Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Israel’ Category

Hai Bar Carmel

In Haifa, Israel on September 13, 2021 at 10:35 AM

A few weeks ago, in the middle of August, Bracha and I enjoyed a nice trip to the Hai Bar Carmel nature reserve, located on Mount Carmel. A part of the overall Mount Carmel national park, this small reserve is notable for its breeding and rehabilitation program that helps repopulate the country’s vulture and deer populations. Even though I had been to various parts of Mount Carmel – and certainly Haifa itself – I had not yet stepped foot into the famous Hai Bar. Thankfully, while making extended weekend plans up north at my folks’ place, the idea to visit came up and we made it happen.

Taking in our scenic surroundings

Taking in our scenic surroundings

Getting to the park was relatively simple on paper, and it was just a single bus ride from the nearest Haifa train station. We had packed smartly, with just two backpacks, and disembarked just outside of Haifa University ready to conquer any trail in our path. But before any conquering could be done, we stared out at the sweeping view of the tree-covered mountain that tapers off into the cool Mediterranean Sea. We could see roads and trails snaking down the slope below us, but we did not know quite where to go. Navigating with the help of Google Maps, we set off on a rural road that took us on a long, winding route all the way to the Hai Bar reserve.

Bracha taking in the view

Bracha taking in the view

There were a few highlights along the way, deserving of mention, before we reached the reserve’s open gates. First, the largest Schneider’s skink I had ever seen appeared in front of us and slithered under a large boulder. I was desperate to catch it with my camera so I crouched down and snapped some shots, catching only a bit of its tail with my extended lens. Upon examining the photos later, I noticed that there were shed snakeskins, ghostly remains of a snake that once found shelter during its moulting session. Unfortunately, I hadn’t noticed it while we were there and, although I tried my best, experts informed me that there was no definite way to identify what snake species left behind that papery memento.

T93 making a pass overhead

T93 making a pass overhead

As we trotted down the gradient road, chatting softly into the wind, Bracha excitedly pointed to a large bird of prey slowly rising from the woodlands before us. It was a griffon vulture – the first of the day – and one of the largest raptors found in Israel. Our trot picked up in speed as we made our way towards the soaring vulture, and before we knew it, we were passing through the park’s reception-office. Immediately outside the office-gift shop is a large wooden balcony overlooking the same majestic view that we had been enjoying ever since we had gotten off our bus.

The balcony

The balcony

Next, we found a small theatre of sorts where a short nature film about the reserve and its unique role was playing. As mentioned before, the reserve runs breeding and rehabilitation programs for vultures and deer. Vultures in the wild face the ever-present danger of poisoning, where ranchers, or perhaps other parties, poison carcasses in efforts to curb predatory attacks on their flocks and herds. This can potentially be a death blow to a large chunk of the ecosystem, as many animals – big and small – feed from carrion. The lives of many vultures in Israel have been lost due to this senseless approach, but that’s not the only danger they face.

The vulture cage

The vulture cage

Another big one, which affects eagles and other large raptors as well, are unprotected power pylons which can electrocute the birds instantaneously should they accidentally make contact with two sections simultaneously. In efforts to curtail the damages done by poisoning, the National Parks Authority operates several feeding stations where “safe” carcasses are deposited as an easy buffet for carrion-loving creatures. The electrocution issue remains to this very day, with only some of the deadly pylons suitably refitted with protective shields by the Israel Electric Company.

Persian fallow deer in the enclosure

Persian fallow deer in the enclosure

In regards to deer, the main issue had historically been over-hunting, and it was a well-thought out plan to reintroduce deer species that had since disappeared from the wild in Israel. One such species was the Persian fallow deer, whose new population partly originated in an elaborate smuggling operation bringing a handful of female does via the last El Al flight out of Tehran before the Islamic Revolution which soured diplomatic relations. I warmly recall seeing one of the released descendants of these deer in Nachal Kziv, one of the Mediterranean habitats chosen to host renewed deer populations. Another example is the roe deer, a species which once populated the Carmel region and whose repopulation project was launched in 1996. Sadly, I have no warm memories of any roe deer of any kind, but that might change one day.

The dried fire salamander breeding pool

The dried fire salamander breeding pool

As would be expected, part of the reserve is fenced off plots of land where these animals live, at least for now. We saw, in addition to the aforementioned fallow and roe deer species, a small herd of wild goats ambling about in a shaded yard. Despite their wild-sounding name, these are, in fact, domesticated goats, and as such, there are no plans to release them into the wild. It was delightful seeing all the even-toed ungulates minding their own business in their enclosures, but there were more exciting things to be seen and so we kept going. One notable feature is the fire salamander breeding pool, built to help bolster the Mount Carmel population of this incredible species – of which I have only ever seen tadpoles, when I visited the Sasa Museum several winters ago. Interestingly enough, this is the southernmost population of this species in the entire world, so this pool – dry in the summer months – must be doing a good job.

The feeding station on the opposite slope

The feeding station on the opposite slope

The highlight of this visit was undoubtedly the vultures, and as we approached the hallowed lookout, from which so many photos are taken, we could see the soaring griffons casting great shadows on the gentle slopes below. A caged white-tailed eagle distracted us temporarily, but we tore ourselves away and reached the lookout. I was agape as I took in our surroundings – from the rehabilitation cage stocked with both griffon and Egyptian vultures, to the countless soaring vultures and the eye-catching feeding station on the opposing slope.

