Israel's Good Name

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Jerusalem’s Gazelle Valley

In Israel, Jerusalem on November 29, 2020 at 11:00 AM

Practically every Monday I make the journey to Jerusalem for work at the Schocken Institute where I manage their social media accounts. Sometimes I have a hankering for some birding beforehand and so I’ll swing by the Jerusalem Bird Observatory before work. Usually it’s a pleasant time and during the course of a few visits I had seen a handful of nice new-to-me species, including the wryneck and orphean warblers. However, in early September, I began to see fantastic eBird birding reports coming from another Jerusalem location, the Gazelle Valley, and I knew my time to pay another visit had come.

Map of Gazelle Valley

I had been to the Gazelle Valley just once before, with friends Adam and Itamar in the beginning of 2018, and I hadn’t been all that impressed (see HERE). I decided that it was time to give it a fair chance, and to properly plan my visit at the earliest hour possible. A good rule of thumb for birding is to start early, because birds start early (as we all know from the popular phrase) and then disappear once the sun gets too high in the sky. Thus, armed with a good plan, I made my way to the Gazelle Valley for a nice morning visit.

A faraway whinchat

Thankfully, my experience this time was significantly more successful, starting off with a whinchat or two just perched on some thistles waiting for me to see them. The weather was cool in the park, and the sounds of songbirds filled the air, so I figured I’d start exploring the park’s perimetres straight away. A fellow birder had given me a good tip, and that was to check the fig trees in the northern end of the park for some generally elusive golden orioles. I headed that way, passing through the sweet twittering of songbirds which darted in and out of the trees around me.

A gazelle coming at me from the undergrowth

I reached the fig trees, but there were no golden orioles to be found. I hid myself out of view, hoping that maybe one would pop out, but still nothing. There were mostly yellow-vented bulbuls, and a few warblers such as blackcaps, lesser whitethroats and Sardinian warblers. Abandoning the oriole haunt, I headed back down the trail until I heard some crunching in the thick undergrowth next to me. Lo and behold, a male gazelle appeared – quite close by and somewhat tame – and then another, and another. Afterall, I was in Gazelle Valley, I should be seeing gazelles.

A spotted flycatcher blending in with the tree

My walk continued until I noticed something fast and barred flying quickly right overhead. It disappeared into a grouping of pine trees, but I was pretty sure it was a sparrowhawk. Just when I thought I had lost it in the greenery, out of the corner of my eye comes another flash of movement. It was so brief, but it was clear, the sparrowhawk had just tried to snatch a songbird out of a small tree to my right. It’s one thing seeing birds of prey, which is amazing in and of itself, but it’s a whole lot better when you see them in action.

Photographers in the blind

I continued along the reconstructed Nachal Rekafot, along the aptly-named Bird Trail, until I reached the main pondside blind. Along the way I had seen more songbirds, including a spotted flycatcher, a reed warbler and a whole bunch of blackbirds. Within the blind were a few nature photographers, waiting like lions in the tall savannah grass for prey to come their way.

Portrait of the moorhen

For the meantime, just a few moorhens dared make their presence known to us hidden in our special bunker, but then a common kingfisher came and all the photographers jumped into action, clawing at their expensive cameras as the clicking sound of the shutters filled the air.

A common kingfisher

When I looked at my own pictures later, I realised that when I had first entered the hide and started taking pictures of a moorhen that was making its way away from us, I had incidentally photographed it trying to eat a small river frog. Had the kingfisher been as successful it would have been delightful, but no, he gave up after a few minutes and flew away. I followed suit.

The moorhen escaping with the frog

My last stop along this tour of the park was at the big pond, where I could see numerous ducks and other waterbirds idling about. I pulled up a chair a safe distance away and began scanning the visible areas for one of the birds I was most hoping to see: ferruginous ducks. These medium-sized diving ducks are simplistically beautiful with their rich maroon-mahogany plumage and their bright yellow eyes. Alas, not a single ferruginous duck showed its face and I was left to photograph grebes and herons – and the occasional kingfisher.

The tranquil pond-life

The hour was getting late and I had to get to work, so I began my walk back out of the park and to the nearest bus stop. As I walked I saw a few black-winged stilts flying by – an odd sight if not for Gazelle Valley’s bountiful sources of water for them to wade in. I packed away my camera and binoculars and headed over to work where, sadly, the birds are a lot less plentiful.

Tel Abu Shusha & Nearby Sites

In Coastal Plain, Israel on November 22, 2020 at 10:58 AM

My next wild adventure took place in the end of August, when I visited the Tel Abu Shusha excavations with my friend Avner Touitou. With the annual Tel es-Safi excavations canceled due to coronavirus, our department ended up opening a brand new dig under the direction of Dr Avner Ecker. This dig, Tel Abu Shusha, is located at the western end of the Jezreel Valley, in the Ramat Menashe park on the southeastern slopes of the Carmel range. This site has been identified as Geva/Gaba, mentioned by both Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III and Roman-Jewish historian Josephus.

Tel Abu Shusha excavations (photo from drone footage filmed by the expedition)

Eager to have the chance to make a promotional video for my department, I put in all the right calls and we were expected to arrive at the site Thursday morning, towards the end of the first week of digging. I met up with Avner and we drove up to the tel, not knowing exactly where to find the crew. We wandered around a wee bit, under the watchful eyes of a kestrel and alpine swifts, until at last we found the first of the three tented dig spaces. It was joyous reuniting with old friends, as it is the members of our shared department that were the sole excavators this season – due to the exhausting coronavirus regulations.

Avner and Yaniv, an area supervisor

It was an unusual feeling visiting an archaeological excavation without feeling that I need to be physically working. I’ve been to so many digs, as academic fieldwork, volunteering and even for pay, yet this was the first time I was just a visitor, a spectator with a touristy camera. Immediately I began filming and taking pictures, already anticipating the finished video, as Avner caught up with the area supervisor. I soon found out that if one was to view all three excavation sites from above, this was the one facing north (the others facing east and southeast). The students were eager to show us that they were excavating above an exposed wall of crooked ashlars, of which they are trying to reach from above.

View of the Jezreel Valley to the east

We gradually moved on to the second dig site, a tented area overlooking the expansive Jezreel Valley, a patchwork of brown, green and blue. More friends awaited us and we joyously chatted as we examined the team’s progress in their excavated squares. It was while I was taking in the majestic view that my birder eyes spotted something fantastic. In the distance, nearly eye-level over the fields below, I could make out a handful of soaring raptors searching for prey. I took some photos to confirm that these were, in fact, short-toed eagles – about ten of them – ever so faintly visible to the naked eye. I then noticed that there were some nature photographers in cars in the valley, likely waiting for an eagle to swoop down for a kill.

The crew working hard to clear away the topsoil

Minutes and minutes of digital film were recorded as we then moved over to the central staging area tent, where communal activities such as eating and congregating are done. There we met Dr Ecker, who was delighted to see us, as well as an archaeology-loving patron named Dotan who helped fund this first season. While Dr Ecker ran off to attend to some director duties, we continued on to the third of the dig areas, the one facing southeast. This is the largest of the three and comprises two tented areas, under the supervision of yet another friendly face.

