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University Trip: Tel Arad & Tel Be’er Sheva

In Israel, Negev on May 10, 2020 at 8:47 AM

Last semester, in the beginning of January, I went on yet another department-run field trip with Prof Aren Maeir. Since I’ve been a trip-going student for several years now, there is an increasingly small list of unique and new field trips being offered to me. However, when I heard of a trip to Tel Arad and Tel Be’er Sheva – of which I’ve been to neither – I jumped to the opportunity.

Welcome to Tel Arad!

Our tour bus departed from Bar Ilan University in the morning, and we made our way south toward our first destination: Tel Arad. We arrived just after 9:30 and disembarked, gathering up informational brochures from the front desk, before heading up to the fortress at the top of the tel. I scoured the area for birds, hoping to add a few nice desert-living species to my freshly-started 2020 list. Sure enough, I spotted a mourning wheatear bouncing around the rocky terrain of the national park, joined by a male black redstart.

Approaching Tel Arad’s fortress

Atop the tel, Prof Maeir began to educate us about the site that we were about to enter, however, I was much too busy filming and looking for birds to know what was said. As part of my job as media director of my department, I film, edit and release videos of our field trips. You can see the video of this trip HERE, on the department’s YouTube channel (feel free to subscribe HERE!).

Finsch’s wheatear on barbed wire

Before elaborating on the site, I should add that I tried visiting Tel Arad back when I was a truck driver in the IDF, but didn’t end up having time to explore. So, this trip’s score was to be settled at last. About Tel Arad, the site first saw human occupation in prehistory, with a scattered settlement, and then became a walled city during the Bronze Age. The tel-top fortress was first built in the Iron Age, built and rebuilt numerous times as a result of enemy destruction. In the Hellenistic period the fortress saw an addition of a tower, and the city was only finally abandoned in the Early Arab period (8th century CE). Following surveys conducted by the British in 1874, the site was ultimately excavated in the 1960-80s and established as a national park.

Within the fortress

We entered the fortress from the east, and entered the not-so-tall tower, enjoying the lookout over the ancient city. Looking down at the layout of the fortress below us, we saw the warehouses and the temple, with its shrine and altar. There was a bitterly cold wind that whipped at us, driving us down from the lovely lookout and into the partially restored fort interior.

The Cana’anite city down below

After a quick gander at the subterranean water system and reservoir, where some feral pigeons waited in ambush to burst out at us with a flurry of powerful wingbeats. Not the least bit alarmed, we continued down to what is called the “Canaanite city”, and examined the exposed ruins scattered here and there. I must add that this layout, with the fortress up above and the walled city down below, was greatly pleasing to the eye and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit there.

Outside the Aradian house

We followed the park’s recommended trail, bumping into a group from Tel Aviv University, led by Dr Ido Koch, whom our Prof Maeir seemed to know quite well. While outside the typical Aradian house, a broad-room style house, I noticed an interesting turn of events over the western border fence. A hooded crow had spotted two brown-necked ravens coming in, and went over to greet them in the best way possible. A short and anti-climactic aerial battle ensued, and I watched the corvids swoop and dive at one another until at last they all dispersed free of visible injury, but perhaps injured pride.

Raven vs crow

When we were finished at Tel Arad we got back into our bus and had a nice desert drive over to the second site of the day: Tel Be’er Sheva, located just outside of the city Be’er Sheva. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the tel is an important site that saw civilisation for a span of thousands of years. There are remnants of settlement from prehistoric times, as well as a pretty continuous occupation in the Iron Age. During the Persian period, in the 5th-4th centuries BCE, a small fortress was built.

Welcome to ancient Be’er Sheva!

Subsequently, in the Hellenstic period, a temple was constructed – the stone base of the altar still visible on-site. The fortress was enlarged in the Herodian period, and then a diamond-shaped fortress was built in the subsequent Roman period, to be restored in the Early Arab period. During the Roman and Byzantine periods, Be’er Sheva’s epicentre moved from the tel to the outlying areas – today, the sprawling modern city. Used by the Ottomans as a staging ground during WWI, the city was conquered by ANZAC troops in 1917.

A mess of rooms and pathways

We entered the site and approached the tel from the east, climbing up into the walled city from the southern gate. Within, the city’s remains – most of them reconstructed – portray a chaotic assemblage of human-built structures, crisscrossed by ancient streets and modern footpaths. Prof Maeir went into great detail as we walked from area to area, while I attempted to capture it all on film.

Strangers watching us from the tower

Several black kites soared overhead at low altitudes, attracted to the rubbish heaps perhaps accredited to the nearby Bedouin encampment, or perhaps the local village Tel as-Sabi. Likewise, a medium-sized mammal (perhaps Indian crested porcupine) had been burrowing under some ancient walls, which amused me to see. The path took us along the inside of the casemate wall until the northwest corner, where it turned in to lead us to the observation tower.

Superimposed model over reconstruction

It was atop the tower that I felt a greater understanding of the circular city below me, as I was able to see the layout from a bird’s-eye view – oh, how I envy them! Casting my view out even farther, I spotted an interesting sight from the Bedouin encampment – dozens of dromedary camels alongside scores of fuzzy-looking sheep.

Descending into Tel Be’er Sheva’s water system

We descended from on high, and made our way into the bowels of the globe – well, not that far, just seventeen metres down into ancient Be’er Sheva’s underground water system. It was nice and cool down below, and like all ancient water systems, quite an engineering feat considering the tools and knowledge the builders possessed.

Video that I filmed of the trip

Finishing our circuit of the ancient city, we stopped at the famous altar’s replica (the original is on display at the Israel Museum) for a quick selfie with the whole group, sans myself who needed to document the documentation. We had a short break and then loaded ourselves back into our bus to be shuttled to our next location: Tel Lachish.

Low-res selfie documentation

However, being as though I already visited, blogged about and filmed a previous Maeir-led excursion to Tel Lachish (see HERE), I thought I’d sit this one out and instead did some near-sunset birding, and fox-watching, which turned out to be quite enjoyable. I secured a ride back to Jerusalem with the professor and from there to a bus to have dinner with my then-fiancé, Bracha. The day ended as it had begun, with smiles and a resparked thirst for fun, adventurous outings.

