Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Galilee’ Category

Nachal Na’aman

In Galilee, Israel on September 2, 2018 at 5:47 AM

Just few weeks ago I took a short morning trip to Nachal Na’aman, a short stream in the Western Galilee. I had received word that there was good birding to be had at the fish ponds of Ein HaMifratz, which are to be found on the banks of the stream. In addition, the mouth of Nachal Na’aman, which opens into the Mediterranean Sea, is a good bet for shorebirds and other feathered friends. With this in mind I set out alone from Ma’alot in the early morning and drove for half an hour or so until I reached the kibbutz of Ein HaMifratz.

Nachal Na’aman in the early morning

I drove through the kibbutz, passing some odorous cowsheds, until I reached the fish ponds. I parked and got out to explore, the morning light still not strong enough for my camera to operate properly but enough to start looking for interesting wildlife. From the very start I could see and hear a handful of species, mostly those that were expected to be there and therefore aren’t that exciting to spot. These are, of course, the several heron and egret species that can be found throughout the country.

Armenian gull watching me from above

It was nice, however, to see all three species of kingfishers (common, white-breasted and pied) as well as a juvenile goldfinch flying amongst the thorny thistle that grows beside the ponds. Schematically speaking, the fish ponds are rectangular bodies of murky water that contain an unknown number of fish that are fed by mechanical arms protruding over the water. Due to the high fish-to-water ratio, many species of fish-eating animals come to hunt at the ponds, and, as a result of that, birders and nature photographers come to watch.

Sunlight over the fish pond

I began with a short walk alongside the northern bank of Nachal Na’aman, hoping to see something interesting but it was actually in the fish ponds where I found the first interesting sighting of the day. I had noticed something moving at the water’s edge, and realised that it was an African softshell turtle, the famous inhabitants of Nachal Alexander. While it’s true that they aren’t exclusive to Nachal Alexander, it’s not too common to see them in other bodies of water.

River crab

I crossed over the concrete bridge that spans Nachal Na’aman, taking note of the small blue plaque that informs visitors on the role the bridge played in the military push to conquer the Western Galilee in the War for Independence. From the bridge I began to circle one of the fish ponds parallel to the stream, taking photographs of the common terns that shrieked by in flight.

The first fish pond

A handful of gulls, mostly Armenian and yellow-legged, made appearances but it was mainly the terns that captivated my attention. The gorgeous sunrise, with the beams of light piercing through the thick, dark clouds made a glorious scene, especially with the birds everywhere. As I walked I would incidentally flush out night herons that were standing at the water’s edge waiting for prey to appear.

Common sandpiper

On the other side of the pond I noticed a common sandpiper feeding as well as a few river crabs that scuttled into the water as soon as I got too close. However, it was a slight movement on the opposite bank that excited me most. A small group of Egyptian mongooses (two adults and two juveniles) were patrolling the pond’s perimetre, likely looking for some tasty breakfast to feed on.

Egyptian mongooses

In this manner I explored several more of the fish ponds, taking note of some more fun birds such as hoopoes, mallards and others. I even watched an interesting scene play out: an adult common tern came flying over from another pond and made a noisy entrance to a group of terns sitting on a line. With the aid of my zoom lens I was able to see that the adult had a small fish in its mouth and landed beside a juvenile who begged for the tasty morsel. I got distracted shortly thereafter and missed the conclusion of the scene, but there’s a good chance that the juvenile received a delicious meal.

Common tern adult with fish (left) and juvenile (right)

When I had walked quite a ways I noticed a bird of prey soaring high up above – a black-shouldered kite. Then, a gunshot rang out and I felt a feeling of confusion. Minutes later I realised that the fish pond people drive around and fire shotguns into the air to scare off fish-eating birds. I’m sure they were shooting blanks, but the scene was reminiscent of a western film with the clouds of smoke rising into the air following the warning shots.

More fish ponds

At last I had had my fill of the fish ponds and decided to go visit the mouth of Nachal Na’aman next. It was a short drive and I found a place to park my car not far from the stream. I waved to a fisherman as I began to walk a streamside path, noticing another common sandpiper feeding at the water’s edge. I reached a small bridge and saw the Mediterranean Sea before me, and my anticipation rose.

Nachal Na’aman’s mouth

Trudging through the overgrown dune-like terrain, I quickly made my way to the sandy area between the stream and sea where I saw terns congregating. Suddenly a tiny movement caught my eye – my very first greater sand plover, and then another – a ruddy turnstone in gorgeous summer plumage. I was excited and for good reason: the weather was beautiful, the sea beckoned and there were new species to find.

Backwaters of Nachal Na’aman and the sea

The terns were more of the common terns that I had seen at the fish ponds, but a small flock of sanderlings landed nearby and began strutting about looking for food. I reached the end of a long pool of backwater, where the waters of the stream and sea combine, and began to circle around along the seashore.

Small flock of sanderlings

With a view of the Old City of Akko in front of me in the distance I walked, alternating between taking pictures of the view and taking pictures of birds. I had seen this view before, in a video taken by wildlife expert Amir Balaban (as can be seen HERE), and I felt inspired. In quick succession, I had sightings of Kentish and common ringed plovers, also new species for me. It was rather exciting walking down the beach and seeing shorebirds everywhere, rummaging around like common pigeons or seagulls.

The beach with the Old City of Akko

At last I reached the end of the dry sand, where the stream’s waters officially meet the sea, and made a decision. Rolling my pants up and taking my shoes in my hands, I forded the shallow water, spying a yellow crab racing across the sandy floor in a similar manner. But as I lollygagged, enjoying the cool water on my legs, I was caught by some minor waves and decided it’d be better to not get completely soaked. My final act was to walk a bit further along the beach and then cut across the so-called dunes back to the parked car. Fortunately, a few ruddy turnstones were foraging and seemed unthreatened by my presence. When one got relatively close I decided that I wanted a better shot of this handsome fellow and laid down on my stomach to get a better angle.

Ruddy turnstone foraging

The turnstone only let me get one good photo before running past me and with that I decided to call it a day. It was a lovely little trip with four all-time new species for me, making me think about more upcoming birding adventures.

University Trip: Sites in the Lower Galilee

In Galilee, Israel on July 16, 2018 at 9:01 PM

A week after the two-day trip to the Carmel region, I went on yet another field trip offered by my department at Bar Ilan University. Led by Dr Shawn Zelig-Aster, a Biblical scholar, we were taken to a series of historical and archaeological sites around the Lower Galilee, all having a shared theme: the campaign of Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III. Expanding the Neo-Assyrian empire by way of conquest, the king invaded Israel from the north down the coastline until Egypt and then systematically conquered and exiled the inhabitants of the Israelite cities.

