Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Central Israel’ Category

Shoham Park

In Central Israel, Israel on February 6, 2022 at 9:43 AM

Taking a hiatus from a string of BIU field trips, the day after my trip to Doq and the Good Samaritan Museum I went on a nice little adventure with Adam Ota to the relatively nearby Shoham Park. It was the very beginning of January and a fair amount of rain had fallen as of late, resulting in renewed growth throughout the country. The seam between the coastal plains and the Shomron was no different, and we found ourselves getting off our bus at Nablat Junction with intentions to explore as far north as we had time for.

Looking down at the field beside Nachal Beit Arif (photo Adam Ota)

Looking down at the field beside Nachal Beit Arif (photo Adam Ota)

Once we had successfully navigated the busy roads and entered the so-called natural land just north of Nachal Beit Arif, we were amazed at how lush and green everything was. There was a cool crispness in the air as we slowly made our way up the cactus-dotted hill, having passed through a defunct military shooting range where we chanced upon our first of many wild asparagus shoots of the day.

In pursuit of wild asparagus shoots

In pursuit of wild asparagus shoots

The vibrant green around us was complemented by dying leaves in multiple shades of orange, yellow and lavender blossoms, and of course the rich brown mud. We followed the marked trail up the hill, merging onto the Israel National Trail and seeing a nice amount of chaffinches and meadow pipits along with the flora. Adam paused here and there to look for stick insects, something that has eluded him for a great number of years here.

Photographing the lush nature (photo Adam Ota)

Photographing the lush nature (photo Adam Ota)

We spotted some tiny caves among the hewn bedrock, but nothing of any particular interest, except for copious amounts of wild asparagus. It wasn’t until we reached the top of the hill that we saw something of note. Carved into the bedroom were a series of cup marks and larger indentations. According to the sign there, this was part of a cultic site where a small idol was placed and then tiny sacrifices were offered in these tiny hewn cups. The larger depressions served as mortars for grinding the sacrifice prior to offering. There also seemed to be a small olive oil press similarly hewn into the bedrock, perhaps related to the cultic affairs.

Cultic cupmarks from a time long past

Cultic cupmarks from a time long past

Heading down the northern slope, we left the rocky garrigue habitat and entered a small pine tree forest. In a clearing, we found a much larger agricultural installation – this time a winepress, also hewn into the grey bedrock. It was full of water after the rains, and no matter how much Adam peered into the murky depths, he couldn’t find any interesting lifeforms.

Peering into the watery winepress

Peering into the watery winepress

Right beyond the winepress was the remains of an ancient lime kiln, hardly recognisable in its current state of affairs. But it was the next site in the clearing that really excited me – the ornate ruins of the Church of St Bacchus with its stunning mosaic floor. Built sometime in the 400s CE, during the Byzantine period, the church was only discovered in 1986, and later excavated in 1995. It was then that the mosaic floor, with an inscription dedicating it to St Bacchus (who was quite popular during that era), was revealed and restored.

The Church of St Bacchus

The Church of St Bacchus

Built outside of the settlement confines, this is what is known as a field church – see an artistic reconstruction HERE. During the course of the excavations, a small broken marble medallion of goddess Tyche/Fortuna was found. According to the inscription encircling the figure, the medallion dates to the year 582-3 CE, during the reign of Byzantine emperors Tiberius II Constantine or Maurice.

Remains of the olive oil press beside the field church

Remains of the olive oil press beside the field church

Adjacent to the church is a large olive oil press, with some of its sections also featuring a modest mosaic floor. Just beyond the press is a large rock-cut pool which was used to store water, after having served as an on-site quarry for the construction projects there. All of these ruins, predominantly harkening back to the Byzantine period, are all affiliated with the nearby Horvat Tinshemet (or Khirbet Sheikh ‘Ali Malikina) which has been identified as Betomelgezis, a site that appears on the famous Madaba Map.

What appears to be Horvat Tinshemet

What appears to be part of Horvat Tinshemet

As we progressed to the vicinity of Horvat Tinshemet, we realised that this site – having never been excavated before – did not have much to look at, at surface value, of course. We found a series of low stone walls and what looks like a cairn of sorts, but nothing distinctly archaeological other than a few surface potsherds. Regardless, we enjoyed poking about in the company of some warblers and chaffinches, and a handful of flustered chukars.

Avoiding the forbidden zone

Avoiding the forbidden zone

From there our next destination was the Bareket vernal pool, which was located on the far side of the Shoham industrial park that was sprawled out before us. Instead of simply walking down the convenient paved road, we decided to go the route less traveled and climbed up a steep hill to circumnavigate from the eastern side. It was a steep walk and required a short break at the peak, which allowed us to appreciate the views that we had of both the ongoing construction and Road 6 that was behind us.

Looking back from whence we came

Looking back from whence we came

Heading back down the northern slope, we found an usual little orchard and then an insurmountable construction site which made us take the paved road afterall. Looping around, we found the Bareket vernal pool looking rather neglected, yet brimming with water and tiny lifeforms. Adam immediately squatted at the water’s edge, trying to find some interesting waterbugs – and, of course, triops.