Khirbet Luza

In Israel, Jerusalem on March 29, 2020 at 8:45 AM

Continuing on with backlogged adventures, this post brings us to the mountains outside Jerusalem in the beginning of December. As part of our MA thesis project, friend and classmate Avner Touitou and I have been exploring our options. Being that we are both specialising in Crusader archaeology, we figured we’d best go out on a little adventure to hit up some lesser-known Crusader sites in the Jerusalem area.

Khirbet Luza

Avner picked me up in the morning and we drove over to our first destination, Khirbet Luza (or, al-Lawza), located not far from Moza. With a quick stop for coffee we made it to the nearest parking lot, at Arazim Valley Park, and continued on foot, all bundled up from the cold.

Join Avner on this adventure

Trying to keep pace, I scanned the nearby trees and vineyards in search of interesting birds and found a decent selection, including chaffinches, black redstarts and a whole lot of blackbirds.

Black redstart

As we walked, Avner pointed out a few gazelle on the slopes in front of us, and sure enough the trailside slopes had what to offer. It happened so quickly, and so very unexpectedly. I saw a head peering out from behind the rocky vegetation, and immediately, instinctively knew that it belonged to a striped hyena.

Striped hyena head popping up

I nearly shouted with excitement, and hurriedly took photographs as I explained to Avner where it was hiding. Sure enough, it decided to move on, giving us a few seconds of a really great wildlife encounter. I had seen only one definite hyena, at night when I was driving in the army, and then another possible sighting near Tel es-Safi, which I wrote about HERE.

…and on the move

On a high, I reluctantly carried on as we continued walking our way along the trail in the direction of Khirbet Luza. We passed hundreds of trees with beautiful autumn foliage, unmarked ruins and a sign announcing the location as being Enot Telem National Park – a collection of natural springs, which were most recently used by the British. At last, after passing Ein Luz spring, we found it, the unassuming multi-leveled ruins on the left slope of the wadi-trail.

British pumping station

Leaving the trail, we climbed up on the damp rocky soil terraces, noticing the abundance of Steven’s meadow saffron, the delicate pinkish-purple flowers popping out of the soil. We explored the lowest level of the ruins, a large square chambre with thick walls, believed to have served as a pool of sorts.

Foggy Jerusalem hills and Khirbet Luza’s pool of sorts

We climbed up to the next level, where the ruins were either partially filled in or collapsed. The atmosphere was rather foggy, as was our understanding of the site. A northern raven flew overhead, patrolling the opposing slope, and we found some decorated Crusader pottery and typically-masoned ashlars. Some other flowers, including winter saffron, added a bit of flora here and there.

Decorated Medieval pottery

The second level of the ruins consist of a rectangular open room with added residential chambres closer to the natural slope. There are also several barrel-vaulted rooms, which are for the most part partially buried. We explored the toppled ruins the best we could, being wary of potential pits among the rubble.

Examining the high wall

Khirbet Luza was a rural estate built during the Crusader-era Kingdom of Jerusalem, situated on a rural road which connected other estates and monasteries. The terraces surrounding the building would have likely supported grapevines or olive trees during the Crusader period; today, these same terraces host olive trees, perhaps descendants of the Medieval ones.

Winter saffron

We continued on over to the nearby spring, where we found a huge blackberry bush just weeks from being ripe. We nibbled on a tart berry, just for entertainment’s sake, and then turned our attention to the spring’s pool where something sparkled at us from within the clear water. It was worth probing at it, in hopes of fishing out something amazing – but alas, ‘twas nothing exciting at all.

Exploring the spring

When we had finished our exploration of Khirbet Luza we walked back to the car, passing a whole bunch of common kestrels. From there we drove over to the next destination: Khirbet el-Burj, located in Ramot, a neighbourhood of Jerusalem.

Dead grass-covered tel

Parking the car in a totally residential area, we found the hill associated with the site and climbed accordingly, seeing a few stonechats flying about. There was an overall cover of dried grass which made seeing any possible ruins difficult, yet we persevered. Yet, we did see a bit of architectural remains which seem to have dated back to the Crusader period.

Nabi Samuel nearby

Skirting the small hill from the south-side, we climbed up to the top from the east and saw a familiar landmark to the north. Nabi Samuel, a fantastic archaeological and religious site which holds some importance to me. My wife and I had gone there for our very first date, and thus already cherished, it was then the location of my marriage proposal – up on the rooftop with its view of Jerusalem.

Not much to see here at Khirbet el-Burj

But, up on the top of Khirbet el-Burj, there wasn’t much to see. We found some exposed walls, and the meagre remains of a largish building with a tower, destroyed in 1967 according to the IAA report. With not much to see, factoring in the passage of time and neglection, as well as the dominant grassy obstruction, we decided to bring our trip to an end. But first, two meadow pipits popped into view, giving me a nice sighting. We walked back down to Avner’s car and drove out to the main road, where we parted ways. Avner headed home and I waited for Bracha so that we could journey over to Ma’ale Adumim for Shabbat.

Montfort Castle Archaeological Dig

In Galilee, Israel on March 17, 2020 at 12:07 PM

There’s been a bit of a writing lull, what with my wedding in the beginning of February and the overload of work and school-related exams, papers and activities. Now in this unreal coronavirus pandemic lockdown, I think it’s time to cover the last of this past summer’s adventures. This post took place in late August, a few days before I proposed to my then-girlfriend Bracha. Some family was visiting from Washington State and I had seen an advert about renewed excavations at Montfort Castle, quite near my hometown of Ma’alot.

Sunrise over the Galilean mountains

Setting the gears into motion, I had contacted one of the dig’s organisers, Dr Rabei Khamisy of Haifa University, and arranged our volunteering for a day. That morning arrived and we left the house at the crack of dawn, meeting up with the rest of the team at a parking lot overlooking Nachal Kziv a few minutes before 6am. To get to the fortress we took one of the winding mountain trails, which is beautiful in its own right. However, being able to bring my relatives to a grand Crusader castle (albeit in ruins) such as Montfort was quite a thrill.

