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Holon Dunes at Night

In Central Israel, Israel on September 16, 2018 at 6:11 AM

The other week I had an urge to go out and explore some of the local sand dunes before the summer ends. With the onset of the colder weather, and the accompanying rain, on the horizon, opportunity beckoned to comb the great dunes in search of insects, arachnids and reptiles. The dunes just south of Holon were recommended to me, and I reached out to my travel buddy Adam Ota to see if he wanted to come along. We equipped ourselves with cameras and flashlights (and a stick wielded by Adam) and set out for the bus as the sun began to set.

Sunset over the city

We arrived at the edge of Holon and made our way through a park and past a stadium, gearing up before we stepped out into the sandy dunes. Overgrown with small bushes and other sand-loving plants, we found many trails crisscrossing the dunes and chose those that took us further and further south away from civilisation. I had just been gifted a new camera from my parents – a Nikon P900 with an astounding 83x optical zoom – and, as such, was rather excited to test out its night-time capabilities.

Geared up

As we crested the first dune we startled a stone curlew, which flew off with calls of alarms, leaving us in silence. There was no moon to be seen, yet Mars and a few stars twinkled in the sky above us. Planes from the nearby Ben Gurion Airport passed overhead from time to time and our flashlight beamed danced illuminatingly in the relative darkness.

Elegant gecko

The first interesting find of the evening was a small elegant gecko, which ran swiftly to cover once being exposed. A brief stop at a bush some minutes later revealed a praying mantis egg case glued to a stick. Moments later we made an even more exciting discovery: a baby chameleon was asleep nearby, clutching on to a twig as he snoozed. We snuck up to it, eager to take pictures, and then noticed that there were even more baby chameleons nearby.

Adam holding a baby chameleon

We enjoyed the company of the baby chameleons, and then pushed on further to find more interesting wildlife. Personally, I had my eyes out for a snake, any snake but preferably either a viper or a sand boa, both of which dwell in the dunes. Instead we found more chameleons, giant beetles, ants, antlions, dragonflies and grasshoppers, all going through their nightly routines as we passed through their simple lives.

Tracking a snake in the sand

Another elegant gecko was spotted by Adam, hiding underneath a sheet of wood that we lifted up in search for critters. Next, we found the tracks of a medium-sized snake that had made its way up/down the sandy slope of a dune. Searching for the ends of the tracks produced no results, but it was shortly thereafter that we found another cool find. Noticing a slot-like hole in a sandy slope, we peered inside to see an African fattail scorpion waiting in ambush.

Our first African fattail scorpion

Actually a pretty dangerous scorpion, we had quite the time finding more of them in the sands, and taking their pictures proved to be most exciting. Taking note of the time, we decided to head back to Holon to catch a bus back to Givat Shmuel before it was too late. On the way, we crossed the old “Security Road”, which was paved in 1948, and visited the old water tower built in 1936 to service the local Jewish population.

Old water tower in a cloud of dust

We made it back to Givat Shmuel happy with what we succeeded in seeing, yet I still had a nagging feeling to go back to find a snake – any snake at this point. A few nights later I reached out to Adam and we set out once again in search of exciting dune lifeforms. We decided to comb a different area, starting just west of where we ended the time before, and began to search.

Holon Dunes as seen from above (Google Maps)

This time we found dozens of fattail scorpions, the tracks of many wedge-snouted skinks and those of a gerbil as well. A few more of the same sightings as last time, minus the baby chameleons, and we had seen all that there was to see. No matter how hard we tried we were unable to locate a snake, but there is still a whole lot more of the dunes to explore so hopefully next time we’ll be met with success.

African fattail scorpion ready for action

Until then we have many ripe days of birding before university starts up again, the fall migration kicking off to a lively start with thousands of shrikes, wheatears, eagles, honey buzzards, warblers and more just waiting to be seen and documented.