The Bareket vernal pool

The Bareket vernal pool

The Bareket vernal pool is the result of ancient quarrying, similar to what we had seen throughout the day, forming a nice body of water quite like a swimming pool with the hewn steps. Despite the searches, it was simply too early in the rainy season to find anything too interesting and we were consigned to just enjoying the deep pool for what it was.

Using the hewn steps to get closer to the water

Using the hewn steps to get closer to the water

There are a number of interesting sites located just north of the vernal pool, but it was getting a wee bit late and we were tired from the long hike, so we called it a day. We had successfully explored most of what Shoham Park has to offer, and each of us had a bountiful wild asparagus harvest – perhaps the best we’d ever had. The rest of the attractions will simply wait for another day, whenever that may be.

Agamon Rishon LeZion

In Central Israel, Israel on December 12, 2021 at 8:07 AM

In mid-October, after a flurry of birding trips to the field of Givat HaShlosha and Nachal Rabah, I decided to change the pace a bit and to explore some rich wetlands not too far away from where I live. Incidentally, there were a few choice birds that I had previously seen reported on eBird, and since I was keen to snatch up a few potential “lifers”, I rose in the predawn hours and arrived at my destination – the artificial lake just outside of Rishon LeZion – not long after sunrise.

Early morning at Agamon Rishon LeZion

Early morning at Agamon Rishon LeZion

I had been to a nearby Lake Nakik in the summer of 2019, when Adam and I explored the neighbouring dunes for the first time (see HERE), but somehow the Agamon had slipped through our fingers. My expedition began at the eastern banks where I used my binoculars to scan the lengths of the shorelines around me, finding an expected assortment of egrets, herons and shorebirds. Kingfishers and barn swallows zipped back and forth over the placid lake, completing the serene scene with their controlled flights.

Grainy photo of the African swamphen (right)

Grainy photo of the African swamphen (right)

My first exciting find came when I scanned the reeds a bit more carefully, and then noticed a bird that was bigger and more colourful than a common moorhen – it was an African swamphen! This was my first “lifer” of the day, and in retrospect I could confirm that there was a second one tucked back a bit further, and thus more obscured by the thick reeds. When it got a little brighter out, I was able to discern more species of waders in the muddy shallow section to the south, as well as a reed warbler that appeared in the reeds beside me.

Picturesque views from the deck

Picturesque views from the deck

Eager to see more of the small lake, and from different angles, I continued on my semi-circuit, walking past the FlyBox building where an intriguing, if pricey, weightless flying experience can be had. The trail took me through a small overgrown area and I emerged at the northern side of the lake, where the observation decks have been installed. The sun was still coming up through the dense cloud cover as I took in my new view, seeing more herons and egrets fishing in the shallows.

Grainy photo of the whiskered tern in flight

Grainy photo of the whiskered tern in flight

Another “lifer” appeared in the form of a whiskered tern – a graceful white acrobat skimming over the water’s surface in search of small fish to catch. The tranquility of the lake scene with the muted early morning colours filled me with inner peace, and I sat there basking in the moment. When I had moved on down to the deck, sitting in the western lookout, large raindrops started falling out of the sky. I sheltered my camera and enjoyed the light shower, feeling refreshed from my first rains of the season.

One of the more unusual bird sightings I've ever had

One of the more unusual bird sightings I’ve ever had

The rains brought out the birds, interestingly enough, and I watched a particularly plucky sedge warbler bounce about in search of food. A bluethroat and some white wagtails joined in on the fun, racing about in between the raindrops. When the rain ended I went back to the first lookout in hopes of finding a little bittern, which was actually waiting for me at the base of the structure – our encounter catching both of us off guard. Reflexes kicked in, I tried snapping some pictures while it tried escaping through the thick reeds. The sun eventually broke through the clouds and I decided it was time to head to work, but not without telling others of my relaxing, yet exciting, visit.

Revisiting the lake (photo Adam Ota)

Revisiting the lake (photo Adam Ota)

Sure enough, the following week I revisited the lake, but this time with company: Bracha, Adam and his girlfriend Vered. We retraced the steps that I had taken days before, seeing largely the same selection of birdy friends, minus the elusive swamphen. This time we popped into the large mall complex at the northern side of the lake to grab an iced coffee, and had a picnic as well.

Picnic at the lakeside (photo Adam Ota)

Picnic at the lakeside (photo Adam Ota)

We feasted on cheesy pastas and rich French toast that Adam cooked on his portable burner – more exciting culinarily than my previous tour. Such a delightful place to visit, and relatively easy to get to with public transportation, that I foresee more visits in the future.

