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University Trip: Mount Hevron Area

In Israel, Judea on December 9, 2018 at 6:31 AM

The other week I participated in the annual two-day hiking trip (known as the “Campushetach”) provided by my Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department at Bar Ilan University. Geared towards relatively fit hikers, this trip takes a rugged approach to geography, history and archaeology and is offered to both students and staff of the department. Last year we spent two days in the Wadi Qelt area (posts I and II), and this year we spent the two days in two different places: the first day in the Mount Hevron area, and the second day at Nachal Kina in the Negev.

Starting off the trip with a grand view

The first day began at BIU where the majority of us boarded a tour bus to be taken to the Mount Hevron area, making a few stops on the way to pick up the other trip members. We drove through the Judean Lowlands, spotting some gazelles on the side of the road, and then entered Judea. We passed by Hevron and had our first real stop at a site called Nabi Yakin, home to a burial cave and Muslim maqam (shrine), as Dr Dvir Raviv gave us the trip’s introductory talk.

Maqam of Nabi Yakin

The maqam, known as Nabi Yakin, was built to house a pair of “footprints” in the bedrock, which, according to Muslim belief, belong to the patriarch Abraham. Outside the maqam, surrounded by stones, is another pair of “footprints” that are associated with Lot. A quick visit inside the burial cave revealed a whole lot of collapsed rock and a lone Sinai fan-fingered gecko that was hiding out near the painted gate. Back outside, blossoming Steven’s meadow saffrons dotted the ground here and there.

Steven’s meadow saffron

Our next stop was to the yishuv Ma’ale Hever where we enjoyed the lookout and had breakfast. F-16 fighter jets screamed in the skies overhead, dropping flares as they engaged in exercise maneuvers. From the yishuv we drove over to Tel Zif, where we had a short walk to some recently excavated Roman ruins.

Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise

There was also some interesting wildlife to be seen, including some ravens flying in the distance, a flock of woodlarks, a baby tortoise and my very first Ameles heldreichi praying mantis. In addition, a nice bunch of Crocus pallasii was flowering and providing nectar for a hungry honeybee.

Crocus pallasii

The ruins at Tel Zif are quite fascinating, with the Classical architecture of fine masonry with a fancy tiled floor and carven columns. Heading back to the bus after some final photographs, we were then driven to the access road to Tel Ma’on. We disembarked and began the walk to the tel, where we were to enjoy the views and the site of an ancient synagogue dated to the Roman era.

Ruins at Tel Zif

Accompanied by a trio of soldiers, we entered the Arab settlements and passed plowed fields and ancient water cisterns. One of the cisterns we passed is still in-use, with a couple local children standing over it and the nearby sign of rehabilitation on behalf of the Canadian government. At one point up the slope, someone noticed an interesting flower – identified as a Tuvia’s autumn crocus, and then my friend Adam captured my attention.

Common northern raven chasing a long-legged buzzard

Off to the east there were two large shapes flying through the air. Seeing the rear one relatively clearly, I assumed the other to be the same species – a common northern raven. Only with the help of my camera’s 83x zoom was I able to get a series of photos which showed me that the raven was chasing (or mobbing, as it is known) a long-legged buzzard. Up at the lookout atop the tel there were more interesting birds, including a male black redstart who lingered in the nearby trees, giving us quite the show.

Judean landcape from Tel Ma’on

On the north side of the tel, just below the top, we came across the ruins of the ancient synagogue. There wasn’t too much to see but the remains of a few walls and a partially collapsed escape tunnel/chamber dug out of the bedrock. Continuing back down the slope via the western side, we amassed a large number of curious local Arab children who began to follow us on our way out. Another set of ruins, this time larger walls of well-dressed ashlars, intrigued us, but unfortunately we were on a tight schedule and didn’t stop.

Tel Ma’on ruins

Back on and then off the bus, we stopped at the yishuv Susiya for lunch and a break, and then back to the bus to be driven to Mount Amasa. For the past year or so I’ve wanted to visit Mount Amasa, largely due to a video I saw of it filmed by Amir Balaban (see HERE). Last winter a Persian wheatear, a rare bird for Israel, had been spotted and scores of birders sojourned to Mount Amasa to see it. This year it returned, and while the excitement has died down, I thought it’d be fun to spot it. Alas, no Persian wheatear was spotted, but a great number of other interesting birds were.