Vaulted structure atop the hill

We passed a small vaulted structure which forms a little hill between the communal tent and this area, and to the best of my knowledge, the exact history behind it is yet to be known. We explored this final area, learning more about the work being done as I poked around here and there making sure I was getting good footage. Although we were visiting just the first week, the team was making excellent headway and I look forward to seeing a report on the season whenever it shall be released. As far as excavations go, this one struck all the right chords: location, weather (breezy), interest and the most important, friendship.

Noam is another of the area supervisors

In fact, when we were finished with our visit we almost felt bad leaving as we were having such a nice time. We were greatly impressed with what we had seen, and we hoped to ourselves that the team finds something truly exciting to help push that happy feeling over the edge. Alas, we had a few more places in the area that we wanted to check out, so we bid farewell and made our way back to Avner’s car. Now would be the perfect time in the retelling of this tale to share the video I edited:

Next on our list was a nearby cave, known as the Palmach Cave as it served as a training site for some of the Palmach’s secret paramilitary units, but unfortunately it appeared to be closed without a prior reservation. We were also hoping to visit a nearby spring, to dip in cool waters, but that too seemed less available in our immediate vicinity. Determined to salvage our plans, we decided to first get lunch (schnitzel baguettes) in nearby Yokneam and then to formulate a new plan of action.

Be’er Tivon (or Tivon Well)

Satiated and ready to move on, we decided to visit a tiny watering hole that I first encountered in the army, Be’er Tivon (or Tivon Well). It was a bit of an adventure trying to reach the pit, with a small anti-cow electric fence and then the moody cows themselves, but at last we made it. However, when we gained entrance to the tiny structure – quite literally the size of a prison cell – we saw that the water was rather dirty with mud, and quite possibly contaminated by the friendly cows’ waste. Regardless, we decided to skip the dip and instead headed back to the car, past the cows and the electric fence.

“The House of the People” in Bethlehem of Galilee

Since we were so close, Avner decided to show me two places that he’s known for years (he also works as a tour guide). While I had heard of them, I had never actually been, thus this was the perfect opportunity for him to give me a quick tour of some key sites in Alonei Abba and Bethlehem of Galilee, two moshav villages established side-by-side in 1948. We started in Bethlehem of Galilee, originally a Roman and Byzantine village, which saw a revival in the 1890s when German Templers purchased the land and built stately stone houses for their colony. Alonei Abba was another Templer colony, founded in 1907 and named Waldheim. Both these colonies were cleared during WWII, the German residents expelled by the ruling British Mandate government due to their partial support of the Nazis.

Lovely architecture inside

Avner took me directly to a grand stone Templer building which is known as “The House of the People”, which was fortunately open. We entered and had a look around, seeing old moshav-life pictures hanging from the wall of this public building. Adjacent to this building is another Templer structure, an ordinary stone building with a large, round, crenellated stone tower. We did not check to see if we could enter, but rather admired it from a distance and returned to the car to continue our tour.

The Waldheim church in Alonei Abba

We drove through the moshav, impressed by the stone architecture and the large trees which formed a dense canopy over the main street. Our next destination was Alonei Abba, and Avner knew just where to go. Within minutes we were parked beside a large stone church building, of an architecture style that smacks of simplified neo-Gothic, that was originally built in 1916. I got out, took some pictures and, with that, we headed out – not failing to admire the stone houses of Waldheim as we went. I’m sure that next time I visit these two quaint locations I’ll have more to expand upon.

Pomegranates growing in Alonei Abba

Our next destination wasn’t planned, but rather decided upon in the course of discussion. I had mentioned that I had visited the magnificent necropolis of Bet She’arim back when I was a soldier, yet never visited the famous Alexander Zaid monument which is visible from the main road passing by. Avner insisted that we take a quick look, yet, we too were stymied and realised that we had made some wrong turns. Instead, we paused to look at the ancient synagogue ruins which I had missed in my trip back in February 2014.

Bet She’arim’s ancient synagogue

Getting back on the road, we decided to make one last stop before heading back, to take a quick look at Tel Zariq. It was getting quite late and time was truly running out on this day trip, but who can say no to the inviting sound of an abandoned Medieval village. What made this even more fascinating was the fact that the village was inhabited by soldiers who originated from Turkmenistan of old, and were experts in raising horses specifically for military cavalry purposes. In 1948, the village was abandoned due to the nearby battles during the War for Independence and, if what I read is correct, the villagers moved to Jenin.

Nothing to see on Tel Zariq

As exciting as this all sounds, our brief visit was a lot less riveting. Trusting the GPS to lead us to the marked site of the old village took us into thick, streamside woods of fig trees and strong vines. Strangely enough, there were quite a lot of people in this woods, in various stages of relaxation. Adults, youths and even children were scattered on empty patches of land, and on the various fallen logs and stumps, for reasons we couldn’t quite understand. Nobody seemed to acknowledge our presence, and nobody was in any danger, so we just slithered our way out of the thick undergrowth and looked around some more.

Sunrise at Tel Abu Shusha (photo from timelapse footage filmed by Esther Mellet)

Save for some broken concrete and some sun-bleached animal bones, there really wasn’t much for us to see at face value. Disheartened, yet overall satisfied with the day’s adventures, we began the long drive back to our respective homes, already hoping to plan another exciting outing.

Yavne Dunes

In Central Israel, Israel on November 15, 2020 at 5:10 PM

Now that the first rains have fallen it is time to play catch-up and retell the tales of this summer’s outings and excursions. First and foremost would be a series of visits to the dunes just outside of Yavne, a new location that Adam and I found when looking for good, local sand dunes for summer night trips. As such, our first visit to the Yavne dunes was at the end of June and it proved to be very successful.

Cheery adventurers!

Hoping to first get a lay of the land while it was still daylight, we arrived shortly before 5pm, about three hours before sunset. Firstly, we were rather impressed by the size of these dune-land, as it is far larger than even the veritable Holon dunes which hosted many a night trips. Entering the open land from the southeast, we wandered around hither and thither examining all that there was to see. Our walking took us from the tree-dotted scrubland to the dunes themselves, where the thick sand made the hiking a bit more difficult.

Yavne’s infiltration pans

Consulting Google Maps’ satellite imagery, we made our way towards a grouping of rectangular pools, which I later learned to be “infiltration pans” for the preservation of fresh water that seeps into the aquifer. Even though I looked this up, I remain slightly confused as to how and why they exist – but for our purposes, they serve as excellent bird habitats. As we climbed the sandy slopes up towards the pools, birds of all sorts were flying above us, including European bee-eaters, turtledoves, swifts, swallows and martins.

Waders wading and feeding

Cresting the hill made our presence known to all the birds in the pans, and chaos filled the air. Hundreds of ducks and waders took to the skies in confused pandemonium; it was an awesome sight for us unexpecting birders. A gazelle dashed away from behind the shelter of a tree nearby, and as we too sought shelter, the waterbirds slowly started coming back. We relaxed there in our somewhat hidden location on the east side of the pans, the slowly setting sun making it harder and harder to see the birds.

