Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Coastal Plain’ Category

Tel Abu Shusha & Nearby Sites

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

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

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

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

Avner and Yaniv, an area supervisor

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

View of the Jezreel Valley to the east

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

The crew working hard to clear away the topsoil

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

Vaulted structure atop the hill

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

Noam is another of the area supervisors

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

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

Be’er Tivon (or Tivon Well)

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

“The House of the People” in Bethlehem of Galilee

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

Lovely architecture inside

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

The Waldheim church in Alonei Abba

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

Pomegranates growing in Alonei Abba

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

Bet She’arim’s ancient synagogue

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

Nothing to see on Tel Zariq

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

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

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

Ashdod Sea Fortress

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

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

Ashdod Sea Fortress from above (photo Ashdod Municipality)

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

Within the fortress

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

Seeking shade in a vaulted chambre

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

Three vastly different building materials

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

The mosque ruins within the fortress

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

Looking down at the encroaching waves

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

The northwest corner

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

Avner inspecting the golden arches

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

Evening primrose along the eastern wall

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

A beached barrel jellyfish

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

Indian food galore!

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

Avner approves of Indian-made Kingfisher beer

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

Le Destroit

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

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

Chateau Perelin jutting out into the sea

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

Approaching the old stables

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

Le Destroit layout as drawn by J Dikijian

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

Looking at at Chateau Perelin from within the stables

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

Avner examining the hewn sockets

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

The eastern side of the tower with its hewn moat

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

Looking back from whence we came

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

Looking out to sea

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

Ancient inscription in the rock wall

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

A closer look at the carven letters

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

Avner inspecting the guard booth

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

Sea of white Queen Anne’s lace

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

Sunken fishing boat at HaBonim

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

Nomad jellyfish washed ashore

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

The lovely colours of summer on Tel Dor

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

Merle under excavation (photo from August 2018)

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

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

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

Common kestrel searching for prey

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

Schnitzel baguette and a Budweiser

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

Ma’agan Michael

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

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

Welcome to paradise: Ma’agan Michael

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

Black-crowned night heron watching us walk by

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

Common terns at surf’s edge

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

HaYonim Island

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

Sneaky Egyptian mongoose

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

Gulls and shorebirds everywhere

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

Adam on the search

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

Birding from the gazebo

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

Birding Ma’agan Michael’s fishponds

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

Black-winged stilt standing guard

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

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.

Nachal Alexander

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

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

Nachal Alexander spilling into the sea

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

Pied kingfisher

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

Slender-billed gull

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

Nachal Alexander

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

Khirbet Samara

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

Holy hawksbeard growing on a buttress

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

Coastal iris

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

Boeing-Stearman biplane

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

Early spring colours

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

The final stretch

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

Tel Dor Archaeological Dig

In Coastal Plain, Israel on November 4, 2018 at 9:37 AM

Harkening back to the warmer days of summer, this post chronologically follows the one-post summary of the month-long excavation season at Tel es-Safi. Finished with the Bar Ilan University dig, the members parted ways – some to see each other again next year, and some not. I was beginning the period of summer exams at BIU, which is always a dreary two months, so when the opportunity to attend the Tel Dor Archaeological Dig presented itself, I was quite excited to join.

Tel Dor (photo Department of Archeology at the University of Haifa)

My brother Nissim had excavated the previous year at Tel Kabri, and this year found himself attached to the Tel Dor crew, so I had yet another reason to attend. Joining me on this day of volunteering was Rebecca Zami, a two-year veteran of Tel es-Safi, who had just finished up a week of lab research at BIU. We set out in the early morning from Givat Shmuel and made our way north by way of public transportation. Nissim and a staff member found us at the junction closest to Tel Dor, and we made a quick stop at the Mizgaga Museum for some supplies before heading to the tel.

Ancient temple beside the dig site

I had already visited Tel Dor a couple time before, but each time I’m taken aback by the great beauty of the ancient site. To see the excavated ruins on the hilly ground overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean Sea is delightful. As such, I was eager to get more acquainted with the city, and the ongoing archaeological excavations. Rebecca and I presented ourselves to Alex and the rest of the on-site senior staff, a blend of representatives from Hebrew University, Haifa University and Boston University. During breakfast, we received from field supervisor Alex of BU a quick overview of the site, the area we were to be digging in and the people involved.