Group photo on Mount Amasa

From the very moment we stepped onto the trail, part of an ancient Roman road, Adam and I saw birds everywhere. There were stonechats, wheatears, chukars and crested larks galore, and it was hard to keep up with the group’s unconcerned progress. At the peak of Mount Amasa, a very gently-sloped mountain, we were gifted with an incredible view of the Arad Valley below us.

Walking the Mount Amasa trail at sunset

After hearing from a couple of the lecturers we began the long and slow descent towards Nachal Dragot. The sun began to sink behind the nearby ridge and the 6 kilometre long walk seemed to go on forever – which, in some ways was most excellent. It was a lovely hike and I look forward to returning one day and possibly even camping somewhere on the mountain.

Dusk at the quarry

Passing an enormous quarry on the western side of the slope, we at last reached the near bottom and then cut across to find our bus waiting faithfully for us on the access road. We boarded and made our way to Susiya, where we were to spend the night in a large, separated communal tent. Dinner was pizza and fresh soup made by the department’s patron Yehuda Mizrahi, and then we all enjoyed some relaxed social time. Friends Ben and Adam joined me on a small walk around the yishuv (where we saw a fox) and then got a bonfire going back at our home-base. Staying up a wee later than we should have, we eventually got into our sleeping bags and passed out, only to be woken up a few hours later for the second half of the annual “Campushetach”.

University Trip: Tel Megiddo & Tel Hazor

In Galilee, Israel on November 12, 2018 at 11:24 AM

Just over a week ago I took my first field trip of the year, offered by the Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department of Bar Ilan University where I am a student. This time we traveled to two ancient cities that were especially important during the Bronze and Iron eras: Tel Megiddo and Tel Hazor. Our guide for the day was Prof Aren Maeir, lecturer and director of the Tel es-Safi excavations.

Jezreel Valley east of Tel Megiddo

We set out early in the morning, with a busful of students including the frequently-featured Adam Ota and Ben Yablon, and arrived at Tel Megiddo in good time. Since I had already visited Tel Megiddo back in 2013 when I was in the army, I shall gloss over the background information about the important site. However, since my last visit was on a day of particularly hazy and unpleasant weather, I shall spruce this post up with some lovely new photographs.

Learning about Megiddo

Entering via the gift shop, we began the tour with a series of photographs, maps, and an interactive model that gave the proper historical background and geographical importance to ancient Megiddo. Moving on outside, Adam and I kept a sharp eye out for interesting birds, as we knew that there was great birding opportunity. We were immediately rewarded for our efforts, with some redstarts and a juvenile marsh harrier soaring overhead. Nearly immediately thereafter, as we congregated at the Canaanite city gate, a handful of black kites appeared above us.

Black kite above me

As we toured the northern side of the tel, we saw a handful of common cranes, more black kites and a lesser spotted eagle. We moved from the Israelite gate to the palace and then on to the temple area with the famous round altar. Far off in the distance, near the Megiddo Airport, Ben found a flock of grazing cranes with the aid of my new 83x zoom camera. Heading on our way from the silo to the southern palace and stables, we heard more from Prof Maeir but were promptly distracted by an aerial dogfight happening overhead between a pair of common kestrels and a black kite.

Black kite and common kestrel in an aerial dogfight

That distraction, coupled with more birds in the air including a trio of cranes, allowed our fellow students to enjoy the natural world as well as the mysteries of the past. From the stables we headed to the underground water system, excavated to tap into a freshwater source to provide access to the city without needing to leave the safety of the walls. Within the damp tunnel we learned more about the water system, and then climbed out the far end to make our way to our waiting bus.

Looking at Megiddo’s temple area

An hour or so later we arrived at Tel Hazor, located in the Hula Valley region way up north. I had visited the site back in my first years of living in Israel, before starting this blog, and then tried to visit again back when I was in the army. Unfortunately, in a freakish turn of events, that trip ended in disaster when I was attacked by two dogs belonging to the mustachioed park ranger who was manning the front office. I managed to get bitten only once, on the back of my right thigh, and to this day I still have a welt there. Definitely an interesting story to tell over, even if reminiscing with that park ranger didn’t happen on this trip (I had found out that he recently retired).