T36 being friendly

T36 being friendly

First, we acknowledged the rather friendly griffon vulture tagged “T36”, who stood on the cage and watched us in a carefree manner. According to the experts, “T36” was born in the Hai Bar Carmel’s breeding facility and released into the wild in 2012. Another friendly griffon, tagged “T60” was also locally born and released in 2013. Other, more wild griffons soared at a safe distance – most of them without any tags or other identifiable markers. The tedious photographing of the twenty-thirty vultures provided just one other griffon that had readable tags – “T93”, who was surprisingly born and transplanted from Catalonia, and released in the Golan in 2019.

Griffon vultures at the feeding station

Griffon vultures at the feeding station

As mentioned, the feeding station across the wadi took a lot of my focus, as I attempted to photograph everything that moved at that great distance – hoping to catch some Egyptian vultures and common ravens. Only the latter made an appearance, which provided some excitement to the already exciting time we were having. Another winged creature was spotted standing atop of an old cow carcass – a lone cattle egret, perhaps mourning his namesake. It suddenly dawned on me that this is the feeding station that is live-streamed on YouTube, highlights of which I had watched here and there in recent years (see HERE for more). I quickly pulled out my phone and found the ongoing live-stream, hoping that there’d be something exciting happening on-screen. Alas, just the mopey cattle egret graced my screen, but I thought the concurrent watching of the station – both in person and online – to be too eventful not to share.

Screenshot of Vulture Feeding Station 1 courtesy of Charter Group Birdcams

Screenshot of Vulture Feeding Station 1 courtesy of Charter Group Birdcams

We watched the vultures soar, land and take off until we figured that it was time to move on with our day. I was sad that no free-flying Egyptian vultures were seen, but the sheer quantity of griffon vultures was so unexpected that I felt more than pleased with what we had seen. We made our way back out of the park, hitching a quick ride to the main road before heading over to the adjacent Haifa University to get our bus. As we began the journey back down Mount Carmel and towards our target train station, we watched the novel and not-yet-opened cable car system that looks quite enjoyable as a means of public transportation. It’s slated to open to the public in October, so we have to be patient until we can ride the great swinging orbs up and down the famed mountain of old. Thus ended our trip to the fascinating Hai Bar Carmel, where nature gets a second chance – and we get to watch.

Museum of Natural History

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

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

The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv

The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv

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

Picking out my favourite raptor

Picking out my favourite raptor

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

Habitat dioramas

Habitat dioramas

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

Desert habitat diorama

Desert habitat diorama

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

The caracal's eternal leap

The caracal’s eternal leap

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

Interactive map of Israel

Interactive map of Israel

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

A glimpse into the past

A glimpse into the past

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

Syrian brown bear

Syrian brown bear

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

Life around the acacia tree

Life around the acacia tree

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

Striped hyena and Egyptian vulture

Striped hyena and Egyptian vulture

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

The Ernst Johann Schmitz collection

The Ernst Johann Schmitz collection

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

Fossilised ostrich egg

Fossilised ostrich egg

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

Getting some fresh air on the museum balcony

Getting some fresh air on the museum balcony

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

''Humanæ'' by artist Angelica Dass

”Humanæ” by artist Angelica Dass

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

Tools of the early humans

Tools of the early humans

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

2,000 year old chickpeas from the City of David

2,000 year old chickpeas from the City of David

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

Sunset at the beach

Sunset at the beach

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

Qaqun

In Coastal Plain, Israel on August 24, 2021 at 2:41 PM

In the beginning of June I was fortunate to embark on yet another adventure with my friend Avner Touitou, fellow Medievalist and MA student at BIU. Following our theme of visiting lesser-known Crusader sites, such as Khirbet Luza, Ashdod Sea Fortress, Le Destroit and others, this trip focused on the old Crusader ruins of Qaqun. Yet, after Avner picked me up from a pre-designated junction, we had a few places to visit before we made our way to the ruined castle.

Qaqun fortress

Qaqun fortress

Our first destination was Nachal Alexander, which I already visited in 2018 and 2019, but this was Avner’s first time. We took a temporarily redirected route along the Israel National Trail from the mouth of the stream towards Khirbet Samara, a house built in the end of the 19th century by the Samara family of Tulkarem in order to oversee their watermelon fields in the nearby land. From there we continued on to Mikhmoret, a coastal moshav, where we enjoyed the warm waters of the Mediterranean. From there we headed to get lunch at the chic Haoeh Bacafe café, in Kfar Haroeh, a moshav named after the late Rabbi Kook of religious-Zionist fame.

Having a bit of lunch

Having a bit of lunch (photo Avner Touitou)

After some artisanal pizza and iced coffee with ice cream we gathered ourselves up and made our way to the star destination of the day, the Crusader ruins of Qaqun. Upon parking, we made note of a large war memorial dedicated to the 1948 battle for Qaqun. The Alexandroni Brigade attacked, conquered and then held off a small army of approximately 200 local Arab troops, as well as Iraqi tanks and infantry. It was a bloody battle; it was the greatest Iraqi loss in the war, and sixteen Israeli soldiers were killed as well. We read the story as inscribed on the memorial stone, paid our respects and then began our ascent of the fortress-crowned hill.