Ancient ruins of Tel Dor

Our first task, after getting our gloves on and equipping ourselves with the necessary tools for the job, was to clear away a “robber’s trench” beside a Classical column base (which the team dubbed “Colin”). Just to elaborate, a “robber’s trench” is a void in a wall where the original stones were removed from, not quite as exciting as it might have sounded. We were introduced to the junior staff member attached to this area and began the task at hand. After a month at Tel es-Safi’s Area Y, where we found barely any pottery, it was exciting to find large sherds just hiding centimetres below the visible layer of dirt.

Getting ready to excavate the robber’s trench

Rebecca and I scraped and scraped at the loose brown earth, filling up buckets of both pottery and dirt. We had even found some shell fragments and a few plain tessera (small cubed mosaic stones), but nothing too exciting. Before long some more volunteers showed up, and we were re-purposed to a more physically demanding task. There was a monumental Hellenistic wall complete with a surviving edge of thick plaster that had been built up during the Roman period. Due to the fact that the Roman addition was situationally unimportant, we were tasked to remove the stack of dirt-lined stones that composed the later wall piece.

Nissim working on the Roman wall

This job seemed more exciting, and after just a few minutes we realised that it truly was. We scraped the dirt from between the stones, loosening them as well as revealing tons of potsherds, and then extracted the stones for Nissim to carry off to a dumping pile. While potsherds are generally the most common find for archaeologists, we had gone so long without finding much that each piece found in this Roman wall was cause for excitement. To make it even better, there was even sherds of interesting typologies to be found, such as Eastern Sigilata A and black-figure attic ware.

Black-figure sherd

Working hard on the wall justified a quick trip to the other area under excavation when dig co-director Prof Assaf Yasur-Landau came by with a small group of dig members. I had met Assaf at Tel Kabri the previous year, but this year he was heading up the underwater excavations at Tel Dor – a truly exciting-sounding endeavour. We caught up with him just as he was leading his dive crew on a tour of the excavation just a couple metres to the west of us. This was the site of the Crusader fortress Merle, whose meagre remains had never been fully excavated. Due to my interest in Crusader archaeology, it was quick fascinating to see the excavated progress made on the ancient fortress – something I look forward to seeing in its published form.

Merle fortress under excavation

Rejuvenated from our little informative break with Prof Yasur-Landau, we returned to our south-facing wall and continued to work on the Roman stones. For those excited by the natural world, we found several murex shells, used for thousands of years to produce the finest dyes. To this day there are researchers (including Prof Zohar Amar of BIU) who seek to unlock all the secrets of this ancient dye methodology, and a room dedicated to it in the aforementioned Mizgaga Museum. Dor was one of the principal sites for this dye production, especially during the years of Phoenician rule (Dor was their southernmost city). Unfortunately, none of the murex shells that we found we intact enough to warrant preservation, but they were still exciting to find.

Hellenistic monumental building in the left foreground

Just after noon, when we were coming down on the stubborn lower levels of stones in the wall, we were told that it was time to quit. There were scores of dirt buckets to be emptied and loads of tools to be stowed away. It was sad not being able to finish clearing the Roman wall, but it was getting quite hot out with the midday sun beaming down upon us. We collectively emptied the buckets, stowed the tools and parted ways. My brother was leaving with the rest of the crew, so Rebecca and I took off on our own and walked the scenic way to the museum.

Yours truly

An hour or so later we started heading back to Givat Shmuel, stopping off at the southern edge of Haifa for lunch before boarding the south-bound train. It was a long day, but a very exciting one, and I’m very thankful to have gotten the opportunity to excavate such a cool site. I wonder what next year will have in store…

Rebecca pointing to the dig site as we left

For more information on the Tel Dor Archaeological Dig, check out their site HERE.

University Trip: Carmel Region

In Coastal Plain, Haifa, Israel on July 1, 2018 at 10:59 AM

A month ago I joined fellow students and faculty members of my department in Bar Ilan University for a two-day trip to the Carmel region. Similar to our trip to the Wadi Qelt region, this involved the effort and participation of the whole department, with just a lot less hiking. Our trip began at the campus where we boarded our tour bus and set out on the road. The first stop of the day was Nachal Alexander to learn about the African softshell turtles with Dr Moshe Natan, as some of us had done several weeks prior on our trip to Bet Shean Valley and Agamon Hefer.