Mission briefing

We explored a wee bit of the 800-year old fortress before approaching Rabei for instructions, wondering what interesting work we’d be tasked with. Thankfully, he had the perfect job for us which had us working at the foot of the Montfort’s keep (the innermost fortified section of the castle). Our mission for that day was to expose a long-lost drainage channel which was recently rediscovered in old expedition photos of the castle. The team’s lead researchers had only come across it a few days prior and desired to see it exposed once again, to be examined and photographed. We accepted our mission joyfully and set forth exposing the channel, which was predominately hewn into the bedrock floor.

Exposing a mysterious little pit

The labour was fun and we were a great crew of six: Uncle EJ, Aunt Karise, cousins Walker and Judy Rae, brother Nissim and myself. The laughs were plenty and the dirt and rocks slowly moved from the channel to dumping piles elsewhere around us. We moved part of a broken trough that was placed against the keep’s walls, adjacent to a reservoir, and cleared our way around a short tree whose roots penetrated deep into a mysterious pit, finding all sorts of small items including a spent bullet casing.

Looking towards the sea

Eventually we broke for breakfast and dined with the rest of the crew who were working elsewhere in the castle. Their group was formed mostly of volunteers from Europe and Australia, as well as some Haifa University staff members including Prof Adrian Boas, one of Israel’s lead Crusader archaeologists.

The more interesting part of the exposed channel

When we were done eating we got back to work, with Rabei checking in on us now and again, just to make sure everything was going as planned. Our timing was great and we finished our mini-excavation just as the sun was coming up over the keep. We cleaned up the exposed channel, making sure it looked presentable for any possible official photography attempts, and put our borrowed tools back.

Early migrating honey buzzard

I hadn’t taken many photographs as we were all busy working or bonding, but when I saw a few birds of prey over the opposing ridge I whipped out my camera. Lo and behold, an early-migrating honey buzzard was circling overhead, in the company of two noisy short-toed eagles.

Group selfie (photo EJ Swainson)

Finished at the dig, having spent a really productive and interesting day at this once spectacular castle, we made our way back to the cars parked up above. It was a great experience for us all, and Uncle EJ even wrote a lovely Facebook post about it when they returned home to America, which you can see HERE. To many more adventures with friends and family!

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.

Horns of Hattin Battle Reenactment

In Galilee, Israel on December 4, 2019 at 10:49 AM

A week or so after my day’s participation at the Mount Zion Archaeological Dig I spent a few days up north in Ma’alot with my folks. Planned carefully, this visit coincided with the Horns of Hattin battle reenactment, paying homage to the famous battle that launched the medieval sultan Saladin into international fame/infamy. The battle reenactment is part of a three-day event organised by a group known as “Regnum Hierosolymitanum”, catering to history enthusiasts from around the world.

The Horns of Hattin

First, to retell the tale with photographs from the recreated battle interspersed. The year was 1187 and the Kingdom of Jerusalem was in full swing, under the leadership of King Guy of Lusignan. The Crusaders had entered the Levant and had conquered Jerusalem in 1099, creating the kingdom under the early rule of Baldwin I. Generations later, after the reigns of Baldwin IV the “Leper King” and Baldwin V who died as a child, Guy of Lusignan claimed rule by being the husband of Sibylla who was next in line for the throne.

Ayyubid archer watching for the armies

On the other side, the tens of thousands of Muslim horsemen and footsoldiers were united under the banner of Sultan Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty. Having joined the two most powerful cities of the region, Cairo and Damascus, he reestablished the Sunni caliphate and began impressive conquests throughout the Middle East. The Kingdom of Jerusalem, occupying Islam’s third holiest city, was next on Saladin’s list and he attacked thenceforce.

Crusader forces approaching

Departing from Damascus with a formidable force, Saladin marched towards the Kingdom of Jerusalem and laid siege on Tiberias, a fortified city on the Sea of Galilee. Rushing to defend the besieged city, the Crusader armies pushed eastward from the coastal plains. What’s important to note is that the Crusader forces were composed of numerous Christain entities: The Kingdom of Jerusalem’s army, the Templar and Hospitaller Military Orders which were somewhat subservient to the Vatican, and other important noblemen.

Gerard de Ridefort, Reynald of Châtillon and King Guy of Lusignan

Upon conquering all but the citadel of Tiberias, where Eschiva the wife of Count Raymond III of Tripoli was holed up, Saladin took his army westward to meet the Crusaders near Zippori. The Crusaders had spent a few days in the area, pushing eastward under split leadership. It was the beginning of July and the heat was unbearable, punishing the armoured soldiers and weakening them with thirst.

Parrying horsemen

The armies met on the slope of the Horns of Hattin, an extinct volcano that received its “horned” appearance after an ancient volcanic eruption. The Ayyubid army outnumbered the Crusaders, and harassed them with fire, arrows and noise, surrounding them until the Christian armies broke rank. Attempts at counterattacks on the Muslim forces failed, and the Crusaders were slowly cut down. Some escaped, many were killed and the battle came to an end.

Gerard de Ridefort, Grand Master of the Templar Knights

The remaining Crusaders were captured by the Muslim army, and dealt with forthwith. King Guy of Lusignan was spared, offered to drink from the cup of Saladin, as well as Gerard de Ridefort, but others weren’t so fortunate. Reynald of Châtillon, an important nobleman who served as a vassal to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, was beheaded by Saladin himself, a death sentence that was meted out to Templar and Hospitaller knights as well.

Field photographer in period dress

Saladin’s victory spelled doom for the crushed Kingdom of Jerusalem, with its king imprisoned in Damascus and its army in ruins. Only the fortified coastal city of Tyre escaped the ravishings of Saladin’s army, and ended up being a city of refuge for King Guy when he escaped. It wasn’t until 1191 that the Christians received reinforcement from abroad, with the Third Crusade. English king Richard the Lionheart and Philip II of France brought considerable armies which were able to recapture lands and renew the Kingdom of Jerusalem from Saladin and his men, but Jerusalem never returned to the state it was in during the first phase of the kingdom. Thus ends the history lesson.