Museum of Natural History

In Central Israel, Israel, Tel Aviv on September 1, 2021 at 8:20 AM

In the beginning of July, shortly after the semester ended, Bracha and I went on a short trip to Tel Aviv to visit the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History. This museum was opened just a few short years ago, and houses the country’s largest collection of flora and fauna, as well as an impressive collection of archaeological remains as part of a human history section. Ever since the iconic structure was built – shaped symbolically like Noah’s ark – I had been looking forward to a visit. Now, accompanied by Bracha, I was able to finally see the long-awaited natural treasures within the giant boat building.

The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv

The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv

The museum is divided into some nine permanent exhibitions, of which two were my favourites – which I shall make note of in due time. Immediately upon entrance, our eyes delighted with the sight of scores of soaring birds, representing the great bird migration which takes place here in Israel biannually – in the spring and autumn seasons. These taxidermy birds dangled overhead, in a long curved line, ranked in order of size.

Picking out my favourite raptor

Picking out my favourite raptor

I must confess, it was a tad challenging identifying some of the birds as they were far closer than I’d even see them in the wild – and occasionally, taxidermists inadvertently manipulate the appearance of the model, distorting the natural look. That being said, it was a charming game trying to distinguish between the various eagles, buzzards and honey buzzards.

Habitat dioramas

Habitat dioramas

Another exhibition which was visible in the entrance hall was named “Israel’s Landscapes”, and consisted of a series of dioramas of different Israeli ecosystems. This exhibit was one of my two favourites, and I marveled at examining each and every preserved mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and bug that found themselves representing their brethren out there in the wild. Having explored a great deal of different ecosystems in Israel, it was exciting to see which animals were represented – and like the exhibit before, we played the identification game. Bracha was able to show off her knowledge as she named a good number of animals and birds that she has grown acquainted with in recent years.

Desert habitat diorama

Desert habitat diorama

We progressed to the next floor, where we found the large “Form and Function” exhibit, showcasing the different skeletal forms of various animals. As one might suspect, each animal has a skeletal structure that allows it to perform its best in its given environment, while meeting its specific needs. One taxidermy model which really entertained us was a stuffed caracal leaping up, as they do, to catch a fleeing black francolin. Other exciting specimens included a dolphin skeleton, a stuffed albatross, and a stuffed bee-eater, one of Bracha’s favourite birds – and rightly so.

The caracal's eternal leap

The caracal’s eternal leap

The next room was a step forward in modernity, with a state-of-the-art model of Israel with designated interactive sensor pads that begged to be pressed. Giving in to our curiosity, we moved around the giant table, activating the sensors to receive artistically-delivered information. With each palm-print, a different section of the country – representing different ecosystems – transitioned from the pristine nature to what could be if the human footprint is unchecked.

Interactive map of Israel

Interactive map of Israel

We watched as the area of Nachal Taninim, once a lush wetlands populated by Nile crocodiles, slowly morphed into the place that it is today. Likewise, the whole Tel Aviv region, the deserts, forests and seas, each adversely affected by the presence of man.

A glimpse into the past

A glimpse into the past

After that reflective moment, we gazed deep into the glassy eyes of two species that have since gone extinct in Israel – the lion, and the Syrian brown bear. Interestingly enough, it was during the Crusader period – the time period of my academic pursuits – that the lion was locally hunted into extinction. Perched behind the stuffed bear were two avian species with disapproval stamped on their faces – the bearded vulture (or lammergeier) and the brown fish owl. The owl was reported centuries ago in Nachal Kziv and in other water sources in the north, while the vulture has been reduced from a breeding local to a rare visitor.

Syrian brown bear

Syrian brown bear

From there we moved on towards a series of multimedia exhibitions about our human footprint on the nature around us, and then on to a more wholesome display. This featured an acacia tree, native of the arid desert, and an array of animals that live in and around this low tree. As to be expected, there were a nice handful of mammals and birds – such as the Arabian wolf, gazelle, Arabian babbler, bee-eater and more. I really appreciated seeing the impressive lappet-faced vulture represented in the diorama, especially since one was found in the desert back in April, perched atop what could very well be an acacia tree (see photos HERE).

Life around the acacia tree

Life around the acacia tree

Moving along, the next bit was about nature’s scavengers which included the vulture species in Israel – the Griffon, Egyptian and occasional black, or cinereous vultures – as well as striped hyenas and ravens. There’s something so exciting about scavengers, rank odours aside, so I really appreciated being able to see stuffed versions from such a close, and intimate distance. One day it would be a real treat to be able to visit the desert feeding station near Sde Boker where the National Parks Authority provides safe carrion for these magnificent creatures (see some astounding footage HERE).

Striped hyena and Egyptian vulture

Striped hyena and Egyptian vulture

The next exhibition was another of my favourites, titled “Treasures of the Collections”, including the historical taxidermy collection of zoologist Ernst Johann Schmitz who moved to the Holy Land in 1908. This assortment of stuffed animals, presented in a well-appointed, if ludicrously overfilled, red-painted study amazed me to no end. Thankfully, there was a small interactive screen where more in-depth information could be accessed about specific specimens. The leopard on display was collected in 1910 in Beit Horon, not far from where Bracha’s folks live, and was, in fact, the last wild leopard to be hunted in the mountains of the Jerusalem area.