Climbing Tel Shimron

We too headed north from the campus, not far from Tel Aviv, and made our way to the Lower Galilee. Stopping to pick up a few more students in the Yokneam area, we admired the tel and a short-toed eagle from the comfort of our tour bus and continued on to our first site of the day: Tel Shimron. Located not far from Nahalal, the tel commands an impressive view of the western end of the Jezreel Valley, a prime strategic location. First settled in prehistoric times, the tel continued to be occupied during the Bronze Age, at the end of which the city’s acropolis was built. The city was mentioned in the famous El-Amarna letters found in Egypt in 1888, as well as biblically as one of the Canaanite city-states that sent an army to defeat the Israelites crossing into the land. Shimron continued to see significant human settlement throughout the Iron Age and Roman period, as well as downsizing to be an Ottoman and subsequently German Templar village in more recent years.

Piece of Islamic pottery

We arrived at the tel and climbed up, surveying our surroundings and the seasonally-uncharacteristic cloudy skies which released a small sprinkling of dirty rain. Dr Zelig-Aster then explained to us the importance of the site, owing to its strategic location overlooking the valleys – and thereby the roads – and the biblical mentionings that accompanied Shimron’s past.

Einot Zippori

We concluded by taking a short walk around the top of the tel and noting where the most recent archaeological expedition has begun work last year (see their aerial video of the site HERE). Having many more sites to visit, we got back into our bus and were driven to Nachal Zippori, where we disembarked at the side of a newly paved access road. We first came across the old British Mandate pump house, complete with the old pump still inside. We crossed into the small field, overgrown with blossoming silverleaf nightshade, and walked until we reached Einot Zippori (or Zippori Springs) where a small ancient structure stands.

Calm waters

There, water comes forth from the ground and flows away from the small, crystal-clear pool at the structure. We watched some tiny fish and a river crab as they explored their watery world. Moving along, we followed a tiny aqueduct that carries that cold spring water, and boarded our bus once again to be taken to the next site. Our next stop was Tel Hanaton, a large hill surrounded by agricultural fields and the Eshkol Reservoir. We approached from the west passing a Bedouin encampment as we climbed the tel.

Tel Hanaton

Seeing the start of habitation in the Early Bronze Age, and then becoming a heavily fortified city in the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, this city was mentioned as well in the El-Amarna letters. In the Iron Age Hanaton was apparently conquered by the aforementioned Tiglath-Pileser III and the city was thereby relocated to the bottom of the hill in the Hellenistic and Roman eras. During the Crusader period a fortified farmhouse was constructed atop the tel, and near it a khan was built in the subsequent Mamluk and Ottoman periods.

View from Tel Hanaton

We sat at the top of the tel and studied ancient texts citing Hanaton, while crested larks and swallows entertained us with their presence. We passed by the Crusader ruins, noting a passage into the buried rooms, but did not enter. Our tour continued along the circular tel trail, as to enjoy and properly understand the tel’s geographical and topographical setting, and we headed back to our bus.

Entrance to the Crusader-era ruins

Enjoying our lunch in Ya’ad, a small moshav near Karmiel, we refueled ourselves for the final two destinations of the day. Our bus shuttled us over to the area of Horvat Rosh Zayit, and we walked the rest of the way alongside Road 805 and the region’s elegant pine trees. At last we arrived at a sign that announced the presence of a Phoenician fortress, which we were excited to see.

Horvat Rosh Zayit’s Phoenician fortress

Our excitement paid off, for a few minutes later we were standing within the ancient stone walls of the fortress, examining the architectural layout and learning more about the historical associations of ancient kings Solomon, Hiram and Tiglath-Pileser III. While the others were caught up in discussion, I found myself distracted by a robber fly holding a small butterfly in its grasp. I crept up to it as close as I could, even warding off an unsuspecting party member’s shoe, and managed to take this photograph with my phone camera.

Robber fly preying on a butterfly

When we had seen and discussed enough at the fortress we moved on to the next set of ruins, just a short walk away. These were much smaller, comprised of just a singular, reconstructed room and believed to have served a cultic purpose, due to the findings including figurine fragments, also dated to the Iron Age.

More of Horvat Rosh Zayit

The final set of ruins was just a few paces downhill, a multi-room structure with olive oil installations. In fact, there were other ancient agricultural installations to be found in the area around the ruins, which is always interesting to see. We walked around a bit more, enjoying the area and the view, and then made our way back to the bus.

Group photo

The next, and final, stop of the day was the nearby Tel Keisan, a large hill located about halfway from Horvat Rosh Zayit and the Mediterranean Sea. We drove the narrow access roads until we were just a couple hundred metres from the tel and from there we continued on foot, taking note of the cattle egrets hunting in the fields beside us. We reached the foot of the tel and began the ascent, taking the path that divides the hill into two.

Tel Keisan

We gathered beneath some olive trees, taking refuge from the sun and our guide began to teach us about the site’s historical and geographical importance. First settled in prehistoric times, the site saw large growth in the Middle Bronze Age and then became a large Phoenician city during the Iron Age. The identity of the tel is a debate, with the choices being either one of two possible names mentioned in the Bible: Achsaf or Kabul. In later periods, such as the Hellenistic and Persian, the city was expanded even more and, subsequently, a paved Roman road passed by to the west. Interested as I am in Crusader history and archaeology, I was fascinated to learn that this hilltop is where the famous Ayyubid ruler Saladin encamped when he laid siege on the Crusaders besieging the Muslim-held port city of Akko. The Crusader force, led by King Richard the Lionheart and King Philip II on Akko, eventually succeeded in conquering the city and the battle arena moved further south as the Franks continued on to Jerusalem. Perhaps equally interesting, this is where the ring of the Ramban, a medieval Jewish sage who hailed from Spain, was found, apparently lost on the slopes of the tel.

Black-shouldered kite

Fascinating as history is, I couldn’t help but be distracted by a quite unexpected avian visitor. A black-shouldered kite had appeared over the thistle field that covers the eastern side of the tel. I watched enraptured, alternating between my binoculars and my camera, as I attempted to make the most out of this fun sighting. Unfortunately the bird flew away after making a number of unsuccessful hunting attempts and we enjoyed some watermelon, procured for us by our very own Dr Zelig-Aster.

View from Tel Keisan

Satisfied with the refreshing melon, we moved on over to the eastern edge of the tel to enjoy the view and the painted lady butterflies (and to examine discarded potsherds littering the ground) and then headed back down the tel towards our bus. It was getting late and we had seen so much already that day, and there was still quite the drive back to Givat Shmuel. But I was thankful to have been able to see so much, especially because most of these sites are rather obscure and are hard to visit if one is predominately using public transportation, as I do.

