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Tzora’s Fields and Reservoir

In Central Israel, Israel on April 10, 2021 at 8:40 PM

With each passing month, keeping up with this precious blog becomes increasingly more difficult. Recently, I have begun a temporary full-time job driving a self loading crane truck for a company called Eshed, as well as making progress on my MA thesis – a challenge in and of itself. But, there are backlogged adventures that are waiting to be documented, so here we go. Continuing with a spree of bonafide birding trips, a few days after our highly successful visit to Matash Ayalon last November, we hit up the next hotspot, the fields and reservoirs outside of Tzora, a kibbutz adjacent to Beit Shemesh. As per the Matash Ayalon trip, I had seen numerous reports of great birding at Tzora on eBird, an excellent website where birders all around the world upload their sighting checklists.

The lush green fields of Tzora

The lush green fields of Tzora

As usual, public transportation brought us to a bus stop just alongside Nachal Soreq, along which we’d be walking to our destination. What seemed to be a relatively direct route when gauging from Google Map’s satellite imagery turned into quite a meandering, circuitous route passing construction and more.

Common kestrel hunting nearby

Common kestrel hunting nearby

However, this turned out to have its rewards as well – we enjoyed rather exciting birding moments, with sightings of marsh harriers, black-shouldered kites, sparrowhawks, a greater spotted eagle, and even an osprey which Adam spotted far off in the distance. Plus, there were droves of chiffchaff literally on every tree and shrub.

Fording the brown stream with sticks and stones

Fording the brown stream with sticks and stones

At last, having continued along our path, we found ourselves where we needed to be – yet, Nachal Soreq was most decidedly blocking our way. We had anticipated a natural crossing of sorts, but with none available, we were forced to ford the stream using just our wits and whatever resources we could find.

Freshwater leech on a rock

Freshwater leech on a rock

It was an exciting if not laborious venture, and while gathering up some large rocks, we found some freshwater leeches – my first time seeing such notorious creatures. Large tree branches were added to the mix and within twenty minutes we were rock hopping our way across the sluggish, brown and somewhat polluted water.

Adam searching for elusive bitterns

Adam searching for elusive bitterns

After a quick circumnavigation of the main reservoir’s tall, reed-lined banks, we arrived at our first vantage spot to spy on the bobbing ducks. We saw mostly mallards, shovelers and teals – all relatively common ducks in Israel – but we kept looking about here and there, hoping to find something cool.

A record shot of a hen harrier flushing a frightened pipit

A record shot of a hen harrier flushing a frightened pipit

As we reached the lone carob tree on the western bank, we saw a series of exciting things one after the next. First, a hen harrier was spotted taking long, low sweeps over a nearby field, searching for panicked songbirds for its next meal. Then, a marsh harrier began patrolling the reservoir’s edge, getting fairly close to us. Next, a few greater spotted eagles appeared overhead in the thermals, and then a bold common kestrel began hunting really close by. Raptors are exciting, sure, but what really amused me was watching a coot scoot about in the water, paddling willynilly with a prized carob pod in its bill, evading potential thieves. I still wonder if it ever made any use of that tough pod, but we’ll never know.

Beneath the carob tree on the banks of the large reservoir

Beneath the carob tree on the banks of the large reservoir

We ate some food in the comforting shade and, when we were done resting, got back up to walk the fields – a slow but eventual route back to whence we came. A few starlings were spied hiding among the spur-winged lapwings in a nearby fallow field, as well as one or two northern lapwings. Next, some water pipits were spotted bouncing around the edge of the field where it meets the path, accompanied by some ever-present crested larks. We searched for the locally rare little bunting that was seen recently, but found no bunting of any size.

My very first water pipit

My very first water pipit

Our walk took us further along the lush green fields, where undoubtedly hundreds of fine feathered friends were hiding, until we reached a smaller, nearly empty reservoir where we had some poor sightings of some sandpipers and a ruff or two. From the fields and reservoir we transitioned into a pomegranate orchard, the tree branches drooping under the weight of these large, red globules. I delighted in the scene, and noted that further up the tree rows we could see workers picking the ripe fruit, and then tractors carrying off the bountiful crop.

Laden pomegranate trees

Laden pomegranate trees

We passed through and entered a shady pecan orchard, the grassy ground littered with ripe pecans that had fallen from the trees. We took shelter under the shade of the proud trees and lounged in the lush grass, finding comfort among the nuts. As we rested we heard a familiar sound – the distinct calls of common cranes – and wondered if there were some hidden somewhere in the orchard, or perhaps flying overhead. We looked and looked but found no trace of any cranes, even as we exited the pecan trees.

Taking a break in the shade of the pecan trees (photo Adam Ota)

Taking a break in the shade of the pecan trees (photo Adam Ota)

To our left was the Teperberg Winery, Israel’s oldest winery as well as one of the largest in the country. The building complex that we saw was a recent construction, when the company relocated to Tzora. It would have been exciting to visit the winery, but alas, we were on a schedule and it’s unlikely that the winery would have been open to visitors due to the coronavirus social limitations set in place.

Nachal Soreq flowing along peacefully

Nachal Soreq flowing along peacefully

Our path took us along Nachal Soreq once again, this time forging a new route towards a different bus stop along the main road. This proved to be a good decision as almost immediately we saw a nice male sparrowhawk take flight mere metres from us, and then a grey wagtail was spotted dipping around along the flowing stream. If that wasn’t exciting enough, Adam then pointed out a straited heron that we can accidentally startled and was now perched on a nearby tree.

Straited heron in the low tree

Straited heron in the low tree

We continued along, accompanied now and again by yet another sparrowhawk, and made our way to the bus stop. It was already after 2pm and we were leaving feeling quite satisfied with our nice hike to this new place which ultimately provided some exciting nature sightings.