Nachal Na’aman

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

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

Nachal Na’aman in the early morning

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

Armenian gull watching me from above

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

Sunlight over the fish pond

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

River crab

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

The first fish pond

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

Common sandpiper

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

Egyptian mongooses

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

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

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

More fish ponds

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

Nachal Na’aman’s mouth

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

Backwaters of Nachal Na’aman and the sea

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

Small flock of sanderlings

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

The beach with the Old City of Akko

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

Ruddy turnstone foraging

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

Tel es-Safi Archaeological Dig 2018

In Israel, Judea on August 26, 2018 at 9:27 AM

Following my last season at the Tel es-Safi/Gath archaeological dig (as can be read in parts I and II) a year later, I returned this summer for another four weeks of fun in the sun. Having garnered some experience, I was promoted to assistant area supervisor, which, in my case, made me a supervisor of five squares, a step up from last year’s single square. Excited to tackle the job, I reunited with Dr Jill Katz of Yeshiva University (my immediate superior), Prof Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University (the dig director) and other staff members to prepare the field for the dig.

Area Y before the dig began

This year brought change to the long-running Tel es-Safi dig as the efforts were concentrated only on the lower city area. Last year had us in both the upper and lower city of the tel, with our Area J being on the slope – the upper city wall from the Early Bronze era. Dr Katz and I had been designated a new area, Area Y, at the northern side of the tel and close to Nachal Elah, the outer regions of the lower city. Using some nifty magnetometry technology to detect physical anomalies under the surface, we picked out some squares to excavate out of Israel’s national land grid.

Lodgings at Kibbutz Kfar Menachem

This year our expedition was to be based out of a school in nearby Kibbutz Kfar Menachem, just a fifteen minute drive from the tel itself. Staff and volunteers met and exchanged pleasantries as we set ourselves up for the four-week program. Dr Katz had brought some Yeshiva University students and other volunteers, which made the bulk of our core group, and it was a pleasure to get acquainted before setting out the following morning to the tel.

Sunrise and Area D

Our first week began with clearing Area Y from rocks, dead grass and other vegetation, as well as setting up the shade tent that would serve us the rest of the season. Our neighbours were also preparing their areas: the Bar Ilan team at Area M just across the dirt road on the side closer to the tel was also opening up fresh squares on virgin land. Over to the west, Area D and D2 were setting up as well, cleaning their aging baulks from the ravages of time and winter’s rains.

Prof Boaz Zissu lending a hand

Back at Area Y, we struck into the dry soil with a hunger for finds, each of the first four squares occupied by three or four volunteers. I was given boxes of supplies, a table, and a chair where I was to spend the majority of my time in the field. I was charged with making sure that everything was properly registered and accounted for, and that everything that was taken back to the field lab was tagged and labeled correctly. It was an interesting yet mostly cushy job and I was almost always shaded from the fierce sun by the large jujube tree that adorned the eastern side of our area.

Jill giving a briefing

Each day the routine was the same: we’d arrive, set up the shade tent, gather all the necessary tools, have a quick briefing on what the objectives of the day were, dig, dig, dig, write, write, write, and then pack it all up at the end of the day, which was at one o’clock in the afternoon.

Rebecca Zami preparing the daily top plan

Back at the kibbutz we processed all the finds, which included washing, reading, and writing on pottery, as well as attending lectures and filling out paperwork (each to their own in accordance to their job). Of course, we also enjoyed meals and had leisure time to fraternise with the many interesting folks from around the world who had come for the summer.

Annie Brown with a tiny lizard jawbone

Clearing away the topsoil is both laborious and frustrating, yet sometimes really interesting finds from more recent periods can be found. In our case, we found several pieces of Ottoman pipes and a few broken glass bracelet pieces from the Mamluk/Ottoman period. While these finds have very little significance to an excavation dedicated to Bronze and Iron Age settlements, they do brighten up the day.

Mouthpiece of an Ottoman pipe

Being a lover of nature and wildlife, I was always excited to see interesting species both in and above ground. During the first week we found a few ocellated skinks and some green toads, while seeing a recurring presence of a pair of short-toed eagles who reside at the tel each summer. It’s always satisfying to hear an aquiline cry in the distance and to then looking out at where it was expected to be; I had begun to learn their habits and that provided me much joy as a birder.

