulls, but with the aid of my 2000mm lens I was able to see that most, if not all, were the standard stock of Armenian and yellow-legged gulls.

Gulls and shorebirds everywhere

When the sun was starting to get to us, and we felt like it was time to head back – the long way – we turned westward and found a wooden gazebo perched at the edge of the nearest fishpond. Making our way through the brush, we reached the blessed shade and relaxed, still keeping an eye out for cool birds.

Adam on the search

Truly, a squacco heron was standing at the edge of the pond, a lovely find. Lovely as it were, what Adam pointed out next was even lovelier: a golden jackal had popped into view down below in the thick grasses alongside the nearest tributary.

Birding from the gazebo

There were ducks and songbirds, and the usual terns and gulls, but it was rather fun watching the tributary from an elevated position. Once our humanly presence was no longer in sight, there was an influx of birds that gathered at the water’s edge, and it allowed us to watch with ease.

Birding Ma’agan Michael’s fishponds

But, we couldn’t spend all day in the gazebo, so we gathered up our belongings and struck a path towards the kibbutz, walking between the fishponds. We saw more of the same, and plenty of dead, dried and disfigured fish scattered everywhere in a grotesque, foul manner. As we were leaving my camera’s battery decided that it had had enough, and fritzed out. Fortunately, I was able to capture 99% of our adventure with the camera, and to celebrate the good timing, here is probably my favourite photo from the day, a lone black-winged stilt in the company of a few ruddy turnstones:

Black-winged stilt standing guard

Back in the kibbutz, Adam and I realised that we had quite a wait for the next bus, and decided to look around a bit. We found the local mini-market, and bought popsicles to help beat the heat – I wisely chose a delicious Häagen-Dazs macadamia nut brittle ice cream bar. While waiting for the bus we schemed all about how I’d propose to my now-fiancé, Bracha Berman, which went rather well back in late August. Our bus arrived and we made our way back to the train station where we parted ways for the weekend, bringing yet another adventure to a successful close.