Matash Ayalon

In Central Israel, Israel on December 6, 2020 at 9:50 AM

November is an exciting month, especially for those interested in locally rare and unique birds, as it is the end of the migration season and the cusp of winter. With the country’s birders running about finding all sorts of goodies, I was just happy to have some good free days to explore areas I’ve never been to. As per usual, I turned to my bird-friend Adam Ota and we went on a spree of exciting trips to places that were new to us. The first took place on Nov 10th, when we visited Matash Ayalon, a water treatment centre located just beside Road 6, roughly between Ramla and the Ben Shemen Forest.

Matash Ayalon’s reservoirs

Now, most people wouldn’t think of a water treatment centre to be a choice place for a trip, let alone a birding excursion. However, the large reservoir of water attached to the centre is an ecosystem of its own, hosting a wide range of wildlife in and outside the murky waters. In the colder months of the year, it serves as a hotel for numerous duck species, as well as a nice handful of birds of prey to balance it all out.

A posing chiffchaff

Our trip started with a bus that took us to the area of Kfar Chabad, where we bumped into an old friend of mine from when I worked at the school. Another bus took us to the area of Azaria, practically on the banks of Nachal Gezer. Consulting Google Maps, we mapped out a nice and relatively direct walk to Matash Ayalon. In hindsight, it was amazing to have this added walk, as we saw so many interesting things along the way.

Adam photographing the Mediterranean mantis

First and foremost, just as we left the road and entered the grassland via a small trail, Adam spotted our very first Mediterranean mantis (Iris oratoria). With such a strong start, our anticipation was mounting and we were shortly rewarded with another fantastic sighting. A sparrowhawk was spotted coming near, and we stood stock still as it suddenly dipped low and did a low pass over the barren field before us. I wish I had the photographic equipment to capture something this incredible, but to even watch it with binoculars as it glided less than a foot over the ground, was breathtaking.

A pair of black-shouldered kites

It perched near us, allowing for a few mediocre pictures, and then flew off, leaving us to find another bird of prey. A marsh harrier made a low pass as well, disappearing before we got very good visuals but then reappearing with subtle grandeur. Kestrels and countless greenfinches, as well as some white wagtails and crested larks, entertained us as we made our way to the underpass that allowed us to safely cross Road 431. On the other side, the reservoir was almost close enough to touch.

Adam scanning the main reservoir

As we approached from the southeast, we were confronted with large, empty fields which promised to be hiding something interesting. Adam scanned with his powerful 12×40 Soviet military binoculars and found us a steppe buzzard perched on some piled-up branches. Then, another kestrel which breezed right by, and a common buzzard up in the air. It’s glorious seeing so many birds of prey, but I was also itching to check out the ducks in the water below. On the way, though, we took a pause to pick some Syrian mesquite (Prosopis farcta) seed pods, which are edible and used as a mild seasoning in some areas of the world. Adam has since used some of the pods in some chicken soup, but reported that the taste wasn’t as pronounced as he had hoped.

Ducks on the banks of the reservoir

The first ducks to be seen were some mallards and northern shovelers, with their big shovel-like bills, as well as some little grebes and coots. As we progressed down the road, more and more of the reservoir became visible until suddenly the whole southern bank revealed a ridiculous amount of ducks (and more). I was nearly speechless as I looked upon hundreds upon hundreds of ducks, which appeared to be primarily shovelers and teals, with a scattering of mallard, coots and several species of waders.

So many ducks!

While the numbers were breathtaking, it was what happened next that truly amazed us. As we were looking around, noticing a few raptors here and there, a chunky falcon was flushed out from somewhere up ahead. It was mere moments before we locked on, with both binoculars and camera, and confirmed that it was a gorgeous peregrine falcon.

Peregrine falcon (ssp. peregrinus) flying by

We were elated, as this was our second peregrine within weeks – the previous one, our first, was found in fields outside of Givat HaShlosha. What made these sightings even more exciting was that they were of different subspecies, this new one the nominate peregrinus, while the former was of the calidus suspecies, hailing from the faraway Russian tundra.

Peregrine falcon (ssp. calidus) from Givat HaShlosha

Properly stoked about this falcon, even though it flew away quite rapidly and disappeared without a trace, we continued our way down towards the main reservoir. As we neared, we started seeing more interesting waterfowl – species that we had never seen before. First up was the common pochard, an elegant tricoloured diving duck, and then there were some ferruginous ducks with their dark, mahogany-burgundy plumage and bright white eyes. If that wasn’t enough, a black-necked grebe paddled by, its bright red eye almost startling to see.

Black-necked grebe

I was particularly excited when we found a few bobbing birds in the centre of the reservoir, as they turned out to be white-headed ducks, a much sought-after species for me. Interestingly enough, I had suspected that I may have seen a few of them in a pond on my wedding day, but was never able to confirm as the sighting happened as I was driving. In retrospect, perhaps I was mistaken back in February, but this time it was for real. The distinct brown bodies with the large white and black heads, combined with the long tail spike and big silver-grey bill make for quite a striking image.

White-headed ducks bobbing in the water

Our spirits were high as we began canvassing the northern side of the reservoir, seeing some northern lapwings flap on by – another new species for us. There was truly a whirlwind of activity around us, and it was hard focusing on one thing at a time, because there was always something to see. In the distance, we spotted flocks of storks/cranes and starlings, while ever-present around us were marsh harriers, black-shouldered kites, kestrels and other birds of prey. It was chaos, but of the very best type.

Two common pochards and a ferruginous duck

As we began to grow accustomed to the excitement, we focused more on the small songbirds that were popping in and out of sight in the nearby vegetation. There were some tits, stonechats, a bluethroat and a whole lot of chiffchaffs, small warblers which had just arrived from Eurasia. We did not find the little bunting, a local rarity that master birder Yoav Perlman had reported a few days prior.