Black-winged stilts standing in liquid gold

Adapting, we looped around the southern end of the pool compound, seeing loads of snake tracks in the loose sand, until we made it to a natural bowl-like depression in the land. We took a break there, relaxing and watching the numerous warblers, turtledoves and chukar partridges below us. With the sun ever-setting, we got back up and kept hiking northward, aiming for the large sandy dune area that we had seen in the satellite images.

A ‘bowl’ in which to rest in

A large animal crashed in the undergrowth somewhere near us (later to be presumed as a wild boar as we have found droppings in the area), and we found an active porcupine den (with shed quills and all). But, the best sighting of that late afternoon was a surprise visit by a little owl, which landed not far away from us as Adam was photographing a beetle. Despite being relatively common, I find it very difficult to spot them on the regular and consider every sighting a great cause for celebration.

Rubbish photo of a little owl hiding behind some branches

At last we reached the dunes proper, and waited as the sun sank over the horizon, painting the skies beautiful pastel shades of glory. Our subsequent exploring of the dunes led us to some fun sightings, the first was a nice elegant gecko just marching his way across the endless stretches of sand. Next, we heard the distinct croaking of frogs and then we began a long walk along a sandy dirt path back towards the starting point of our visit. Scanning from side-to-side, we danced our flashlights over the scrub-covered ground hoping to see what we really came for, a snake.

Sunset over the dunes and sea

Then, as we were walking, I looked up and saw an enormous spider web spanning the width of the trail. It was illuminated accidentally by Adam’s flashlight and to make it even more fun, a rather large spider was occupying this immense web. I was already mid-step and it was too late to avoid, so I made a snap decision to just rush through, hoping that I’d avoid a spider landing on me.

Viper on the sandy path

I burst into a brief sprint and then stopped abruptly as another obstacle presented itself in my path. This time it was a viper, and I was elated to have discovered it. Adam rushed over and we spent a few minutes getting some choice photographs, but knowing that our bus was going to be coming and we really must be getting going. But no, we were in for some more surprises…

Clifford’s diadem snake striking a defensive pose

As we were making our way suddenly Adam shouted out that he found another snake – and this time it was something new. Excitement filled the air once more as we closed in on the joy-bringing serpent, taking myriads of photographs from all angles possible. This was a Clifford’s diadem snake, a slender, harmless-yet-feisty, reddish-brown creature with big friendly eyes.

Adam caught off guard

Time surely was not on our side as we reluctantly left the snake alone and hurried off to go catch our bus. We felt confident that we could find more snakes, and other interesting wildlife, and already decided to schedule another trip. However, it took nearly a month for us to get back out there, but when we did, success greeted us once again.

National nature reserve boundaries

It was the end of July and we decided to get there an hour or so before nightfall and to have a small barbecue of spicy hotdogs and marshmallows – an Adam speciality. We arrived at the dunes and were immediately wowed by a large short-toed eagle taking to the air quite close by. We found some old bottles and cans, nearly collectibles, and then had a quick gander at the infiltration pans, where we saw ibises, mallards, sandpipers and other shorebirds.

Golden hour unedited

We made a little fire with some dried branches and took in the dusk, noticing several microbats flying above us in search of juicy insects. As our dinner was coming to an end we saw something truly fantastic, a meteoroid burning up upon entering Earth’s atmosphere – an awesome firefall flying over our heads. That prompted us to start searching for creatures of the night, which we found surprisingly quickly.

Green toad

First there was a large camel spider, a fascinating creature which I first met in the Nizzana dunes, and then a green toad. More camel spiders joined the fray, and then Adam spotted what appears to have been a dice snake (which I had already seen in the Ga’aton reservoir). Next up was another viper, this one a pregnant female, and then some African fattail scorpions scurrying here and there. But the fun didn’t end there, as shortly thereafter we saw yet another viper and then some mantises, to be followed by more camel spiders.

One of the numerous African fattail scorpions

We left the dunes that night feeling downright satisfied with our new location for nighttime excursions, with each trip resulting in not one, but two snakes each. However, I had an urge to learn more about the birds frequenting the infiltration pans and desired to journey there in the morning to get a proper rundown of what there was to see. So, a few days later I took a bus down to the dunes and made a beeline for the infiltration pans.

Stints and plovers foraging in the mud

Sure enough, there was what to see and it was an honest struggle trying to photograph everything to make sure I could properly identify all that there was. Of the pans, there are the ones that were filled with water, and hosted mainly ducks, and then there were the ones filled with mud and puddles, positively overflowing with waders. I spotted sandpipers: green, wood, marsh, common; greenshanks and redshanks; stints and Temminck’s stints; ruffs; plovers: little ringed and common ringed. All that on top of the more “boring” glossy ibises, black-winged stilts and even a lone black-headed gull. In short, it was splendid.

Greenshank and redshank

While I was watching this cacophony of birds just over the fence, something small and flappy in my peripheral caught my eye. I was standing so still, so blended in with the setting, that a great spotted cuckoo didn’t even notice me as it plummeted into the sand just a few metres away. I watched breathless as it did a weird, awkward dance, bathing in the warm sand and watching the flummoxed ants that were passing by. Eventually it hopped on, no doubt looking for juicy caterpillars to feast on, and I was able to watch it on-and-off as it foraged. A few Schreiber’s fringe-fingered lizards, some snake tracks and I was on my way back home after a successful under-two-hour outing.

Great spotted cuckoo

It wasn’t enough though, and I needed to go back. One of the local birding experts, Yoav Perlman, had visited and reported seeing a rare red knot (which I tried to see with Adam last year at Ma’agan Michael). I decided I’d go for another quick morning of birding, and made my way once again – thankfully we have a direct bus. It was the end of August, about a month after my first morning visit, and after three additional night visits – these with friends (and even Bracha, my wife).

Flyer for our local community

It was a perfect opportunity for us to invite other members of the community along on an adventure of a lifetime. We had seen a lot of interesting creatures, including wild boars and more vipers but with each subsequent outing we were seeing less and less snakes. The final trip was snakeless, and I have a substantiated suspicion that the local snake-eating short-toed eagles were to blame.

Short-toed eagle looking for more snakes to eat

At any rate, I was excited to do another morning trip and arrived nice and ready for pan-scanning. There were even more waders than ever before, and my mind was truly boggled by the numbers and variety of species set out before me. Even a lone white stork was on the banks, watching the mess of small to medium sized birds scramble around in the nutrient-rich mud below.

Pair of common snipes photographed through a fence

What made this time exciting was the new species I was seeing at this site, including: common snipes, garganeys and a single yellow wagtail. Unfortunately, I did not see the red knot as I later learned that it was spotted in a different set of infiltration pans, ones that I never even thought about checking out.