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: Golan & Bet Shean Valley

In Galilee, Golan, Israel on June 10, 2018 at 8:50 AM

A month ago, shortly after my trip to Mount Arbel, I went on yet another two-day trip to the north of the country. Offered by my department at Bar Ilan University, this trip was led by Dr Moshe Natan and specialised in wildlife habitats. We departed from Givat Shmuel in the morning, headed north in our tour bus, eager to begin the exciting day. Indeed, excitement was forthcoming; at a rest stop near Bet Shean we saw a booted eagle being mobbed by two crows.

Nesting colony outside Kibbutz Degania

Our first real stop of the day was the expansive nesting grounds on the banks of the Kinneret (or, Sea of Galilee) just outside of Kibbutz Degania. There, species such as night herons, cattle egrets, little egrets, glossy ibises and pygmy cormorants share the thickly-foliaged trees in a joint effort to hatch and raise the next generation. We found a nice spot in the grass that overlooked a handful of the colony’s nests and began to watch. Each species has a different approach in rearing their young, and it was interesting to compare the relatively calm feeding habits of the glossy ibis with those of the violent cattle egret.

Night heron nest

While we watched, a juvenile marsh harrier ventured into the scene, scaring some of the colony’s inhabitants as it soared by. On the banks of the Kinneret down below I was able to make out, with the aid of 7×50 binoculars, a pair of purple herons – my very first time seeing them. An hour or so later we bid farewell to the hundreds of breeding birds and got back into our bus.

View from the Beit Saida Lookout

We were headed for the Golan, with a few stops planned out, the first being the Beit Saida Lookout. In addition to the sweeping view of the Kinneret area, two species of animals brought us to the piles of basalt stones at the lookout: the Levante fan-fingered gecko and the rock hyrax.

Levante fan-fingered gecko

Venturing onwards after some bonding with the lizards, we found ourselves disembarking in a small parking lot at the edge of Daliyot Woods. There, we followed a trail towards the peaks and valleys that neighbour the iconic Gamla ridge, where I had visited just one month prior. Enjoying the lovely weather with its sprinkling of raindrops, we crossed a tiny stream and rounded a mountain ridge, treated to a great view. A short-toed eagle passed by us, giving us a few moments of excitement. It was nearly noon when we reached a certain point on the trail that made our guide stop and scan the cliffside with the spotting scope.

Walking in the Nachal Daliyot nature reserve

When Dr Natan found what he was looking for he shared it with the rest of us: an Egyptian vulture nest with one of the parents roosting. Nearly impossible to detect to the non-discerning eye, the nest and bird were nearly perfectly camouflaged. We watched the nest while we learned more about Egyptian vultures, the sharp barks of the rock hyraxes interrupting from time to time. When we were finished with the vulture we headed back, via the same slope trail that we had taken earlier.

Spying on the Egyptian vulture nest

Back in the bus, we then drove over to Nov, a moshav in southern Golan, to look at the nests of white storks. We pulled up alongside one, where one of the parents was sitting, and gazed upon the huge stack of sticks in wonder. Although white storks are plentiful during a fair part of the year, only a handful of them breed in Israel, and the nests are therefore well-known amongst naturalists. Before long the roosting stork’s partner came by to take over the shift, and we watched the first stork fly off to the nearby field to hunt. While we were obsessing over the stork I noticed a black kite and a short-toed eagle in the thermals, mere specks in the blue skies. Before we left we took a quick look at another nearby stork nest, and then headed our way to the Bet Shean Valley.

White stork landing on the nest

We were to be spending the night at Kibbutz Kfar Rupin, at the “Stork’s Bill” Bird Watching Centre’s country dwelling accommodations. Disembarking, we received keys to our rooms and were updated with the evening plans, of which there were many. First, after some rest, I joined Dr Natan and a few others in setting out traps for rodents in a nearby field. Then, joining the rest of our group, we heard a short talk about the centre and birds in the region.

Our country dwelling in Kfar Rupin

Following that, Dr Natan gave us a class on bats and echolocation, promising to show us Kuhl’s pipistrelles on our forthcoming night tour. Armed with all sorts of gadgetry, including devices that read, record and amplify bat calls, we set out for the tour. Almost immediately we could hear the distinct calls of the scops owl, the smallest owl in Israel. Choosing to remain focused on the bats, we were then treated to a fascinating display from the pipistrelles, illuminated in flight by the powerful flashlights and headlamps we were using.

Night touring

Leaving the residential area of the kibbutz, we moved on over to the cowsheds, constantly scanning the ground and skies for interesting nocturnal wildlife. Our walk took us out of the kibbutz and into the collection of fish ponds, where the insects are more than plentiful. Shining the powerful flashlight cemented in the fact that we were most definitely surrounded by millions if not billions of flying insects, mostly mosquitoes I presume.

Beam of light illuminating the horror of insects

We saw a hedgehog at the water’s edge, fish leaping out of the water sporadically, and the occasional Kuhl’s pipistrelle flying by and activating the electronic sensors. We continued through the insect swarm, avoiding opening our mouths for fear for ingesting winged creatures. The lights of neighbouring Jordan provided a sense of direction for us as we walked the gravel paths between the ponds, constantly seeking out interesting lifeforms. Even looking directly down at the insect and spider-covered ground was a hearty adventure.

Walking along the fish ponds

Our attention soon turned towards the frogs and toads that we could hear calling from the water’s edge. Before long we had captured several fine specimens of both the green toad and the Middle East tree frog. When I was taking the photo of this male tree frog, I hadn’t noticed the mosquito sitting on its head enjoying some sips of amphibian blood.

Middle East tree frog with a mosquito on his head

Making a full loop of the ponds, we eventually reached the cowsheds that we had initially passed on our way out. Taking a slightly different route, we followed the kibbutz’s fence towards our dwelling complex. On the way I played scops owl calls from my Collins Bird Guide phone application, hoping to attract a scops owl. Then, when I was standing in front of a tree, my headlamp illuminating a fair portion of the foliage, I saw a small fluttering shape land on a branch.

Scops owl hiding in the tree

It took my mind a moment to register that it was a scops owl, and I frantically called for my peers to come see the owl once I had established its identity. With the aid of others, I was able to take its picture (mostly, at least) hiding in tree’s foliage. Being that I’ve been wanting to see a scops owl for years, this moment was most rewarding, and I was able to retire to bed feeling quite satisfied. Little did I know that the very next day I’d be seeing another long-awaited bird species just a few kilometres away…

Mount Arbel II

In Galilee, Israel on June 6, 2018 at 7:45 AM

A week and a half after my visit to the Tel Aviv Zoological Research Institute I took another trip, this one to the north of the country with the middle/high school where I work. It was a two-day trip, but the focus of this post shall be on the first day, the more interesting of the two. In fact, I had just gotten back the previous week from another two-day trip to the north with friends, provided by the Student Authority for Immigrants which arranges fancy trips and events for us throughout the academic school year.