A post-feast long-legged buzzard flying past the Gezer power station

Having reached the gate to the Gezer power station, a gas-fueled behemoth of industry, we decided to turn back and explore the fields we had passed along the way. There, we saw more buzzards – including a fierce-looking long-legged buzzard – and some more kestrels. Only realising afterwards when I was looking through the 400 pictures I had taken that day, we had also seen a handful of skylarks, a field-loving species which comes to winter in the Holy Land.

Observation platform overlooking the quarry

Our wandering took us to an oddly out-of-place observation platform overlooking a semi-defunct quarry which is also home to the Ayalon Cave nature reserve. This cave was discovered accidentally by quarry workers in 2006, and, upon exploration, was found to be Israel’s second-largest limestone cave. This immense cave, with branches extending over 2.5 kilometres below ground, contains an underground lake, sealed off from the rest of the world for eons. When the researchers explored the cave they discovered eight new species which had never yet been seen in the world, although these were all invertebrate creatures, such as crustaceans and even a newly-extinct species of blind scorpions. Unfortunately for us, this cave isn’t open to the public.

Fire-roasted frankfurters

We enjoyed the view for a few more minutes, watching the buzzards move from perch to perch down below, and then started to head back. We crossed back over Nachal Ayalon, a seasonal muddy stream at this point, and made our way back towards the underpass. Adam had brought some choice beef frankfurters and we made a quick fire for a nice and easy lunch. It amuses me that this sausage burning is becoming an adventure staple of ours, but it truly does add something magical to an already exciting day. There was the quick walk back through the fields, and a bus came to snatch us up for our return journey, bringing an end to our six-kilometre long meander.

A particularly handsome long-legged buzzard

This trip, to such a bonafide birding site, was so successful that it prompted us to hit the road two days later, when we visited another exceptional site – the fields and reservoirs of Tzora, located just outside of Bet Shemesh. The report of that exciting excursion will have to wait until the next, upcoming blog entry.

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…

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.

Rishon LeZion Dunes

In Central Israel, Coastal Plain, Israel on August 18, 2019 at 8:09 AM

The long hot months of summer are usually relatively uneventful in terms of bloggable content, yet exceedingly busy in other aspects of life. Thankfully, birding is particularly dry in Israel during the summer, and there is then less distractions to get in the way of the necessities. However, when the sun sets there is a whole new kind of distraction, found just a bus or two away, and that is the lure of the dune.

Sunset over the Rishon LeZion Dunes

Last year was the first time I had explored coastal sand dunes at night, and a series of adventures were enjoyed by myself and my trip companion Adam. We had explored the majority of the Holon Dunes, and had seen a great number of fascinating wildlife species, but there is always more. This summer, just as the bird sightings tapered off, we decided to give a new dune area a try. This was none other than the Rishon LeZion dunes, located between the Superland amusement park and a large military base, which we visited for the very first time on June 10, 2019.

Old dune map

We set out from Givat Shmuel in the afternoon, hoping to scope out the area before darkness fell. Our goal was to map out an area that would be prime for finding interesting creatures of the night, with our ultimate goal being serpents. Despite finding plenty of tracks, we hadn’t seen any snakes in the Holon Dunes, and this failure was scratching at us from deep inside. We needed snakes like we needed water, and armed with our new powerful LED flashlights, we were confident that this summer we’d have results.

Scoping out the dunes before dark

Our bus dropped us off at an area that we had believed to be dunes, but is now a vast construction site. Even so, there was some excitement because we nearly immediately found a dead shrew on the pavement near the bus stop. We realised that now we had a bit of a walk to reach any dunes, so we set off and made our way away from the construction. Turning south onto a side road we soon found an area that seemed suitable to our needs. A quick venture into the bush, and we found plenty of signs of wildlife.

Gerbil tracks

Since it was still day there was a good number of birds to be seen, mostly swifts, swallows, stone curlews, bee-eaters and the ever-present mynah. But there were plenty of tracks in the loose sand, including those of tortoises and gerbils which we are always glad to see. As we advanced into the dunes we caught sight of another happy sight – three mountain gazelles prancing about. Just as the gazelles caught sight of us and began to run away, a large flock of chukar partridges also escaped our presence. It was loud and chaotic, the happy sounds of nature protecting itself.

Backlit dune flowers

We realised that this is where we wanted to explore that night, and calculating the time until nightfall, made a decision to go check out the nearby Lake Nakik. It wasn’t too far away, even on foot, and we enjoyed the walk as it afforded photographic opportunities of bee-eaters, juvenile chukars and other birds. Before long we reached the small lake, and found that it was nearly empty. Just one little egret was wading near the shore, darting his spear-like bill into the shallow waters in attempts to catch minnows.

Little egret fishing at golden hour

Sometimes less is more, and having just this one bird to focus on let me take full photographic advantage. With the golden reflection from the setting sun and the dying leaves above, there was a special beauty that just begged to be noticed. We watched the egret catch a few fish and fly away in search for a better spot. With little else to see we turned back and made our way to the dunes once again, passing the attractions of Superland.

Nothing to see here at the lake

I’m very partial to the cascading shades of colour that sunsets paint the skies with, and to couple it with some wind-swept sand dunes just brings me so much joy. We entered the sandy region, walking along some well-worn footpaths and met the gazelles once again. The sun slowly sank over the horizon and we took out our nighttime gear, eager for the real fun to begin.