Ramat HaNadiv nature

From there we drove to see some Egyptian fruit bats and then to Ramat HaNadiv, a fancy gardens which are home to the remains of the Baron and his wife Rothschild. However, we did not enter the fancy gardens, but instead found a dirt path that led us into the wilderness. There, surrounded by interesting plants, bee-eaters and noisy cicadas, we came upon the first structure of the Horvat Eleq ruins. We sat in the shade of the vaulted structure and listened to a series of short lectures by faculty members such as Prof Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman and Dr Amit Dagan on the history of the region.

Operating the drone

Moving onward, we came across more ruins, these being a large fortified palace from the early Roman era, which were explained to us by Dr Avner Ecker. Just a short distance away we found the ancient columbarium, a circular tower from the Roman era that housed thousands of pigeons and doves. Outside the columbarium my friend Eitan found a piece of a Ottoman-age tobacco pipe, always a fun find.

Piece of an Ottoman pipe

Just below the columbarium there is a cave with an underground spring gushing forth clear water. During the Roman era an aqueduct was built to channel the water out from the cave and into a large rectangular pool. We admired the curious little aqueduct and then entered the cave, where we found ancient masonry and, towards the end, a modern metal gate blocking further progress.

Aqueduct and spring cave

Beyond the pools we found the remains of a Roman bathhouse, a rather small one in comparison to the others found in Israel. When we had satisfied ourselves with looking at the frigidarium (cold water room), the tepidarium (passage between cold and hot rooms) and the caldarium (hot water room), we had a lunch picnic in the shade of the nearby trees. Songbirds and a gently flowing stream added to the tranquility of the setting, making it hard for us to leave.

One of the smaller pools

There was still much more to see so we got up and hiked our way out of the wilderness, where our bus was waiting to take us to the next site. We drove over to Nachal Me’arot, to look at the famous Carmel Caves that contributed so much to prehistoric archaeology. Our resident prehistorian, Dr Nira Alperson-Afil, lectured us on the importance of the four caves where findings such as burials, tools and dwelling structures from a variety of prehistoric periods were made.

Carmel Caves

We hiked up the slope towards the first of the caves, the chimney-shaped Tabun Cave where levels of sediment amassed over the thousands of years, trapping prehistoric remains in the layers. Archaeological excavations began in 1927 and continue to uncover integral information of prehistoric cultures. Next we examined the Gamal Cave with its artistic representation of a prehistoric scene, complete with a model man and woman, stretched out pelts and more. The next cave was my favourite, with its long colourfully-lit tunnel. Inside, at the end, we watched a short film about life in caves during prehistoric times. Finished with the caves, we made our way back down the mountainside and onto our bus to be shuttled off to the next site.

Within the Tabun Cave

Just a short drive away, the nature reserve of Dor HaBonim encompasses a stretch of coastal land comprised of a kurkar ridge with small sandy beaches here and there, and a number of interesting things to see. Our trail began just outside of Shell Beach where I spent quite a few minutes birding. All that I could come up with was a corn bunting, some crested larks and a handful of gulls.

HaBonim Beach

Back with the group, we listened to Dr Dvir Raviv and others talk about the geology and history of the area and then we moved on. The plan was to walk along the coast from HaBonim to Dor, where we’d be spending the night. The timing was perfect, as the sun was slowly setting, and we had a couple kilometres of walking to do. In certain places, unbeknownst to us, we encountered huge swarms of mosquitoes which drank heavily from our lifeblood.

Walking seaside

As we walked we came across several interesting areas, like the Sandy Cove and the Kurkar Quarry, each with their own geological or historical story. I kept my eyes out for interesting sea-going birds but saw nothing but gulls, and not even peculiar ones at that. There were some curious flowers, wild herbs and even a thistle mantis which posed most professionally.

Thistle mantis

Two hours after we began our tour of the coast we at last reached Tel Dor, famous in part for being the southern end of Phoenicia. There, standing near the excavated ruins of the ancient city, we listened to Prof Aren Maeir speak. At this point the sun was nearly set and we traipsed through the sands of Dor towards a distant restaurant where we’d be eating dinner that night, a rather delicious dinner at that.

Interesting beach

After dinner we were shown to our rooms, which were actually small domed structures that held a divided room, kitchenette and bathroom with shower in each. I shared my dome with two friends and woke up the next morning extra early to do some sea- and shorebird watching. Again, not much success as I mostly saw the standard Israeli gulls. After praying at the nearby synagogue I rejoined the group for breakfast at that same restaurant, a very satisfying experience.