Ruins of Hazor

Our group entered the national park and began the tour after a short break for lunch. Despite being a shorter tel than Tel Megiddo and commanding a slightly less impressive view, there was something quite pleasing about the hilly terrain around us and its colour gradations of green and brown. Joining us from a safe distance were a handful of song birds including white wagtails, stonechats and a lone redstart. Prof Maeir began the lecturing at the meeting point between the upper and lower cities, educating us about Hazor’s layout over the millenia.

The ”Lower City” of Hazor

Biblically famous as being the defeated Canaanite capital city during the period when the Israelites entered the Holy Land, Hazor was already an important city hundreds of years prior. Hundreds of years later Hazor made another biblical appearance, and destroyed once again. Under Israelite control the city continued to flourish and expand, yet was prey to the ravages of several foreign conquerors, including Assyrian kings Shalmaneser III and Tiglath-Pileser III, as well as Aramean king Hazael. Abandoned over two thousand years ago, parts of Tel Hazor have since been excavated over and over beginning in 1875.

Hazor’s water system

We entered the city ruins by way of the chambered Israelite gate, and sat down in the covered Canaanite palace. There were more birds to be seen, including black kites and a sparrowhawk, but under the palace’s modern roof we were relieved of nature’s distractions. Continuing westward, we examined more of the excavated ruins including a storage house and an olive press until we reached the Israelite citadel at the western end of the tel. There we enjoyed the view and the breeze in the company of a large rusted metal warrior, and made our way back towards the centre of the city.

Standing guard

Our final stop of the day was to the water system, yet another fascinating engineering feat to supply fresh water to the city’s inhabitants. When we were done learning about the system we climbed back out of the deep tunnel and pit and made our way to our waiting bus. Leaving Tel Hazor I had just a short ride to the city of Hazor where I took public buses home to Ma’alot for the weekend while the rest of the group continued on south back to Bar Ilan University. Thus ended the first of hopefully many field trips of this final year of my BA degree.

Tel Dor Archaeological Dig

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

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

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

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

Ancient temple beside the dig site

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

Ancient ruins of Tel Dor

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

Getting ready to excavate the robber’s trench

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

Nissim working on the Roman wall

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

Black-figure sherd

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

Merle fortress under excavation

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

Hellenistic monumental building in the left foreground

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

Yours truly

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

Rebecca pointing to the dig site as we left

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

Autumn Raptor Migration: Part II

In Central Israel, Israel on October 28, 2018 at 2:04 PM

Returning to the subject of the month-long raptor migration, there was still much more for us to see. About a week or so after my trip to the Hula Valley, I was back in Givat Shmuel working on a paper when I started seeing reports of thousands of raptors flying just a few kilometres away, over the neighbouring city of Petach Tikva. I made a snap decision to go pursue the migration, and with the help of some nearby birders, decided that I’d catch what I could at Qasem Junction, a few kilometres further east.

Lesser spotted eagles

The reason there were so many eagles was due to a few days of bad weather in Turkey, which caused a delay in the migration and the birds gathered up waiting for the weather to clear. Once that happened, tens of thousands of raptors started making their way south, creating in birding terms what is known as a “Big Day”.

High-altitude migration at Qasem Junction

Travelling by bus, and exercising great patience as we slowly made our way through the urban area, we at last pulled up at the Qasem Junction stop. Leaping off the bus, I immediately looked upwards and was greeted by the most incredible sight. Hundreds of raptors were everywhere, no matter where I looked I could see birds flying. I ripped out my binoculars and camera and began to assess my situation. I knew that there was no way I could account for every bird passing overhead, so I began looking for birds that stood out, under the assumption that the rest were all lesser spotted eagles.

Griffon vulture at Qasem Junction

Sure enough, there were black kites, short-toed eagles and a marsh harrier mixed in with the large number of lesser spotted eagles. Within twenty minutes there was barely a bird in the sky – I had caught the last wave of the morning. However, sticking around just to be sure garnered me a valuable sighting. A Griffon vulture was circling far off to the east and stuck out by its large frame and square, long-fingered wings. Even a relatively large short-toed eagle was nearly invisible to the naked eye in comparison to the much larger vulture.