The Ernst Johann Schmitz collection

The Ernst Johann Schmitz collection

While the Schmitz collection did keep me occupied for a while, there were also other fine taxidermised specimens to be examined. We walked around the open displays, eyeing a wide range of animals from deer and large cats all the way to beetles and butterflies. It would take an exceptionally long time to retell all of the goodness that is this fascinating exhibit, so just a few select bits – those that caught my eye – shall be represented here. Firstly, I was enthralled by the simple, yet relatable, display of chukar partridges, portraying the subtle plumage differences between chukars found in the desert areas, to those found in the more wooded Mediterranean areas.

Fossilised ostrich egg

Fossilised ostrich egg

Next, an approximately 5,000 year old ostrich egg, fossilised over time and found in archaeological excavations at Tel Baruch. Lastly, a spotlight on the endemic Yarkon bream, a species of freshwater fish that nearly went extinct. It was the researchers involved in this museum which ran the breeding and reintroduction program to repopulate the Yarkon River and other streams in the area. I remember reading about the fish when I visited the Yarkon National Park, so here was an exciting window into the background of this fishy success story.

Getting some fresh air on the museum balcony

Getting some fresh air on the museum balcony

It was at the end of this exhibition that we took the chance to step out onto the balcony, a nice patio that overlooks Tel Aviv and, in the foreground, its Zoological Research Institute. We relaxed in the shade of the ark’s upper floors and happened to see a nice sprinkling of birds fly past, including ibises, egrets and a lone sparrowhawk. Back inside, we took the elevator up to the fourth floor where we embarked on a tour of what makes us human. It began with an eye-pleasing depiction of human diversity, a photographic project titled “Humanæ” by artist Angelica Dass. In this clever depiction of humanity, she matched the solid background of each snapshot with the precise colour palette shade of the subject’s skin.

''Humanæ'' by artist Angelica Dass

”Humanæ” by artist Angelica Dass

The transition of humanity and the era of early tools were subjects familiar to me from several classes on prehistory and flint tools. I was pleased to see that the museum portrayed the knapped stone hand tools in such an artistic way, which helped me enjoy what I’d ordinarily say is the least interesting time period of archaeology. Bracha then found a fun game to play where one spins a wooden dowel faster and faster in order to create a successful fire on the screen. This mimicry of fire-starting the old-fashioned way was fun, and a whole lot easier than doing it in real life.

Tools of the early humans

Tools of the early humans

Another game featured symbolism and what we, as the visitor-player, interprets each to be (i.e. the dove as a symbol of peace). Yet another version of this game, focusing on human facial expressions, was also fun and we scored similarly (545 vs 518). Moving along, we marveled at ancient chickpeas and other fun grains, before examining some interesting human bones that were displayed to show how anthropologic researchers learn more about individuals and societies of the past.

2,000 year old chickpeas from the City of David

2,000 year old chickpeas from the City of David

Finished with the museum, we headed downstairs and had a brief peek at the gift shop before continuing outside for some fresh air and chuckles at the animal-themed caricature exhibition outside. There we found witty cartoons of the animal world, some of which really tickled our fancy. It was with a smile that we bid farewell to the mighty ark and boarded a bus for central Tel Aviv.

Sunset at the beach

Sunset at the beach

We had a nice dinner at La Lasagna, a popular lasagna restaurant on Dizengoff street, before heading over to the beach to watch the sunset. The sinking sun painted the sky in the most vibrant shades of red before plunging our world into relative darkness. In true Anthropocene form, it was the intense wattage of Tel Aviv – the concurrent human footprint in the otherwise stark nychthemeron pattern – that illuminated our surroundings and made us extra mindful of our presence on this planet that we call home.

Babylonian Jewry Museum

In Central Israel, Israel on July 1, 2021 at 12:10 PM

Just over a month ago, towards the end of May, I took a bus over to nearby Or Yehuda to meet up with my wife, Bracha. A soon-to-be graduate of social work, Bracha was doing her third year of fieldwork at the Welfare Centre of Or Yehuda, where she tended to the social needs of the city’s citizens. Having heard about her place of work throughout the academic year, it was finally time to visit – and to check out some of Or Yehuda’s star attractions together.

The Babylonian Heritage Centre

Bracha met me at the bus stop across from our first destination of the day, the titular Babylonian Jewry Museum. An impressive building, the Babylonian Heritage Centre commands the respect deservant of such an interesting topic and we were excited to see what was in store for us. Inside, we secured tickets and began our tour of the two-storied museum. But first, a few anecdotes which proved to make our experience all the more poignant. Or Yehuda began as a grouping of immigrant and refugee absorption camps, where mass immigration from countries such as Libya, Turkey and Iraq took place in the 1940-50s. As such, Bracha’s clients belonged largely to that very same demographic. Additionally, in the course of this academic year’s curriculum, she  took a class on the Ben Ish Hai, the famous rabbi of Baghdad from the turn of the last century. Now, the pieces can all fit together nicely.