Panoramic of the view from Mount Arbel

The morning of this trip began at the school where we boarded tour buses and began the drive up north via Road 6. Along the way I got acquainted with our tour guide, Eric Grosser, and spotted small flocks of white storks here and there alongside us. Our destination that day was the peak of Mount Arbel, with its gorgeous vista over the Kinneret (or, Sea of Galilee). We pulled into the parking lot of the national park and awaited the arrival of the final bus.

Crested lark looking tired

Exploring around a bit, I noticed the presence of some small birds such as crested larks in the field, great tits in the trees and a goldfinch or two on the fence. In addition, I examined the ancient sarcophagi on display, and a replica of a large basket used by King Herod to attack Jewish rebels hiding in the inaccessible cliffside caves. When the final bus arrived, and we were organised in smaller groups with each our own tour guide, we set off on the trail.

Setting off on the trail

We passed by the stony field, made beautiful with patches of flowering splendid bindweed and wild carrot (upon which the crested lark likes to perch and sing). To the left of us was the cliff edge, with its fantastic views, and to the right, a small water reservoir void of any interesting birds. I casted my eyes to the heavens from time to time, hoping to catch a glimpse of some birds of prey.

Hollyhock blossoms

We stopped at the Carob Lookout, where an ancient carob tree is working on restoring itself after a storm in 2017 that snapped it in half. Near the lookout we saw the faded cut marks of an ancient quarry; I just wonder what the stones were used for. From the lookout we gazed down on the ruins of Wadi Hamam, and the modern Arab village beside it, at the base of neighbouring Mount Nitai. A short-toed eagle and a common kestrel passed by overhead, and little swifts zipped by at eye level.

Levantine marbled white butterfly

After passing some blooming hollyhocks and a large amount of Levantine marbled white butterflies feasting on sweet thistle nectar, we reached the trail’s descent from the peak. Here progress was slow, and I scoured the cliffsides for interesting wildlife to no avail as I awaited my turn to make my way down the stepped path. The trail curved back in the way we came, and we headed westward along the slope.

Descending down the cliffside

After a few minutes we reached a tall, shallow cave, occupied by cows seeking respite from the sun and heat. Without intruding to disturb them, we continued on the path, making our way across the rock- and vegetation-strewn mountainside. I looked up from time to time to see if I could make out any caves or other curiosities. At last we reached a small stone structure built up against the cliff wall. I crept my way inside, avoiding fresh cowpats, and found two guilty-looking cows huddled up against one of the walls within the house.

Cows hiding within

More cows were gathered outside, but since we hadn’t come for bovine viewing, we continued onwards. Up ahead we found a sign that read “fortress and caves” straight ahead, but our guide was taking us downhill along the Israel National Trail to “Ein Arbel” and “Wadi Hamam”. I took advantage of the junction rest period to go off and explore on my own.

Sign of temptation

I found the fortress directly ahead, perched in the crags of the cliff wall, the old mason work blending in nicely with the pale, streaked rock. According to the informative sign, the four-story fortress was built in the 1600s by the Ottomans, under the local rule of Emir Fakhr al-Din – a Druze vassal who was eventually executed by the sultan.

Looking up at the fortress

Access to the fortress, known as Qalat abu-Ma’an, is provided by wide, basalt steps, which I climbed enthusiastically. At the top, I entered the stone structure, partially under restoration with external and internal scaffolding. Wooden stairs inside to me from one part of the fortress to the other, and I gazed out towards Mount Nitai and the sprawling view below.

Within the fortress

Inside the fortress ruins I found the ancient Roman-era mikva, which was used by the rebelling Jews hiding from Vespasian, Titus and their soldiers. Narrow passages took me from one side to the next, leading me further into the uncharacteristic labyrinth. At the end I found a room with a vaulted ceiling and arched windows, architectural features that I find particularly pleasing to the eye.

Slope trail

While I was admiring the view I saw my group begin the descent down the slope, so I ended my side adventure and caught up with them within minutes, joining them on the way down. At the bottom we found the flowing water of Nachal Arbel, and sat beneath large jujube trees to take a short break as we waited for all the classes to arrive. The sweet smell of the fallen jujube fruits provided an interesting setting as I scans the nearby slope of Mount Nitai and the blue skies above.

View of Mount Arbel from below

Quite unexpected, I saw a docile cow flush a male mountain gazelle from the tall grass on the slope near me, and then a white stork or two soaring past. Adequately rested, we boarded our tour buses and took a short drive over to Ein Nun, a small spring and pool which was built in the 1920s. There I searched for frogs, and was not disappointed, finding a good amount of them for my photographical wants.

Small river frog

The day ended after a visit to the waterless attractions of Kfar Blum Kayaks, and then camping at the Maayan Baruch campsite, where we slept near the banks of Nachal Snir (or Hatsbani). The following day took us to the national park of Banias, where we enjoyed the ruins and the trails. It’d be a shame not to mention the birds sighted that day, with highlights including steppe buzzards, short-toed eagles, greater spotted eagles, honey buzzards and countless flocks of white storks.

Maayan Baruch campsite

But the highlight was later in the day, at the Disaster of the Helicopters memorial (of all places), where I spotted two golden orioles in flight – a bright yellow bird that I’ve been waiting years to see. Thus, the two day trip with the school lads ended on quite the high.

University Trip: Hula Valley

In Galilee, Israel on January 7, 2018 at 9:21 AM

The other week I attended yet another academic trip provided by the Archaeology department of Bar Ilan University. However, this trip was not dedicated to history or archaeology but rather in the pursuit of wildlife, the first of several trips associated with a wildlife class that I’ll be taking next semester. Along with my friend and brewing partner Ben, we found ourselves spending two days in the lush Hula Valley region.

Hula Valley wetlands

The first day we drove from BIU up north, directly to the southern of the two Hula Valley parks. This one is part of the Israeli Parks Authority with the standard entrance fee, whilst the other belongs to JNF/KKL and is basically free, with a suggested donation of five shekels per person to help fund the crane feeding efforts in the winter. Being that I have covered both of these parks on my blog in the previous years (HERE and HERE), I shall just touch upon our activities and the unique species sighted.