Avraham Penso running a wheelbarrow

The first week went by quickly, the topsoil being stripped away and decanted on nearby dirt ramps that were constructed under the guidance of Prof David Kotter of Colorado Christian University, a man educated in the art of engineering. With the start of the second week our core team was bolstered by some experienced members from last year’s Area J, including Itamar Berko, Shani Guterman, Avraham Penso and Rebecca Zami. We needed more diggers with experience to manage all the progression made below topsoil–when things start getting interesting.

Henry Kronenberg in Square 93A

In fact, in one of our squares (93A), a curious clumping of fired mudbricks was being exposed from under the earth, prompting much discussion amongst the staff. Each square had its charm, a combination of the physical contents and the personalities of those working in it. While one square’s team was hard at work pickaxing a mysterious layer of chalk in relative silence, another would be clamouring about some painted pottery they had found. Though not properly digging in any of the squares for the bulk of my day, I had the pleasure of appreciating it all, even if from afar.

Fine specimen of a Philistine mudbrick

With the onset of the second week I had also brought some of my home-brewed beer to the kibbutz, the vulture-decorated bottles of our successful batch of Arx Meles IPA II proving to be quite a hit with both the local and foreign students. Unfortunately, my co-brewer, Ben Yablon, was unable to attend this year’s dig and thereby missed out on the accolades that he well-deserved.

Drone view of Area Y (photo Aren Maeir)

Back at the digsite, the expedition’s drone began to made sporadic visits to the three areas, providing us with a much-appreciated bird’s-eye view of the work we were doing. There wasn’t much in terms of isolated special finds during the second week, but the squares were coming along nicely, and some of them caused much intrigue. For one, the clumping of mudbricks in square 93A was beginning to appear like a structure, albeit somewhat collapsed, and the square with the chalk refused to move on – the chalk layer getting deeper and deeper with every passing day.

Tiny Kotschy’s gecko on my table

It’d be uncharacteristic for me to leave out the wildlife, so on the second week I was treated to a special guest at my table. A tiny Kotschy’s gecko, that I assume lives in the jujube tree, came running all over my paperwork and top-plan. I had never seen one of these amazingly camouflaged lizards so it was quite an experience. Another curious find shortly thereafter was the remains of a little owl, found flat as a pancake in the grass beside the dirt road. I just hope it wasn’t the same little owl from last summer (see photograph HERE).

Yeshiva University students with Dr Jill Katz

The second week went by quickly, and a handful of Bar Ilan students left our area. Our crew was cut down a bit, but on the third week we had a lot of volunteer groups who came to help for a day. A large contingency of Yeshiva University students doing a summer program in Bar Ilan’s laboratories came to help out one morning, bringing with them a YU flag for us to hang from our shade tent.

Area M supervisor Maria Enukhina taking photographs from a cherry-picker

Good progress was made on the third week, and the squares were looking more and more impressive. In order to handle the influx of volunteers with no field experience, we opened up another square (93C) which provided a fresh working space for fun topsoil finds. Sure enough, a piece of a glass bracelet from the Mamluk/Ottoman period was uncovered, as well as a few obscure metal pieces probably dating back to the early to mid-1900s.

Progression at Area Y

Despite the fact that we had five squares open, and that we were digging in Iron I territory (land of the Philistines), we had a remarkable lack of small finds. Even pottery, which is so common everywhere on and around the tel, was scarce and our daily pottery buckets were always scant. It became a bit of a joke during the expedition, especially as Area M’s findings were so incredibly rich. They had uncovered the destruction level from the Aramean King Hazael’s attack, and were knee-deep in both broken and complete vessels.