Attacking the huddled Christians

Getting back to the reenactment, the reenactors had begun their 30-kilometre march on July 3rd starting at the Springs of Zippori. For two days they marched in the day, and camped in the night, reliving the experiences from 1187 the best they could. Dressed in period clothing, armed with period weapons and equipment, the dozens of members made their way to the mountain.

Players and watchers

My brother Nissim and I set out the morning of Friday the 5th, aiming to intercept the march where they reach the Horns of Hattin. Quite near the site we picked up another history buff who had come to see the reenactment as well. We parked in the designated field at the foot of the mountain and joined the hundred and something spectators who were gathered about beneath shade tents.

The clashings of many swords

A single Ayyubid tent was set up in the battlezone, and single archer stood outside watching for the arrival of the armies. It took a short while but eventually they came, riding in from the west. We watched as the two sides set up the battlefield and got ready to fight. The prominent figure on the Christian side was the imposing looking Reynald of Châtillon, vassal lord of the kingdom, dressed in red robes and chain mail armour. On the Muslim side was Saladin, the Ayyubid sultan, dressed in blue robes and chain mail armour.

Nissim looks happy

The sides clashed here and there, first demonstrating cavalry charges with pounding steeds and flashing steel. Here and there a soldier fell, and the battle continued. Archers took up their bows and let arrows fly into the midst of their enemies. Shields were raised, crosses were held on high, and the sweat poured freely. Just like it was in 1187, the beginning of July was hot and sunbaked this year too.

Surrounded by Saladin’s forces

We watched from the sidelines, taking pictures when we could, and enjoying the battle before us. Eventually, after cutting down most of the Christian soldiers, the overwhelming Muslim forces captured Reynald of Châtillon and the knights, among the other prisoners-of-war. We watched as the reenactors recreated the scene of Reynald’s beheading, which was curious to say the least.

Saladin beheading Reynald of Châtillon

With the battle over, the players allowed the crowd to mingle with them and we made our way back to the car. It was getting a wee bit late and we had to drive back to Ma’alot for Shabbat. It was a lovely outing though, and rather fun to take photos of – of which I have many. For more information about the “Regnum Hierosolymitanum” group see HERE and HERE; for the Facebook event page see HERE.

Mount Zion Archaeological Dig

In Israel, Jerusalem on November 6, 2019 at 2:22 PM

Way back in the end of June, at the start of the busy summer months, I had the pleasure of taking part in yet another exciting archaeological dig. Being that I have just begun my MA degree this autumn semester, I’ve been involving myself in the Crusader period more and more. This led me to meeting up with Dr Rafi Lewis, co-director of the Mount Zion Archaeological Dig, at his excavation site just outside the Old City of Jerusalem.

Beneath the Old City walls

Referencing from the expedition’s website, the ongoing mission of the excavation is to expose and preserve the many layers of civilisation found on Mount Zion, going back thousands of years. As with nearly everywhere in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, the veritable footprint of humanity is profound in both magnitude and multitude. Just glancing about the dig site at Mount Zion, one can see a plethora of different architectural elements seemingly stacked upon one another in a dizzyingly fashion.

Dr Rafi Lewis & Dr Shimon Gibson

Dr Rafi Lewis of Haifa University joined Drs Shimon Gibson and James Tabor, both of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who had been excavating at Mount Zion since 2007. Whereas Drs Gibson and Tabor have their primary foci on the Roman era and the parallel rise of Christianity, Dr Lewis focuses on the Medieval period, and even more interestingly, Crusader battlefield archaeology.

Looking around the dig site

I had scheduled a day to join the dig in advance and made my way to the Old City of Jerusalem that early Wednesday morning. Arriving at the site shortly after 7am, I found a fenced off area just below Zion Gate – outside the impressive Ottoman wall of the Old City. Entering, I found Dr Lewis and made introductions before we set out on a little tour of the site. I found the range of excavated sites to be quite fascinating, and very unlike older sites such as Tel es-Safi where I excavated only Bronze and Iron age layers. Here there was so many different levels, belonging to such a varied group of historical peoples, that the very concept garnered interest.

Looking up at the nondescript tower structure

It’s certainly hard to recall which pit belonged to which era, and which wall was built by which reigning group, but the overall picture was that there was plenty to go around for everyone will all their preferred historical periods. Dr Lewis led me over to a rectangle of brushed earth, bordered by earthen ledges and stone architectural features. He then explained that this was the floor of a Ayyubid structure, believed to have been a tower, and that we were now going to explore what lies below – presumably Fatimid ruins.

Ornate pottery piece

While there were dozens of people milling about the general Mount Zion dig area, there were only a handful in and around this Arab structure. We made introductions and settled down to start working, armed with the usual archaeological hand tools. Our first task was to take up the next couple inches of soil, looking out for the usual archaeological artefacts. Every so often someone would come over with a metal detector to check for coins, jewelry and other metal objects.

Some fancy glass

I was amazed at the amount of nice pottery, far nicer than the generally rough sherds I have found in the Bronze and Iron age sites I’ve traditionally excavated at. Likewise, glass was more plentiful and came in all sorts of degenerated colourations. What surprised me most, however, was a weirdly shaped hard organic item that eluded even my wildest guesses. When I asked the experts, I was informed that it was none other than the tooth of a parrotfish – imagine that!

Ancient parrotfish tooth

Every now and again a coin would be found – never by me, unfortunately. However, I did find a nice piece of a mould-made oil lamp with an ornate pattern that looks like bent palm trees forming arches, encircling the pouring hole. Shortly thereafter, once the excitement had died down, another two pieces were found – one being a match, and one from a different lamp.

Posing with the lamp sherd

Another fun aspect was the high number of tesserae (mosaic stones) that were interspersed quite like cookie dough chunks in my favourite ice cream flavour. Handfuls of cubed stones were gathered up and chucked into the tesserae bucket, to be bagged, registered and dealt with at a later date.