The Battle for Qaqun monument

The Battle for Qaqun monument

The first structure we came across was what is believed to have been a mosque, a two-story stone building which was built where a church once stood. Inside, we found a nice square room complete with a mihrab, a prayer niche in the wall facing Mecca, and three smaller niches of unknown purposes. A fruit bat skeleton and a lone grasshopper – which posed beautifully for me in the dark room – were the only other life forms of interest within the structure. With the main attraction up ahead, we climbed out of the mosque ruins and made our way to the fortress just a few dozen metres away, passing a buzzing beehive tucked into a recess in the ashlar wall.

Peering into the church/mosque

Peering into the church/mosque

Aided by the excellent, if brief, overview of the fortress from Pringle’s fantastic handbook entitled Secular Buildings in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, we digested the relatively brief history of Qaqun. While remains from earlier periods have been found on-site, the Crusader fortress was first mentioned in 1123, and then referenced again in 1253 as being controlled by the lord of Caesarea. Just twelve years later it was conquered and refortified by Baibars, of Mamluk fame.

A calm grasshopper within the ruined church/mosque

A calm grasshopper within the ruined church/mosque

A subsequent attempt to recapture it by King Hugh of Cyprus and Prince Edward of England failed, and the fortress remained in Mamluk hands, becoming a regional headquarters to replace the role of nearby Caesarea. The exceptional and trustworthy BibleWalks website shed more light on the later history, stating that Qaqun was the site of a desperate battle between the defending Ottomans and the French military expedition under Napoleon in 1799, which resulted in a French victory. The fortress saw violence and destruction again in 1834 when a local uprising was quelled by the Egyptian Governor Ibrahim Pasha.

Fine Crusader masonry

Fine Crusader masonry

Most recently, the site was surveyed in 1983 by the aforementioned Pringle, and then, in 2007, the Israel Antiquities Authority (or, IAA) launched a conservation project to clean up and somewhat reconstruct the fallen ruins. Naturally, Avner and I fantasized about excavating the fortress ourselves, and we discussed where we would start and what we thought we might find where. But first, before we entered the impressive stone structure, on a wood platform that overlooked the green fields to the east, there was another sign about the 1948 battle with a more in-depth look at the fallen Israeli soldiers.

Remains of the fortress' outer walls

Remains of the fortress’ outer walls

Turning to the ruins, we entered the fortress via a narrow opening in the thick stone walls. Within, we found an overgrown “secret garden” scenario, where the ruins themselves were often hard to see. We scoured the inner chambers, and wondered out loud what lies buried deep below the surface buildup. The two-story interior had been reduced to one uneven layer, but the tops of the arched rooms below still showed, offering glimpses to hidden and long-forgotten chambers filled with decades, and even centuries, of dirt.

Within the ruined fortress

Within the ruined fortress

One notable addition to the sturdy stone construction was a ceramic pipe connecting between the two floors. According to BibleWalks, this pipe served as an archaic telephone of sorts – providing a way for people within the fortress to communicate with each other in an easier, more efficient way. I wonder if the ceramic pipes in Montfort Castle, another Crusader ruin, were installed for the same purpose. At any rate, we continued on through the interior and exited via a small staircase that took us to the outside, this time at the north side of the building. We found that the entire western side of the fortress – a series of large vaulted rooms – was a relatively inaccessible mess of displaced stone blocks and more overgrown vegetation.

The western side of the fortress

The western side of the fortress

With that our tour of Qaqun was essentially over, so we headed back down the hill to Avner’s parked car. Scouting the area around us, we briefly contemplated making a quick detour to check out the lone standing Crusader fortress wall at Khirbet Bergth (or, Bourgata), but decided not to due to the developing traffic on the main roads. So, we made our way back down to our respective homes, bringing an end to yet another successful Crusader-themed adventure with Avner Touitou.

Babylonian Jewry Museum

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

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

The Babylonian Heritage Centre

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

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

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

Antique Torah scroll cases

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

A glimpse down the alley

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

The jeweler hard at work

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

The teva of the Great Synagogue

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

Fun Iraqi foods

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

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

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

Dinner at Samarkand

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

Horseback Riding in the Golan

In Golan, Israel on June 16, 2021 at 1:40 PM

Following two days in the snowy Golan back in February, our third and final day began with packing up our belongings at our rental tzimmer in Ein Zivan. It was sad leaving such a cool place, but we had exciting plans to wrap up our trip before embarking on the long drive back home. Our first order of business was to go horseback riding at a ranch just outside of Moshav Ramot, overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

Reservoir in the Golan

We made such good time in the morning that we were running early to our booking, and decided to look for something small to do on the way. Whilst driving along Road 888 we saw a sign for Ein Almin, a spring-turned-“officer’s pool” built by the Syrian army for privileged R&R. Naturally, we turned onto the access road to check it out but eventually realised that the going was a bit too rough, even for the rugged Dacia. Alas, we turned around and kept driving, when we spotted another interesting body of water – Matash Tzor’s reservoir. Following great successes at other reservoirs (see Matash Ayalon and Hulda Reservoir), I decided that this easily-accessed location deserves a quick look. It proved to be a good call, as I saw at least two greater spotted eagles, marsh harriers, shovelers, teals and even a small flock of tufted ducks bobbing in the rich blue water.

Bracha sporting a riding helmet

Time ticked away and before we knew it we were back on the road making a beeline to the ranch. Once there, we did all the necessary procedures involving money, helmets and waivers, and then we were introduced to our rides. Neither of us have ever been proper horseback riding, so this was to be an exciting first that we would likely never forget. Being 6’2″, I was given one of the largest horses, a chestnut steed by the name of Kfo (if I understood correctly). Bracha was given an off-white mare with a name that has since been forgotten.