Model of a Babylonian yeshiva during the 7th-13th centuries

The museum’s layout began us on a chronological tour of the Babylonian community, with an exhibition on the first Jews who were exiled by Nebuchadnezzar. A beautifully animated video gave us a historically-based perspective of exiled Jews who had grown accustomed to life in Babylon, and were offered the idea of returning to the Holy Land – as was the case starting in 538 BCE. Alongside this video were artefacts and replicas to help illustrate life so long ago.

Antique Torah scroll cases

The exhibition then merged into more modern times, with artefacts and information about the Babylonian Jewish community in the 18th-20th centuries, which had spread to the nearby lands such as India and Singapore. The highlights were a handful of ornate Torah scroll boxes, as well as a transplanted aron (or ark, where the scrolls are kept in a synagogue). Naturally, life extended beyond the religious and the exhibition continued into the daily life of the community – full of interesting facts and artefacts alike.

A glimpse down the alley

The next bit was my favourite, a fine example of how to properly present historical still life. The museum painstakingly recreated an old Baghdad alley, complete with windows peering into the various stores and workshops that would have existed then. We walked down the dim alley, admiring the mannequin tailor and jeweler as they toiled away timelessly in their neat shops. I particularly enjoyed the intricate detail given to the setting beyond the exhibited shops and storefronts, such as the beautiful wooden dormers which poked ever so elegantly over the quiet street.

The jeweler hard at work

The end of the quaint alley led us into a recreated synagogue, with the grand wood teva (or, central platform from which the services were led) serving as a worthy centerpiece. This teva originally belonged in the Great Synagogue of Baghdad, where the famed and aforementioned Ben Ish Hai gave his cherished sermons. Encircling the teva were windows into the circle of Jewish life, and likewise the various annual holidays. We particularly enjoyed looking at the ethnic foods that were served at the different social events that took place in the synagogue.

The teva of the Great Synagogue

From there the subsequent exhibitions focused on the more modern, from the tragic Farhud pogroms in 1941, which served as a catalyst to the brave efforts that the Jewish community made to reach the Holy Land after the founding of the State of Israel. It was humbling to read about the many Jews who lost their lives both within Iraq and on their way to Jerusalem, so much senseless loss.

Fun Iraqi foods

Our tour continued on with a display of superstitious talismans, a tradition that somehow still clings to some community members to this very day. Next, we went upstairs and saw relics of the time when Or Yehuda consisted of immigrant and refugee absorption camps. Representations of that hard life filled a corner of the large room, including a temporary tent home for fresh immigrants, and a small shop of canned and dry goods to feed the newcomers. From there we took a jump back in time with the exhibition of traditional Iraqi homes, starting with a comfy sitting room overlooking the bustling Or Yehuda street outside. Next, a more upscale sitting room – the most ornate room in a traditional home, where guests would be entertained.

Incantation bowl against demons from Mesopotamia in the 5th-8th centuries

The final exhibits concerned marriage and the glamorous outfits that the bride and groom wore to their wedding ceremonies. We laughed as we imagined ourselves wearing such exciting brocade robes, being cheered on by an imaginary crowd of proud Iraqi Jews. A chronologically-arranged display of ketubot (traditional Jewish marriage contract), each of which was handwritten on a beautiful sheet of what appeared to be parchment. A quick look at the temporary photographic exhibit titled “Family and its Many Faces” and we finished our grand tour of the excellent museum. When we had left, having thanked the staff for our lovely visit, we explored the town a bit more. It was certainly fun to see where Bracha spent so many of her weekdays, getting a glimpse into the life that I had heard so much about throughout the year.

Dinner at Samarkand

Feeling a bit hungry, it was time for dinner and so we headed for a Libyan restaurant which we had pre-designated months prior. To our dismay, the restaurant was closed for the day, so we settled for an ethnic restaurant or another kind: Samarkand, a server of Uzbek and Bucharian food. It was enjoyable going out for dinner, but we both realised pretty quickly that this Central Asian cuisine wasn’t quite what we were looking for. Regardless, it was a nice ending to an exciting visit to the charming Or Yehuda. Perhaps another visit is in order…

Hulda Reservoir

In Central Israel, Israel on May 5, 2021 at 11:22 AM

Returning to the trio of birding hotspots that the frequently-featured Adam and I visited over the wet season, this post focuses on our trip to the Hulda Reservoir this past December. With such astounding success at both Matash Ayalon and Tzora, it didn’t take much to inspire us to plan an adventure – but the frequent tantalising reports we had seen on eBird sure helped. Our visit to the Hulda reservoir began on a Thursday morning, with public transportation taking us there in the tedious way that it does, and depositing us at the proper bus stop just after 8am.

Hulda reservoir

Hulda reservoir

Disembarking across the road from Kibbutz Hulda, founded 1930, we checked our position with Google Maps and started walking down a long dirt road bearing southwest to our targeted reservoir. Presently, we were aware of the birds that both graced the power lines and pylons, as well as those in the fields, often being more heard than seen. Binocular-scanning repeatedly, we confirmed the usual species – and a trio of military helicopters – and kept walking, heading for the reservoir that was dead set ahead.