Scores of tesserae

At 9:30am we paused for breakfast, and gathered around the serving tables at the higher end of the dig site. I feasted on plums and halva, somewhat limited in what I’d eat due to the expedition’s unkosher status. It was then that I observed a familiar face working beside an excavated pit below me. This face’s owner, Ido Zangen, is comparable to the charming character Waldo in that he appears at every archaeological excavation – you simply have to search for him to find him!

Finding Ido!

After breakfast we got back to work, and we had a new manager in our Ayyubid/Fatimid tower floor: Dr Rona Avissar Lewis, the wife of Rafi Lewis. Rona had previously been a staff member at the Tel es-Safi excavation, years before my stint there. Delving back into our work, we cleared away a nice sized layer of soil, uncovering the usual ceramics, tesserae, small finds and more.

Rona and Gray clearing out the dirt

As the hour got later the sun’s rays began to punish us through the mesh shade net above us, and I sought shelter to rest. The work day was almost over, so when I was done resting and rehydrating I rejoined my digmates to do the finishing touches. I don’t know how much dirt we moved that day, but it was very exciting working on a medieval tower and I look forward to doing more.

A last look at the curious oil lamp

Before I left I bid farewell to my digmates Gray, Mel and an older couple from Chicago; staff member John (a spitting image of Captain Flint in “Black Sails”); and the dig co-directors Rafi and Shimon. Feeling a wee bit peckish, I got a nice schnitzel baguette at the Central Bus Station and continued on with the rest of my day.

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.

University Trip: Nizzana Dunes

In Israel, Judea, Negev on July 11, 2019 at 10:00 AM

Mere days after my interestingly scheduled ecological fieldwork trip to Yatir Forest with my friend Levi Burrows, I took part in another departmental field trip. This semester hasn’t worked out so well for me in regards to field trips; life can just be so busy even without gallivanting around in the wilderness. However, when a night trip to the famed Nizzana Dunes presented itself, I signed up with great anticipation.

Beautiful sandscape of the famed Nizzana Dunes

Guided by Dr Moshe Natan, who led many of the university trips featured in this blog last year, the trip was one dedicated to wildlife – perfect for me. Our tour mini-bus departed from Bar Ilan University, shortly after I finished work, and off we went in the direction of the Negev desert. The first site of interest that we passed was the Ashalim solar thermal power station – a fantastic creation of mirrors that light up a tall central tower. The visual effect is quite reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, and can be seen from many tens of miles away. Marvel at this photo taken from the media room of Ashalim’s buildings:

Ashalim solar thermal power station (credit Brightsource)

Well within the Negev desert, on Road 211, we drove west towards the Israel-Egypt border until with a particular destination in mind. Moshe wanted to show us desert monitors, the largest lizards in Israel, and he had leads on a particular dunes area between Beer Milka and the border. We went a bit off-road as we traversed agricultural access roads until we reached an open area with low hills. Disembarking, we began our slow sweep of the land before us, keeping a sharp eye out for desert monitors.

Making friends with a Rivetina sp. mantis

No monitors were seen, only tracks and droppings, but we weren’t discouraged. The dunes were beautiful, the strong winds creating that rippled look on the monochromatic surface. In addition, I was excited by the large amount of praying mantises (all of the genus Rivetina) which were running helter-skelter underfoot. Finished with our pursuit of monitors, we got back into our tour bus and made our way to our purposed camping site. However, surprise surprise, there were hundreds of teenagers pouring out of buses – this group also intending on staying the night.

Our campsite

So, we made some quick changes to the grand plan and headed back to the dunes where the monitors were meant to be seen. Moshe showed us where we should set up our base camp and we commenced to pitch our tents and other necessary tasks that campers do. Getting back to wildlife, Moshe took out a collection of traps to harmlessly secure us some dune-living rodents for inspection. We spent quite a while setting up traps in the vicinity of burrow openings, baiting them with tasty and nutritious bamba.

Setting out the rodent traps

Sunset came and went, leaving us in the darkness of the Negev sky, the air quickly cooling around us. It was time to embark on an exploratory tour of the dunes around us, and we were more than ready. I had recently purchased a powerful new flashlight, with intents on making all nighttime exploring easier. We set out, keeping an eye out for distinguishing tracks to help us locate our quarry. My target was anything I could find in the suborder Serpentes – snakes!

Sunset over Egypt

Believe it or not, just walking along the sandy trail, flicking my flashlight’s powerful beam hither and thither, I found my first snake of the night. I almost couldn’t comprehend what my eyes were showing me, and I was nervous that it’d slither off into the unknown before proper attention was given. I called out loudly, telling the group to come over quick. It was a crowned leafnose snake, less than a foot long and completely harmless.

Crowned leafnose snake

We spent a long time with the crowned leafnose snake, taking photos and talking about its distinct tracks. Excited as we were to see this snake, we knew that there was more to be seen, and continued our exploring.

Holding the crowned leafnose snake

We climbed a large, vegetation-free dune and caught sight of the even more distinct tracks of a horned desert viper. Long hooked lines carved out of the sand, showing the direction the snake was traveling. We followed suit, and tracked it a hundred or so metres until suddenly we saw it.

Following the tracks

Bigger than the previous snake, this viper is venomous and couldn’t be approached the same way. With caution, we edged closer and Moshe unloaded a great amount of pertinent information.

Horned desert viper coming my way

Eventually the serpent decided to move on, and so we followed it back up the dune from whence it came. Atop the dune it decided to settle down, and burrow itself in the sand.

Up close to the horned desert viper

As we watched its rippling body shimmy itself into the sand, we heard a loud clicking noise and I spotted something running towards us from out of the darkness.

Reaction shot to the camel spider attack

Quite literally like a scene out of a horror movie, a large camel spider was running at us at top speed, flailing its long pedipalps and clicking its fearsome teeth at us. It was quite alarming, even if the creature is “only” the size of a large adult human hand. We scattered, avoiding the devilish arachnid as it raced around underfoot threatening to slash us with its powerful jaws (see close-up HERE).

Camel spider

We relocated, leaving the horned desert viper and eventually losing the restless camel spider as well. The next item of interest was a large female lobed agriope spider, quite impressive both in size and appearance. I had already seen one of these on a trip to the fields near the fortress of Mirabel (see blog post HERE and photo HERE), so I felt the need to continue exploring.