Buzzard

Disembarking at the park we were immediately treated to wildlife, with a few black kites circling over the tall eucalyptus treeline and a large flock of gulls directly overhead. Our guide and course lecturer, Dr Moshe Natan, led us over to a quiet spot to introduce us to the region and its recent revival after having been dried up in the 1950s. He informed us that these two days were to be dedicated to watching the different species of wildlife around us in their natural surroundings, going about their daily lives. With an emphasis on waterfowl, I knew that there’d be interesting things to see. Plus, the Hula Valley never disappoints.

Nutria

With the sounds and sights of small flocks of common cranes flying overhead from time to time, we began our tour. Straight away we saw an interesting sight, a small waterside tree hosting perhaps a dozen or more night herons. Then, darting about with quick dives into the murky waters, a common kingfisher made a nice show. But my attention was arrested by the presence of a marsh harrier which made close flybys, searching for prey in both water and grass.

Marsh harrier hunting

I had received a pair of 7×50 binoculars from Dr Natan, which made it much easier to track and watch wildlife. However, when the opportunity arose, I picked up my camera and captured the moment in a more permanent form. Within the first half hour or so I had already seen two waterfowl species, new ones for me–a shoveler and a gadwall. One thing that I love about wildlife-rich places such as the Hula Valley is that there is always what to see, you just need to be aware of your surroundings and be prepared for anything.

Watching wildlife

Next we checked a bat box, which was empty, and then the lecturer taught us about pellets, showing us samples picked off the ground. Likely belonging to a kestrel, the regurgitated pellets contained identifiable insect parts. Moving on, we spied on several species of herons and egrets and even spotted a black-shouldered kite on a tree several hundred metres to the east. My next special sighting was a little grebe, diving into the water in the company of coots and mallards.

Cormorant’s interesting wings

Moving along nicely, we entered an open area with a large muddy patch populated by waders and wagtails. There I added a few more new species, including a common snipe and Eurasian widgeon. A hefty wild boar popped out of the thickets up ahead of us, only to disappear once it saw us watching it. But the greatest sighting of the day, and of the entire year thus far if I’m to be honest, was that of a white-tailed eagle… I was scanning the horizons with my naked eyes, and spotted a dark dot atop a tree some 700 metres to the west. I got a closer look with the binoculars but that wasn’t enough – all I was able to decipher was that I was looking at a dark-coloured bird of prey. I found one of the two spotting scopes and sighted it. At this point I was torn between the likely and the unlikely: it was either a buzzard, which is very common in the winter, or a white-tailed eagle, of which there are very few in Israel, and in the world at large.

White-tailed eagle (L21)

I consulted our guide and he uttered the words I was too hesitant to say myself: white-tailed eagle. Not only an impressive and huge bird, this one had a shoulder tag marking it as L21. When I reported the sighting to the birding group on Facebook I was informed that this L21 was a female born in Ireland in 2011 and was brought to Israel as part of a rehabilitation program. She recently raised two young, one that fell out of the nest and was killed by jackals, the other fledgling successfully.

Learning about waterfowl

Needless to say, it was hard to continue on with the tour after such an incredible find. Yet we persevered and walked through the reeds to the lake blind where we were treated to the scene of hundreds of birds in and above the water. The majority were cormorants and gulls, but there was the occasional pelican and even a spoonbill. Far across the lake we spotted a water buffalo, also reintroduced to the area after local extinction following the marsh’s drying in the 1950s.

Entranced students watching a nutria eat

Looping back around the way we came, we took a few minutes to watch a nutria feeding on plant stalks. The nutria, also known as a coypu, is a large rodent species that was brought over from South America to be harvested for their fur. Eventually that program was abandoned and the nutrias made their way to the wetlands where they live happy, albeit somewhat destructive, lives.

Wooded setting of the field school

Back at the bus we boarded and were driven up to Kiryat Shmona, at the base of Tel Barom, where we were let out to buy groceries for the evening. Ben and I tried climbing the tel to see if there was anything interesting to see but the way was tricky and we abandoned our efforts. We were then driven to the Hermon Field School in Kibbutz Snir where we were to spend the night. Much to our surprise we were all alone in the big place, and Ben and I ended up splitting a small cottage, each of us getting our own room.

Our dwelling for the night

Because it was the second night of Hanukkah, we held several candle-lighting ceremonies and then we ate dinner. Afterwards, at the end of the evening lecture about the importance and purpose of vernal pools in nature, Ben announced to me that there was the Geminids meteor shower that night. Of all nights to have a meteor shower, we were in the perfect setting. Determined to catch it, we explored the compound looking for the darkest place to properly view the night sky. But then, adventure struck, and we found ourselves with a few other members of our tour hopping the fence and journeying down to Nachal Banias below. It was a fun little excursion and we ended up seeing several shooting stars, some rather impressive. After some stargazing we headed back into the compound, passing an interestingly pigmented green toad, and went to sleep.

Green toad

The next morning began quite early with praying, eating, and a short tour of “woodland” birds seen within the compound. Our first destination of the day was the fish ponds at Lahavot HaBashan, where we sat as a small, compact group to observe the nature around us. There were predominately common species, which we had seen the day before, but there were a few nice sightings including a squacco heron and a family of mongooses crossing the dirt road near us.

Yellow-legged gull

Just for kicks, Ben and I brought bottles of cold Leffe Brown with us, opening them whilst sitting on the ground watching gulls and herons. After the beers we, as a group, got up and began a short walking tour of the fish ponds. Passing along an overgrown water channel we startled both a golden jackal in its lush winter coat as well as a marsh harrier that was busy eating a fish. Other fun sightings included another black-shouldered kite, a few dead turtles and the bones and feathers of a dead pelican or two.

Empty turtleshell

Back on the bus we headed straight for the other of the Hula Valley parks, Agamon Hula operated by the JNF/KKL. Having a quick lunch first at the visitors centre, we regrouped on our bus and entered the park along the paved roads. To my delight, I noticed that the birds seemed less afraid of us and allowed us to get much closer than I would have even gotten on-foot. But, there was a drawback, and that was trying to take photographs through the dirty bus windows.

Overlooking the lake

My favourite birds to see so close-up were the common buzzards, of which there were several. At one point there were two buzzards on the banks of a water channel just alongside us, it was such a surprise that it took me a few seconds to register their presence. Some minutes later, while overlooking the main lake, we took in the sights of the many species of waterbirds, and the birds of prey providing a constant threat from the sky. On the far side of the lake, we visited a fallen tree, where eagles are known to perch. Sunset was approaching and I was able to take this photo of a greater spotted eagle in the light of “golden hour”.

Greater spotted eagle at sunset

Even with darkness incoming there were still a few things yet to see. All throughout the evening, and particularly with the onset of dusk, the tens of thousands of common cranes were making their way to the bodies of water to spend the night. The sounds of their calls filled the air, transporting us to a seemingly different world, as the sun sank over the Naftali mountains to the west.