We’ll miss you, Yavne dunes

The dunes, and the pans as well, served us well for the numerous trips we took over the summer. But, as autumn was ushered in, and the migration kicked into high gear, we found ourselves either homebound in lockdown, or exploring other areas which also served us well. I can only wonder what dunes we will explore come next summer when the night trips in search of snakes begin again…

Ashdod Sea Fortress

In Coastal Plain, Israel on August 16, 2020 at 12:09 PM

A month or so ago I went on a third Crusader ruins trip with my friend and fellow Medievalist, Avner Touitou. After visiting Khirbet Luza and other sites in the Jerusalem area in December, and then Le Destroit and other central coastal sites in June, it was time to visit the southern coastal site of the Ashdod Sea Fortress, also known as the Ashdod-Yam Fortress. Avner picked me up in the morning and we drove straight down to Ashdod, eager to see this fascinating coastal castle right on the sandy beach. I was surprised at myself that I had never gone to explore this most intriguing site, having somehow mistaken it with the Yavne Yam Fortress which I did indeed explore back in March of 2018. As such, it was high time to visit this Ashdodian fortress, and our timing was impeccable.

Ashdod Sea Fortress from above (photo Ashdod Municipality)

Little did we know but when we arrived on-site there was a little surprise awaiting us. This ancient fortress, wind-whipped and swept over by centuries of drifting sand, had undergone a facelift in recent months. In fact, the newly fixed-up site was reopened to the public a mere month prior to our visit, and looks very well taken care of. While I was rather looking forward to exploring the charming natural-looking ruins with the deep sand drifts, it was also pleasing to be able to examine the ruins in their new state of organised upkeep, harkening to the days of old when the castle was in operation.

Within the fortress

Spraying on some much-needed sunscreen, Avner and I approached the newly fenced-in site and gained entrance. We began our exploration of the site via modern steps over the low northern wall – the original main entrances facing both east and west out to sea. This impressive beachfront property was first constructed as Minat al-Qala in the Early Arab period, sometime around the end of the 600s, on the foundations of Byzantine ruins. Its purpose was to be a part of a string of coastal fortresses aimed to ward off a Byzantine invasion-by-sea and seemingly served its masters well.

Seeking shade in a vaulted chambre

Following a devastating earthquake in 1033, the destroyed fortress was abandoned and only resettled in the Crusader period. Refortifying the castle in 1153, the Crusaders renamed it Castellum Beroart or Castrum Beroardi. Oddly enough, information about this fortress is extremely hard to come by, and despite scouring numerous books as well as the usual online database searches, I still know very little. Apparently the ruined Arab castle was gifted to a Frankish nobleman by the name of Beroart, although he himself isn’t mentioned in any surviving records from the time. According to researcher Joshua Prawer, as published in 1958, the castle belonged to the “Duchy of Ashkelon” (or Ascalon) and was situated on the border with Yavne, or Ibelin. While this certainly is a fun fact, I wish there was more historical information available about the enigmatic fortress.

Three vastly different building materials

What naturally seized my attention were the vaulted rooms on the eastern side – a shape that serves as a lovely reminder of Gothic architecture. A closer look at the weather-worn building blocks, even within the chambres, revealed such a diverse variety of material quality. Three random ashlars, divided by mere mortar, were so vastly different from one another: the first looked like countless bivalve shells pressed together, sandy adhesives somehow keeping it all together; the second was shell-free, but a very porous, sponge-like eroded block of sandstone; the third was a host of tiny shell fragments, held together by sandy material to form a relatively uniform-looking block, albeit textured wildly. Needless to say, this ashlar inspection kept us greatly entertained for a brief period of time.

The mosque ruins within the fortress

Wandering around the fortress, we took note of several of the architectural features, including the bathhouse and the mosque, which featured a mihrab and covered courtyard. Yellow-blossomed evening primrose decorated the old mihrab floor, a common wildflower on the coast. Next, we found the narrow stone staircase which took us up to the modern observation platform. What pleased me greatly was the realisation that there was another staircase mirroring our own – in fact, the main structure layout was nearly symmetrical and therefore righteously pleasing to the critical eye.

Looking down at the encroaching waves

Up top, looking out over the castle floor, we imagined what it would be like to live there back in Crusader times, keeping a watchful eye out for seagoing vessels. The gentle waves crashed on the surf just tens of metres away from the fortress’ front door, which made us wonder what the sea level was back then – something that was actually researched on-site back in 2012-13 (see HERE). There was something downright magical about the correlation between castle and sea that I had never yet felt; whereas many fortifications are built on the coast, almost all are building atop natural ridges, such as Arsuf, or pre-existing city foundations, such as Akko.

The northwest corner

Spellbound as we may have been, the sun’s unforgiving rays forbade us from standing much longer on the shadeless platform and seeking refuge became an utmost importance. We trotted back down the stone stairs to the welcoming shade below and enjoyed reading about the castle’s structure, a symetrical 40×60 metre rectangle crowned with eight towers. We explored the exterior eastern wall and were pleased to see fine masonry that has suffered far less from the ravages of the coastal winds. Examining the craftsmanship of Crusader ashlars is always a joyous pastime, especially when cryptic mason’s marks can be found. Unfortunately, perhaps due to weathering, we were to find no such marking on any of the hewn sandstone ashlars.

Avner inspecting the golden arches

Our exterior walk brought us around to the seaside front of the castle, where we gladly re-entered the charming building. We finished up our little tour with closer looks at the wells and drainage pipes, as well as a handful of marble columns resting on their sides. There were some structures that were unidentifiable and an area that is believed to be the dining hall. Feeling like we saw all that we could, we exited via the northern wall and wandered into the nearby trees to change into bathing suits.

Evening primrose along the eastern wall

With the cool sea waves crashing so tantalisingly close we had no option but to enter the waters, jellyfish be damned. Sure enough, just like our last trip, the sea was full of jellied bodies with dangling stingers trawling the moving waters around them. However, there was one quite noticeable difference: whereas last time they were nomad jellyfish, this time there were two other species taking the limelight. The gaudier of the two was the barrel jellyfish (Rhizostoma pulmo), with its strikingly blue body and mediocre stinging capabilities, and the other was the floating bell jellyfish (Phyllorhiza punctata), a drab brown with little white dots and a weak stinger. Even though these species have less potent stingers, there were still some nomad jellyfish in the water, and consequently we were stung, although we do not know by which of the three.

A beached barrel jellyfish

A particularly amusing jellyfish episode occurred once we had left the jellied waters and were in the process of air-drying. Good Mr Touitou was in the midst of talking when suddenly he felt something unusually solid in his shorts’ left pocket. He reached in and pulled out the most unexplainable object – a chunk of jellyfish flesh, seemingly of the nomad variety. I laughed heartily at the unusual site yet, unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture.

Indian food galore!

We headed back to his car and decided that it was time to eat lunch. He had intentions of finding a brewery but, as we soon found out, open breweries can be hard to find sometimes. We settled on scouring Ashdod for an interesting eatery and chanced upon Namaste, an authentic Indian restaurant located inside the whimsical Blue Castle on the boardwalk. Neither of us had ever been to an Indian restaurant so it was an interesting experience for us both. I particularly enjoyed eaten bites of tender skewered chicken with the delicious naan bread, and recommend it wholeheartedly.