Lobed agriope spider

Not far away, I spotted something small moving – a dune gecko. I called the group over, let them take over, and then continued exploring. Over the next little while all we saw were repeats: camel spiders and dune geckos. Incidentally, those two are predator and prey, respectively. Then something exciting happened: The few individuals taking the lead caught sight of a small rodent dashing about in the sparse vegetation. We circled the area and closed in, eventually finding the cute lil’ fella hiding out in an abandoned burrow.

Gerbil hiding in a burrow

What we had found was a gerbil of sorts, unidentifiable without getting a closer look at the footbeds which would require capture. Leaving the gerbil to his business, we carried on with our roving search. A pair of eyes watched us from a nearby dune – a curious Arabian red fox – yet refused to be approached. With all these impressive finds under our figurative belts, we had yet to see a scorpion, so the UV flashlight was taken out. No matter how purple-blue the ground below us looked under the illumination, there was no scorpion to be found, just more camel spiders.

Ultraviolet camel spider blur

However, we did find another four crowned leafnose snakes, as well as some more dune geckos. Walking and walking, we eventually decided to bring an end of our exploration and navigated ourselves back to our campsite aided by the twinkling lights on the horizon as well as the time-honoured stellar constellations.

Dune gecko

Back at the campsite we took out our food and had dinner while watching a nature video brought by Moshe. I feasted on schnitzel with rice and tehina, and had the pleasure of hearing and identifying an eagle owl – which I have yet to lay eyes on. When we had all eaten our fill, people began to get ready for bed. It was about midnight and we were to wake up before dawn for another excursion.

Examining a dune gecko

I had a conundrum: I had brought a sleeping bag, but with those devilish camel spiders racing about willy-nilly, I felt a little apprehensive of sleeping on the ground. I resigned to relaxing on a chair, and letting sleep’s warm embrace envelop me whenever it shall. Dressed in a fleece jacket, I was cosy and relatively comfortable perched on the chair. To make life a bit more exciting, and to perhaps ease myself to sleep, I cracked open a can of Murphy’s Irish Stout which I had brought with me.

Bathed in the soft golden light of morning

I dozed on and off throughout the night, safe from the roving camel spiders (in fact, I didn’t see or hear any the whole time at the campsite). The birds began to call before first light, mostly crested larks from what I was able to identify audibly. When the sun’s light lit up the sky to the east of us I rose and explored a little, hoping to maybe see something of interest. True to my hopes, I found a male mountain gazelle grazing far off on a distant dune, oblivious to my presence.

Exploring the dunes in the early morning

The rest of our merry band of explorers joined in, and we explored the dunes under the early morning’s golden light. We found plenty of tracks, but nothing that we hadn’t seen during the night. It was rather scenic though, and the sweeping sands of the dune coupled with the partially overcast skies created a stunning pastel vista. The traps, which had been set the evening before, provided us with nothing – although one of the traps’ bamba-bait was looted by a sneaky rodent. We returned to our campsite, packed up everything and made our way to the bus that came for us. The adventure wasn’t over yet, we had a bit of a drive to the final trip destination.

Within the old quarry basin

Driving north, and nearing Tel es-Safi, we took a slight detour in the vicinity of Moshav Nahala. Our destination was an old quarry, always a good place to find cool stuff, where we were deposited. Entering the quarry I immediately discerned a bird of prey sitting atop a short tree – a long-legged buzzard. I was excited, no doubt, but there was more to see and the open field in front of us (the basin of the quarry) was alive with the twittering of crested larks.

Little owl

Overhead I could see jackdaws and bee-eaters, but there was something far more exciting watching us from the other side of the quarry. Moshe set up his spotting scope and showed us what he had brought us there for: a little owl was sitting at the mouth of a hewn tunnel, watching us with large yellow eyes. I adore owls, and felt bent on getting a decent picture of this particular specimen.

Juvenile short-toed eagle

We walked the dirt path until we reached the perched long-legged buzzard and inevitably scared him off. To our excitement, a juvenile short-toed eagle had just perched on a nearby tree, and the rousted buzzard made it return to the air. We watched as the two birds of prey climbed the hot air thermals, all while the owl watched us. Then, if the scenario wasn’t thrilling enough as is, suddenly a male lesser kestrel came out of nowhere and started harassing the buzzard, dive-bombing it with aerial superiority.

Lesser kestrel harassing a long-legged buzzard

It was during the intensity of all these sightings, and the desperation to capture it all in photographic form, that my camera’s battery exhausted itself. I tried to revive the little black cuboid, but to no avail. It was just my misfortune that directly thereafter we had two day-time fox sightings, as well as a handful of other great photographic opportunities. Alas, there was nothing I could do, so I took a photograph of myself in the fly-filled heat and just enjoyed the outing for what it was.

Quarry selfie

It wasn’t long before we climbed back into the bus and made our way back to Bar Ilan University, bringing to an end one of the most enjoyable departmental field trips I’ve ever been on. Hopefully I’ll be able to attend next year’s dune trip as well, but in the meantime I have the more centrally-located dunes of Holon and Rishon LeZion to explore.

Yatir Forest: Ecological Fieldwork

In Israel, Judea on June 18, 2019 at 7:26 AM

The other week I had the privilege of taking part in something slightly out of the ordinary. My friend Levi Burrows had invited me to participate in some fieldwork for his MA at Hebrew University. Specialising in ecology at the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, Levi is contributing to an ongoing research project spearheaded by two professors – Dr José Grünzweig at Hebrew University and Dr Yagil Osem at the Agricultural Research Organisation – Volcani Center. Plans were set into motion and I found myself heading his way for a day of ecological fieldwork.

Welcome to Yatir Forest!