Mountain gazelle against a backdrop of Rishon LeZion

The first wildlife sighting of the night was a Rivetina sp. praying mantis, which dashed about on the rippled sand as fast as he could. Just as I was finished photographing it, Adam shouted out that there was an owl passing overhead. I looked up as quick as I could and confirmed that an owl – probably either barn or long-eared – was indeed flying over us. It was a shame that I missed the photo opportunity and I looked down at the shameful mantis with a look of sadness.

Rivetina sp. praying mantis

The next exciting find was a dung beetle, but not an ordinary dung beetle. This particular one was stuck somehow, flailing his arms and legs as he tried to keep moving. When I moved him I saw something absolutely fascinating. A large antlion nymph had captured the dung beetle in its iconic conical pits, and was in the process of feeding on the injured beetle. Already exposed, I took this opportunity to take some nice photographs of the antlion nymph, just as a fly came by to investigate.

Antlion nymph getting a massage

Next, Adam exclaimed that a snake had surprised him, and had disappeared into a wide bush. I dashed over to help find the snake, but alas it was gone and we have no way of definitively identifying it. So, we carried on with a fresh energy, hoping to find another snake. Our next find was an African fattail scorpion, venomous and on the prowl for food. We see dozens of these every time we explore the Holon dunes, so we took a few pictures and continued along.

African fattail scorpion

We crested sandy dunes and rummaged in the vegetation filled valleys between then, searching for something interesting. It was the quick sounds in the bush that alerted us, and then the glimpse of something small and brown dashing for cover. We had stumbled upon a huge bunch of Tristram’s jird lairs, underground dens with numerous tunnels. To our satisfaction, several of them felt rather comfortable around us and getting semi-decent photographs wasn’t an insurmountable task.

Perfect focus on a Tristram’s jird

That basically summed up our trip, as we had to get some buses back to Givat Shmuel. But, we had determination to come back and try again, which we did exactly one month later, on July 10th. This time we knew where to go in advance, and headed straight for the prime dune area, skipping over the empty Nakik Lake.

The beauty of the dunes at dusk

We arrived at the dunes at golden hour, about an hour before nightfall. We were greeted by frisky crested larks, a white-breasted kingfisher and a male mountain gazelle – likely the same one as last time.

Elegant gecko

Our explorations once nightfall began led us directly to a bunch of Tristram’s jirds, as well as an elegant gecko. From there is continued to be relatively normal, with just a lot of jirds and a female lobed agriope spider. We had become to give up hope, wondering why we couldn’t find any snakes no matter how hard we looked. I mumbled a prayer, hoping that it’d help in finding just one serpent. At this point any snake would be a blessing.

White-spotted silky field spider

We were on our way out of the dune area, walking the long way through some trees. There was a constant rodent presence, mostly jirds but a rat or mouse here and there as well. We took as many pictures as we could, hoping to get a cool shot of these fun rodents. Then we both saw a blur of movement and a jird vaulting itself into the air, leaping up in a most ridiculous way. It was a quick blur of greyish-brown fur, but then we saw it – the reason why it leapt.

The hunting viper

Just below the low branches of a bush was a medium-sized viper, who had just struck out at the jird. We didn’t know if its deadly fangs made contact with the gymnastic rodent, but we were spellbound. Adam hurriedly told me to take pictures, and I snapped away as fast as I could. The viper was a bit far from us, a good 5-6 metres or so and I had to make sure the flash lit it up properly with the branches in the way.

Tristram’s jird hiding in the foliage

We crept closer, hoping to get a good look at the viper. The air was alive with the rush of danger and excitement, and we knew that we needed to play it smart. Unfortunately it was a little skittish and slithered off under the bush’s foliage when we got close. Still, we were spellbound and couldn’t help but exclaim over and over how exciting that was. It was still in our thoughts when we crested yet another dune, not far from the access road.

Juvenile viper

As I was scanning for snake tracks, Adam shouted out that he found another viper! I dashed over, my hiking boots sinking into the soft sand as I ran, and was elated to see a smaller viper just laying beneath a bit of vegetation. This was perfect, we were able to get close – safely! – and get all the pictures we ever wanted. Both vipers had the same colour pattern, which is the most common morph in Israel, but the size difference was quite noticeable in the field. This second viper was a juvenile and was relatively calm as we crowded it with our lights and cameras.

Face to face with a viper

We wanted to stay with it all night, but we knew that we all needed to part ways. We humans had a bus to catch and the viper was probably hoping for some peace and quiet. So we took one last picture and headed off, leaving the precious viper all alone on the dune.

One last photo of the dunes at dusk

Grabbing a bus to Tel Aviv, we made it back to Givat Shmuel in relatively good time. As I approached my place I caught notice of a microbat making passes under a strong floodlight, nabbing insects that were drawn to the light. It took a few tries but at last I got a semi-decent picture, decent enough to confirm that it was indeed a Kuhl’s pipistrelle – a common bat in Israel. This sealed quite an excellent nighttime adventure, but our next dunes trip was to be back at Holon, this time with Adam’s youngest brother in tow.

Autumn Raptor Migration: Part II

In Central Israel, Israel on October 28, 2018 at 2:04 PM

Returning to the subject of the month-long raptor migration, there was still much more for us to see. About a week or so after my trip to the Hula Valley, I was back in Givat Shmuel working on a paper when I started seeing reports of thousands of raptors flying just a few kilometres away, over the neighbouring city of Petach Tikva. I made a snap decision to go pursue the migration, and with the help of some nearby birders, decided that I’d catch what I could at Qasem Junction, a few kilometres further east.

Lesser spotted eagles

The reason there were so many eagles was due to a few days of bad weather in Turkey, which caused a delay in the migration and the birds gathered up waiting for the weather to clear. Once that happened, tens of thousands of raptors started making their way south, creating in birding terms what is known as a “Big Day”.