Curious place to spend the night

The day’s tours began at the nearby Mizgaga Museum where we heard about the museum’s origin story and the history of the area from Dr Kobi Cohen-Hattab and Dr Avi Picard. With that we boarded our bus and were driven up Mount Carmel to pay a visit to the memorial for those killed in the terrible wildfire that ravaged the mountain in 2010. There, in the shade of the twisted metal structure, we heard from Dr Tamir Goren, another of the department’s experts in the modern era. We were then shuttled over to the trailhead of the Little Switzerland area trail, where we struck out at brisk pace through the mountainous woods. We stopped here and there along the way and eventually had a nice long break in the curve of a geological formation on the mountainside.

Trail through Mount Carmel’s forests

This time there were birds to be seen, and interesting ones at that, such as a pair of short-toed eagles calling to each other in flight, an Egyptian vulture and a Griffon vulture that stayed overhead long enough for the majority of the group to get a look. It wasn’t just birds that captured my attention, a pair of dung beetles were making their way down the trail, rolling a small ball of dung with them – something that I’ve never seen in person. Eventually, after about an hour and a half of humid hiking, we got back onto the air-conditioned bus to be taken to the nearby Druze village of Daliyat al-Carmel. There, feeling like a giant group of tourists, we scattered for some free time to shop, browse, eat and enjoy the sights. I was even able to get a few bites of kosher-certified baklawa from the best shop in town (or so they say), courtesy of Dr Amit Dagan.

View from the Louis Promenade

Reconvening, we walked through the Old City and listened to some short lectures outside of the Yad L’Banim building. Then, it was back to the bus and over to the heart of Haifa, to the Bahai Gardens themselves. We sat back and relaxed on stone steps after taking in the incredible panoramic view of the city, the bay and all that the eye can see of the Western Galilee. A couple more short lectures were given, including one by Prof Eyal Regev, and then the trip came to a close. It was hard to believe that this long and exciting trip would ever end, but it was getting late and people had to be places. So, we began the journey back to Bar Ilan University, feeling happily overwhelmed and satisfied with yet another incredible trip offered by our dear department.

University Trip: Bet Shean Valley & Agamon Hefer

In Coastal Plain, Galilee, Israel on June 17, 2018 at 5:23 AM

Continuing on from the previous post, about the Golan and Bet Shean Valley, we woke up early in the morning in Kfar Rupin. Our adventures began after breakfast when we headed over to the fields to check the rodents traps. Our guide, Dr Moshe Natan, had checked them at dawn, and had released one of the two trapped animals – a hedgehog. The other trapped animal was none other than a common mouse, which leaped to his freedom as soon as the trap was opened.

Learning about nests

Packing up, we boarded our tour bus to be driven over to the next site of the day: Tel Saharon. Located just a few minutes outside of Kfar Rupin, the area we were headed to was right beside the old bird ringing station. Looking around, we were able to make out several common species, as well as three black kites swirling over the nearby fields. We sat down beside a nesting box and learned about the pigeon chicks hidden inside.

A baby pigeon

The sight of a booted eagle overhead excited us, especially due to the fact that it might be the same one we saw at the very beginning of the previous day. Flying alongside it was a steppe buzzard, a rather common bird of prey in the dry season. Closer to us, I noticed a small bird dancing around a nest, singing loudly. With the aid of my binoculars and camera I was able to identify it at a male Dead Sea sparrow – my very first time seeing this species.

Dead Sea sparrow preparing its nest

As fascinating as we found the energetic little sparrow, we had more to explore, and set off to do just that. Climbing the gentle elevation, we found a herd of donkeys, a single golden jackal that slinked off as we approached.

Donkeys on Tel Saharon

There wasn’t much to see on the tel, but we did venture down to the spring which provided a small amount of water that gathered in a nearby pool. A quick look at the old ringing station, which looks like it could be revitalised as a cool bar, and we were off to the next site.

The old bird ringing station

Traveling only few kilometres away, our guide stopped the bus at a particular spot beside large alfalfa fields. There, at the edge of the field, was a pair of spur-winged lapwings and a hidden nest. Laying a small clutch of eggs in a scraped out depression on the bare ground, lapwing nests are incredibly hard to locate. Even the eggs themselves are spotted in a way that provides excellent camouflage. But, all this was no match for the experienced eyes of our guide; we stood around and studied the nest, the parents watching from a safe distance.