Rebecca Zami examining some potsherds

We had to finish the bulk of our digging by the end of the third week, as the fourth week focuses on cleaning up the area and photographically documenting the season’s work. Most of Area D’s workers, including the valued CCU team who helped us out a lot in Area Y, had left the expedition by the end of the third week. Our team shrunk as well, and it was mostly the core members who were left to hold the torch to the very end. We came back from the weekend, some of us having spent Shabbat together in Jerusalem, refreshed and ready to finish off the season with a bang.

Taking elevation readings with the Total Station

However, I had a different calling. That Sunday I was to report to my old army base just outside of Haifa for reserve duty. Being that I was still tied down with my responsibilities at Tel es-Safi, I was released upon talking to my captain, but it was fun revisiting my old base after so many years. Taking public transportation back to the kibbutz, I rejoined my dig friends and got right back into the swing of things.

Dr Jill Katz at Tel Miqne

The following day we took a field trip to Tel Miqne/Ekron, guided by our very own Prof Jeff Chadwick, who was a supervisor there during the excavations in the 1990s. We toured the agricultural installations, which had since become impressively overgrown, and learned about the ancient city’s gates. It was a short trip, with the intense afternoon sun beating mercilessly down upon us, and we took what we could from it.

Area Y completed for the season

The next few days were dedicated to cleaning and photographing, yet while cleaning, the base of a vessel became visible on the floor of Square 92B. We were filled with excitement, thinking that we had at last come across a possible whole vessel. So, after taking the final photographs of the season, we gathered around as a few team members excavated it. Not quite what we expected, we discovered that this base was just a base, and a broken one at that. Later, we learned that it was a homemade vessel – a cool find for that reason alone.

Area Y group photo (photo Aren Maeir)

Thus ended the 2018 season of the Tel es-Safi Archaeological Dig for the Area Y team. We shared a grand time together, most having a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will be forever cherished. For the archaeology students among us, there’s next summer to look forward to – be it at Tel es-Safi again, or perhaps one of the many other archaeological digs throughout the country.

End-of-the-season photograph (photo Aren Maeir)

To read more about Tel es-Safi’s official (and unofficial) updates, as well as old posts from this summer’s season, please check out Prof Maeir’s blog HERE.

Ben Shemen Forest

In Central Israel, Israel on August 19, 2018 at 8:58 AM

The Friday after the Bar Ilan University field trip to Tel es-Safi and the Museum of Philistine Culture I went on a nice birding trip with my friend Adam Ota. He had reported to me that the Tel Hadid and Ben Shemen Forest area had some great birding potential so we set out that morning in high spirits. On the bus ride we already began to reap the rewards of our trip with a sighting of a black-shouldered kite and a golden jackal.

Ben Shemen Forest

Our bus dropped us off at the northern entrance of the park and we were surprised to see a huge number of cars disgorging cyclists all around us. Apparently there was a cycling event in the forest that day, and we just prayed that their presence wouldn’t interfere too much with the birding and nature-watching. Armed with our cameras and exploratory spirits we began our tour of the forest, deciding to start from the northeast corner and working our way southward.

Sharing the trails with cyclists

From the very start there was a member of the falcon family making appearances, yet refusing to allow us to get a good photograph. It was probably a common kestrel, but Adam had spotted a hobby nearby the previous week so we were keen to see one. Circling a field that yielded no interesting species, we ignored the plentiful Eurasian jays and entered the woods.

Pensive Eurasian jay (photo Adam Ota)

It wasn’t long after starting on a dirt trail and encountering many cyclists that we decided to go offroad a bit and try our fortune there. We had picked the perfect place to explore, for we had come across an ancient stone quarry, the clean cut marks being a clear indication of human activity. But there wasn’t just stones to look at, Adam had found a distinct-looking flight feather which once belonged to a barn owl.

Male chukar standing guard (photo Adam Ota)

While we were traipsing through the piney undergrowth we were brought to attention by the call of a male chukar, a species of partridge common to Israel. We stood stock-still and scoured our surroundings, trying to locate the sound. At last, after some silent stalking, Adam succeeded in finding the chukar, perched up on a boulder and providing us with a great sighting.