Green fields outside Hulda

Green fields outside Hulda

As we neared the sun-kissed waters, a flock of northern lapwings took flight – our first “interesting” species of the day. An even greater flock of great cormorants joined the aerial presentations and we found ourselves close enough to examine the reservoir. Whereas many, or even most, reservoirs have distinct man made appearances, this looked like a bonafide small lake, filled with all sorts of obstructing vegetation.

A siege of herons guarding the centre of the reservoir

A siege of herons guarding the centre of the reservoir

A large siege of great white herons seized our attention first, but then the scatterings of ducks caused us to shift focus. After our smashing success with new-to-us duck (and grebe) species, we were hoping to nab some more new ones at this promising hotspot. Sure enough, within minutes we found a few great crested grebes paddling near some more familiar shovelers and mallards.

Record shot of our first great crested grebe

Record shot of our first great crested grebe

This was the cause for some hushed excitement, only to be trumped by the discovery of some very elegant looking tufted ducks – another new species. While the sightings were exciting, unfortunately due the size of the reservoir, coupled with the unfortunate solar alignment of our lookout, it was quite difficult to take pictures. The vast majority of the duck and waterfowl photos served as our best option at identifying the paddling pond-loving birds.

Flock of northern lapwings flying by once again

Flock of northern lapwings flying by once again

A few marsh harriers cruised the reedy waters, looking for a weak and defenceless waterfowl to feed on, but nothing more exciting than that. We took leave of our impromptu lookout and attempted to circumnavigate the reservoir by means of the agricultural trails that crisscrossed the fields. The northern lapwings from before took flight once again as we startled them in one of the fields, and we passed some kestrels and a single black-shouldered kite who largely ignored us. There were reports of a merlin having been spotted on several occasions the days leading up to our visit, so our eyes were as peeled as could be, hoping that we too would spot the tiny falcon.

Sun-kissed cauliflower plants

Sun-kissed cauliflower plants

Our route took us along a great cauliflower field, which bordered the reservoir from the south, and a jackal made a surprise appearance beside the thick undergrowth beside the cruciferous field. Realising that there was no better vantage point thus far, we resigned to attempting a full loop but another surprise was in store. As we worked our way up the western side of the complex, we suddenly spotted a dark bird of prey on the grassy banks of the reservoir. A quick photo or two and there it was, a greater spotted eagle in all of its glory. Mere minutes later this subadult eagle thought it wise to take its glory elsewhere and flapped off posthaste, leaving us in the company of the everpresent marsh harriers.

Greater spotted eagle making a quick getaway

Greater spotted eagle making a quick getaway

While the merlin continued to elude us, more exciting finds were on the horizon. We scanned the waterfowl once again, this time from a greater distance but with better lighting due to our altered orientation. There were no new ducks, but the water looked a truly special shade of blue as it reflected the heavens. We tore ourselves away from the scenic view and continued the full loop that we had almost needlessly done. The trail proved to be quite popular with field-loving birds, with white wagtails, water pipits and crested larks walking up and down the dirt road, much to our enjoyment.

There's a twinkle in his eyes

There’s a twinkle in his eyes

It was then that a small bird flitted into view and perched on a dead thistle at the upcoming fork. Its body was well shaded against the bright background – not a particularly helpful thing – yet I managed to squeeze off five distant record shots which then allowed me to announce something special. We had been looking for ages, and had plenty of close calls with lookalikes, but at last we had actually found a European serin. We were overjoyed, and the excitement of the new waterfowl became eclipsed in our minds. It’s one thing to “chance upon” a new species, but it’s exponentially more rewarding to have looked and looked before finding a target species after so long a wait.

Record shot of the blessed European serin

Record shot of the blessed European serin

With our loop complete and our stomachs rumbling we bid farewell to the wild, overgrown reservoir and began our walk back towards the main road. Having brought some choice sausages from Jerusalem in preparation for this moment, we found a good, safe spot to make a small campfire and gathered up some dead branches. While branch-gathering, Adam found some wild asparagus growing, and we realised that our trip was going to continue a little longer than anticipated.

A final parting look at Hulda's wild reservoir

A final parting look at Hulda’s wild reservoir

Our sausages cooked beautifully over the gentle wood fire and when we had properly doused the coals, we packed up and began the search for asparagus shoots. There was a sizable tract of wooded land dividing the road and the fields and we canvassed it expertly, checking under every tree for asparagus plants. We plucked fresh shoots right and left, gleaning our joyous harvest from this bountiful copse. Needless to say, it was a pleasant surprise to bring home after a day’s outing, and cooked up deliciously with diced garlic and butter.