Avner approves of Indian-made Kingfisher beer

Satisfied with our delicious ethnic lunch, we got back into his car and decided to drive over to the Yavne Yam fortress at Palmachim Beach for a quick gander. However, the parking fare was rather steep especially considering the fact that we only wanted to spend a few minutes there so we left feeling dejected. There wasn’t any other Crusader site in the area that came to mind so we figured we’d bring the thus-successful trip to an end. A quick attempt to visit the nearby Ariel Sharon Park, a repurposed garbage dump, proved a failure as the guard insisted that they had closed for the day a mere eighteen minutes prior to our arrival. Feeling just a tinge more dejected, we culminated our excursion with intentions to plan another trip soon, which we did with great gusto.

Eilat

In Eilat, Israel, Negev on July 27, 2020 at 8:50 AM

Just a few weeks ago, in the beginning of July, my wife Bracha and I went on a two-day trip down to Eilat, Israel’s resort town. The trip was organised and heavily-subsidised by Minhal HaStudentim, which offers trips and activities – in addition to tuition help – throughout the year to immigrant students. Being that we are both immigrants and students, we were able to snag this fun little trip for quite the bargain.

Is it a honeymoon or just a group trip to Eilat?

Early Sunday morning we sleepily lugged our bags over to Rishon LeZion, where our dedicated tour bus was waiting. Somehow we ended up being attached to the bus with students from the areas of Rishon LeZion and Rehovot, and not with our friends from Bar Ilan University, but we made the best of our predicament and made new friends. When we had successfully found our permanent seats – factoring in the safety guidelines during this strenuous time period with the coronavirus – our bus driver turned his vehicle in the direction of Eilat.

Our guide, Liran Gabay

However, we had a quick stop along the way, and that was Ein Gedi off the coast of the Dead Sea. Our route took us through Jerusalem, and our tour guide, Liran Gabay, filled our ears with wordy explanations to the various sites that we passed. Upon arriving at Ein Gedi we were greeted by dozens of fan-tailed ravens and Tristram’s starlings, as well as a splendid number of blue-spotted Arab butterflies – truly astounding to see such concentrations of flappy, yellow wings.

Ten blue-spotted Arab butterflies at Ein Gedi

Due to time constraints, we just did the short walk to the lower waterfall, where we whet our appetite in the hot, dry desert heat. After sandwiches, which served as a pre-lunch, we got back into the tour bus and began the long, straight drive down Road 90 to Eilat. But no, there was still another adventurous stop to make, and that was an extreme park by the name of Top 94. There, we did a variety of activities including a shooting range, paintball and eating lunch.

Bracha firing the .22 sporting rifle

I was quite excited for the shooting range as we were going to be shooting .22-calibre bullets – a calibre-first for me, and Bracha’s very first time shooting any weapon. We stationed ourselves side-by-side and unleashed a succession of hot metal at paper targets pinned up downrange. To my delight, both of us had rather tight groupings, although both sporting rifles’ iron sights were quite inaccurate which led us to wildly miss our targets.

Targets: Bracha’s to the left, mine to the right

Paintball was also delightful, yet the splatters of orange caused a bit of pain and bruising here and there. Bracha and I were on opposing teams in a game format that meant playing just to shoot each other willy-nilly, all in a brown, garage-themed setting. Lunch was nice as well, a generous portion of schnitzel and rice alongside french fries. There was a small museum on-site, the Negev Warriors Museum dedicated to soldiering between the years 1917-1949, but unfortunately it was closed.

Getting ready for some paintball

At last, we boarded our bus and began the final leg to Eilat proper, arriving directly at our sleeping accommodations, the HI Eilat Hostel. The sun set over the mountains of Egypt and we got settled into our own room, a fortunate upgrade that we were able to secure. Continuing the theme of feasting, we headed down to the dining room for dinner – a mess of meatballs, schnitzel, rice, pasta and more. It was an interesting affair balancing a hotel experience with the necessary restrictions regarding serving, which had limited portions with minimised human contact and longer lines, but we made the best of our situation.

Looking out from our hostel balcony

With the culmination of dinner we had a little bit of free time so we headed out to explore the boardwalk area with its plethora of shops, restaurants, bars and more. The gently lapping surf and the full moon’s reflection on the calm water beckoned us near, so we shed shoes and drank bottled cocktails in the coarse sand. It was a profoundly relaxing moment, even with the hubbub of nightlife behind us, and made the perfect ending to an action-packed day.

Sculpture commemorating raising the Ink Flag

The following morning greeted us with the hot Eilat sun streaming rays of warmth to heat up another day of adventure. Breakfast was served and then we headed out to our first stop of the day, the Umm Rash-Rash historical site just across the road from our hotel. It was the beginning of March 1949 and the Israeli government was bent on securing access to the Red Sea before agreeing to a ceasefire with the surrounding Arab nations. Two infantry brigades pushed south through the desert and reached the coastal area of Umm Rash-Rash which was being held by Jordanian forces. On March 10, 1949 the conquering Israeli soldiers raised an impromptu flag, known as the “Ink Flag”, a symbol of sovereignty over this tiny patch of coastal land linking Israel with the Red Sea.

Taba bording crossing

Getting into our tour bus, we were then driven down to the Taba border crossing which links Israel with Egypt. There, we got out to enjoy the expansive view of the Gulf of Aqaba and our neighbours, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. I kept a sharp eye out for terns, gulls and other interesting sea-going birds, and my efforts paid off. I was rewarded with my first ever white-eyed gull, as well as some white-cheeked terns.

The Gulf of Aqaba from the Israel-Egypt border

Our next stop was the Coral Beach Nature Reserve, where we slotted for some fun snorkeling in the reefs. Neither of us had ever been snorkeling, so we were both righteously excited to strap on some gear and plunge into the water, clear waters of the Red Sea. Terns flitted about over the low waves, we burnt our feet in the scorching sand, and the sun slowly ate through our protective layer of sunscreen. Eilat in the summer is truly a sauna, and we so badly wanted to just get into the cooling waters.

White-cheeked tern resting on a floater

At last our time to snorkel came and we walked our way out to the launch point of the snorkel route. For most people it took barely a minute or so to get the mask and snorkel tube affixed and ready to go, but I floundered in the shallows struggling to breathe normally as I peered into the underwater world with blurred vision. Unfortunately, the bespectacled among us couldn’t wear our glasses and with my prescription, I’d be happy if I saw any of the many fish species that live in and around the coral reef. Interestingly enough, this is the northernmost coral reef in the world, but alas, I have no pictures to show for it. When the snorkel activity was over, and I had seen a few colourful fish-blurs which shall remain unidentified, we got back into our bus and headed back to the hostel for lunch. When our bellies were full we were escorted back out to the waterfront, for even more watery activities. This time they were of the boating sense, as well as lounging about on the beach with the other beach-goers.

Coming back aboard after banana boating (photo Liran Gabay)

Our first option was the banana boat ride, where we and eight others were shipped out to sea and then marooned on a floating banana-like raft roped to the back of the boat. We hung on for dear life as the boat captain sped away, dragging us along in his wake, cool saltwater splashing our faces liberally. We clung as we laughed, the buoyant raft being swept along effortlessly as the captain throttled his engines.

The more extreme version of banana boating

There were some close calls but alas, nobody was fully capsized and we made our way back to the marina smiling and dripping under the hot midday sun. The next option was an even more extreme raft where the riders lay clinging to a rectangular float only to be flung about wildly. There’s a mutual understanding that those riding the rafts desire to be slightly drowned, and that the sea captain desires to do the drowning. Bracha and I decided that we’d rather watch the proceedings unfold, and I rushed to get my trusty camera.