Dusk with the cranes

At last it was dark and the cranes fell silent, but there was still more to see. Every so often we’d catch sight of a small fluttering shape against the sky, easily deciphered as bats. These were tiny microbats, feeding on the many mosquitos in the wetlands, identified as Kuhl’s pipistrelles by our guide. Bringing the tour to a close was a quick visit to a peculiar pipe protruding from the ground, which, when the valve is opened, release natural methane gas produced by the decaying organic matter beneath the surface. Standing in the darkness we were soon greeted by the gift of light when our guide ignited the tapped gas, and sufficiently illuminated, we learned about this natural resource as a theoretical energy source. With that we boarded the bus once again and off we drove, to the busy city life of the country’s centre, bringing a close to yet another fantastic trip with many memorable moments.

Park HaMaayanot

In Galilee, Israel on October 15, 2017 at 6:06 AM

Having left Sachne in the previous post, our merry band of explorers – Ben, Miriam, Eve and myself – entered Park HaMaayanot to find the campsite that had been decided upon after consulting a satellite image map. We were looking for a scenic site, hopefully devoid of other campers and close to water. I had plans for some early morning birding, and the fish pools just 400 metres away seemed like the perfect place to accomplish this.

View of Park HaMaayanot from the east

We followed the road through the park and arrived at the Ein Shokek, a picturesque little spring pool but, because we saw other visitors, we kept moving. We walked along the tiny stream that flows from Ein Shokek, overgrown with reeds, and found the place at which we had intended to camp – and it was as beautiful as we had hoped. A shallow pool lined with rocks and shaded by eucalyptus trees, with ruins of an old flour mill and aqueduct on the side.

Campsite pool

To maintain privacy and seclusion we decided to camp on the other side of the flour mill and found a perfect place to pitch our tents. Sunset was imminent, the sun sinking behind Mount Gilboa to the west, so we finished up the preparations that required light. With the failing light came the jackals, and we watched as they came over in small groups of two or three, spying on us from a safe distance. As interesting as jackals are, we were getting peckish and had to figure out dinner from our dwindling stock of food supplies.

Camping beside the aqueduct

We had dinner at the picnic benches near the calm pool, the full moon wowing us with its splendor. Not one for canned tuna, I decided that I would go ahead and try the classic Israeli scorched tuna method (see HERE). We sat in relative darkness, watching the cans of tuna burn brightly before us, occasionally spraying us with boiling hot oil and burning ash.

Ben preparing the flaming tuna

In jolly good moods, we joked about the jackals coming for our food in the night, and that even if we’d tie the food up in a tree, the jackal pack would come and chew the tree down. This silly thought spawned the clever term “lumberjackal” which I must accredit to Ben. Next, Eve entertained us with a brief shadow puppet show on the trunk of a nearby eucalyptus, and when the tuna was properly scorched, we had dinner and a cup of lemon ginger tea.

Full moon over the campsite

Going to sleep nice and early, the jackals didn’t interfere too much with our human encampment, nor did they turn into lumberjackals. I woke up at 5:30am to see my birding wish come true, and walked over to the fish ponds. I didn’t find anything too noteworthy at the fish ponds except for my first common sandpiper, which bobbed up and down among the waterside rocks. In addition, there was the standard stock of waterfowl such as egrets, herons and ducks as well as a nice amount of white-breasted kingfishers and barn swallows.

Grey heron silhouette

However, the views with the early morning sun were stunning, and the area just begged to be photographed. One angle that I found particularly eye-pleasing is the view of Mount Gilboa with the fish ponds in the foreground. I spent about an hour and a half at the ponds before heading back to my fellow campers, who were in the process of packing up their tents.

Fish pools and Mount Gilboa

With everything packed away nicely, we prayed alongside the eucalyptus trees and then I dipped into the shallow pond, enjoying a little foot grooming from the doctor fish and the suspicious glances of a lone catfish skulking about underfoot. At last we moved on over to Ein Shokek and were thrilled at the simple beauty of the place.

Ein Shokek’s beauty

Perfectly clear water, with different shades of rock colours decorating the floor, and the presence of so many peaceful-looking fish made us want to stay forever. We entered the water in our swimwear, giggling at the gentle persistence of the hungry doctor fish, and splashed around in the warming waters. We were alone, but not for long, as small groups of visitors came by for mere minutes at a time.

Doctor fish nibbling away

We had breakfast and tea and then made a plan for the rest of the day, eventually changing back into regular clothing. Getting golf cart rides back to the entrance of the park we set off on our short hike.

Park HaMaayanot

Crossing the park from west to east, we walked the trail along Nahal HaKibbutzim, passing some wildflowers and a few birds, including my first marsh harrier. It was a nice gentle walk, the golden hill of Tel Socha serving as a beacon up ahead. Climbing the steep hill, which has yet to be excavated despite signs of human settlements thousands of years prior, we reached the ruined watchtower.

Climbing Tel Socha

A few years after neighbouring Nir David was constructed, several kibbutz members were killed by local Arabs at the foot of this hill. So, to protect against further attacks, a watchtower was erected, named after the three who had fallen the year before. This story is where the alternate name of Sachne, Gan HaShlosha, comes from.

Nachal HaKibbutzim

Hiking back down the hill, we spent a few minutes at the water of Nahal HaKibbutzim before heading for the bus stop a few minutes away. We were taken to the Bet Shean train station, and from there back to Tel Aviv, bringing an end to a lovely little camping trip with my adventurous friends.

Sachne

In Galilee, Israel on October 8, 2017 at 4:41 AM

After two weeks of not doing anything fun save studying and taking finals, I participated in a trip that was mostly planned by my friends. Ben and Miriam, friends of mine, came back from a trip up north with convincing words that we all need to go visit Sachne. Also known as Gan HaShlosha, Sachne is a national park between Beit Alpha and Bet Shean in the valley below Mount Gilboa which largely focuses on a large series of freshwater pools stemming from underground springs. It has been described as “heaven on earth” and we were excited to explore it.

The beauty of Sachne

To make our trip as rewarding as possible, it was decided that we’d have a barbecue lunch at Sachne, spending as long as we could before the park rangers kick us out. Once banished, we’d go camp somewhere nice where we’d see water and the migratory birds that had just started to make their way to Africa from Europe and Northern Asia and then return sometime in the afternoon. I borrowed a tent from a friend and brought along the necessary equipment and supplies to ensure a glorious trip. Setting out for the 6am train, we were a snazzy party of five: Ben, Miriam, Adam (who is frequently featured), Eve and myself.