High-altitude migration at Qasem Junction

Travelling by bus, and exercising great patience as we slowly made our way through the urban area, we at last pulled up at the Qasem Junction stop. Leaping off the bus, I immediately looked upwards and was greeted by the most incredible sight. Hundreds of raptors were everywhere, no matter where I looked I could see birds flying. I ripped out my binoculars and camera and began to assess my situation. I knew that there was no way I could account for every bird passing overhead, so I began looking for birds that stood out, under the assumption that the rest were all lesser spotted eagles.

Griffon vulture at Qasem Junction

Sure enough, there were black kites, short-toed eagles and a marsh harrier mixed in with the large number of lesser spotted eagles. Within twenty minutes there was barely a bird in the sky – I had caught the last wave of the morning. However, sticking around just to be sure garnered me a valuable sighting. A Griffon vulture was circling far off to the east and stuck out by its large frame and square, long-fingered wings. Even a relatively large short-toed eagle was nearly invisible to the naked eye in comparison to the much larger vulture.

My first tree pipit

Excited by what I had succeeded in seeing on Big Day, I asked Adam if he wanted to go to Ben Shemen Forest the following morning in hopes that we’d see something similar. He agreed, of course, and we made our way to the forest in search for raptors. This time there was hardly any raptors, just a few lesser spotted eagles, a booted eagle and a few kites together with the aforementioned hobbies. I did, however, spot my very first tree pipit perched on a tree with a nice spotted flycatcher.

Migdal Tzedek area

Feeling slightly let down by Ben Shemen Forest, we decided to explore elsewhere a few days later. Our destination was the area of Migdal Tzedek (Mirabel) just south of the aforementioned Qasem Junction. We figured that there might be interesting birding in the early morning, as well as a possibility of raptor migration closer to noon. We were so very right.

Male common kestrel

The morning started off with some nice species: blue rock thrushes, great grey shrikes, red-back shrikes, redstarts, willow warblers and a few raptors as well including some common kestrels, a sparrowhawk, a black-shouldered kite and a marsh harrier. We explored the perimetre of the medieval castle and then headed down to examine the old lime kilns, keeping an eye out for wildlife. There were a few mountain gazelles, rock hyraxes and a fascinating spider called Argiope lobata.

Adam examining the Argiope lobata spider

Shortly before noon Adam excitedly pointed out a few eagles flying overhead, and then the waves of raptors began with such an intensity that it was hard keeping up. Dozens of lesser spotted eagles passed by quickly, with a few other raptor species mixed in, including: black kites, a greater spotted eagle, short-toed eagles, a long-legged buzzard and my very first steppe eagle.

Raptors over Migdal Tzedek

With that we effectively wrapped up the raptor migration season, feeling rather accomplished with what we managed mostly dependent on public transportation. Being that Israel is located on one of the world’s greatest migration paths provides never-ending fun for birders, which is one of the reasons I got into birding. Hopefully when all the raptors come back up north for the summer we’ll be able to get back out there and watch the incredible migration unfold before us. But until then, there’s always winter birding as well as a whole list of Bar Ilan University field trips just waiting to be documented.

Autumn Raptor Migration: Part I

In Central Israel, Galilee, Israel on October 21, 2018 at 8:18 AM

Ordinarily I prefer writing posts on individual trips, but for the past month or so there has been an ongoing migration that was the cause for many small trips, often too small to warrant a full blog post. So, in an effort to document this series of small trips that took place over the course of a month throughout the country, two summary posts will suffice.

Sunrise at the Biriya Forest lookout

As the Eurasian summer months come to an end and the weather gets a bit cooler, hundreds of thousands of raptors begin their migration southbound. A good number of these birds of prey make their way via Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and then Israel, where many stop to spend the night. There are several “roosting zones” throughout Israel, generally wooded regions such as Biriya and Ben Shemen Forests, where these birds can be seen in the mornings as they fly back up into the hot air thermals to continue their journey to Africa, where the weather is nice and warm. In the beginning of September the honey buzzards started appearing in Israel as they made their way south.

Honey buzzard

In sync with the daily birding reports on social media, I asked my friend and fellow birder Adam Ota if he’d like to take a trip up north to watch for honey buzzards at a lookout at the Biriya Forest. This launched the raptor month, and we arrived nice and early that Sunday morning to get our birding on. Being that most migrating raptors don’t start moving till after 8am, we had time to wander around the woods looking for other forms of wildlife. We found some classic seasonal birds, such as an Isabelline wheatear and a spotted flycatcher, as well as a handful of noisy chukars, a whole slew of freshly awoken black kites and my first hobby (type of falcon) of the year.

Honey buzzards in Biriya Forest

When we got back to the lookout we found another birder, Prof Shlomi Segall of HUJI, set up and watching the valley down below. Soon enough, the honey buzzards started appearing by the tens, and some even soared by relatively close to our perch at the valley’s edge. With the honey buzzards came a handful of other raptors, also migrating, including some short-toed eagles, a marsh harrier, some more black kites and our first lesser spotted eagle of the season. For a good portion of the time there was a huge, dark, low-hanging cloud that obscured the flying birds until they exited it, popping suddenly into view which made it all the more exciting. Hundreds of birds later we wrapped it up and headed to Ma’alot where we were to be spending Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year’s.

Lesser spotted eagle

Two weeks passed and the bulk of the honey buzzards were already getting settled in down in Africa. The next phase of raptor migration was just starting, and the main features were the lesser spotted eagles and the Levant sparrowhawks. Both of these species fly predominantly through Israel, so sightings are basically guaranteed during the migration season. Perhaps the best place to spot both the eagles and the sparrowhawks is at Ben Shemen Forest, in the morning when they take to the skies for another day of flying. It was still in the beginning of their season, but Adam and I figured we’d take a shot at seeing what we could while still in the centre of the country. I had plans to spend the Sukkot holiday up north with family, and we didn’t want to miss out on the fun.