Owl fly detail (photographed with my phone)

Some songbirds, including the frequently-spotted Sardinian warbler, put up a good show and then we moved on. We next found a few Polyommatus genus butterflies and then Adam stopped our progress through the grass to take a photograph of an adult owl fly (Bubopsis andromache), a close relative of the antlion. I joined in on the party and the owl fly stood motionless on a stem as we took dozens of photos with the different photographic devices we carry.

Adam photographing the owl fly

From there we headed further south, towards the dry streambed of Nachal Gamzu, and encountered even more cyclists. Eventually we caught sight of a bird of prey passing by overhead, identified as a short-toed eagle – quite common in Israel during the summer months. Reaching the southwest corner of the forest we made our way towards Tel Gamzu, which was to offer more than just a nice view.

Agama lizard on the run

We approached the hill from the east and climbed it, the change of landscape scenery giving us new hope for interesting species. True enough, Adam caught an agama lizard that had run into an old military bunker and released it back into the wilderness after a few photos. The tel had started as an Bronze Age settlement and then, in modern times, served as a strategic point for IDF soldiers during Operation Danny in 1948.

Off-roading fun

Atop the tel we found a nice lookout over the coastal plains and sat down to lunch, a pair of common kestrels and a handful of bold mynas keeping us company. When we had finished our break we continued back down the hill, stopping to watch a group of people with their 4×4 SUVs engage in some off-road fun.

Old Arab cemetery on Tel Gamzu

Descending via the northern slope, we passed through the abandoned cemetery that belonged to the Arab village of Jimzu (which preserved the ancient name of Gamzu) and then found ourselves walking alongside olive trees. At one point, while we were poking about looking at huge funnel spider webs, Adam had a bit of a run-in with a sleeping jackal, which dashed off into the wilderness to never be seen again (by us, at least).

Yours truly photographing insects (photo Adam Ota)

Getting back on a proper trail, we passed a couple on horseback – this forest drawing humans on all forms of transportation – and then found something cool. On the side of the trail we found rock-hewn graves, each comprised of two burial chambers excavated on either sides of a coffin-shaped hole in the rock. I had seen these exact grave types nearby at the “Graves of the Maccabees” with Dr Eyal Baruch so I knew how to identify them – particularly the fact that these weren’t Jewish graves.

Thai pagoda

Moving on, we next encountered a fenced-off ornate pagoda built by the government of Thailand in honour of Israel and Thailand’s King Bhumibol the Great, who died two years ago. Impressed by the structure we took our leave and headed for the park’s entrance, near where we had entered several hours ago. We found a lookout tower and took a short break before heading off to the bus stop, stopping along the way to buy freshly squeezed juice to revitalise us, thus bringing an end to our nice tour of Ben Shemen Forest.

University Trip: Tel es-Safi & Museum of Philistine Culture

In Israel, Judea on August 12, 2018 at 7:56 AM

Back in June, before the bustle of the summer months began, I took part in another field trip offered by my Archaeology department at Bar Ilan University. The destinations were Philistine-oriented: the ancient city of Gath, which is known today as Tel es-Safi (where I excavated this summer) and the Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod, another city once occupied by the Philistines. We left the campus in the morning with our guide, Dr Amit Dagan, and made our way to the tel.

Tel es-Safi (Biblical Gath)

Approaching the tel from the north, I was immediately filled with nostalgic memories of the previous summer when we had so much fun excavating in Area J. I looked out at the familiar hill and wondered to myself where I’d be excavating in a few weeks when the 2018 season would begin. We disembarked at the Ottoman-era antilia well just beside the dry streambed of Nahal Elah and began the tour. Dr Amit Dagan started lecturing about the site and I found myself wandering off in eager anticipation to check up on the excavated areas left untouched since last summer. Since the winter is the wet season here in Israel, the rains ravage the carefully excavated squares all winter long leaving Area D in a surprisingly shoddy condition.