Such fantastic scenery

After receiving our handling instructions, our guides took us and another family that joined us out on our hour-long ride. It began with a simple walk up the paved road, and then merged onto an uphill dirt path. There was something quite exciting about riding the large beast, and even if he did get distracted now and again with delicious grasses, I found him relatively easy to manage. So much so, that I felt comfortable taking plenty of pictures and videos to properly document the adventure (as Bracha held on for dear life).

Entering the plateau

We rode further up the slope, until we reached a bit of a plateau where a gorgeous open area of lush grass dotted with small trees greeted us. The view was breathtaking as we reached the far side of the plateau, overlooking the valley of Nachal Samach and the opposing mountain. As exciting as it was with all the snow, there’s something equally charming about the lush green vistas of the Golan in the winter. Our guide called for our attention just as a few mountain gazelles dashed for cover, nimbly avoiding my camera’s inquisitive lens. Sure enough, more gazelles were to be seen further down the slope, too far to get any decent photos.

Our guide pointing out some fleeing mountain gazelle

On the plateau we allowed our horses to roam around a bit freely. Bracha’s mare seemed to have a mind of her own as she ambled off in search for succulent herbage, and I urged my steed after her. This wasn’t a difficult task as both of our horses just happened to be close friends, and naturally enjoyed each other’s company. This made our experience all the more charming, as our rides took us on a merry walk through the thick grass.

Riding westward

The next part proved to actually be a bit challenging, as our resumed route took a quick turn back down the mountain. This segment was a narrow and delicate descent full of inconvenient rocks that required our horses to navigate carefully. I had to slow my steed down several times as he attempted to just dash his way down, which was borderline frightening considering the fact that I didn’t have any real way of stopping him. Thankfully, these are tame and trained horses, and with a few kind words and gentle lead tugs, we made it down safe and sound.

Riding back down the slope

Once back on level ground, we rode the final leg back to the stable-yard and dismounted our trusty horses. It felt funny walking on our own two legs, similar to disembarking a sea craft, but life returned to its normal self and we wrapped up our visit there. In terms of experiences, this was most definitely one well-worth it, especially considering the breathtaking pastoral Golan scenery. We got back into the car and headed for Qatsrin, where we got lunch – a mouthwateringly tasty pizza from Pizza Margarita.

Bazelet HaGolan Winery

There was just one more place to visit before heading back, and that was the Bazelet HaGolan Winery located in nearby Kidmat Tzvi. Arriving, we began our visit with the visitor centre where we happened to bump into Yechiel Luterman, a long term employee who recently embarked on an exciting new venture producing his very own Edre’i whiskey – which he allowed us to taste! Yechiel and I had taken a MATI business course together back in 2011 and had both shared interest in the idea of brewing beer. I ended up with my Arx Meles hobby-project, and he went the route of wine and then whiskey. With his help, we watched the video about the winery and then tasted a handful of their offerings, a combination of white and red wines. Bazelet HaGolan grows mostly cabernet sauvignon, but they cleverly use the grapes at different levels of ripeness in order to create different tasting wines.

Wines at Bazelet HaGolan Winery

We sampled from their basic cab, as well as their higher-tiered 188 cab. To balance those out, we sipped from some fresh chardonnay as well as a rich 2008 merlot which I found to be quite enjoyable. Between tastings, Yechiel filled our brains with fascinating behind-the-scenes information regarding wine varietals, oak aging and more. Needless to say, it behooved us to buy a bottle as a keepsake of our fun three-day vacation, so we did just that and bid farewell to Yechiel. We got back into the car and headed back home, bringing our exciting trip to a gradual close.

Mount Hermon

In Golan, Israel on June 7, 2021 at 8:42 AM

Continuing with our three-day vacation to the snowy Golan this past February, Bracha and I started our second day at our rental tzimmer in Ein Zivan. Our main plan for the day was the glorious Mount Hermon, covered in thick snow and more inviting than ever. After a cursory breakfast we got into the car and began driving north, taking in the wide open vistas of snowy orchards and vineyards.

Welcome to Mount Hermon

Welcome to Mount Hermon

Before we approached the mighty mountain, I decided that it’d be fun to have a quick look at Birket Ram – a volcanic crater lake located just outside of the Druze village of Mas’ada, not to be confused with the desert mountain top ruins of Masada. A beautiful body of water, Birket Ram always appears as a dark blue eye in the green and brown landscape around it, staring unblinking into the equally enchanting heavens above. However, much to my surprise, the melting snow runoff muddied the usually clear waters and thus we were presented with a large brown lake – slightly less inspiring. We spent a few minutes overlooking the water, noticing a handful of birds including some chaffinches, goldfinches and a handful of gulls.

Approaching the snowy peak

Approaching the snowy peak

Returning to our original plan, we drove back out towards Mas’ada and then headed for Mount Hermon. We passed through Majdal Shams, another Druze village and the highest locality in Israel, as we began our way up the majestic mountain. Needless to say, at this elevation, snow covered everywhere but the plowed roads. It was a glorious site and we marvelled at the raw natural beauty. Unlike most of the rest of the Golan, Mount Hermon is composed of limestone and shale bedrock, and not the typical dark grey basalt so common in the region.