Sunlit explorers

When we passed the salt pools of Atlit I was surprised to see two flocks of flamingos standing in the shallow waters. I called out and gestured for my trip-mates to share in the joy of seeing some eighty flamingos relatively close by. For the amateur birder that I am, the trip was off to a great start and I was eager to see more. I was treated to a nice sighting of a short-toed eagle flying past the train near Mount Carmel. It was my first time riding the new train line from Haifa to Bet Shean, a reconstruction of the old Ottoman line that connected to the Hedjaz Railway.

Eastern end of Sachne

We arrived at Bet Shean and, after a very long wait for a bus, eventually made it to the entrance of Sachne. We paid the entry fee and entered the park, excited to see what the fuss was all about. Because the park is long and narrow, along the lush banks of the Amal stream, Ben and Miriam took us to the southern side and together we searched for the perfect spot to claim. We found it just after the first waterfall, a picnic table beside a grill under the shade of some fig trees. Dumping all of our heavy bags at the base of one of the trees, we unpacked the necessary tools to get our barbecue going. I volunteered to stay behind and watch over our belongings whilst tending to the fire while the others went for a dip in the cerulean waters.

Lunch is served

I grilled up an eggplant and a pan of onions for the burgers we were to make next. The others came back from swimming and we continued cooking up a little feast for ourselves. We sat at the picnic table and dined, eating until we could no more. When the meal was over, and after our brief interactions with a large group of Bahais that were feasting nearby, we returned our focus to the beautiful water.

Cerulean waters of Nachal Amal

It was my turn to explore and I did just that. Walking along the paved banks, we came upon something very interesting, something I had never even heard of. Hewn in the stone are the remnants of a Roman naumachia, stepped rows of seating for spectators to watch watersports (at least that’s what the running theory is). It must have been quite entertaining to sit on the stone steps whilst munching on some dulciaria procured from the passing usher. Those who find interest in dulciaria and other Roman foods should peruse the translated version of Apicius, a delightful Roman cookbook which can be found HERE.

Roman naumachia seating

Continuing further along, we reached the old flour mill and the complex of pools, channels and structures which charmed us. We worked our way down to a particularly interesting spot where water rushes from two arched holes in a dam, spilling over a small waterfall at the end. Doctor fish greeted us, sucking and nibbling on our feet as we traversed the rocky streambed. Donning goggles we were able to get a nice view of the underwater world, as shallow and fast moving as it was. I found great joy in sitting beneath the gushing water in the dam and then being swept along at the mini-waterfall. We went down to the pool below and found that the stream continued thenceforth rather peacefully, with some lazy fish swimming about in the greenish water.

Sachne’s flour mill installation

Returning to dry land, I went off on a quick scouting expedition to see what and where the purported archaeology museum and tower and stockade site. More about the tower and stockade building approach that was popular by necessity in the 1930s can be found on my post about the Old Northern Road, but what’s extra interesting is that the one at Sachne was the second of its kind to be built, preceded only by Kfar Hittim three days prior. I found the museum to be closed for the day and didn’t venture over to the tower and stockade, returning to my friends cavorting in the picturesque waters.

Nir David’s Tower and Stockade

Taking up the goggles once again I too enjoyed the water, noticing a common kingfisher perched on a root protruding from the steep banks just below our barbecue encampment. Swimming here and there, we were eventually called from the water as the park was closing. With great sorrow we dried off and changed back to our normal clothing. Adam was leaving us to get back to the Tel Aviv area while the rest of us were just relocating. We left Sachne and headed to Park HaMaayanot (or, Park of the Springs) to camp beside a lovely pool amongst some eucalyptus trees – a site we found using the satellite map of Amud Anan, my favourite site/app for maps. The continuation of the day’s adventure will continue in the next post.

Tel Kabri Archaeological Dig

In Galilee, Israel on August 20, 2017 at 7:12 AM

The Monday following my trip to the City of David I found myself back home in Ma’alot and excited for a day at the Tel Kabri Archaeological Dig. My own month-long dig at Tel es-Safi was to start the following week, classes were ending – the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Being that Tel Kabri is just a few minutes from the Mediterranean Sea along Road 89, it was just a few minutes away by car and, even with getting lost and confused, my brother Nissim and I arrived at the dig site unscathed and ready for adventure.

Tel Kabri Archaeological Dig (photo Griffin Aerial Imaging Ltd Skyview Photography Ltd.)

We were greeted by Prof Eric H Cline of George Washington University and other members of the staff and were then introduced to the site. First settled in prehistoric times, the city’s original name is still unknown and eventually became known as Rechov (perhaps one of two cities in the region with that name) under Canaanite rule. The Tel Kabri palace, which was recently discovered, dates to the Middle Bronze era and is the largest of its kind in Israel. Two things that are particularly interesting are the Minoan-style fresco fragments (which indicate cultural influence at such an early age) as well as the vast wine cellar that was found a few years ago. Fast-forward to the Roman era and the city became known as Kabrita which then became el-Kabira in the Early Arab period, names becoming naturally corrupted over time. El-Kabira morphed into al-Kabri, and, in 1949, an Israeli kibbutz by the name of Kabri was founded nearby.

Excavation underway

Today the Canaanite palace and surrounding ruins that have yet to be excavated are surrounded by an avocado plantation. To the northwest is Achziv and Rosh HaNikra and to the southwest is the magnificent port city of Akko and Haifa, all fascinating sites. Finished with our little tour of the dig area, we were introduced to Jim, our to-be square supervisor. He provided us with the necessary tools to work – pickaxes, hoes and trowels – and we settled in the far northwestern corner of the dig site which is named Area D-west Square 1.

Nissim digging away

Our task was a simple one that day, to deepen the square so that it was as deep as the adjacent one. In archaeology it’s important to work on a level plane, so that everything is potentially uncovered at the same time instead of random pits here and there. Due to the fact that the dig site is located in an avocado plantation, the ground is damp from the irrigation and the digging was more or less pleasant.

Scraping away at the baulk for the potsherd

We found small amounts of pottery which went into the specially-marked pottery bucket, as well as a bone fragment, which was placed in Jim’s “schwarma bag” – a cute name for the small paper bags obtained at Israeli street food joints. The bag was properly labeled and in went the bone. Similar procedures were taken to secure flint and shell fragments found in the dirt.

Bag o’ bones

Apparently, on the very first day of the season, an Ottoman coin was found in an adjacent square but unfortunately we found no coins that day. Our square partners, McKay, MJ and Russell, helped pass the time making the labour fun with interesting discussions and funny jokes. The general atmosphere at the dig was very jovial and humourous despite the humid heat, with trance music playing in the background for our enjoyment. Then, when least expected, the call for the bucket brigade would sound out and diggers would form lines outside the dig area bringing full buckets with them. When the buckets of dirt to be discarded became overwhelmingly numerous it was deemed that having a unified effort to dispose of them would be best for morale and efficiency. Thus, the bucket brigade would form and full buckets of dirt would be thrown down the assembly line of diggers until it reached the large dirt hill where the dirt was dispensed.