Green sea turtle at Eilat

The eight riders flopped about in the foamy water, the spray dousing them with every turn. Bracha laughed heartily as the riders clung desperately to the raft, only to be thrown off every other minute. Indeed, everyone was laughing and a good time was had by all. One of my favourite moments, however, was when one of the fellow students spotted a green sea turtle coming up for air in the marina.

Eilat’s North Beach

After the boats we spent a bit of time in the water and then headed back to the hostel to change. I had been angling to pay a quick visit to North Beach, a famous birding haunt, where I was hoping I’d see some new and interesting terns, gulls, sea birds and the like. Bracha joined me and we walked along the beachfront boardwalk, replete with excessive tourist attractions. It was a longer walk than either of us had anticipated but at last we made it and we stood at the seashore as the sun began its daily descent.

Juvenile white-eyed gull flying over the sea

I scanned the seas with my binoculars, seeking flapping or soaring wings, but also made sure to check the far-out floating buoys. At first there were just more white-eyed gulls, but then a large tern appeared overhead – my very first Caspian tern, a true behemoth of his genus. That certainly was exciting, but I wanted more. I checked the drainage canal for birds, but there was nothing identifiable, so I scanned the seas again and again.

Some invasive house crows

One of the delightful aspects of birding is the unpredictability involved; sometimes, where you expect to see something you do not, and other times, sightings come as a wonderful surprise. Knowing that one day I’ll eventually tick off other, yet-unseen terns, gulls and other seabirds, we headed back to the hostel for a “barbecue dinner”.

Lantern tour at Timna Park

The government had convened once more to discuss the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and it was decided the restrictions be put in place once again. Therefore, our trip was being brought to a premature end, and some of the much-anticipated events cancelled. Hoping to give us one last hurrah, it was decided that we’d have a quick early night trip to Timna Park for a special “lantern tour”. I had been to Timna twice before, see HERE and HERE, so I was okay with the idea of going at night – despite the fact that the ground colour is one of the park’s finest features.

Egyptian influence at Timna

Our lantern tour was surprisingly picturesque, and certainly everyone made the most of it as we knew that we were to be heading back up north on the morrow. It was late when we returned, but that didn’t keep us all from enjoying one more night in Israel’s resort town. On the drive back the following morning we saw a few nice species of wildlife from our bus window – including one dorcas gazelle spotted by Bracha.

Mitzpe Ramon’s desert sculpture garden

We also made a quick stop at Mitzpe Ramon where I took the opportunity to walk out into the Desert Sculpture Park along the Israel National Trail. We arrived back home safe and sound, thankful for our special little outing but also ready to get back into our daily routines.

Lovely bit of vacation

More trips were to be had shortly, as my friends were angling to get out and explore as well.

Le Destroit

In Coastal Plain, Israel on July 19, 2020 at 4:05 PM

Just last month, as the Ministry of Health sanctions and guidelines regarding the coronavirus outbreak were loosening up, I went on a nice little trip with a nice friend. Similar to our trip back in December 2019, when we visited Khirbet Luza and other Crusader ruins, this time Avner Touitou and I had similar intentions. Still struggling with thesis ideas for our MAs in Crusader Archaeology, we figured that going about and actually visiting some lesser-known ruins might help spark an idea that would lead towards something useful.

Chateau Perelin jutting out into the sea

Whereas last trip we focused on the Jerusalem area, this time our attention was turned a little north, to the Atlit region, where the Kingdom of Jerusalem came to an end. The focal point of our planned trip was the ruined fortress of Le Destroit, which neither of us had ever been to. Interestingly enough, I had passed it hundreds of times during my army service, and had actually attempted to even visit it, however unsuccessfully. At last, thanks to Avner’s gung-ho spirit and vehicular capabilities, the visit to Le Destroit was to become a reality.

Approaching the old stables

Avner picked me up outside our apartment in the morning and we made our way posthaste up Roads 4 and 2 towards our destination. We had some more Crusader sites picked out, as well as a spot for lunch, but Le Destroit was first and foremost. Some forty minutes later we pulled up outside the small nature preserve, officially called the Karta Ruins Nature Reserve, just outside of Atlit. Accordingly, the ruins goes by several names including Karta/Qarta, Districtum and Khirbet Dustray, as explained in various archaeological sources that I examined whilst writing this blog post.

Le Destroit layout as drawn by J Dikijian

Le Destroit was built sometime in the 1100s, following an incident where King Baldwin I was attacked and wounded by highway robbers along the coastal road. The exact location of the Crusader fortress is between two deep passes cut east-west in the sandstone ridge, just along the coastal road, which provided a perfect hideout for robbers to leap out from, catching their victims unawares. Thus, in efforts to safeguard the roads for the benefit of all travellers, the Crusaders erected this small fortress as a watchtower.

Looking at at Chateau Perelin from within the stables

Interestingly enough, the Crusaders themselves were the ones to destroy it, for when they built the grand Chateau Perelin at Atlit as a regional base, they were concerned that someday the Muslims would use the smaller fortress as a defensive position against them. Surely enough, the Muslims did arrive within that decade, and their leader the Ayyubid sultan Al-Mu’azzam Isa razed the rest of Le Destroit to the ground, not leaving very much for us happy visitors to see.

Avner examining the hewn sockets

Avner and I explored the sandstone ridge, examining the small cave-like stables that was hewn not far from the fortress itself. From within the windows we had quite the lovely view of Chateau Perelin’s ruins, jutting out into the blue Mediterranean Sea. Continuing along the forged trail, we arrived at the northern side of the fort, and took stake of our surroundings.

The eastern side of the tower with its hewn moat

A small hewn moat was clearly visible on the east side, so we climbed up atop the rock podium from the northwest corner. Not really knowing what to expect, we were slightly surprised that there wasn’t much more than the literal base of the original construction. In the southeast corner we found a small cistern, fenced off and containing just a little bit of water. With not much to see below our feet, we focused on enjoying the sprawling seaside view and picturing what it was like to be here in Medieval times.

Looking back from whence we came

Consulting the Wikipedia entry for the fortress, we learned that an interesting ancient inscription was found nearby. We descended and gave the southern and eastern walls a good lookover, admiring the construction of the manger on the eastern side.

Looking out to sea

Dropping down from the elevated sandstone ridge, we scanned the rock walls from the east, looking for the cryptic letters. Much of the rocky area around the fortress was used to quarry sandstone ashlars for construction, so we knew to look for the more natural patches.

Ancient inscription in the rock wall

At last, lo and behold! Clearly cut letters carved out of the rock face! We stood below it, admiring and wondering how someone found it, until we were ready to move on.

A closer look at the carven letters

Taking one of the passes, hewn east-west out of the sandstone ridge, we made a loop back to the marked trail, returning to the fortress. Along the way we encountered what is believed to be a guard booth, also hewn from sandstone.