Some of Area D

Area D is the large excavated area at the northern foot of the tel where the lower city’s walls and possible gate are being exposed. The famous two-horned altar that was discovered several years ago was found in Area D and is now exhibited in the Philistine museum that we’d visited later that day. While I was walking around the area, I noticed a large number of insects flying and hopping about me. Upon closer examination I discovered that there were loads of adult antlions in the tall grasses. Juvenile antlions are one of the insect species I’ve come to know very well.

Adult antlion

After a thorough tour of Area D, Dr Amit Dagan sat us down beneath the shade of a large jujube tree and I found myself distracted once again, this time by birds. A large number of noisy jackdaws were congregating on and around the power lines not far from the streambed. But then I heard a bird call that struck me as odd. It was coming from the direction of the tel, yet I couldn’t find the culprit, even with the aid of my megazoom camera. The call was repeated several times, and I racked my train trying to identify it. Even using the renowned Collins Bird Guide app on my phone – with its featured bird call recordings – I was unable to identify this mystery bird.

Beneath the jujube tree

At last, just as we were getting up to leave, I saw a medium-sized bird fly out of a nearby tree. My camera was focused on it in an instant, and I captured a photograph of it as it made a short flight to another tree near the streambed. A couple more photos of it perched and I felt sure that I’d be able to identify the bird on my camera display screen. Sure enough, the mystery bird was a juvenile great spotted cuckoo – a species I had only seen once before, just a few kilometres away from the tel the previous year. Excited by this sighting, I was in good spirits as we got into our bus and began the drive to our next destination: the Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod.

It’s always so sunny at the tel

An even more exciting sighting was about to happen, and I was completely caught off guard. We were slowly driving down the access road and I looked idly out the window at the scenery passing before me. Suddenly, I noticed a dog-like figure at the edge of a field, backdropped by some untamed shrubbery. There wasn’t enough time to grab my camera or my binoculars; I had only mere seconds to make an identification and time was of the utmost essence. I had been stricken by a feeling that I was looking at a very elusive and exciting member of the Carnivora order, but I needed to be sure before I dared utter its name. I was unable to make a definite identification but I’m quite sure that I had seen a striped hyena, an apex predator that I had only seen once before (and at night).

Museum of Philistine Culture

From that exciting sighting, I was all worked up by the time we reached the museum in Ashdod. Thankfully, the museum was exciting and captivated our attention from the moment we entered the well-decorated interior. Having opened in 1990, the museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to the Philistines, a group of sea-faring people from Europe who settled in the Levant in the Iron Age (over 3000 years ago).

Museum exhibitions

Inside we walked about, looking at the displayed artefacts and keeping an eye out for pieces found at Tel es-Safi, our Bar Ilan site. We examined the ceramic vessels, especially the ornate painted Philistine pottery that we’ve come to know firsthand. Having taken some ceramics classes this year, I was keen on identifying the displayed vessels on my own, excited to find parallels to the typologies we learned in class.

Philistine warrior

Dr Dagan began to speak about the emergence of the Philistine culture in the Levant and the geographical importance the region of Philistia had in the ancient times. As he spoke he moved from one part of the museum to the next, the topical exhibits highlighting his mini lectures. One thing that amused us was the interactive screen featuring a brief history of Gath (or, Tel es-Safi) with a picture of our own Prof Aren Maeir sharing a moment with a zoomorphic special find during one of the excavation seasons.

Gath’s two-horned altar

Speaking with the museum guides, I was informed that there is more to see downstairs: a room of Philistine costumes mainly geared toward kids, and a temporary exhibition featuring the collections of select Ashdod area residents. I glanced about the fun room, successfully fighting the urge to dress up like a Philistine, and then began to peruse the collections exhibit.

Fun room of Philistine costumes

I found several that interested me, including collections of owl figurines, Russian nesting dolls and fancy metal pencil sharpeners. There were a lot of collections to go through, over forty in total, and I was nervous that my group would spontaneously finish upstairs and leave without me.

Collections exhibition

So, I rejoined them in admiring the Philistine culture via the museum exhibitons until we were ready to go. Friday trips are always shorter to accommodate the busy pre-Shabbat schedules, but all-in-all we had a great Philistine-filled field trip.