Levi picked me up that evening outside the Volcani Center and together we entered the compound, located the storage room and loaded his rental car – a Peugeot 301 – with the necessary gear. Pretty much set for the next day, we drove over to his apartment in Rehovot and had a nice relaxed evening. We made sure to go to sleep extra early, because fieldwork days start just after 2am. My alarm clock rang shortly after 2am and together we made the last necessary preparations before heading out. Our destination was Yatir Forest, located near Mount Amasa, south of Hevron, where the KKL-JNF had planted Aleppo pine trees starting back in 1964. Levi’s research sites are marked off plots of land, each plot containing an interior plot fenced off by razor-wire.

Arboreal spectres

We drove on main roads for over an hour, then made the rest of our way on a side road passing scattered Bedouin villages. We arrived shortly after 4am and immediately began to work. Our first task was to take sprig clippings from particular, numbered trees, bagging them for later use. As we dashed about in the chilly darkness, our headlamps illuminating big patches in front of us, I heard the first of many scops owl calls. I was tempted to try and lure the scops owls with calls from my Collins birding app, but there was work to be done and we had to finish this stage before the sun’s rays peek over the mountainous horizon.

Sunrise

Our only real distraction was a large praying mantis found on a tree trunk, and aside from that we worked with alacrity gathering sprigs from four separate plots. When we were done, the first rays appeared and we began setting ourselves up for the next stage. Levi’s research involves comparing the water potential of trees both in and out of grazing areas.

Scientifically examining the sprigs

The way we were to find out was to measure the trees’ thirst by checking the pressure it takes to force stored water out of the sprig’s freshly snipped twig. To do this we employed the use of a PMS Instrument Model 1505D “Pressure Bomb” which applies nitrogen to pressurise the leaves in a little pressure tank. Levi hooked up the machine to a nitrogen tank and we began to take measurements of the greatly aromatic sprigs.

Hammering out soil samples

The sun climbed up and began warming us with its friendly rays. We finished up with the final sprigs of the pre-dawn harvest and then set out to do our second task: taking core samples of soil from the two sections of each plot. This was performed with two sledgehammers, a pipe-stake and a bucket. We went from plot to plot taking samples, and only getting a little bit distracted by the many praying mantises – these ones belonging to the species Rivetina baetica.

Rivetina baetica mantis

This was hot and tiring work, especially with the exposed bedrock in many places, so we were happy when we finally bagged our final sample. The happiness increased when, as we were making our way out of one fenced off area, we spotted a jackal do an about-face and run off downhill. Apparently the jackal was curious as to what we were doing and came up check us out.

Snake-eyed lizard

With the jackal gone there were still some more cool stuff to see. A pair (or more) of common kestrels kept appearing now and again, and a pale-morph snake-eyed lizard was spotted near the car. We drove back to our temporary base camp and began to figure lunch out.

Basecamp

Levi had packed a bunch of cooked foods and snacks for us, but we also wanted to do some fresh cooking of our own. We decided that building a fire to roast kabanos sausages would be a great experience, and set out to do it posthaste. When the small fire was up and burning, the fuel being the dead bark, sticks and pinecones from the fragrant Aleppo pines, we hunkered down and got comfortable. Skewering the sausages on sharpened sticks, we set about making a delicious snack to accompany the food we brought.

Relaxing beside the fire

When the feasting finished we kicked back to rest a bit, with the intention to do another round of sprig-picking at noon. A few kestrels screeched from the nearby treetops, and some ticks ran unchecked over the pine-needle forest floor, but aside from that silence reigned. When noon finally came around we urged ourselves back to work, and began the sprig-picking one plot at a time.

Snipping sprigs

When the 96 fragrant sprigs were all successfully bagged, we drove back to our base camp and began the nitrogen-pressurising process again under the shade of an Aleppo pine. We worked quickly and diligently, and cracked open a bottle of Leffe Bruin when we were finishing.

Driving back

When our work was finished we loaded up all the gear into the Peugeot and bid the pine forest farewell as we made our way to the main road. It was a bit of a drive back, but eventually we made it to Rishon Lezion where Levi dropped me off. He continued on to the Volcani Center whereas I bused to my girlfriend’s place near Jerusalem to enjoy a home-cooked dinner.

Southern Arava

In Eilat, Israel, Negev on June 12, 2019 at 10:02 AM

Continuing on with the saga of the trip to Eilat, my friend Adam Ota and I spent the night in a small house in Kibbutz Ketura after a day of birding adventure. The sun came up over the Arava and we felt the need to sleep in a bit. We had breakfast in the kibbutz dining room, and then packed up our belongs into our rental Audi for another adventurous day.

Morning in Kibbutz Ketura

We drove around Ketura for a bit, taking in all the sights and seeing where Adam used to work after his army service. As fun as it was in Ketura, time was ticking and we had many places to visit that day. Leaving Ketura, our first stop was the adjacent Kibbutz Grofit, built upon a lone hill in the homogenous desert landscape. We drove over to the northern end of the kibbutz and enjoyed the view of Ketura down below.

Looking down at Ketura from Grofit

When we had soaked up all of the glory of the view we got back into the car and drove south on Road 90. We turned into Kibbutz Samar, where we had received insider information from the International Birding and Research Center Eilat (IBRCE) that there were black bush robins to be found.

Our Audi A1 rental car

Locating the overgrown tree patch known locally as “The Jungle”, we set out to find the elusive black birds. It took some searching and some playing of the bird calls from the Collins bird watching app, and eventually we heard a reply.

Searching for the black bush robin

A black bush robin was calling to us from the groves outside the Jungle, and we set off to get a sighting. Unfortunately we didn’t end up getting any closer to it, and even lost the audio connection, but we did end up seeing some other nice birds. A few wheatears and blackstarts, as well as some warblers and a Tristram’s starling. There was no reason to linger, as the list of place to still be visited remained long. With that we departed, and drove side access roads in the direction of the Elifaz Sewage Ponds.

Searching for birds at the Elifaz Sewage Ponds

Most people would raise eyebrows at the idea of visiting a sewage pond, but birders know that oftentimes sewage ponds provide excellent birding. While sewage treatment primarily happens indoors and out-of-sight, there are also what is known as stabilisation pools where a more natural form of water purification occurs. These pools are outdoors and host a healthy plants and insect life, which bring the birds into the picture. Thus, some of the hottest birding sites in Israel year-round are often in and around sewage treatment centres.