Awaiting the bucket brigade

Breakfast came and went, as did the fruit break and a surprising moment when staff members appeared out of the trees armed with waterguns and sprayed the sweaty dig crew to liven them up. I was left unsprayed, but my own sweat kept me lively enough. I made contact with the small group of Israelis, led by Dr. Assaf Yasur-Landau of Haifa University, and spoke to them for a bit about matters of academia and archaeology. Other dig members proved to be interesting as well, and the time flew by. It wasn’t long before the dig day was coming to an end and we cleared away all the tools.

Nissim within the square

While we hadn’t found anything too exciting that day, we succeeded in taking the square’s height down a wee bit which would be of help in the following days. We packed up our bags and bid farewell to Eric, Assaf, Matt (our area supervisor), Jim and the others, driving back out of the avocado plantation.

Avocado

The sun was still high in the sky and I still had energy for more adventure so we turned into a small collection of interesting sites just across Road 70. Parking the car under some eucalyptus trees, we got out into the heat and made our way to the ruins of an old flour mill, powered by water channeled in via a small aqueduct which is still preserved.

Old flour mill

We then walked along the aqueduct until we reached the old local Muslim cemetery where painted vehicle hulls are displayed. In 1948, during the War of Independence, the members of Kibbutz Yehiam were holed up and surrounded by Arab forces, in desperate need of support. Supplies and reinforcements were scheduled to be driven in from the Haifa area – yet disaster loomed. Arab forces were waiting in ambush at this cemetery and opened fire on the incoming convoy, effectively stopping it and killing forty-seven Haganah members. We examined the vehicles, even entering one, and then returned to our car to drive back home. Nissim ended up returning to the dig for the remainder of the season, having the time of his life, but I headed back to Givat Shmuel and then to my own university’s excavation, the Tel es-Safi Archaeological Dig. Additional information about the dig and participation options can be found on the Tel Kabri website, found HERE.

University Trip: “Moshavot” of the Galilee

In Galilee, Israel on August 6, 2017 at 7:40 AM

The week after visiting Tel Aroma & Mount Gerizim in the Shomron I participated in another academic tour offered by Bar Ilan University’s Archaeology department. This time we were traveling to the north of Israel with Dr Einat HaLevi Attia to examine early “Moshavot” of the Galilee, settlements established in the late 1800s and early 1900s by the first waves of immigrants to the Holy Land. We boarded a tour minibus at the university and made our way to the first site of the day, Kibbutz Merchavia, after a short rest stop in neighbouring Afula.

Merchavia

We sat outside the “Great Courtyard” and learned about Merchavia’s founding in 1911 and their distinct organisational style as being a “co-operative”. Interestingly enough, they created the first dairy in modern-day Israel. Our subsequent tour of the courtyard’s buildings included the “Big House”, the “Produce Granary”, the Haganah Radio Station and later Israeli prime minister Golda Meir’s house. Getting back into the minibus, we then took a very short drive to the edge of the moshav version of Merchavia where admired a large manor built during those formative years and nicknamed the “Castle of the Jezreel Valley” due to its size and position overlooking the valley. Returning to our trusty minibus, we then drove over to where the agricultural establishment of Sejara once stood, founded in 1900. Today the remains are within a military base by the name of Chavat HaShomer (which I visited once several years ago but didn’t see the ruins).

Rose-ringed parakeet inspecting me from above

So, we stayed outside under a large tree and learned about the site before walking over to see Ilaniya, the successor of the Sejara settlement. There we were afforded up-close and plentiful views of the still-existent site – a settlement of one main street lined with agriculturally involved houses. I distracted myself trying to photograph singing goldfinches, but with limited success. Walking to a rooftop lookout, we passed farming equipment on display and then admired a large wall that was originally made with white chalk and then added to with blocks of dark grey basalt. From Ilaniya we got back into the minibus and drove to see a handful of ruined basalt buildings in Poriya, established in 1912.

Basalt ruins of Poriya

From there we took a short break at a strip mall where I purchased a bottle of semi-sweet hard cider for Shabbat and then on to the next site on our list: the Kinneret Courtyard just south of the ruins of Bet Yerach. A rectangular collection of well-kept basalt buildings, the courtyard was founded in 1908 as a defensible frontier close to the Sea of Galilee. We were greeted by our local guide, Asaf, who gave us a hurried yet sincere overview on the early history of the settlement and the difficulties that encumbered the settlers in those times. Inside the exhibits room of the courtyard, located within the old khan (roadside inn), we inspected items that belonged to that era, as well as signs depicting the important figures who played roles in the sites formation.

Kinneret Courtyard

Taking leave of the courtyard, with some noisy kestrels passing overhead, we got back into the minibus to be taken to Degania, which I had already visited in 2012. We met up with our next local guide, witty Moshe, who took us on an interesting tour, including the following site which I had not known about beforehand. Driving alongside the agricultural date groves at the edge of the kibbutz, we reached the place where the first building was constructed in 1909 – at a place once known as Umm Juni. This structure was featured in the famous photo of the settlement members in mostly Arab garb posing that can be seen HERE.

Original structure of Degania

Beyond the structure is a wildly windy lookout overlooking fields and the dry wilderness beyond. Directly below the gentle Jordan River flows, nimble swallows (both barn and red-rumped) darting back and forth in the hot air overhead. I stalked a bird along the basalt rocks only to discover that it was a crested lark, nothing to get too excited over.

Picturesque view from Umm Juni

From there we went to the regular part of Degania, where the courtyard (a common theme this trip) beckons, with its basalt stone structures. Overhead we got glimpses of cormorants flying to and from the Kinneret’s banks, and the occasional goldfinch snacking in a pine tree. We entered the small museum just outside the courtyard’s domain and examined the collection of photographs taken over the years, including a particularly interesting aerial shot with the shadow of the German airplane that took it. I signed the guestbook, plugging my blog shamelessly, and we bid farewell to both Degania and our guide Moshe.

Cemetery beside the Kinneret

We had one last place to visit – a cemetery overlooking the peaceful blue Kinneret. Having discussed so much of the early years, it was time, at last, to see what has become of the valiant members of such noble efforts. We were there to pay our respects, and to have one or two last things to reflect upon before we returned to the urban sprawl of the centre of the country. Leaving the cemetery, we ritually washed our hands and boarded the minibus for the long drive back, another interesting trip under our belts.