Lookout area at Ben Shemen Forest

We arrived early in the morning and hiked our way from the north side of the forest to the south end, where the so-called lookout is. There were a handful of birds to be seen in the forest, and even more when we finally exited it. A couple local kestrels, a few black kites, a honey buzzard, a masked shrike and a handful of songbirds made up the bulk of the sightings, but then something unique caught Adam’s eye. Perched on a tree some ways away was a bird that looks suspiciously like a peregrine falcon (a bird that has still eluded us to this day), but upon closer inspection turned out to be a hobby. It certainly was very exciting getting to watch this beautiful bird from relatively close, and it was had to continue on to the lookout where the eagles were to be found.

Eurasian hobby

We were not going to be disappointed, for immediately when we arrived at the lookout area we saw eagles coming out out of the trees. They swirled in large circles as the soared upwards, catching the morning’s warm air. Tens of lesser spotted eagles and Levant sparrowhawks were slowly making their way past us, and we had to keep our eyes peeled to find other raptor species in the group. Short-toed eagles, booted eagles, black kites and honey buzzards joined the spectacular aerial display above us, dozens of large birds filling the skies. This was my first time seeing Levant sparrowhawks in migratory flight and it was quite interesting to see them in contrast to the much larger eagles.

Raptors in Ben Shemen Forest

Temporarily satisfied with our migration sightings, I didn’t get back out again for a few days until I was contacted by Shlomi, who we had met watching honey buzzards at Biriya Forest. I had posted online about seeing some raptor migration (honey buzzards, eagles, black kites and more) over my sister’s place in Ma’alot, and since we were both in the area we took an early morning trip to the Hula Valley a few days later.

Black kites in a Hula Valley field

We arrived at the Hula Valley at first light and began our birding by driving alongside the fields. I had never really done “car birding” so it was very illuminating to see how the birds allowed us to get much closer than anticipated, as well as coming close to us on their own accord. As we drove the fields we spotted a large number of bird species, including: yellow wagtails, wheatears, whinchats, rollers, lesser grey shrikes, black kites, black shouldered kites, white storks and a male black francolin. We then reached a particular stretch of fields which Shlomi referred to as a place to find raptors. Sure enough, there was a lesser spotted eagle hunting grasshoppers or locusts on the ground, a long-legged buzzard perched far away on a bale of hay and a few marsh harriers hunting at the edges of the fields.

Hula Valley National Park

Shlomi had a particular reason why he wanted to come to the Hula Valley, and that was to spot the rare pink-backed pelican that wandered into Israel. There have been less than a score of pink-backed pelican sightings in Israel and to have one just waiting for us to spot in was a great reason to wake up early. We entered the Hula Valley National Park and began a quick tour of the place, stopping at the usual places to see what we can see. There were a fair number of waterbirds and waders, including: mallards, pin-tailed ducks, ruffs, common snipes, a marsh sandpiper, pygmy cormorants and a pallid harrier.

Rare pink-backed pelican (left)

At last we reached the lake and started searching for the pink-backed pelican. We found him relaxing with a handful of great white pelicans, which are much larger and coloured slightly differently. There was great elation in finding the rare bird and the following birding on the way out of the park only brought up a few species we hadn’t yet seen that day, just a few thousand pelicans in the skies excited us by their sheer numbers alone.

Approximately 440 pelicans overhead

However, on the way back to Ma’alot, we passed by a landfill outside of Biriya Forest and saw hundreds of black kites – an incredible sight, nothing like anything I’ve ever seen. One day I shall have to return to re-examine this magnificence, but for now there’s the autumn migration to fixate on. To be continued…

Holon Dunes at Night

In Central Israel, Israel on September 16, 2018 at 6:11 AM

The other week I had an urge to go out and explore some of the local sand dunes before the summer ends. With the onset of the colder weather, and the accompanying rain, on the horizon, opportunity beckoned to comb the great dunes in search of insects, arachnids and reptiles. The dunes just south of Holon were recommended to me, and I reached out to my travel buddy Adam Ota to see if he wanted to come along. We equipped ourselves with cameras and flashlights (and a stick wielded by Adam) and set out for the bus as the sun began to set.

Sunset over the city

We arrived at the edge of Holon and made our way through a park and past a stadium, gearing up before we stepped out into the sandy dunes. Overgrown with small bushes and other sand-loving plants, we found many trails crisscrossing the dunes and chose those that took us further and further south away from civilisation. I had just been gifted a new camera from my parents – a Nikon P900 with an astounding 83x optical zoom – and, as such, was rather excited to test out its night-time capabilities.

Geared up

As we crested the first dune we startled a stone curlew, which flew off with calls of alarms, leaving us in silence. There was no moon to be seen, yet Mars and a few stars twinkled in the sky above us. Planes from the nearby Ben Gurion Airport passed overhead from time to time and our flashlight beamed danced illuminatingly in the relative darkness.

Elegant gecko

The first interesting find of the evening was a small elegant gecko, which ran swiftly to cover once being exposed. A brief stop at a bush some minutes later revealed a praying mantis egg case glued to a stick. Moments later we made an even more exciting discovery: a baby chameleon was asleep nearby, clutching on to a twig as he snoozed. We snuck up to it, eager to take pictures, and then noticed that there were even more baby chameleons nearby.

Adam holding a baby chameleon

We enjoyed the company of the baby chameleons, and then pushed on further to find more interesting wildlife. Personally, I had my eyes out for a snake, any snake but preferably either a viper or a sand boa, both of which dwell in the dunes. Instead we found more chameleons, giant beetles, ants, antlions, dragonflies and grasshoppers, all going through their nightly routines as we passed through their simple lives.