Avner inspecting the guard booth

Making our way back to the car, I had a quick gander at the closest fishpond (or whatever the body of water serves as) and then we decided that it was time to go to the beach. We entered HaBonim Beach into the Waze navigation system and set a course which ended up taking us on dirt roads through fields and alongside banana greenhouses, providing loads of befuddled entertainment as we wondered if we’d ever get there. At last, after too long in the open fields, we arrived at a small parking area and disembarked.

Sea of white Queen Anne’s lace

Heading straight for the sea, passing a small tributary which would empty into the sea had there been more water, we made two interesting discoveries. The first was that we had landed exactly where the “famous” shipwreck is, the subject of innumerable sunset photographs, which turned out to actually be quite small. Where I had always envisioned a small ship, of impressive proportions, there lay a small boat which was a bit underwhelming. A little research revealed that this boat is believed to be a Turkish cement-carrying ship that somehow sunk, but in fact it seems that it was an Israeli fishing boat named “Netz” that sank during a storm in 1970. The boat was left in situ, and has slowly decomposed, but more pictures can be seen HERE, on an interesting Hebrew blog. Also, a very neat aerial shot can be seen HERE.

Sunken fishing boat at HaBonim

The second discovery was the presence of countless jellyfish washed up on the shore, belonging exclusively to the species nomad jellyfish (Rhopilema nomadica). This species has infiltrated the Mediterranean Sea, having migrated via the Suez Canal. Large and usually a semi-translucent white, these jellyfish have become quite an issue every summer and whilst we were not pleased to see their presence, we weren’t completely deterred. Slathered with sunscreen we braved the potential of stinging jellyfish and entered the surf bravely. Sure enough, we each began to feel the stings and while we could usually see them drifting about, the repeating waves concealed them and it was inevitable that we should feel their jellied tentacles. True, the sensation is unpleasant, but in all fairness it’s not that bad, so we stayed in the water and just tried to avoid the jelly beasts as they drifted aimlessly around us, their trailing stingers ever-dangling in search for prey.

Nomad jellyfish washed ashore

When we were done enjoying the beach we packed up and headed back to the car, noting paragliders and common terns sharing the crisp blue skies above us. There was another Crusader site that we wanted to take a quick look at, so we drove back out into the dirt roads which eventually led us to our destination, Tel Dor. In 2018, I had excavated for a day at Tel Dor (see HERE), and I remembered the developing discoveries concerning the small Crusader fort atop the precipice overlooking the ancient harbour.

The lovely colours of summer on Tel Dor

Merle, or Merla Templi in Latin, was a small castle of which, unfortunately, very little is known. It is believed to have been built sometime before 1187, the year that marked the fall of the first Kingdom of Jerusalem, and likely served as a lookout of sorts. Of the ruins, there was a small tower that survived until 1895, and today there’s some ghastly modern concrete marring the ancient construction.

Merle under excavation (photo from August 2018)

We parked outside the beach area and made our way to the small fort ruins, passing loads of beach-goers and some more washed up jellyfish. The tel was very unlike how I last remember it, the coastal vegetation covering the previously-exposed ruins from a myriad of time periods. Standing atop the ruins of Merle, I struggled to make sense with what I remembered from the active excavation, but, alas, the ruins are altogether quite underwhelming.

Archaeologists chipping away at Merle’s history (photo from August 2018)

We left without a sense of satisfaction, having not really understood any more about the old castle than we could have from glancing at the archaeology books. The hour was late and we had grown hungry in the full midday sun. Avner had researched a lovely place to eat at in nearby Zichron Ya’akov, so we drove over and parked the car somewhere in the chic town centre.

Common kestrel searching for prey

The lack of tourists, due to the coronavirus sanctions, definitely gave the touristy town a bit of a deserted feeling, and to top that off, the restaurant Avner had found was decidedly closed. So, ravenous in a small town, we scoured the cobbled streets in search for good eats. At last we decided on a simple sandwich shop called HaNadiv, where I ordered a schnitzel baguette and a cold bottle of American Budweiser (a recent import to Israel which Avner had not yet tried).

Schnitzel baguette and a Budweiser

When we finished our meal, which was downright delectable, we got back into the car and headed back down south. Avner dropped me off and rerouted to his own house, parting with solemn promises to take another Crusader-themed trip in the near future – which we did!

Nachal Rabah

In Central Israel, Israel on July 12, 2020 at 9:25 AM

In March, just as this ongoing coronavirus pandemic was first taking a foothold in Israel, my friend Adam Ota and I went on two back-to-back trips to the same location. With spring migration ongoing, we noticed that there was a particular site garnering interest, with numerous sightings of interesting bird species – as well as the occasional mammal. Some birders are less forthcoming with location information, as they claim that keeping fauna-rich sites a secret will better preserve the nature therein. Thus, after consulting maps and picking out keywords from several pertinent Facebook posts, we somewhat solved the mystery and made plans to visit this site for ourselves.

Starting off the morning just outside Rosh HaAyin

Our destination was Nachal Rabah, a four kilometre stretch extending from northern Rosh HaAyin to the security fence to the east, paralleled by Road 5. We did not know where the choicest locations were, so we figured we’d traverse the entire length of the streambed, hoping to see whatever we could. The bus dropped us off at the closest interchange and we began our walk into nature via a small trail that took us into the woods.

Unnamed brook of Nachal Rabah surging along

The Persian cyclamens were a’bloom everywhere, underneath the conifer trees and beside the rough, grey boulders. Having hiked similar wooded areas such as Cola Forest, with its Crusader ruins, and Ben Shemen Forest, where we had gone birding several times, we knew in advance that our best bets were in the open stretches of garrigue scrubland, also known as batha habitat. Equipped with this knowledge, we made our way swiftly through the sunbeam-struck woods until we reached an open area.

Nachal Rabah’s open scrubland

Interestingly enough, the transition from woods to open scrubland is exactly where the Green Line was drawn, way back in 1949. Today, a huge bridge follows that same line, part of a new traffic rerouting project. Once in open territory, we scanned the surrounding rocks for interesting birds but found mostly Eurasian jays and chukar partridges. At last, as we progressed through the dew-soaked grass, we spotted a long-legged buzzard perched on a treetop further up ahead.

Long-legged buzzard

We got acquainted, until he felt uncomfortable and flew off, putting quite the scare into some nearby rock hyraxes as he swooped past. Looking around, we decided to explore a nice vernal pool nearby where a pair of mallards had just landed. Inside the clear waters, we found scores of tadpoles and thousands of frog eggs strung along beside the underwater vegetation.

Strings of frog eggs

Still, we weren’t seeing any of the promising species we’d heard so much about, so we pressed on. We reached an access road which led to a quarry, and followed that for a bit until we decided that we had gone far enough for one day. Fortunately, a nice woodchat shrike decided to pass us a little visit, and we then spotted some mountain gazelles on the nearby ridge.

Woodchat shrike

We decided to turn back for the day, and found a nice little cave along the way. Upon consulting the Amud Anan map, I learned that this was called the Shakeef a-Sheikh Cave. An even more important cave, Qesem Cave, is just across Road 5, visible during some of our trip’s duration. Qesem Cave famously hosts some of the earliest human remains, and is unfortunately locked and not open to visitors.