My first tree pipit

Excited by what I had succeeded in seeing on Big Day, I asked Adam if he wanted to go to Ben Shemen Forest the following morning in hopes that we’d see something similar. He agreed, of course, and we made our way to the forest in search for raptors. This time there was hardly any raptors, just a few lesser spotted eagles, a booted eagle and a few kites together with the aforementioned hobbies. I did, however, spot my very first tree pipit perched on a tree with a nice spotted flycatcher.

Migdal Tzedek area

Feeling slightly let down by Ben Shemen Forest, we decided to explore elsewhere a few days later. Our destination was the area of Migdal Tzedek (Mirabel) just south of the aforementioned Qasem Junction. We figured that there might be interesting birding in the early morning, as well as a possibility of raptor migration closer to noon. We were so very right.

Male common kestrel

The morning started off with some nice species: blue rock thrushes, great grey shrikes, red-back shrikes, redstarts, willow warblers and a few raptors as well including some common kestrels, a sparrowhawk, a black-shouldered kite and a marsh harrier. We explored the perimetre of the medieval castle and then headed down to examine the old lime kilns, keeping an eye out for wildlife. There were a few mountain gazelles, rock hyraxes and a fascinating spider called Argiope lobata.

Adam examining the Argiope lobata spider

Shortly before noon Adam excitedly pointed out a few eagles flying overhead, and then the waves of raptors began with such an intensity that it was hard keeping up. Dozens of lesser spotted eagles passed by quickly, with a few other raptor species mixed in, including: black kites, a greater spotted eagle, short-toed eagles, a long-legged buzzard and my very first steppe eagle.

Raptors over Migdal Tzedek

With that we effectively wrapped up the raptor migration season, feeling rather accomplished with what we managed mostly dependent on public transportation. Being that Israel is located on one of the world’s greatest migration paths provides never-ending fun for birders, which is one of the reasons I got into birding. Hopefully when all the raptors come back up north for the summer we’ll be able to get back out there and watch the incredible migration unfold before us. But until then, there’s always winter birding as well as a whole list of Bar Ilan University field trips just waiting to be documented.

Autumn Raptor Migration: Part I

In Central Israel, Galilee, Israel on October 21, 2018 at 8:18 AM

Ordinarily I prefer writing posts on individual trips, but for the past month or so there has been an ongoing migration that was the cause for many small trips, often too small to warrant a full blog post. So, in an effort to document this series of small trips that took place over the course of a month throughout the country, two summary posts will suffice.

Sunrise at the Biriya Forest lookout

As the Eurasian summer months come to an end and the weather gets a bit cooler, hundreds of thousands of raptors begin their migration southbound. A good number of these birds of prey make their way via Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and then Israel, where many stop to spend the night. There are several “roosting zones” throughout Israel, generally wooded regions such as Biriya and Ben Shemen Forests, where these birds can be seen in the mornings as they fly back up into the hot air thermals to continue their journey to Africa, where the weather is nice and warm. In the beginning of September the honey buzzards started appearing in Israel as they made their way south.

Honey buzzard

In sync with the daily birding reports on social media, I asked my friend and fellow birder Adam Ota if he’d like to take a trip up north to watch for honey buzzards at a lookout at the Biriya Forest. This launched the raptor month, and we arrived nice and early that Sunday morning to get our birding on. Being that most migrating raptors don’t start moving till after 8am, we had time to wander around the woods looking for other forms of wildlife. We found some classic seasonal birds, such as an Isabelline wheatear and a spotted flycatcher, as well as a handful of noisy chukars, a whole slew of freshly awoken black kites and my first hobby (type of falcon) of the year.

Honey buzzards in Biriya Forest

When we got back to the lookout we found another birder, Prof Shlomi Segall of HUJI, set up and watching the valley down below. Soon enough, the honey buzzards started appearing by the tens, and some even soared by relatively close to our perch at the valley’s edge. With the honey buzzards came a handful of other raptors, also migrating, including some short-toed eagles, a marsh harrier, some more black kites and our first lesser spotted eagle of the season. For a good portion of the time there was a huge, dark, low-hanging cloud that obscured the flying birds until they exited it, popping suddenly into view which made it all the more exciting. Hundreds of birds later we wrapped it up and headed to Ma’alot where we were to be spending Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year’s.