Map of the Mount Hermon park

Map of the Mount Hermon park

We parked in a large staging lot and boarded a shuttle bus with dozens of other excited vacationers. It was a nice ride going ever-higher up the mountain and then we were deposited at the attraction entrance, the lower half of the park. It was slightly overwhelming at first, mostly due to the fact that we weren’t quite sure what there was to do, nor did we know how much time to allocate to each section.

From the bottom looking up

From the bottom looking up

It wasn’t long before we realised that there really wasn’t much to do at the lower half of the park – unless one was a child, or had purchased the ski package. We fit under neither category so we made our way through the throngs of coated merrymakers to the cable car installation. We presented our tickets and climbed into one of the lime green cars, which we had to ourselves, and began the ascent to the peak.

Riding the cable car up the mountainside

Riding the cable car up the mountainside

Some cable cars are too short (like Rosh HaNikra) and some are just right (like Haifa) but this one at Mount Hermon was almost too long. We were surprised at the length of the journey as we climbed higher and higher, looking down at the skiers racing below us on the tree-dotted slope. It was a glorious ride, and when we arrived safe and sound at the peak, we disembarked into the strong, cold wind that greeted us with its strong bite.

The upper area of Mount Hermon

The upper area of Mount Hermon

Our first order of business was to examine our surroundings, so we followed the fellow cable car passengers to the large bowl-like depression where a safe slope was made. There, children were playing in the snow, shrieking as they tumbled down and lobbed snowballs at each other. Due to some unusual rule made by the Ministry of Health, we were unable to go sledding with actual sleds and so we tried scooting down on plastic bags – like many others there – with very limited success yet lots of laughter.

Panoramic looking west to the Golan and Upper Galilee

Panoramic looking west to the Golan and Upper Galilee

We took a walk around the upper confines of the park, which ultimately proved to be relatively small. Most of the park is dedicated to the ski slopes, which look quite impressive to one who has never skied before. All that’s left for us is a large gently sloped summit defined on two sides by a drop-off, a third side formed by another slope and the last side blocked by a symbolic gate and a pair of soldiers. This last side is the direction of the many military outposts on the Israeli side of the mountain, and while I had actually gone up to the second-highest one while I was an active-duty soldier, Bracha and I stayed put on the civilian side of the gate.

Bracha enjoying her bagel at the checkpoint

Bracha enjoying her bagel at the checkpoint

We lobbed some snowballs around and decided to have some lunch – bagels and cheese/cream cheese that we had packed in the morning. It was indescribably picturesque as we sat on a concrete block overlooking the snowed landscape stretching out to the far beyond. It was also unbelievably cold with the thin mountain air biting us with each gust. We ate and then began our next snowy activity – building a snowman, a quite ritualistic activity which must be done with each snowfall.

Mr Snowman

Mr Snowman

It took a bit of time, but at last we had our icy idol formed into the iconic shape that we all love. Unfortunately, there were no spare carrots laying about, so we had to scrounge a frozen tree bud to suffice as facial features. When he was finished, we felt as though there was not much left to do on this freezing mountain – and, sadly, not a single bird was seen. We made one last circuit of the interesting area with a lookout and a memorial monument commemorating four fallen soldiers from the Golani special forces unit who had perished in battle against Syrian forces in 1973. According to the monument, the Syrian army has succeeded in capturing the Israeli side of the Hermon early on in the Yom Kippur War, so two attempts were made to recapture it – the second succeeding but resulting in unfortunate casualties.

Nothing like an icy pine tree to symbolise winter

Nothing like an icy pine tree to symbolise winter

We re-entered the cable car building and boarded a lime green car which took us the slow and gentle way back down to the lower half of the park. It was delightful seeing so much snow, let alone on Israel’s highest peak, but there was something sadly commercialised about it which left us feeling slightly unsatisfied with our experience. I wonder if purchasing the ski package would remedy that sour sensation. At any rate, back near the park entrance we got a pair of hot drinks at the busy kiosk and that’s when I noticed something that excited me. There were soldiers from the elite reservist alpinist unit, a form of special forces trained to excel in snowy, mountainous terrain. No doubt they were practicing their necessary ski skills, and it was thrilling to be able to see these otherwise-unknown characters come to life upon the falling of fresh snow.

The trusty Dacia Duster

The trusty Dacia Duster

Making our way out of the park and towards a shuttle, we saw more and more evidence of military activity, as it is the military who is tasked with snow-chores, including plowing the mighty mountain’s roads. Back in the car lot, we got into the Dacia and began the drive back down. I pulled over at a particularly scenic lookout to take a few pictures when I was approached by some teenage lads on foot. Oddly enough, they were familiar faces – lads from the school I worked at for several years. They were desperately looking for a ride up the mountain, as they had parked at the bottom entrance with the understanding that there was no more parking space up top. As was to be expected, we gave the thankful lads a lift up to the park entrance and bid them farewell.

Sa'ar Falls

Sa’ar Falls

Descending Mount Hermon, we decided to take a quick drive over to the nearby Sa’ar Falls, which I had hoped would be magnificent with the melting snow. Sure enough, we were not the only ones hoping to lay eyes on the locally-famous waterfall, so we parked a bit down the road, walked to the falls and enjoyed the view. I snapped a few pictures and we moved on to an adjacent field to befriend some grazing cows. Ultimately, they wanted nothing to do with us, so we admired them from a distance and befriended some wildflowers instead. Ready to move on, we headed back to our tzimmer to freshen up and then back out to Qatsrin for a much-desired dinner.