Vernal Pools of the Mercaz

In Central Israel, Israel, Tel Aviv on April 29, 2021 at 10:41 AM

Now that summer’s heating up the horizon, it’s time to cover this past winter’s visits to the numerous vernal pools we have in our general area of the Mercaz, the centre of the country. Generally speaking, blog posts capture the events of a single-day adventure, but sometimes there’s simply not enough to write about per adventure, and thus one post covers a number of mini adventures. This post will be dedicated to covering five vernal pool visits which spanned the few months between the middle of November and the beginning of February, and generally featured just Adam Ota and I – although some trips included others, namely Bracha and our friends Nick and Talia.

Levinsky College's vernal pool

Levinsky College’s vernal pool

Vernal pools are seasonal pools of water which occur in the wet season and serve as a temporary habitat for mostly amphibians and insects of sorts. However, come summer and the pools dry up completely, leaving no trace of the lush wetlands that existed during the winter months prior. Being nature fiends, Adam and I have a list of interesting creatures to find – namely triops and newts, and these can be found almost exclusively in and around vernal pools. So, this winter we redoubled our efforts and visited vernal pools around the Mercaz to maximise the chances of finding such elusive creatures.

All about vernal pools

All about vernal pools

Our first vernal pool was visited in a two-prong trip to the North Tel Aviv coast, an area that we have explored countless times. I had seen many exciting eBird reports in the previous week or so and convinced Adam to come along for a little adventure, in hopes that we’d find some appealing birdlife. Our walk along the edge of the wild duneland led us to the Levinsky College vernal pool, which was vibrant with life. Quite extraordinarily, all of our birding expectations were met – with sightings of two choice birds. First was the penduline tit, which we had first and only ever seen at the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat (IBRCE), and then was a moustached warbler – our very first.

Penduline tit in the reeds

Penduline tit in the reeds

A greater short-toed lark flying over the dunes gave us great joy, and the discovery of a dead robin at the vernal pool’s edge gave us great sadness. We sat beside the pool, in the shade of some bamboo-like reeds, and watched as a stranger prowled the water’s edge in tall rubber boots, armed with a net and a Canon 5Ds camera. This helped inspire us to renew our attempts at finding aquatic treasures in the many other vernal pools around us. We packed up our bags and set out for what we had hoped to be another vernal pool, located just north of the neighbourhood of Afeka, in North Tel Aviv.

Muddy path along Nachal Achiya

Muddy path along Nachal Achiya

Our journey took us across Road 2, also known as the Coastal Road, and down a long dusty road which ended with giant car parks. We activated GPS location and targeted a bumpy dirt path which appeared to be taking us in the right direction. It was a delightful little meandering which gave us a lookout over a large field – where we found some buzzards – and then a muddy, shady trail which took us to Nachal Achiya, a stream that could not be easily forded. Eventually, we crossed on a shifting bridge of garbage that clogged a large metal gate erected to presumably filter trash. It was an odd moment, but on the other side of the stream we found a nice area that was marked as a vernal pool – but it was bone dry.

Afeka's vernal pool still waiting for the rains

Afeka’s vernal pool still waiting for the rains

Discouraged but not despondent, we carried on until we found a map of sorts which promised other exciting things to see in the area. Most exciting was a series of ancient Samaritan burial caves, hewn out of the kurkar bedrock just half a kilometre away. These eight caves were initially discovered in 1951, when road work was being done nearby, and date to the 4th-5th centuries CE. Excavations of these hewn caves revealed a trove of archaeological finds, including oil lamps, glass vessels, rings and more. Today, however, the finds are in a museum and the site is sadly somewhat neglected.

Adam photographing the prized jewel beetle

Adam photographing the prized jewel beetle

Our hike there took us to a small hillock where Adam quite unexpectedly found a jewel beetle, which excited him to no end. Then, what felt like ages later, we made our way to the burial caves and examined them one at a time. I’ve always had a thing for caves, and although these relatively shallow, man made caves aren’t quite as grand, there’s something charming about the sudden drop of temperature and the darkness within. Perhaps most interesting, some of the caves featured the iconic “rolling rock” doors, a construction style which can be found at other ancient tombs such as Horvat Midras and Tel Abu Shusha.

Within the Samaritan burial caves

Within the Samaritan burial caves

The day had grown late after such an elaborate adventure and so we resolved to make our way back via bus, which could be taken from the nearby neighbourhood. Much to our surprise, on the path leaving the nature area, we bumped into a young man who we had once excavated with for a short period of time. Ah, the joys of seeing familiar faces.

'Rolling rock' grave door

‘Rolling rock’ grave door

The next adventure was to the vernal pool of Kfar Yarok, also just north of Tel Aviv, of which I had heard good things about in the days prior to our trip. It was not an aquatic creature which had caught my attention, but rather the presence of a large flock of rooks – fascinating crows of which a small portion of the population winters in Israel. I had seen a rook once or twice up north, but now was an opportunity to see a lot of them, and quite close by. The vernal pool sealed the deal for Adam, and the two of us embarked on a short twofold mission one afternoon in the end of November.