Just another boring kestrel

The Elifaz Sewage Ponds proved to be relatively empty, with just a few common kestrels keeping us company. Dejected by not discouraged, we got back into our car and drove on to the next destination: Timna Park. I had visited Timna once back in 2017 with my university, but we hadn’t explored the park in its entirety. This time I was returning with wheels and an adventurous friend.

Timna Park map

We began with the short film about the site, which was very entertaining, and then we headed into the park along the main access road. Marvelling at Timna’s fascinating colour palette, we passed the first landmark, the Spiral Hill, and then turned right to a spot called The Mushroom, a natural sculpture created by wind erosion.

Timna: The Copper Road

Timna Park is a horseshoe-shaped valley located in a beautiful, craggy desert landscape, complete with a unique geological makeup that gives it its iconic look. The pink sand, and the cliffs of green- and yellow-hued fuchsia rock, complete the truly bizarre appearance. In ancient times Timna was the site of an aggressive multi-national mining operation, mostly extracting raw copper from the sandstone. Although King Solomon’s name has been tacked onto the site more than once, it was more than just the Israelites that thirsted for the valuable metal. The ancient Egyptians, with the use of Canaanite labourers, hewed giant mines out of the soft rock and even left their mark on the faces of the colourful cliffs.

Unedited photo of the “sand”

These copper mines began hundreds of years before the Jews returned from Egyptian bondage, and were actively mined on and off until the 600s CE when the copper ore started running out. Curiously enough, the modern Israeli government attempted to respark the copper mining industry starting in 1958, but that ended in 1985 due to economic reasons. The Timna Copper Mines company website is still running, due to their ventures elsewhere, but the old pictures of the mining are worth a look (see HERE).

Ancient copper producing workshop

As we drove through the valley we spotted a few birds, notably a little green bee-eater and a few brown-necked ravens. Pulling over here and there to photographically capture everything of note, we eventually made it to The Mushroom – a fungus-shaped rock. Parking, we got out and walked towards two archaeological sites beside The Mushroom: a shrine and a smelting camp, dating back to the Egyptian period thousands of years ago. Despite that the ground is mostly a dark shade of pink, every so often there’s a glint of soft green. These are bits of oxidised copper, most often still affixed to broken pieces of pink sandstone. Leaving the smelting valley, we drove on to a place called The Chariots – rock engravings left behind by the ancient Egyptians.

Raindrops in Timna Park

Much to our surprise, it began to rain as we approached the site, and rain is always surprising in the desert. Ten-fifteen minutes later the light drizzle ended and we got out of the car to examine the ancient engravings. The first was a collection of ibexes and ostriches being hunted by boomerang-wielding men. The second set of engravings were the aforementioned chariots, featuring warriors and their battle axes.

Adam searching for the wall engravings

Driving back towards the park’s centre, skipping some of the sites that I had already seen last trip, we made our way to Lake Timna. Man-made and nestled between the craggy cliffs, the tiny lake was designed to be a permanent watering-hole for animals and a fun place for humans. To my dismay, this potential paradise seemed to amount to neither of these. There was, however, a station for filling touristy bottles with coloured sand – always an interesting gift to loved ones.

Desert lark eating discarded Doritos

From there we went to Solomon’s Pillars and Hathor’s Temple, basking in the glory of the truly awe-inspiring landscape. In the parking lot, of all places, we watched a few desert birds hop about, including a few desert larks. With that, and the time ticking away, we left Timna Park and headed for the next site on our list, an old water-filled quarry hidden from plain sight.

Cerulean quarry

It took a bit of driving about till we reached the correct access road, but when we pulled up at the quarry and got our first glimpse, we were amazed. The cerulean water contrasting with the red earth/rock made for quite the visual treat. Strong winds buffeted us, threatening to send us and our belongs into the picturesque abyss below. With nothing more to do than appreciate the view, we took some photos and got back into the little white car.

KM 20

Time truly was ticking, and we had only a few hours before we had to take the car back. Our next stop was also off the beaten path, the birding hotspot of KM 20 – literally the 20th kilometre from the end of Road 90 in Eilat. If time wasn’t the only adversary on that day, an unexpected muddy puddle kept us from reaching KM 20 by means of vehicular transportation. We were forced to walk the last bit, hopelessly muddying our shoes, but knowing that it was all worth it.

Flamingo at KM 20

Arriving at the large salt pools of KM 20, we were rather pleased to see at least a hundreds birds in front of us. The majority were greater flamingos, with some black-winged stilts and other waders hugging the edges of the pools. Even a mixed flock of northern shoveler and pintail ducks was spotted hunkering down on the far bank. While I engaged in photographic pursuits, Adam scanned for the famous black flamingo and successfully located the melanistic creature on the farther end of the closest pool.

The melanistic flamingo far, far away

Hurrying back to our car, we made our way to another birding hotspot a kilometre further south – KM 19. More of the bird-friendly sewage ponds, KM 19 didn’t deliver as much as we were hoping for. A flushed marsh harrier, a handful of waders and a bunch of flocks of waterfowl filled the few reed-lined ponds. It was fun scanning the water’s edge to try and find a small wader here and there, adding up the species as we found more and more. Next time, we’d need to revisit this site at a better hour of the day, and during a better time of year.

Climbing the banks of KM 19’s ponds

Alas, this was our last fun stop with the car and we drove back to Eilat feeling pleased with our efforts. We filled up the tank, went shopping and drove to the lodgings that we had booked in advance. With budgeting a priority we went with a relatively inexpensive hotel located in the residential part of Eilat. Our expectations were low, but we were pleasantly surprised with our lot at Rich Luxury Suites.

Getting the barbecue started

Zipping over to the car rental we gave back the beloved Audi with a few minutes to spare, and walked back to the hotel to settle in and have dinner. The evening continued into night, we filled our bellies with delicious foods cooked on a disposable grill and got a good night’s sleep.

Heading back home…

Early the following morning we gathered up all our belongings and made our way to Eilat’s central bus station for the long ride back to Givat Shmuel. Thus ended our exciting excursion to the southern tip of Israel this past February.