Tasty hummus in Qatsrin

Tasty hummus in Qatsrin

Thus, after eating and perusing Qatsrin’s shopping plaza, we drove back to Ein Zivan bringing our second day to a close. We had exciting plans for our third, and final day, so resting up was imperative and that’s exactly what we did. To be continued…

Snow in the Golan

In Golan, Israel on May 30, 2021 at 9:26 AM

The Sunday morning after the adventure to the Northwest Negev, Bracha and I packed up the Dacia Duster with our belongings for a three-day vacation to the faraway Golan. Quite exciting for us, a substantial amount of snow had fallen just before the weekend and Alon, our AirBnB contact, sent us a nice video of the white goodness that was awaiting us. We had chosen to stay at a quaint cabin-like place, or tzimmer, in Ein Zivan, located quite near the Syrian border by Quneitra, rather ideal for those who appreciate snow. It had been years since either of us had seen proper snow, so we were both brimming over with excitement as we made the long drive up, hoping that the sun wasn’t working too fast at melting it all away.

The Golan white with snow

The Golan white with snow

We entered the Golan from the area of Capernaum and, even as we neared Qatsrin, the veritable capital of the region, we couldn’t see any traces of snow – save the snowy distant peaks of Mount Hermon, which is generally the case every winter. Being as though we had a good handful of activities planned out in our three-day itinerary, we masterfully scheduled a quick olive oil factory tour at Qatsrin as we made our way to Ein Zivan. I had been to the Olea Essence factory two or three times before, but my last visit was only in 2016 and I was excited for Bracha to get a chance to see it.

Olea Essence olive oil factory in Qatsrin

Olea Essence olive oil factory in Qatsrin

It was interesting to see how the olive oils and olive-based beauty products are made, yet also sad to see that despite their recent breakthroughs into lucrative Asian markets, the coronavirus pandemic had wreaked havoc on the company’s financial situation. We toured their newly upgraded factory, the machinery unfortunately idle as the company simply couldn’t keep the production cogs turning. In the gift shop we felt the limitations of the pandemic even stronger, having to taste the oils with sterile plastic spoons instead of cubes of bread. We left feeling a little sad for the hard-working industry, but also joyous that we procured a tasty garlic-infused olive oil.

Fun way to start off our trip

Fun way to start off our trip

Back in the car, we continued towards Ein Zivan, passing many cars with symbolic snow mounds on their windshields. This snow became more and more apparent as shaded slopes of the gentle volcanic mountains were partially covered in blankets of white. Reaching one of the junctions before Ein Zivan on Road 91, I got slightly carried away by the snow everywhere and pulled over to admire the sight for a minute or two. Bracha convinced me that there must be even more snow where we were to be staying so we hopped back into the car and brought our long drive to a much-deserved end.

Our tzimmer in Ein Zivan

Our tzimmer in Ein Zivan

We arrived at the tzimmer just after 3pm, greeted by the bountiful snow that was still surprisingly deep and untouched in many places. Our host, Alon, pointed out the broken tree branches all around us and explained that the snowfall was so copious that the trees couldn’t possibly bear the weight and limbs were lost. He unlocked the tzimmer door and we fell in love with the quaint little cabin with its Jacuzzi, gas fireplace and cozy living quarters. Having just finished a long drive – plus the olive oil factory tour – we decided to rest a bit before heading back out.

Atop Mount Bental overlooking the snowy plateau

Atop Mount Bental overlooking the snowy plateau

Rested up, our next location on our itinerary was the nearby Mount Bental, which we imagined would be rather snowy. What we didn’t anticipate were the crowds, as all of Israel loves to frolic in the rare snow whenever it falls. Alas, we found that the crowds were winding down as it was approaching sunset which afforded such stunning views of the snow-dusted land below us painted in the pastel colours of evening. I’ve always loved the Golan, but there’s something extra special and loveable about seeing it white with snow.

Coffee Anan and the famous signpost

Coffee Anan and the famous signpost

Having parked partway up, we reached the summit by foot and to combat the bitter cold, popped into the celebrated and cleverly-named Coffee Anan (a play on words between Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Hebrew words for “Coffee Cloud”, referencing the mountaintop location of this particular lodge). We ordered a simple coffee and, interestingly enough, Bracha found this experience to be incredibly charming. She had always wanted to get a hot drink at a snowy lodge, and there we were doing just that, 1,165 metres above sea level.

Sunset from Mount Bental's summit

Sunset from Mount Bental’s summit

Back outside, in the crisp cold air, we turned our attention to the mountaintop bunkers and trenches and gingerly made a circuit of what we could. We enjoyed the view of the borderlands, and Syria beyond, and took in the beauty of our surroundings. Certainly, we took many photos and even had volunteers take some pictures of us as well. The sun slowly sank towards the western horizon, leaving an orange band between the clouds, and we began to plan our next course of action.

Dinner from HaBokrim restaurant

Dinner from HaBokrim restaurant

Dinner that night was to be from the nearby HaBokrim restaurant (Hebrew for “cowboys”), located at the foot of Mount Bental in Merom Golan, a kibbutz founded in 1967 after the Six Day War. Due to its popularity, there was a waiting line, and due to governmental pandemic restrictions, there were only takeaway options. We ordered and then left the beautiful wooden lodge-like building to explore the rest of the kibbutz, marveling in its geographical location within a volcanic crater. When our food was ready we picked it up and headed back to our tzimmer in Ein Zivan, still wowed by the beauty of the snowy Golan. The food was delicious – a burger, a pulled beef sandwich, fries and onion rings – and we decided to have a relaxing evening and night to rest up well for the following day’s plans on lofty Mount Hermon.