Peering into the murky depths of Kfar HaYarok's vernal pool

Peering into the murky depths of Kfar HaYarok’s vernal pool

After a short bus ride we made our way through the Kfar Yarok youth village and promptly to the green fields which were said to contain this flock of rooks. We scoured the fields with our binoculars yet couldn’t see anything of the sort, so we decided to walk towards the vernal pool henceforth. As nature always does, we were surprised to spot a peregrine falcon resting on a large electric pylon not too far away. Every sighting of the magnificent peregrine is elating, and our spirits were boosted as we continued walking. Soon enough, we spotted a handful of rooks that had snuck over to one of the green fields while we were distracted with the falcon. Before long there were dozens of them, perhaps even a hundred, sharing the insect-rich field with hundreds of swooping swallows and other crow species.

Rook receiving the sunset

Rook receiving the sunset

As the sun was slowly sinking, ushering in the early evening, we found the vernal pool and its resident mallards and Egyptian geese. Adam deftly checked the murky waters for interesting creatures with his handy little net, but didn’t find anything that interested me. We dabbled here and there, and then resigned to heading back to our respective homes, still feeling achieved with our bird sightings earlier.

Four Lepidurus apus and one rarer Triops cancriformis

Four Lepidurus apus and one rarer Triops cancriformis

It was at the very end of December that Adam made a significant breakthrough. He was incidentally in the nearby city of Rosh HaAyin when he chanced upon a tiny, neglected vernal pool located between some residential houses and a road. What he found there shocked him, because after years of searching for triops, he found not one species, but two – and the second one is quite rare! He sent me pictures, almost in disbelief of his good fortune, and we agreed to make a trip of it to properly examine the finds.

Neglected vernal pool in Rosh HaAyin

Neglected vernal pool in Rosh HaAyin

It was just a few days later that Adam and I, joined with friends Nick and Talia, set out to go explore this new vernal pool. We had a side mission, and that was to tidy up the place – as it was embarrassingly littered and in dire need of some intervention. A single bus ride later we walked up to the site and Adam exclaimed that the pool had partially dried up since his previous visit. But, no matter, the triops were even easier to find now as they squirmed around in the marshy grass. True to his initial assumption, there were in fact two species of triops, or tadpole shrimp: Lepidurus apus and the even rarer Triops cancriformis.

Adam opting for a really close photo of triops

Adam opting for a really close photo of triops

Alongside these wiggling living fossils, which bear resemblance to the much larger horseshoe crab, we found other signs of aquatic life. Fairy shrimp as well as what appeared to be river frog tadpoles squirmed around in the shallow, vegetation-filled water. We spent a good long time there taking pictures and enjoying the incredible richness of life in this seemingly indifferent puddle. When we were done we opened up the large garbage bags that we had brought and did our best to clean the place up, for ourselves, others and of course, nature itself.

Close-up shot of a Lepidurus apus (photo Adam Ota)

Close-up shot of a Lepidurus apus (photo Adam Ota)

The final vernal pool that we visited was that of Neve Gan, another neighbourhood of Northern Tel Aviv, and took place in the beginning of February. Geographically quite close to both the vernal pools of Kfar HaYarok (approx. 1 kilometre away) and Afeka (approx. 900 metres away), we had somehow missed visiting it earlier on in the wet season. It was largely due to some Facebook posts about adult southern banded newts (Ommatotriton vittatus) and Middle East tree frogs (Hyla savignyi) that inspired us to go find these exciting species on our own (see HERE, for example). This time it was at night with Bracha joining us; we drove over to the site armed with flashlights and cameras, hoping to document some choice amphibians.

Neve Gan's vernal pool at night (photo Oren Auster)

Neve Gan’s vernal pool at night (photo Oren Auster)

It had rained a bit just before we arrived, and as such, the long grass was wet with a myriad of droplets. It wasn’t long into our little trek around the nature patch behind the new residential buildings that our shoes and legs were soaked through and through. We found the vernal pool – a small placid pond lined with grasses – and tried our best to find frogs and newts, but to no avail. The most ironic part was that the noise was deafening, with the throaty calls of a thousand frogs filling the night air. Alas, no matter how hard we looked, we failed to find even one cacophonous culprit. Sure we were happy to visit, but we had really hoped to find at least one elusive newt, especially with the ongoing building projects that threaten the very existence of this urban treasure, despite the noble efforts of some eco-friendly residents (see their Facebook group HERE).

Map of the North Tel Aviv vernal pools

Map of the North Tel Aviv vernal pools: (1) Levinsky College, (2) Afeka, (3) Kfar HaYarok and (4) Neve Gan

Before long the wet season was coming to an end and the vernal pools were drying up one after the next, finishing yet another successful round in that delicate circle of life. We had achieved a nice handful of visits – Adam even more so with independent excursions to the vernal pools of Petach Tikva and Holon – and we revelled in finding not one, but two species of triops which had evaded us for so long. Perhaps this upcoming winter will result in us finding both newts and salamanders, the latter only found in the northern third of the country. Until then, we have two migration periods and the long hot summer when the dunes come to life.

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.