Spur-winged lapwing eggs

Before we left the nest with its three mottled eggs we spotted a mountain gazelle quite a distance away in the alfalfa field. The tour bus then took us to our next destination, located quite a ways away: Nachal Alexander. We were heading over to see the famous African softshell turtles which have made the polluted stream famous as well. Disembarking at the stream, we walked over and gazed at the large turtles with their funny faces.

African softshell turtle

Some time later we paid a short visit to the nearby sandy breeding grounds of these turtles, fenced off to ensure the safety of the next generations. Another short drive and we were examining a tiny cave across the road from Bitan Aharon, a tiny moshav in the Hefer Valley. A colony of Egyptian fruit bats had made this cave their home; one of the bats looking particularly cute with its baby clinging to its stomach fur.

Egyptian fruit bats in a cave

Taking a break from wildlife, we had a group lunch at one of the Hummus Eliyahu branches that have opened up all over Israel in the past couple years. I enjoyed a delicious bowl of creamy hummus and tehina, eaten with warm pita and a garlic-lemon sauce. When we were satisfied we continued, heading over to the lush wetlands of Agamon Hefer. At the site, we crossed over Nachal Alexander and gathered at a blind looking out at the lake.

Nachal Alexander

We were joined by a group of elderly folks, including a rather spritely 93-year-old woman who began to give us life lessons. She told us about how she was one of the Children of Tehran, fleeing war-ravaged Europe after the Holocaust, and how we should live our lives to the fullest. While she was talking I couldn’t help but notice a marsh harrier and short-toed eagle fly by.

Looking for wildlife

Continuing on the circular trail around the lake, we stopped at the next blind and spied on some pied kingfishers diving for fish. A squacco heron fished silently from a small marsh area right beside us, and the sounds of European bee-eaters filled the air above us as we moved on. Walking a hundred feet or so behind the group, I noticed a purple heron stalking its way through the tall grass, and a black-shouldered kite perched on a power line.

Squacco heron

Examining a particularly marshy area, our guide swiftly pointed out an adult little bittern sneaking its way around, seeking out tasty fish. I had only seen my first bittern two weeks prior, at the Hula Valley, and it had been a juvenile, so this was a cool sighting. Another purple heron was hiding nearly flawlessly in the tall grasses on the banks, making quite a challenge to spot. Twenty minutes or so later, with the help of Dr Natan and my Collins birding app, I was able to audibly and visibly identify my very first reed warbler – the fourth and final new bird species for the trip. On an open stretch of wooden boardwalk we watched common swifts dipping down in their fast and erratic flight for quick drinks from the refreshing lake water.

Parasitic wasp laying eggs

Then, as I was taking pictures of some tiny Middle East tree frogs that someone in our group had found, I discovered a parasitic wasp laying eggs in the body of an unsuspecting host. The trip came to an end when we boarded our tour bus for the final time, taking the long drive back to Givat Shmuel. In summary, a great two-day trip comprised of many different habitats and, best of all, four new bird species to add to my list.

University Trip: Caesarea & Nachal Taninim

In Coastal Plain, Israel on July 10, 2016 at 6:57 AM

Two months or so ago I joined fellow archaeology students on a tour of Caesarea and the further ends of its iconic aqueduct. Boarding the bus at Bar Ilan University we drove up north to the national park and began our tour overlooking the surf in relatively comfortable morning weather. After a fantastic video (reminiscent of my favourite childhood computer game, Civilization III) summarised the historical successions of the ancient Roman city, we popped on over to the aqueduct remains on the coast.

Caesarea's iconic aqueduct by the sea

Caesarea’s iconic aqueduct by the sea

In one of my courses we spent a class or two learning about this particular aqueduct, of which there are actually three subsequent water systems – Roman construction by both Herod and Hadrian built side-by-side and then Crusader on top. Bringing water in from springs near Zichron Ya’akov, the aqueduct supplied the Roman city Herod built in the name of Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, his sovereign leader.

Aqueduct feeds

Aqueduct feeds

Examining the varied constructions from an academic standpoint, we then walked along the beach to see the engraved plaque stones marking the building and dedication of the aqueduct. We then walked to the lesser known smaller aqueduct, built during the Byzantine times, which brought water from the marshes several kilometres north – a project that was abandoned before it finished.