Sites in the Northwest Negev

In Israel, Negev on May 23, 2021 at 9:40 AM

In the middle of February, just over a month after starting work at Eshed, I had a random Thursday off. Capitalising on the adventure opportunity, I planned a nice trip with Adam to visit the northwest section of the Negev, which can be delightful in winter months – quite unlike the bombed and burnt version it is today following days of Gazan rockets and arson. Our main birding targets were imperial eagles and the various falcon species that can be found there, but we also just wanted to just get out and explore a bit. We set off in the morning, thankfully using my company car – a 2018 Dacia Duster compact crossover SUV – instead of the usual public transportation which would have made the trip nearly impossible. It was a long, uneventful – save occasional downpours – drive down towards peaceful Sderot, which is not only almost bordering Gaza, but also a figurative gateway into the northwest Negev region. Our first destination wasn’t too far away, just about 30 kilometres to the Re’im reservoir.

A crane in the fields

A crane in the fields

We turned off Road 234 onto a long agricultural road which took us into promising fields of sprinklers. Creeping along slowly, we scanned the outlying land from the car windows and found a handful of cranes foraging, as well as some songbirds. There was some more rain, which came down in meagre sprinklings, not enough to sour our trip but enough to keep us busy opening and closing our windows. At last, we arrived at the reservoir, located atop a small hill and providing a view of the surrounding area. Quite bleak, the large lined pool was devoid of any and all plant life, yet birds could be seen both in the water and along the edges. Methodical scanning and photography revealed that there was a single crane, grebes, loads of common ducks such as mallards, shovelers and teals – but also a new species for us, Eurasian wigeon!

Gazing into the bleak Re'im reservoir

Gazing into the bleak Re’im reservoir

Behind us was a small grouping of Bedouin huts, with a wandering herd of ragged-looking sheep and a handful of patrolling black kites getting us needlessly excited. There were none of the exciting raptor species that had been reported earlier in the season, but we stuck it out there until we felt ready to try the next site. Our drive back down garnered us a nice view of goldfinches drinking from tiny puddles in the gravel road. From there we continued on towards the famous Urim powerline area, a stretch of large pylons that host all sorts of exciting raptors.

Observation platform

Observation platform

Sure enough, we reached the impressive rows of pylons, yet there wasn’t really anywhere good to stop, what with the dirt roads all turned to threatening mud. Even a brief attempt to drive offroad failed as the Dacia slowly sank a bit too much into the gooey orange-brown mud. So, not seeing any exciting raptors, we kept driving and found another interesting site to visit – an observation platform just near Tze’alim Junction. This lookout provides a nice view of Nachal HaBesor, and is part of a string of lesser sites along the Besor Scenic Route, which is also a part of the ANZAC Trail.

Little green bee-eater

Little green bee-eater

Enjoying the interesting view of the loess badlands, basically a combination of desert and bushy scrubland, we saw more black kites and even a striking little green bee-eater which posed nicely after I stalked it into the bush. Getting back into the car, we continued along the scenic route, passing the picturesque hanging bridge – which we planned to visit on the way back. Our destination was a trio of reservoirs that I’d heard good things about over the past few years, and we were eager to lay eyes on them.

Nachal HeBesor

Nachal HeBesor

As with all adventures, there is always the element of the unknown, and what was unknown to us at the time was the accessibility of these reservoirs. Surprisingly, we could only really see one of them – the particular one that was set low down, lush with vegetation and Nachal HaBesor running sluggishly through it. But that wasn’t all, even the access was unusual with a grated walkway called the Pipe Bridge spanning the marshy waters instead of a prominent rise at the side from which to scan. So, we stood over the quagmire and tried our damnedest to find interesting – or, perhaps any – birds wherever they may be hiding.

The Pipe Bridge

The Pipe Bridge

It was an interesting place to visit, no doubt, but from a birder aspect it was somewhat a failure. What we did find redeeming was that these reservoirs were built in the 1990’s by Australian friends of KKL-JNF in tribute to the British-made reservoir that was made further downstream during WWI. Facing a lack of fresh water along their frontlines against the Ottoman Empire, the British had also constructed a 235-kilometre long pipeline that brought water from the distant Nile River. Visiting the site now, it is hard to fathom all that – but that’s often the case in Israel where history is living, and the past moves swiftly.

The marshy reservoir

The marshy reservoir

We made an attempt to visit smaller reservoirs further downstream but the gravel road turned into a rock road and eventually became unfriendly to our non-4×4 vehicle, so we turned back. Our next stop was the hanging bridge that we had passed earlier along the scenic route, and this time we got out to have a look-see. I quite enjoy bridges, and this one was one of the more enjoyable ones that I’ve been on as of late. It reminded me of the perilous bridge from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but thankfully there were no crocodiles lurking in the waters of Nachal HaBesor below.

Crossing the hanging bridge over Nachal HaBesor

Crossing the hanging bridge over Nachal HaBesor

From the rocking bridge we were able to do a bit of birding, which we were thankful for. Loads of swallows, martins and swifts were flying overhead, swooping endlessly as they gorged on the millions of small flying insects that rose unwittingly from the marsh below. In fact, one or more of the swifts were pallid swifts, a new species for the both of us. Likewise, birds could be both heard and seen below us, and we watched one particularly sociable bluethroat dart around the floating dead reeds in search for insects to eat.