Tracking a snake in the sand

Another elegant gecko was spotted by Adam, hiding underneath a sheet of wood that we lifted up in search for critters. Next, we found the tracks of a medium-sized snake that had made its way up/down the sandy slope of a dune. Searching for the ends of the tracks produced no results, but it was shortly thereafter that we found another cool find. Noticing a slot-like hole in a sandy slope, we peered inside to see an African fattail scorpion waiting in ambush.

Our first African fattail scorpion

Actually a pretty dangerous scorpion, we had quite the time finding more of them in the sands, and taking their pictures proved to be most exciting. Taking note of the time, we decided to head back to Holon to catch a bus back to Givat Shmuel before it was too late. On the way, we crossed the old “Security Road”, which was paved in 1948, and visited the old water tower built in 1936 to service the local Jewish population.

Old water tower in a cloud of dust

We made it back to Givat Shmuel happy with what we succeeded in seeing, yet I still had a nagging feeling to go back to find a snake – any snake at this point. A few nights later I reached out to Adam and we set out once again in search of exciting dune lifeforms. We decided to comb a different area, starting just west of where we ended the time before, and began to search.

Holon Dunes as seen from above (Google Maps)

This time we found dozens of fattail scorpions, the tracks of many wedge-snouted skinks and those of a gerbil as well. A few more of the same sightings as last time, minus the baby chameleons, and we had seen all that there was to see. No matter how hard we tried we were unable to locate a snake, but there is still a whole lot more of the dunes to explore so hopefully next time we’ll be met with success.

African fattail scorpion ready for action

Until then we have many ripe days of birding before university starts up again, the fall migration kicking off to a lively start with thousands of shrikes, wheatears, eagles, honey buzzards, warblers and more just waiting to be seen and documented.

Ben Shemen Forest

In Central Israel, Israel on August 19, 2018 at 8:58 AM

The Friday after the Bar Ilan University field trip to Tel es-Safi and the Museum of Philistine Culture I went on a nice birding trip with my friend Adam Ota. He had reported to me that the Tel Hadid and Ben Shemen Forest area had some great birding potential so we set out that morning in high spirits. On the bus ride we already began to reap the rewards of our trip with a sighting of a black-shouldered kite and a golden jackal.

Ben Shemen Forest

Our bus dropped us off at the northern entrance of the park and we were surprised to see a huge number of cars disgorging cyclists all around us. Apparently there was a cycling event in the forest that day, and we just prayed that their presence wouldn’t interfere too much with the birding and nature-watching. Armed with our cameras and exploratory spirits we began our tour of the forest, deciding to start from the northeast corner and working our way southward.

Sharing the trails with cyclists

From the very start there was a member of the falcon family making appearances, yet refusing to allow us to get a good photograph. It was probably a common kestrel, but Adam had spotted a hobby nearby the previous week so we were keen to see one. Circling a field that yielded no interesting species, we ignored the plentiful Eurasian jays and entered the woods.

Pensive Eurasian jay (photo Adam Ota)

It wasn’t long after starting on a dirt trail and encountering many cyclists that we decided to go offroad a bit and try our fortune there. We had picked the perfect place to explore, for we had come across an ancient stone quarry, the clean cut marks being a clear indication of human activity. But there wasn’t just stones to look at, Adam had found a distinct-looking flight feather which once belonged to a barn owl.

Male chukar standing guard (photo Adam Ota)

While we were traipsing through the piney undergrowth we were brought to attention by the call of a male chukar, a species of partridge common to Israel. We stood stock-still and scoured our surroundings, trying to locate the sound. At last, after some silent stalking, Adam succeeded in finding the chukar, perched up on a boulder and providing us with a great sighting.

Owl fly detail (photographed with my phone)

Some songbirds, including the frequently-spotted Sardinian warbler, put up a good show and then we moved on. We next found a few Polyommatus genus butterflies and then Adam stopped our progress through the grass to take a photograph of an adult owl fly (Bubopsis andromache), a close relative of the antlion. I joined in on the party and the owl fly stood motionless on a stem as we took dozens of photos with the different photographic devices we carry.

Adam photographing the owl fly

From there we headed further south, towards the dry streambed of Nachal Gamzu, and encountered even more cyclists. Eventually we caught sight of a bird of prey passing by overhead, identified as a short-toed eagle – quite common in Israel during the summer months. Reaching the southwest corner of the forest we made our way towards Tel Gamzu, which was to offer more than just a nice view.

Agama lizard on the run

We approached the hill from the east and climbed it, the change of landscape scenery giving us new hope for interesting species. True enough, Adam caught an agama lizard that had run into an old military bunker and released it back into the wilderness after a few photos. The tel had started as an Bronze Age settlement and then, in modern times, served as a strategic point for IDF soldiers during Operation Danny in 1948.

Off-roading fun

Atop the tel we found a nice lookout over the coastal plains and sat down to lunch, a pair of common kestrels and a handful of bold mynas keeping us company. When we had finished our break we continued back down the hill, stopping to watch a group of people with their 4×4 SUVs engage in some off-road fun.

Old Arab cemetery on Tel Gamzu

Descending via the northern slope, we passed through the abandoned cemetery that belonged to the Arab village of Jimzu (which preserved the ancient name of Gamzu) and then found ourselves walking alongside olive trees. At one point, while we were poking about looking at huge funnel spider webs, Adam had a bit of a run-in with a sleeping jackal, which dashed off into the wilderness to never be seen again (by us, at least).