Within the smaller, Byzantine aqueduct

Within the smaller, Byzantine aqueduct

We climbed up into the aqueduct and crouch-walked our way a bit through the water tunnel before continuing on southward towards the ancient city ruins of Caesarea. The walk was a bit of a doozy but along the way I found the base of an amphora washed up ashore, one of many pottery finds.

Amphora base and a footprint in the sand

Amphora base and a footprint in the sand

We stopped just before the northern city wall from the Roman era and listened to a brief lecture looking over the surf.

Lecture over the surf

Lecture over the surf

As we stood in the hot sun listening I noticed a few pied kingfishers hovering above the surf, a bird I love watching.

Pied kingfisher

Pied kingfisher

Once through the northern gate we passed ruins and a small sampling of a mosaic floor, one of many in Caesarea. Crossing the Crusader-era moat and sloped city wall, we shortly entered the heavily-commercialised city centre – transformed into a tourist trap with restaurants and shops. We took a break from walking and had lunch just outside of the Roman nymphaeum – a public fountain with its statue of a Roman goddess.

Crusader harbour from the higher Herodian port

Crusader harbour from the higher Herodian port

Walking over to the Crusader port, we passed temples and various administrative buildings and climbed the Roman citadel to look down on the ancient harbour, watching another fabulous animated film about the harbour area. In one of the local buildings we came across the exhibit for the gold coin trove that was discovered in the spring of 2015 by scuba divers underwater – the largest hoard of gold coins found yet in Israel.

Fatimid coins of pure gold found underwater

Fatimid coins of pure gold found underwater

Heading inland we watched some ongoing archaeological dig and restoration work of the Herodian harbour vaults while looking down at the Crusader citadel and neighbouring Bosnian mosque minaret. Continuing ever southwards we entered the Roman bathhouse complex and marveled at the marble pillars and extensive tiled floors.

Within the Roman bathhouse complex

Within the Roman bathhouse complex

Looping back a bit, we entered the long dirt-floored hippodrome, a Grecian stadium for horse races. Passing the Mithraeum and other public buildings we reached the far end of the hippodrome and ventured over to see the meagre remains of Herod’s palace, built jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea.

Meagre remains of Herod's seaside palace in Caesarea

Meagre remains of Herod’s seaside palace in Caesarea

From there we headed straight for the Roman theatre which, as wonderfully preserved and lovingly reconstructed as it is, continues to provide entertainment for the populus as a premier location for concerts. I took the liberty of snapping a photograph of myself sitting on the stage.

Caesarea's Roman theatre and I

Caesarea’s Roman theatre and I

Despite the length of our tour thus far, we were nowhere near finished. Boarding the bus we were then driven to Nachal Taninim, the marsh area which supplied the water for the smaller of the two aqueducts entering Caesarea from the north.

Manmade water channel carved out of the bedrock

Manmade water channel carved out of the bedrock

The name Nachal Taninim, which literally means Stream of Crocodiles, originates from the now-extinct population of crocodiles that lived in the stream and marsh’s brackish water. Thought to have been originally imported for entertainment by the Romans from nearby Egypt, the last crocodile was killed by the British approximately 100 years ago. In the 300s CE, a city was established on the banks of the stream under the name Crocodopolis – my favourite ancient city name.

Byzantine waterworks at Nachal Taninim

Byzantine waterworks at Nachal Taninim

The Byzantines took the large marshy area and built dams and a regulatory system to control water flow, in efforts to power mills. A park ranger took us to the dam and showed us how the reconstructed waterworks was used in ancient times – the simple power of water always amazes. We spotted crabs and frogs in the water, and several waterbirds as well, as we made our rounds through the national park. From Nachal Taninim we boarded the bus to see one last sight, the Roman aqueduct bend at Beit Hanina which includes a dedication plaque etched into stone.

Dedication words and mark of the Tenth Legion

Dedication words and mark of the Tenth Legion

We finished up the long day-trip with a wall along the top of the aqueduct, admiring the clay piping laid into the rock. From there the aqueduct continues into the modern Arab village of Jisr al-Zarka and then along the coast where we started the day.

The bend in the Herodian aqueduct

The bend in the Herodian aqueduct

We headed back to BIU sunburnt but having had a wonderful time exploring the much-discussed ruins with the professors, looking forward to the next trip.