Oh imperial eagles, where art thou

Oh imperial eagles, where art thou?

When we finished our exploration of both banks we got back into the car and returned to the pylons near Urim. This time we pulled over in a good spot and gave proper scans of the lofty metal towers, one by one. Sadly, no eagles and no falcons could be seen – yet, in an odd turn of events, when I was looking at my trip pictures back home I happened to notice a raptor-shaped blob on one of the pylons that we somehow missed when we were there. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good enough photo to discern what it is at all so it’ll remain an unidentified blob.

An unidentifiable blob

An unidentifiable blob

It was still a little early in the day and we had already finished exploring all the sites that we had intended to. I checked Google Maps really quickly and entered a new surprise destination for Adam, to help boost our morale after the relative failure vis-à-vis the raptors of the pylons. This destination was the famous Dudaim Landfill, where tens of thousands of black kites winter every year. If that isn’t enough, tens of thousands of starlings also winter there, and both species love to show off their flying skills to all who care to watch. As we got closer to the landfill, Adam began to get more and more excited at the rising numbers of black kites that were becoming visible from the car. A few kilometres away, he implored me to pull over, as there were scores of them perched not too far from the road. I feigned confusion, claiming that I couldn’t find a good place to pull over, and kept driving closer and closer to our destination. Thousands of black kites were visible in the skies; practically everywhere we looked we could see more than we could possibly count.

Black kites swarming over the landfill

Black kites swarming over the landfill

As we were standing beside the parked car, looking up at the soaring multitudes, we heard something hit the car roof with a loud bang. Startled, we looked around and saw a working Arab man standing beside a checkpoint hut laughing. We weren’t quite sure what to make of the situation, and wondered if and why he had pelted us with rubbish, when he pointed up and said that it came from above. That’s when our gaze was cast heavenward and we saw a truly disturbing sight. Chunks of garbage, mostly animal parts, were falling from the sky – dropped by the black kites. Piecing it all together, we watched as a black kite snatched a dangling bit of rubbish and took flight, immediately being chased by a handful of his brethren. An aerial dogfight ensued as the other kites attempted to rob him of his rotting morsel. We watched aghast as the flesh fell from his grip, plummeting to the ground not too far from us.

A discarded fish tail that fell from the sky

A discarded fish tail that fell from the sky

As the grisly bits rained down around us, and a passing garbage truck splashed us with revolting garbage water, we decided that it was time to call it a day. True, this site was fascinating, and arguably the highlight of our adventure, but there was only so much rubbish that one can endure on an ordinary Thursday afternoon. We shook ourselves off the best we could and got back into the car, almost reluctantly leaving this unworldly site as we drove back to the main road, passing absolutely absurd numbers of kites perched literally everywhere for at least a square kilometre or two.

Some black kites perched nearby

Some black kites perched nearby

The drive back was relaxed, although quite naturally we couldn’t stop talking about the ridiculousness of the Dudaim Landfill. Since pictures and words can only do so much justice, I have since taken the liberty of stitching together some of the video clips I took on-site into a rudimentary video that may help one visualise the intensity of the experience. Sadly, I didn’t manage to capture any of the garbage falling from the sky but, at any rate, the video can be found on my YouTube channel HERE.

Let us not forget the starlings

Let us not forget the starlings

Back in Givat Shmuel, I dropped Adam off at his apartment and headed back home where we were to pack for a three day vacation with Bracha to the Golan the following Sunday. Naturally, posts about that adventure will follow this one presently.

Hulda Reservoir

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

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

Hulda reservoir

Hulda reservoir

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

Green fields outside Hulda

Green fields outside Hulda

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

A siege of herons guarding the centre of the reservoir

A siege of herons guarding the centre of the reservoir

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

Record shot of our first great crested grebe

Record shot of our first great crested grebe

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

Flock of northern lapwings flying by once again

Flock of northern lapwings flying by once again

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

Sun-kissed cauliflower plants

Sun-kissed cauliflower plants

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

Greater spotted eagle making a quick getaway

Greater spotted eagle making a quick getaway

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

There's a twinkle in his eyes

There’s a twinkle in his eyes

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

Record shot of the blessed European serin

Record shot of the blessed European serin

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

A final parting look at Hulda's wild reservoir

A final parting look at Hulda’s wild reservoir

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

Vernal Pools of the Mercaz

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

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

Levinsky College's vernal pool

Levinsky College’s vernal pool

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

All about vernal pools

All about vernal pools

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

Penduline tit in the reeds

Penduline tit in the reeds

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

Muddy path along Nachal Achiya

Muddy path along Nachal Achiya

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

Afeka's vernal pool still waiting for the rains

Afeka’s vernal pool still waiting for the rains

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

Adam photographing the prized jewel beetle

Adam photographing the prized jewel beetle

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

Within the Samaritan burial caves

Within the Samaritan burial caves

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

'Rolling rock' grave door

‘Rolling rock’ grave door

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

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

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

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

Rook receiving the sunset

Rook receiving the sunset

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

Four Lepidurus apus and one rarer Triops cancriformis

Four Lepidurus apus and one rarer Triops cancriformis

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

Neglected vernal pool in Rosh HaAyin

Neglected vernal pool in Rosh HaAyin

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

Adam opting for a really close photo of triops

Adam opting for a really close photo of triops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map of the North Tel Aviv vernal pools

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

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