University Trip: Sites in the Lower Galilee

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

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

Climbing Tel Shimron

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

Piece of Islamic pottery

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

Einot Zippori

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

Calm waters

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

Tel Hanaton

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

View from Tel Hanaton

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

Entrance to the Crusader-era ruins

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

Horvat Rosh Zayit’s Phoenician fortress

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

Robber fly preying on a butterfly

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

More of Horvat Rosh Zayit

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

Group photo

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

Tel Keisan

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

Black-shouldered kite

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

View from Tel Keisan

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

University Trip: Carmel Region

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

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

Ramat HaNadiv nature

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

Operating the drone

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

Piece of an Ottoman pipe

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

Aqueduct and spring cave

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

One of the smaller pools

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

Carmel Caves

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

Within the Tabun Cave

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

HaBonim Beach

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

Walking seaside

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

Thistle mantis

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

Interesting beach

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

Curious place to spend the night

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

Trail through Mount Carmel’s forests

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

View from the Louis Promenade

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

University Trip: Northern Golan

In Golan, Israel on June 24, 2018 at 7:26 AM

A week after my two-day trip to the Golan, Bet Shean Valley and Agamon Hefer I took yet another university trip to the Golan. With so many Golan posts coming out in relative succession, it can be slightly confusing as to which is which. This post is the counterpart to the Southern Golan post, a further look at the geology and topography of the Golan as a region. Our guide was Mr Moty Rubinstein, an octogenarian lecturer in my department, and together we set out in the morning from the Bar Ilan University campus.

Group photo

We took a brief stop along Road 6, where members of our party sampled from the fruits of a ficus tree, inspiring an Indian tourist to follow suit much to our amusement. As we progressed further north, we began to see interesting birds from the tour bus windows. The frequently-mentioned Adam was present, so I had who to bird-talk with as we pointed out white storks and kestrels. Climbing into the Golan, via Road 91 towards the old customs house, we noticed several buzzards sitting on the boulders that dot the grassy land.

Otniel Shamir Memorial

Pulling into the tourist area of Katzrin, the so-called capital of the Golan, we learned about the basalt formations in nearby Nachal Meshushim, where hexagonal pillars of rock line a nicely sized pool – a popular destination for hikers. From there we drove a few minutes away to a memorial site outside of Moshav Kidmat Tzvi, dedicated to the memory of Captain Otniel Shamir, a fighter pilot who was shot down by the Syrians during the Six Day War.

Grasshopper on a lupine pod

After spending some time at the memorial, and learning more about the story behind it, we moved on, passing the ruins of Nafakh, and pulled over on the side of the road near the access road to Quneitra, a border city in the UNDOF Zone between Israel and Syria. These interesting roads are familiar to me from when I was a Safaron driver in the army; those were very interesting times. We disembarked at the side of the golden grassland and examined our topographical surroundings.

Golan landscape

From there we drove down Road 98 for a few minutes just to look at the giant wind turbines atop Mount Bnei Rasan, the object of contention between green energy activists and those focusing on the countless avian deaths caused by the spinning blades. Our guide pointed out the small hills dotting the relatively flat landscape, with several large ones making quite the change in topography.

Golan Volcanic Park

Turning back around, we headed up north a wee bit and stopped off at the Golan Volcanic Park at the foot of Mount Avital. There, we immediately saw some European rollers, their bright blue and orange plumage making them unmistakeable as they flew back and forth in front of us. Within minutes we realised that they are nesting in tunnels carved out of the porous volcanic rock walls. As we toured the site, examining the different types of volcanic rock and learning more about volcanic activity and its role in shaping the land around us, I got slightly distracted with the birds. First, some kestrels lured me away from my group and then a very vocal common whitethroat, a type of warbler, entranced me with his melodious song as he flew from bush to bush. Then, satisfied with my whitethroat experience, I noticed a pair of woodchat shrikes perched on a nearby fence, chasing away anything that approached, including a surprised Eurasian jay which made quite a hasty escape.