Yours truly photographing insects (photo Adam Ota)

Getting back on a proper trail, we passed a couple on horseback – this forest drawing humans on all forms of transportation – and then found something cool. On the side of the trail we found rock-hewn graves, each comprised of two burial chambers excavated on either sides of a coffin-shaped hole in the rock. I had seen these exact grave types nearby at the “Graves of the Maccabees” with Dr Eyal Baruch so I knew how to identify them – particularly the fact that these weren’t Jewish graves.

Thai pagoda

Moving on, we next encountered a fenced-off ornate pagoda built by the government of Thailand in honour of Israel and Thailand’s King Bhumibol the Great, who died two years ago. Impressed by the structure we took our leave and headed for the park’s entrance, near where we had entered several hours ago. We found a lookout tower and took a short break before heading off to the bus stop, stopping along the way to buy freshly squeezed juice to revitalise us, thus bringing an end to our nice tour of Ben Shemen Forest.

Nachal Soreq & Palmachim

In Central Israel, Israel on April 8, 2018 at 5:25 AM

Just over a month ago I went on a Friday adventure with my friends Adam and Efrat. We had four destinations planned, covering interests such as botany and archaeology. Adam and I set out from Givat Shmuel and were picked up by Efrat in Rishon L’Tzion, and together we began the trip. Our first destination was the wildflower-covered Chumra Hill located on Road 4311 just before reaching Road 4.

Tel Aviv stork’s bill (photo Efrat Guli)

We pulled onto the dirt access road and parked atop the hill, surrounded by the spring blossoms. Knowing that it was the height of iris season, we came to see the dark purple coastal irises, and we were not disappointed. Here and there we spotted clusters of dark iris flowers, looking quite distinct in the blanket of red, yellow and blue flowers. We briefly explored the graffitied ruins of what seems to be a British Mandate-era house and made a circular loop of the hill, admiring and photographing the many species of wildflowers.

Coastal iris (photo Efrat Guli)

Leaving Chumra Hill, we headed over to Nachal Soreq, just minutes away on the other side of Road 4. We first attempted to explore the northern side, but were informed by some official-looking folk that the site was undergoing an ecological renovation and is temporarily closed. Instead, we parked at the southern side and began our walk alongside the calm, murky-watered stream.

Syrian woodpecker (photo Adam Ota)

It had rained earlier in the week, so the trails were rather muddy, which provided tell-tale signs of the wildlife visiting the area in the form of footprints. Even the occasional frog provided entertainment, jumping into the trail puddles as we approached.

Walking the sandy trails (photo Efrat Guli)

We continued along the stream until the rushes blocked our view of the water and the trail morphed into a dry, sandy path set among plant-covered dunes. It was quite a drastic change of scenery but we stuck with it knowing that there are some interesting ruins to see further along the way. There wasn’t much nature to see, other than some stonechats and other regular birds for the time and place, but the location was interesting enough.

Old well (photo Adam Ota)

Before long we reached the first ruins, which appear to be Ottoman-era antilia wells, long since filled in with sand. These wells would have served to provide water for pilgrims to the nearby holy site, the tomb of Nabi Rubin. Even though I had researched the area a wee bit in advance and knew that there was this tomb, it wasn’t until I was staring at the building and the painted Hebrew name “Reuven ben Yaakov,” that I realised this was meant to be the grave of Reuben, the eldest of the Children of Israel.

Reverse side of the grave

We entered the rectangular complex from the northeast corner, and explored the interior. Having the appearance of a traditional Muslim maqam (shrine), with the courtyard, large trees, arched structures and mihrab (prayer niche), it makes sense that this complex was a Muslim holy site for many hundreds of years. In fact, it was only in 1991 that the minoret was torn down, and the site became a kever (grave) of Jewish importance. Looking for a nice place to eat lunch, we climbed up into the large tree that adorns the centre of the courtyard and pulled out our food.

Courtyard of the complex

Sated, we put our backpacks back on and left the Nabi Rubin complex, heading back toward the car, but taking a slightly different route through the dunes. This was a wise decision because it led to us seeing a very cool dung beetle racing over the sand ripples, a business of little flies resting on its back waiting for some dung to be found.

Dung beetle with hitchhikers

That excitement carried us over to the next destination, just a few minutes drive: the famous beach area of Palmachim.

Palmachim Beach (photo Efrat Guli)

We parked and got out to explore, starting with some ancient quarries (which sound more exciting than they were in person) and the incubation cage for sea turtle eggs. To add a touch of macabre to the story, we found a semi-decomposed sea turtle far up on the beach, a sad sight to say the least. Next we walked along the surf, heading southbound and pulling interesting shells and potsherds out from underfoot.

Part of a mosaic floor

Before long we reached the beginnings of the ruins of Yavne Yam, an ancient port city which was abandoned during the Crusader period some 900 years ago. Wall portions and even part of a mosaic floor are exposed to the elements and visitors. Signs warning people to stay away from the beach’s cliff edge due to the danger of falling stones, many of which belong to the ancient structures.

Fortress of Yavne Yam

We didn’t just enjoy the archaeological aspects; there were a few jellyfish to be admired as well as some great cormorants and some gulls, including lesser black-backed gulls and a Heuglin’s gull. Having fun in the sun, we eventually pulled ourselves away from the waves and headed back to the car to our very last destination, the fortress ruins of Yavne Yam, inaccessible from the beach due to its location on the craggy promontory. With only a little bit of time to spare before we had to get going (since Shabbat was approaching) we parked outside the ruins and took a quick tour of the site.

View from the ruins

Crossing into the ruins of the Early Arab fortress, built over a thousand years ago, we encountered the bathhouse, built in Roman style with the double floors and heat piping. The other ruins were unmarked, though interesting nonetheless, and the view afforded from the end of the promontory was rather enjoyable as well. Although we could have spent longer, time was running out and we called it a day, pleased with the fact that we managed to visit all four places on our list and already looking forward to exploring even more in the future.