Lesser spotted eagle

Two weeks passed and the bulk of the honey buzzards were already getting settled in down in Africa. The next phase of raptor migration was just starting, and the main features were the lesser spotted eagles and the Levant sparrowhawks. Both of these species fly predominantly through Israel, so sightings are basically guaranteed during the migration season. Perhaps the best place to spot both the eagles and the sparrowhawks is at Ben Shemen Forest, in the morning when they take to the skies for another day of flying. It was still in the beginning of their season, but Adam and I figured we’d take a shot at seeing what we could while still in the centre of the country. I had plans to spend the Sukkot holiday up north with family, and we didn’t want to miss out on the fun.

Lookout area at Ben Shemen Forest

We arrived early in the morning and hiked our way from the north side of the forest to the south end, where the so-called lookout is. There were a handful of birds to be seen in the forest, and even more when we finally exited it. A couple local kestrels, a few black kites, a honey buzzard, a masked shrike and a handful of songbirds made up the bulk of the sightings, but then something unique caught Adam’s eye. Perched on a tree some ways away was a bird that looks suspiciously like a peregrine falcon (a bird that has still eluded us to this day), but upon closer inspection turned out to be a hobby. It certainly was very exciting getting to watch this beautiful bird from relatively close, and it was had to continue on to the lookout where the eagles were to be found.

Eurasian hobby

We were not going to be disappointed, for immediately when we arrived at the lookout area we saw eagles coming out out of the trees. They swirled in large circles as the soared upwards, catching the morning’s warm air. Tens of lesser spotted eagles and Levant sparrowhawks were slowly making their way past us, and we had to keep our eyes peeled to find other raptor species in the group. Short-toed eagles, booted eagles, black kites and honey buzzards joined the spectacular aerial display above us, dozens of large birds filling the skies. This was my first time seeing Levant sparrowhawks in migratory flight and it was quite interesting to see them in contrast to the much larger eagles.

Raptors in Ben Shemen Forest

Temporarily satisfied with our migration sightings, I didn’t get back out again for a few days until I was contacted by Shlomi, who we had met watching honey buzzards at Biriya Forest. I had posted online about seeing some raptor migration (honey buzzards, eagles, black kites and more) over my sister’s place in Ma’alot, and since we were both in the area we took an early morning trip to the Hula Valley a few days later.

Black kites in a Hula Valley field

We arrived at the Hula Valley at first light and began our birding by driving alongside the fields. I had never really done “car birding” so it was very illuminating to see how the birds allowed us to get much closer than anticipated, as well as coming close to us on their own accord. As we drove the fields we spotted a large number of bird species, including: yellow wagtails, wheatears, whinchats, rollers, lesser grey shrikes, black kites, black shouldered kites, white storks and a male black francolin. We then reached a particular stretch of fields which Shlomi referred to as a place to find raptors. Sure enough, there was a lesser spotted eagle hunting grasshoppers or locusts on the ground, a long-legged buzzard perched far away on a bale of hay and a few marsh harriers hunting at the edges of the fields.

Hula Valley National Park

Shlomi had a particular reason why he wanted to come to the Hula Valley, and that was to spot the rare pink-backed pelican that wandered into Israel. There have been less than a score of pink-backed pelican sightings in Israel and to have one just waiting for us to spot in was a great reason to wake up early. We entered the Hula Valley National Park and began a quick tour of the place, stopping at the usual places to see what we can see. There were a fair number of waterbirds and waders, including: mallards, pin-tailed ducks, ruffs, common snipes, a marsh sandpiper, pygmy cormorants and a pallid harrier.

Rare pink-backed pelican (left)

At last we reached the lake and started searching for the pink-backed pelican. We found him relaxing with a handful of great white pelicans, which are much larger and coloured slightly differently. There was great elation in finding the rare bird and the following birding on the way out of the park only brought up a few species we hadn’t yet seen that day, just a few thousand pelicans in the skies excited us by their sheer numbers alone.

Approximately 440 pelicans overhead

However, on the way back to Ma’alot, we passed by a landfill outside of Biriya Forest and saw hundreds of black kites – an incredible sight, nothing like anything I’ve ever seen. One day I shall have to return to re-examine this magnificence, but for now there’s the autumn migration to fixate on. To be continued…

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.