Seeking shelter in the Shakeef a-Sheikh Cave

A lone short-toed eagle passed overhead, and we decided to move on, heading for the large bridge that we had encountered earlier. Under the bridge, Adam decided that it was time for some hot chocolate and whipped out his handy coffee pot. He got a quick little fire started and within minutes had water boiling, a quick and easy refreshment forthcoming. While he was doing that, I was scanning the skies, and found a small flock of white storks which disappeared as quick as they appeared. Also, a common kestrel returned to his nest in an upper bridge cavity, and brought tasty treats. One was just a grasshopper or locust, but the other was a small, slim snake which I couldn’t identify – my guess is a Dahl’s whip snake.

Hot chocolate in the making

Heading back through the woods, we decided to take a different route, and climbed the nearby hill. This decision paid off, as we were awarded with more sightings of migrating raptors – short-toed eagles and steppe buzzards. Even a sparrowhawk made an appearance, dashing between the tall conifers. Atop the hill we found the old Byzantine ruins of Horvat Dayyar (or Khirbet a-Daweer), the remains of an ancient olive oil press and other unidentified structures.

Horvat Dayyar ruins

Beside the ruins was the lookout, affording spectacular views of the woods and slopes below us. We basked in the glory and rehydrated, getting ourselves prepared for another hike back down the hill – the wildflower trail. Being spring, there were loads of flowers to see, from wild tulips to anemones to the several simple yellow blossoms whose names are so hard to remember.

Mountaintop lookout

We continued along Nachal Rabah, seeing different flora in the more damp environments, including some mushrooms (Crepidotus mollis and Psathyrella candolleana) which turned out to be edible – yet not particularly tasty according to the identification guides.

Psathyrella candolleana mushroom

Our legs carried us out of the touristy forest and into a small wooded area which had no trail to speak of. We hiked along the calm stream and watched another flock of white storks fly by over our heads. Before long we reached a small, man-made pond with even a small observation blind – but, alas, there was nary a waterfowl but for a few mallards.

Rosh HaAyin’s little pond

Pushing on, we looped around a small residential neighbourhood until we reached the road leading to our final destination – Izbet Sartah. Here is where it got exciting, as raptors started filling the skies, just as some curious resident was showing off his bird knowledge. We struggled to be affable as our eyes were cast to the heavens, confirming his statements as we muttered directions to one another. The raptors turned out to be mostly the same: short-toed eagles, steppe buzzards and common kestrels.

Jackdaw mobbing a short-toed eagle overhead

Checking bus times, we decided to make our final push a quick one, and heading up the small, wooded hill that hosts the ruins of Izbet Sartah. Songbirds were a’plenty and it was hard not lingering in hopes of getting a good ID or photograph of a cool species. Then it happened, a great spotted cuckoo flew into a nearby tree. Every year I see but one of these birds, and I was determined to get a better sighting. Excited, and also rather tired, we circled the aforementioned tree and flushed the parasitic bird, adding another bird to my annual checklist (which stands at 107 species, to-date).

Izbet Sartah ruins

With time truly running out we made a mad dash for the ruins, and examined them most briefly. Izbet Sartah, also known as Even Ezer, is a small Iron Age settlement, discovered in 1972 by Tel Aviv University during an archaeological survey. I had learned about Izbet Sartah back in one of my intro classes several years ago, and had always wanted to visit. At last, I was there, standing among the excavated ruins with no time to appreciate them.

Grain silos everywhere

Believed to be the site of a great battle between the Israelites and the Philistines, the ancient settlement was largely abandoned until the Byzantine period. Even then, the site seemed to have hardly been used, and was practically forgotten until modern times. Excavations in the 1970s revealed a large courtyard with casemate walls which was later upgraded into a house surrounded by grain silos. Additionally, a small ceramic ostracon was discovered, inscribed with proto-Canaanite letters – one of the earliest Hebrew texts ever found.

Pink garlic with bokeh

We took our last photos and hustled back down the hill to the bus stop. Our bus came promptly and we rode all the way back to Givat Shmuel, bringing our first foray into Nachal Rabah to a conclusion. However, we were not quite satisfied with our experience, and thus planned another excursion for the very next day. This time we headed straight for where we had ended the day before, to explore the continuation as far eastward as we could.

Dirt road beside the batha habitat

It was before 7:00am when we arrived on site, and began seeing a whole new collection of birds, starting with corn buntings and long-billed pipits. It got better, with three species of warblers dancing about on the low bushes: Sardinian, as well as both common and lesser whitethroats. Before long, a nature photographer drove up to us in an SUV and asked us if we knew where the common rock thrush was. Unfortunately, we did not but we were eager to see it as well, so we told him to let us know if he finds it.

Common whitethroat relaxing on a bush

We continued on foot, amazed at how much richer this area was than the areas we had visited the day before. A bunch of long-billed pipits revealed themselves, as well as a small flock of swifts. Another man in an SUV approached us, turning out to be someone we knew by name, a birder who lives nearby. Since the whole corona debacle was starting, we kept our distance as he gave us pointers as to what to see where.

Swifts mating mid-air

With his help, moved on over to an area where there were dozens of large bushes and small trees – a warbler sanctuary. He scanned the area here and there, telling us to be on the lookout for some of the more interesting warbler species. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to ascertain if we had seen a lucrative Rüppell’s warbler, nor the larger Western Orphean warbler, but the rest was nice. What topped it all was a sudden viewing of a common cuckoo – we had been hearing calls throughout the morning, but it was only with this birder’s help that we found it flying along the slope.

Corn bunting

After he had driven off, we resorted to walking our way back to the flatter garrigue scrubland, taking it slow to make sure we didn’t miss anything. Sure enough, we noticed a pair of long-billed pipits nesting quite literally a few metres from us.

Long-billed pipit gathering up nesting materials

It was amazing to watch them go about their daily business, keeping an eye on us as we stood on the dirt road a safe distance away. Soon enough our focus was shifted to the heavens, where the drifting clouds provided a textured backdrop to the developing raptor migration.

Twenty-three black kites

We craned our necks as we alternated between camera and binoculars, trying to make sure that no interesting species slipped by unnoticed. Among the soaring birds were the following, relatively expected species: short-toed eagles, steppe buzzards, lesser spotted eagles and loads of black kites. Even a booted eagle made an appearance, diving around behind one of the nearby hills.

Huge flock of white pelicans

Thousands of pelicans also graced our lenses, swirling together is somewhat unison. As the raptor trickle began to slow, we pickened up our pace to head back home. Although there was still so much to see, and so much more of Nachal Rabah to be explored, government-issued lockdowns were on the verge of taking effect, and we had to head back to our respective homes.

Ending off with some unidentified stone pilings

True, the coronavirus lockdown did take its toll on us – especially with not being able to go out to enjoy the sights and sounds of spring migration, as much as we would have liked to, but occassionally the action came to us. Two days of heavy duststorms brought thousands upon thousands of storks and raptors of a variety of species directly over Givat Shmuel, dotting the yellow sky with ever-moving dark dots of lethal energy. The spring may have been snatched from us, but we resumed our nature adventures recently with renewed evening trips to the nearby dunes.

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.