Mount Avital

When we finished with the park we drove up to Mount Avital and parked at a spot where we could get out and see the volcanic crater caused when the extinct volcano erupted ages ago. The green slopes were dotted with small trees and shrubs and the basin was occupied by a vineyard, whose story was related to us by our knowledgeable guide. The distinct call of the corn bunting filled our ears and another roller passed by overhead, nearly allowing me to get a decent photo.

View of Mount Avital from Mount Bental

Getting back into the bus we drove over to the neighbouring mountain to the north, Mount Bental. Famous for its bunkers, observation points and uniquely-named cafe, the mountain draws a large amount of tourists, so much so that there are actually signs on the peak written in Chinese. We stood at a nice vantage point next to the parking lot, looking out at Mount Avital and a destroyed rusty tank down below. After briefly looking out over the western side we made out way to the summit, 1165 metres above sea level. I bypassed the famous Coffee Anan, named after UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and made my way to the observation point where tourists were gathered looking out over Syria.

Within the military bunkers

Having seen this sight a number of times over the past few years, I moved onto into the underground bunker complex, hoping in the offchance that there was an interesting bat or two not scared off by the visitors. All I found was a fly, but I took its picture as if it was the coolest thing in the world. Reemerging into daylight I found myself looking at two blue-capped UN officers. Recalling my times in the army, I decided it’d be fun to strike up a conversation.

UN observation post

The two officers, one Irish and one Australian, told me all about their service and their origins, enriching my knowledge. Adam joined me, grilled the officers with some of his own questions, and then we moved on. Our group was heading back down the mountain to the next site: the Big Joba.

View of Syria

Located in the Odom Forest just several kilometres north of Mount Bental, the Big Joba is the largest of a series of local geological features in the form of a concave dome. Hard to capture photographically, unless photographed aerially, the pit is 250 metres across and sixty metres deep. We walked a short paved trail through the trees until we reached the joba.

Looking at the Big Joba

Again, I had hoped to find some wildlife, but birding in the woods in quite challenging with all the trees and leaves, so I was prepared to give up after seeing just one interesting lizard. But then, as we were sitting at the edge of the joba, Adam motioned to me to look at the treeline above the crater. Sure enough, a steppe buzzard was wheeling his way upwards into the thermals and we were fortunate to catch him before he disappeared.

Birkat Ram

Getting back into our tour bus, we drove further north until we arrived at the Druze village of Mas’ade (not to be confused with the ruins of Masada) and Birkat Ram, a crater lake fed by an underwater spring and rainwater. We stood in a parking lot overlooking the nice blue lake and then something special caught my eye. Among the barn swallows perched on the nearby power lines were a handful of house martins – my first time seeing them!

House martin (photo Adam Ota)

Ending the trip on that high, at the foot of Mount Hermon, we got back into our bus for the long drive back to the university tired but happy and looking forward to the next adventurous trip.

University Trip: Bet Shean Valley & Agamon Hefer

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

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

Learning about nests

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

A baby pigeon

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

Dead Sea sparrow preparing its nest

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

Donkeys on Tel Saharon

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

The old bird ringing station

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

Spur-winged lapwing eggs

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

African softshell turtle

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

Egyptian fruit bats in a cave

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

Nachal Alexander

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

Looking for wildlife

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

Squacco heron

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

Parasitic wasp laying eggs

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

University Trip: Golan & Bet Shean Valley

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

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

Nesting colony outside Kibbutz Degania

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

Night heron nest

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

View from the Beit Saida Lookout

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

Levante fan-fingered gecko

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

Walking in the Nachal Daliyot nature reserve

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

Spying on the Egyptian vulture nest

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

White stork landing on the nest

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

Our country dwelling in Kfar Rupin

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

Night touring

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

Beam of light illuminating the horror of insects

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

Walking along the fish ponds

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

Middle East tree frog with a mosquito on his head

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

Scops owl hiding in the tree

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